Sunday, September 30, 2012

False balance and simplistic denunciation of the anti-GMO movement: Keith Kloor and Ed Yong, call your offices

Ed Yong certainly and Keith Kloor possibly understand false balance in climate reporting:  the scientific mainstream and a few outliers should not get equal billing.  Keith Kloor certainly and Ed Yong possibly don't understand the false balance problem in the simplistic and blanket denunciation of opposition to GMO foods that equates the anti-GMO movement to climate denialists.*

Neither can distinguish wheat and chaff, separating a few real environmental concerns and some pretty hypothetical health concerns from an admittedly-large amount of unfounded anti-GMO concerns, particularly about health.  One real environmental concerns is of genetic contamination in the wild from GMO genes, both of species related to domesticated species and of plant species gone "feral".  Another is how GMOs facilitate increased herbicide use through inserting resistance genes in targeted crops.  A hypothetical health concern is from transferring allergenic genes to otherwise non-allergenic foods.  Another (possibly less-hypothetical) is farmworker exposure to the increased herbicide use.

Despite that, the Kloor article that Yong cites has this disingenuous summation:
After 14 years of cultivation and a cumulative total of 2 billion acres planted, no adverse health or environmental effects have resulted from commercialization of genetically engineered crops.
Emphasis added.  Several paragraphs later, even Kloor has to admit poorly-phrased versions of some of the environmental issues, but that didn't get him to remove his summation or false equivalence to climate denialism.  He just then segues into the particularly-inane argument that GMOs are just a fast form of traditional breeding.  No.  Or at least, horizontal gene transfer from wildly different species is so unlikely in traditional breeding as to make it a ridiculous claim.

GMOs have real promise.  I'm particularly interested in the possibility of turning annual grasses like corn into perennials, something that could have significant climate benefits by allowing more carbon to be stored in no-tilled soils.  No point in being simplistic about GMOs though, including their real problems.

*This is mostly about Kloor, but Yong has a blog history of simply supporting the anti-anti-GMO people, including this Kloor article.

UPDATE:  Another potentially-good example of a GMO - inserting resistance to a non-native disease in the all-but-disappeared American chestnut.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Strained Silver and strange predictions on climate

It's not the usual lopsided intellectual battle we discuss here at Eli's.  This is Michael Mann criticizing Nate Silver's somewhat skeptical take of climate prediction capability in Silver's new book:
It's not that Nate revealed himself to be a climate change denier; he accepts that human-caused climate change is real, and that it represents a challenge and potential threat. But he falls victim to a fallacy that has become all too common among those who view the issue through the prism of economics rather than science. Nate conflates problems of prediction in the realm of human behavior -- where there are no fundamental governing 'laws' and any "predictions" are potentially laden with subjective and untestable assumptions -- with problems such as climate change, which are governed by laws of physics, like the greenhouse effect, that are true whether or not you choose to believe them.
As usual, I'll leave the heavy lifting to someone else, Mann in this case.  Also as usual, I haven't read Silver's book, so maybe there's more to it.  What I can add, however, is that it's helpful to look at climate predictions by Silver himself and by a denialist he credulously supports.

Three years ago, Nate offered to bet climate denialists on a monthly basis over whether the temperature in their hometown was one degree above or below the historical average.  As I said at the link, this was a somewhat aggressive bet offer that could've been vulnerable to letting his opponents rely on a short-term seasonal prediction of colder temps to game the system against him.  It would be interesting to see if he discusses his past bet offer and why he's critical of predictions that are much less affected by random noise.

Second is Silver's enthusiasm for the discredited Scott Armstrong, a crackpot climate denier.  In that case, there was a prediction and a betting market created by Armstrong's fans at InTrade, a skewed and unfair prediction that they still managed to lose spectacularly (link goes to a series of posts on Armstrong and the bet).

Like Mann, I'm a Fan of Nate, but he whiffed on this one.

One more thing:  Nate apparently wrote something about Gavin Schmidt (no relation) and his unwillingness to get involved in betting over climate models.  As someone who is willing to bet over climate, here's my response about climate denialists who won't bet over their predictions:
Of course any particular skeptic might honestly not be interested in betting, but the widespread lack of interest tells you something.
There's a difference between an individual's disinterest in betting versus the widespread disinterest among denialists as a community (with honorable skeptic exceptions) in putting their money where their mouths are.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


1. AAUP proposes revisions of rules on research misconduct:
The proposal defines research misconduct as "fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results." To arrive at a finding of research misconduct, in-vestigators would have to establish that the conduct in question was a significant departure from accepted practices in the relevant research community, and that the action was committed intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly.
My emphasis added.  Doesn't sound all that different from current rules that are being flaunted by George Mason University over plagiarism among their climate denialist academics.

UPDATE:  No wonder it sounded familiar, it actually was the old set of rules - I stumbled through a link and thought it was new (HT to John Mashey).  Even more importantly, I should've said "flouted" the rules instead of "flaunted" the rules.

2. My sadly-unpaid advertising for Chris Mooney's Point of Inquiry continues, this time about the Truth Markets innovation that attempts to reward truth in political discourse with money.  Great idea, no idea if it will work.  I don't share Mooney's concern that the conservative reaction to the mostly truthful wikipedia - creating Conservapedia - represents a successful response on any level.  OTOH, the proposal for a Truth Campaign, "Over 95% of American scientists believe climate change is real" is problematic.  It should read "over 95% of climatologists publishing on climate change believe climate change is real."  Still, I hope the overall idea works out.

3. Nice Felix Salmon article about the positive interaction between straight regulation, a gas tax, and a theoretical carbon tax:
Porter is also right that in countries with higher gas taxes, fuel economy tends to be much higher. But he’s not necessarily right that the higher gas taxes alone are responsible. Porter implies that the US only has fuel-economy standards just because “a tax on gasoline doesn’t stand a chance” of being passed. But the fact is that even countries with very high gas taxes have fuel-economy standards as well. And, guess what, they’re significantly tougher than ours, and they always have been.... 
Auto emissions pollution was a problem in the 70s and 80s; it’s not a problem now, with today’s much cleaner cars. [Wow, that was a really wrong sentence in an otherwise smart article - Ed.
The fact is that fuel-economy standards are a pretty good way of ensuring that carmakers can plan for a more fuel-efficient future, without worrying about competitors undercutting them with gas-guzzlers. If the US government ever comes to its senses and increases the gas tax, or if it — wonder of wonders — actually implements a broader carbon tax, then at that point you would have three different forces conspiring to make America’s fleet more efficient. You’d have the tax, you’d have the fuel-economy standards, and you’d have the general global increase in fuel efficiency.
I added the emphasis, a point that I hadn't thought of before.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Your Joe Bastardi entertainment moment

In 2010, predicting a big recovery in sea ice nearing historical levels in 2011, and slow progress over 20-30 years to above normal levels:

Apparently he now claims it's all just cycles that will turn around.  Funny how cyclical effects are producing new records, and they just happen to tend to be records you'd see from humans changing the climate....

Monday, September 24, 2012

Romney refuses to disclose whether he paid a significant amount of income taxes before 2010

The headline above is the takeaway I get from the "disclosures" by the Romney campaign that just went up an hour or so ago.  All they're saying is percentage of adjusted income spent on taxes, not whether the income is virtually eliminated by tax strategies like write-offs from capital losses.  If the vast majority of his $250 million is in investments that lost money, and he made some money on speaking fees that paid normal income taxes, his overall tax bill would be not that much larger than someone in the upper middle class.

What they need to do is show the tax returns, which would give some way to examine if they've been playing games.  Failing that, they should at least provide brief details with actual amounts paid in each of the years they've summarized, just like they did for 2011.  If we believe the summaries released today, Romney did pay taxes every year, but we don't yet know if the taxes amounted to a hill of beans.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Coda to Eli's UVa post

See Eli's previous post.

Eli's right about ruling from the bench, as opposed to listening to the lawyers babble, ask some questions, and then taking the matter under submission to re-emerge weeks later with an opinion.  Ruling from the bench means the judge was very confident about who was right, and nothing in the four hours of oral argument preceding the ruling made the judge waver and consider delaying action to review the written briefs.  It's a smack-down of the side that loses.

Getting fees from the losing side when the losing side is a private entity is very unusual in America, so unfortunately I doubt that'll happen in this case.  OTOH, it's all a matter of state law, so maybe Virginia law might have something that would help.

A grain of salt about the accuracy of the summary by the losing side.  Maybe it's accurate, but don't bet the farm.  They make it sound like Mann's side lost some backup arguments they were trying out in case the main argument failed.  Losers are putting on a brave face, but they can't help noticing that they lost.  I expect there may be cross-appeals from Mann's side about their backup arguments, assuming he has the legal resources available to put in the effort.

It would be interesting to know if the judge ruled from the bench while reading a carefully-prepared statement or spoke more colloquially.  The former would probably carry more weight on appeal.

I read somewhere that 14 or so other states have similar provisions in their laws.  If the ruling is appealed and sustained, then the appellate court precedent could be persuasive elsewhere.  If it's not appealed, the decision by a lower court like this one has little or no persuasive authority.  Bad guys get to decide whether to double down on the issue.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The bridge we need? Fracking depends on context.

Whether fracking for gas really is a bridge to reduced greenhouse emissions depends on context - does gas replace coal, or not?

That may seem too obvious to be worth discussing, but it's helpful to me as a matter of geography and chronology, especially chronology.  The reason for time being important depends on whether you accept that the long-term trend of significant decline in solar power costs, faster than efficiency for coal, will continue in the future and reach grid parity.  Similar evidence for wind, if not quite as dramatic.  I'm mostly buying these arguments.

On the geographic scale of the middle and eastern US, fracking has clearly replaced coal, and seems beneficial from a climate perspective (ignoring the other environmental issues).  In the western half of the US and much of western Europe, coal is much less important a power source, and gas from fracking seems more competitive with low emission energy.  When you add the chronological aspect that fracking will take 5-15 years to really develop, the same time period when renewables are approaching grid parity, then the argument for its development seems a lot shakier.

Exporting gas from the US will also take a decade or more, so again from a climate perspective, that only makes sense if the exports replace reliance on coal.  Maybe in China, India, and other developing markets, the climate would be better off if they had more gas.  Exports to Europe would be bad, I think. Not sure where the gas is really anticipated to go.

Fracking is an emerging issue here in California, where we have very little coal use to displace.  And even more locally in Santa Clara County, we've got lots of shale, where we've stored in underground aquifers a year's worth of drinking water for 1.8 million people.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

That stagflation they predicted in 2009 doesn't seem to be happening

Here's me bloviating in February 2009:

Conservatives choose inflation as a test of whether the stimulus will be a failure
I've seen conservatives railing against the stimulus package as something that will bring inflation without economic growth, or a return to stagflation. Sounds like we've got a good, Republican-chosen, measurable parameter of whether the stimulus fails.
If inflation in the next year or two spikes dangerously far above last year's 3.85%without being caused by something external like an oil shock, then the Republicans turned out to be right. I don't think the absence of inflation by itself proves the stimulus worked, but it will show the downside risk was very low.
Of course, I expect conservatives will attempt to have people forget everything they said about stagflation when the time comes around, but this is one way to make it slightly harder.
For related fun, here are the Republican prophecies of doom at the time of the Clinton 1993 stimulus plan.

Now with the latest action by the Fed, we hear more of the same inflation nonsense from the same people, such as this genius given a February 2009 Op-Ed space in the NY Times:

Thirty Years Later, a Return to Stagflation  
CONGRESS has made a terrible mistake. Amid a rhetorical debate centered on words like “crisis,” “emergency” and “catastrophe,” it acted too fast. While arguments were made about the stimulus bill’s specific components — taxpayer money for condoms, new green cars and golf carts for federal bureaucrats, another round of rebate checks — its more dangerous consequences were overlooked. And now the package threatens a return to the kind of stagflation last seen in the 1970s.
 Be sure to check out the entire entertaining read from the future Vice-Presidential nominee of the GOP.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Needed: a November 1 blog blizzard that more snow doesn't mean less warming

Things Break beat me to the punch on this issue with a much better post that included some actual science-type material.

It's pretty simple.  Lots of snow doesn't tell you anything about temperature trends.*  If you see lots of recently fallen snow, you could probably derive that temperatures somewhere in the nearby atmosphere had recently been below freezing, but not whether overall temperature trends are neutral, declining, or warming.  As TB points out, the right conditions of warming could actually lead to more snow, and we might get a lot this year.

Record cold, or average temperatures that are significantly below long term averages, are much more relevant.  Of course a single season doesn't tell you a whole lot either, but at least it's a relevant-if-minor data point.

We had plenty of idiocy two years ago when we had lots of snow, but this time we can anticipate it.  November 1 might be a good time for blogs based on the real world to rally around and remind people in advance that snow tells you nothing about warming.

*UPDATE:  okay, it's a little more subtle than telling you absolutely nothing about temps - as usual, see the comments for edification.  Let's say that lots of snow doesn't tell you anything about temperature trends that can be coherently discussed in a 30 second Fox News soundbite or a dismissive tweet.  Increased temps could mean more snow or less snow, depending on circumstances, so if you're trying to understand temperature trends and don't have lots of time to put into it, the better focus would be to look at temperature trends.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Denialists denied by judge in New Zealand lawsuit

Via John Mashey, there's a blog post by Gareth on yet another attempt by climate denialists to muddy the record on climate change, this time by suing New Zealand's National Institute for Water and Atmospheric Research for publishing a temperature record that shows New Zealand warming up over the last century.

Definitely check out Gareth's post, or if you have time, the ruling itself.  Skimming it, seems like the denialists didn't have very good lawyers at first (or none at all) and then found someone more reasonable to help them.  A lawyer can't make magic out of bad material though, so in the end they got shut down completely (to be a fly on the wall and hear what their new lawyer told them about their prospects, or to see what document the lawyer required them to sign acknowledging those prospects).  Kind of fun to see my old friend Bob Carter get the skeptical treatment he's earned for himself.

And also these results:
[172] In summary on this point, the Trust [denialist group -ed.] alleges generally that NIWA failed to properly deal with the UHI/shelter issue which had the effect of other stations acquiring derivative warming from the inclusion of the Albert Park (Auckland) and Kelburn (Wellington) sites. Dr Wratt disagrees. He says that the excess temperature trend identified by the Trust for the Auckland series is incorrect. Further, even if it was correct, the effect it would have on the other sites would be negligible. Dr Wratt is of the view that Dr Carter has misinterpreted the scientific literature in making the claims he does.
[178] NIWA refers to eight lines of evidence that indicate New Zealand has warmed significantly over the period 1909 to 2009: 
  • the consistent results of the recalculated 7SS following the review, which was consistent with the results recorded in the original 7SS series based on the Salinger 1992 work, plus subsequent annual updates; 
  • peer review for the pre-2010 versions of 7SS, including by the editors of International Journal of Climatology; 
  • the analysis and calculation of the trends using the Salinger post-1992 7SS by a separate set of scientists within NIWA; 
  • trends from the independent 11SS, which disclosed that with no homogenisation the warming trend was 1.0 degrees Centigrade for 1931 to 2008; 
  • results from the 21+3 station series; trends from ship measurements and surrounding oceans;52 retreat of New Zealand glaciers; 
  • observed global climate changes. The IPCC 2007 assessment concludes warming of the climate system is unequivocal. It reports the 100 year linear trend (1906 to 2005) and global surface temperature is +.74 degrees Centigrade ±0.18.
Someone is judicially unimpressed with the ubiquitous urban heat island argument, and with the other arguments ignoring the mountain of evidence showing us that we're warming.

Should be interesting to see whether the agency will get its costs covered as the judge ordered.  Like Gareth, I wonder if the non-profit trust created to bring the lawsuit, instead of the denialist Climate Science Coalition, will be found to be a mysteriously asset-free husk capable of paying its own lawyer in advance, but otherwise broke.

One final note:  while Americans are legitimately criticized as litigious, this type of ridiculous lawsuit can't be done here.  It was just a scientific report - if you don't like it, then go do your own scientific report and argue it out.  You can only sue here over an action taken on the basis of a report, not to suppress the report itself (on the federal level at least, I can't vouch for Red states).  We did just barely dodge this bullet - industry groups snuck a two-paragraph rider into a budget bill in 2000 called the Information Quality Act or Data Quality Act as a means of gumming up the works and preventing exposure of their misdeeds.  Chris Mooney included it in his Republican War on Science book, but courts have generally told industry groups to go away when they tried to sue with it as a tool.  So that's one thing we've done right, at least.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Useful with a boulder of salt

Shell has a good, simple explanation of a planned carbon capture and sequestration facility in Alberta:

So the good stuff first:  they're not using it for enhanced oil recovery, which creates additional emissions.  They're injecting CO2 into salty groundwater 2 kilometers down, which is also supposed to maximize retention.  And they claim it will start in 2015, soon enough to know in short order if this is a real project or just an excuse to keep going after the tar sands.

OTverybigOH, it's tar sands, with plenty of environmental problems in addition to climate change.  While this project may recover emissions from the refining process, it won't from the extraction process, where the sands have to be heated to extract the bitumen (and of course there's the emissions from end use).  No word in the video about what percent reduction of CO2 they expect to achieve with the project.  And my understanding is the biggest problem with CCS is cost, so we'll have to see how well they handle that issue.

So it's an interesting component of a bad overall project.  More on CCS from Shell here.

UPDATE:  lots of good comments as usual, and in John's post on the same issue.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Rolling Stone shows Romney's elite twist in his poison pill

Rolling Stone has lays it on the line about how Romney solved a fiscal crisis involving the parent Bain Company to his own Bain Capital - he let taxpayers take the hit via FDIC to rescue the company while his spinoff walked off with $4 million for providing that "service".  Two points struck me about the piece.

First, Romney proved he's Bush when Romney faced his own little fiscal crisis.  In the global fiscal crisis with strong American roots, several options were on the table:

1. Nationalize failing banks and other institutions, leaving creditors with the haircuts while maintaining a functioning credit and liquidity system, and then sell them off.  Similar to what Obama did with the auto industry, and what Sweden did with its banking industry.

2. Rescue failing banks and other institutions, and include modest reforms of the system through Dodd-Frank legislation that make the crisis somewhat, but only somewhat, less likely to be as bad in the future.  In other words, what Obama did.

3. Rescue failing banks and other institutions, and do nothing substantial to fix the system that created the crisis.  What Bush did.

4. Let them all fail, do nothing in response.  What the Tea Party originally wanted before they became a wing of the Republican Party.  I'm cheating by including this option, it was never realistic or on the table.

The Republican elite is really about Option 3, while pretending some level of sympathy to support for Option 4 among its base, especially because supporters of Option 4 oppose Dodd-Frank only on the belief that financial institutions should just be allowed to fail.  Romney showed where he stood - it's the taxpayers who should pick up the tab.

Second, it's how he made sure the taxpayers got stuck with the tab that shows the elitism:
With his rescue plan a bust, Romney was forced to slink back to the banks to negotiate a new round of debt relief. There was only one catch: Even though Bain & Company was deep in debt and sinking fast, the firm was actually flush with cash – most of it from the looted money that Bill Bain and other partners had given back..... 
Under normal circumstances, such ample reserves would have made liquidating Bain an attractive option: Creditors could simply divvy up the stockpiled cash and be done with the troubled firm. But Bain had inserted a poison pill in its loan agreement with the banks: Instead of being required to use its cash to pay back the firm's creditors, the money could be pocketed by Bain executives in the form of fat bonuses – starting with VPs making $200,000 and up....
What's more, the bonus loophole gave Romney a perverse form of leverage: If the banks and the FDIC didn't give in to his demands and forgive much of Bain's debts, Romney would raid the firm's coffers, pushing it into the very bankruptcy that the loan agreement had been intended to avert. The losers in this game would not only be Bain's creditors – including the federal government – but the firm's nearly 1,000 employees worldwide. 
In March 1992, according to the FDIC documents, Romney approached the banks and played the bonus card. Allow Bain to pay off its debt at a deep discount, he demanded – just 35 cents on the dollar. Otherwise, the "majority" of the firm's "excess cash" would "be available for the bonus pool to its officers at a vice president level and above."
So the plan was to rescue the elite at Bain through bonuses while pushing everyone else out the door.  My question - why bonuses for just the vice presidents and higher, and not for everyone at Bain? It's meaningful that even as Romney played chicken with the debt owed to others, he designed a poison pill that would benefit only the topmost players at Bain.  Not that the other 1,000 employees were all secretaries - they were pretty elite too, just not enough.

This falls in the same category as the estate tax debate.  the Romney elite aren't even about the class interest of the wealthiest 10 percent - it's a much smaller group that they represent.