Archive for October 2011

Further to the recent Dog Bites Man Headlines on AGW

October 27, 2011

Via Christopher Mims at Grist, Gavin Schmidt does a victory dance on the heads of those who thought a “real” scientist would sort out all that climate change nonsense:

Anybody expecting earthshaking news from Berkeley, now that the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature group being led by Richard Muller has released its results, had to be content with a barely perceptible quiver. As far as the basic science goes, the results could not have been less surprising if the press release had said “Man Finds Sun Rises At Dawn.” This must have been something of a disappointment for anyone hoping for something else.

For those not familiar with it, the purpose of Berkeley Earth was to create a new, independent compilation and assessment of global land surface temperature trends using new statistical methods and a wider range of source data. Expectations that the work would put teeth in accusations against CRU and GISTEMP led to a lot of early press, and an invitation to Muller to testify before Congress. However, the big news this week (e.g. this article by the BBC’s Richard Black) is that there is no discernible difference between the new results and those of CRU.

Of course, there was no real surprise about any of this — especially not for those who’ve been paying attention to climate science for the last several decades.  It was most notable, perhaps, for the  commendable bluntness with which Muller acknowledged the error of his own prior belief, that mainstream climate scientists may have fallen prey to unexamined bias, perhaps, or maybe much worse.

Instead, he found every major study got the basic picture of anthropogenic global warming correct.  He said so, and acknowledged the need to correct his prior belief.

That said, it is worth noting that Schmidt does not give Muller a complete pass.  He points out, fairly IMHO, the bumptious hubris with which Muller launched into his project — and then he pointed out what is to my mind the key idea in all of this.  Global warming is a focus of concern not because of any one set of temperature measurements or another, but because the underlying theory provides the framework with which to interpret the data that so many have labored so long to acquire:

In a talk at AGU last Fall, Naomi Oreskes criticized the climate science community for being reluctant to take credit for their many successful predictions, so here we are shouting it from the rooftops: The warming trend is something that climate physicists saw coming many decades before it was observed. The reason for interest in the details of the observed trend is to get a better idea of the things we don’t know the magnitude of (e.g. cloud feedbacks), not as a test of the basic theory. If we didn’t know about the CO2-climate connection from physics, then no observation of a warming trend, however accurate, would by itself tell us that anthropogenic global warming is “real,” or (more importantly) that it is going to persist and probably increase.

Give Schmidt and the broad community of climate researchers their due:  it must be unbelievably galling to see “last honest man” praise heaped on some bumptious newcomer who’s signal contribution to the field is to discover that perhaps the objects of his suspicion actually knew what they were doing.  At the same time, such high profile crow fressing is itself praise, deserved and, I hope, gratifying.

The predictable footnote to this clear success of scientific practice (a good result, even if, as Schmidt correctly points out, one that’s much less significant scientifically than politically) is that it seems to have made not a dent in the professional denialist’s carapace.  Again, no surprise here, just a reminder of how much work is to be done to get the US (and elsewhere) back into the business of taking expert knowledge seriously.

Image: Gioachino Assereto, Isaac Blessing Jacob, c. 1640.

Real Americans Don’t Slop Hogs

October 25, 2011

Apropos of Doug’s post over at Balloon-Juice — on Fox’s latest defense of addiction, lung cancer and related afflictions as badges of Real ‘Murkin-ness — here’s a completely pointless appeal to actual data.  I know that this won’t make a dent in the public discourse, but I get so damn sick of being told that my 53 years of coastal life are somehow hopelessly out of the common run.

To recap: the Fox News (sic!–ed.) personage defending the Cain guy’s on-air nicotine jones argued that those living “real lives” (as opposed to my own transparently fake one) embrace the death and destruction that follow the trail of discarded butts.  First on her list of such real Americans were farmers, as opposed to that terrifying scourge, the coastal elites.

I’m a farmer’s nephew.  I have [ineptly] driven a tractor as a summer hand, when that aforesaid uncle sucked it up, made nice to my mum, and allowed me to “help” him during the harvest.  I’ve shoveled grass seed into sacks (equipped with just about the only farm implement I’m actually qualified to wield, a shovel). I got nothing but admiration for those with the gift or the capacity or the sheer stamina to farm for a living.  For myself I’m desperately glad that after my teens, I never had to work that hard with my back and hands.

In which expression of gratitude I am not alone.  The actual farm population — working farmers, not folks who live on (relatively) big patches of ground — amount to a rounding error within the total US tally: one percent or less of American workers are farmers.  Combining wheat or running cattle may be iconic.  It just doesn’t occupy very many people anymore — at least not in any industrialized society.

It’s been that way for a while.  Rural life last claimed half of the US population more than ninety years ago.  By the late 1990s, fewer than one million Americans claimed farming as their principal job.  As of 1997, just 46,000 farms out of over 2 million listed accounted for 50% of all agricultural sales.

That translates into the fact that no one — defined here as very few — actually fits the romantic image of the American family farmer anymore.  That image of a spread large enough to support a family and small enough to be run by one has not entirely vanished into myth.  But assuming, (generously) a 20% margin on sales, farm income at or above the $50,000 level flowed to fewer 10 percent of all farms, again in data from the end of the last century..

All of which is to say, as I did through all that 2008 blather about Sarah Palin’s ability to channel the experience of what was in fact a distinct minority of Americans, that Real Americans live in cities and suburbs. In fact, contra that Foxbot, half of all Americans live in coastal watershed counties.*  We may not all be elite** — but there are a whole lot of us.

Yup:  I am that guy muttering obsessively, “quantum leaps are really small.“***

*To be sure, for the purposes of that calculation, Detroit is a waterfront community.  Remember: Duluth is America’s westernmost Atlantic port.

**Though we are, of course, all above average.

***Don’t even get me started on “decimate.”

Image:  Jan van Goyen, Peasant Huts with a Sweep Well, 1633.

Have a Way With Words?

October 24, 2011

Know any folks out there interested in rhetoric?  Communications pedagogy? Research into professional communication and/or literacies across media?

Well, some of my colleagues are looking to hire a senior (aka tenured/tenurable) scholar/teacher in this area, with MIT hiring its first (in a long time, certainly, if not ever) professor of rhetoric.  Here’s the description:

MIT’s Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Science seeks to appoint a distinguished scholar in rhetorical studies at the rank of tenured associate or full professor to start in the Fall of 2012. Candidates should have a Ph.D. in rhetoric or a relevant field of interdisciplinary rhetorical studies, with a distinguished record of publication, broad experience in developing innovative college level courses in rhetoric and communication; and a record of funded research in one or more areas of communication education or media literacy. The candidate will work collaboratively with colleagues in the Programs of Writing and Humanistic Studies, Comparative Media Studies, and Literature, while providing faculty level support for MIT’s educational programs across the disciplines at MIT. Relevant areas of specialization include the history, theory and critical tradition of classical rhetoric; contemporary rhetorical studies in one or more academic or professional disciplines or fields of study; and oral presentation, visual studies, digital humanities, narrative, and media studies. MIT is an affirmative action, equal opportunity employer.

And here is where one would submit an application.

So — if this big and broad community has some among it, or some in its circle of acquaintances who might be interested…come on down!

And, of course, use this thread to spread the word about jobs you seek and/or jobs you know of.

Image:  Jan Steen, Feast of the Chamber of Rhetoricians near a Town-Gate, before 1679.

What We Say; What We Mean

October 24, 2011

There is a table has been making the rounds of the science blogosphere for the last couple of weeks — and I thought it’s the kind of thing that the B-J crowd enjoys:

Blog friend Southern Fried Science is extending the list, and you can add your own gems on his public Google Docs spreadsheet.

The original table comes from this Physics Today feature — “Communicating the science of climate change“ [PDF], by Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol.  I entirely agree with their conclusion:

We must find ways to help the public realize that not acting is also making a choice, one that commits future generations to serious impacts. Messages that may invoke fear or dismay—as projections of future climate under business-as-usual scenarios often do—are better received if they also include hopeful components. Thus we can improve the chances that the public will hear and accept the science if we include positive messages about our ability to solve the problem. We can explain, for example, that it’s not too late to avoid the worst; lower emissions will mean reduced climate change and less severe impacts. We can point out that addressing climate change wisely will yield benefits to the economy and the quality of life. We can explain, as figure 5 shows, that acting sooner would be less disruptive than acting later. Let us rise to the challenge of helping the public understand that science can illuminate the choices we face.

The most important claim in that paragraph, IMHO, is that “it’s not too late to avoid the worst…”  As outright denialism becomes ever more risible, the fall back for those hopelessly drunk on dinosaur wine* is that climate change is just too bad, because some irrecoverable threshold has already been crossed.  This is nonsense.  See, e.g., for just one of many arguments on this issue, this 2009 report from the Yale e360 project. [Another PDF].  Confronting the (tactical) climate fatalists is the next huge communications challenge for scientific — and science writing — communities.

That said — the gap between what’s understood in conversation between people speaking the same technical jargon, and what gets through to the public remains a major stumbling block.  Which, I suppose, keeps me and my students in work. Ill winds and all that.

But I digress.  The point of this post is to encourage the Balloon-Juice commentariat both to add to the list above — or perhaps, depending on your mood, to come up with a similar table, a what-they-say/what-they-mean guide to Republican debate speak.

Have fun.

*”Dinosaur wine” is a phrase I steal from Dan Jenkins’ classic (sic–ed.) football novel, Semi-Tough.  So yes, I  know.  It ain’t dinosaur corpses that wind up in black gold.

Image:  Thomas Blount, Glossographia Anglicana Nova, (Title page from the 2nd edition, 1719)

“Who is the worst science writer?” “Gregg Easterbrook” “Who is second?” “Ah, Your Majesty, there is no second.”*

October 22, 2011

[Fair warning:  this post is merely the scratching of a pet peeve.  No grand significance here.  You have been warned.]

I don’t know why, but I still, more or less as a reflex, skim Gregg Easterbrook’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback column over at ESPN.  (No linky, ’cause I’m kind — but it’s easy enough to find if you are so moved.) 

That Tuesday habit is one I really should break, not least because even a quick scan robs me of five minutes I’ll never get back.

But the real reason to give the column a miss is because it is depressingly often larded with nuggets like this:

A Cosmic Thought: Last week researchers announced they had found, in a South African cave, evidence of painting 100,000 years ago. The previous oldest evidence of painting was from 60,000 years in the past; the famous Lascaux cave paintings in France were made about 17,000 years ago. The latest find, in South Africa, shows both that our ancestors were experimenting with iron oxides to make permanent paint 50 millennia in the past: all that time ago, they painted inside caves, seeming to hope their work would last long enough to be seen by distant descendants.

Each time telescopes improve, the universe is revealed to be larger, older and grander. Each time anthropology makes an advance, the human experiment is shown to be older and more complex than thought. Who can say where the cosmic enterprise may be headed?

A bit of backstory.  Easterbrook has been around a long time, promoting a technological optimist’s view of a lot of problems facing us.  He’s been a climate change scoffer — Naomi Oreskes, (whom I interviewed this week – podcast available here) called him out for deeply misleading writing on global warming as far back as 1992, when he put professional denialist Fred Singer’s words in the mouth of the enormously distinguished climate researcher Roger Revelle — all in an attempt to paint Al Gore as a (not yet fat) environmental extremist.  (See p. 194 of her excellent book, Merchants of Doubt.)

Easterbrook is also one who pulls cards from the bottom of the deck when it comes to science and religion.  One tactic he’s used fairly often  is to chip away at the authority of science as a measure of the material world by stray snarking at all that science doesn’t know.  Things like dark matter (who knew!) and dark energy — what? 95.3 % of the mass-energy density of the universe is made of stuff we can’t see? — all add up (for Easterbrook) into a sly case that maybe scientists don’t know as much as they think they do…which leaves room for more supernatural speculation.

That’s the old God of the gaps argument in defense of faith.  It’s a semi-regular source of fun in my science writing class to bring in a scientist to talk to our graduate students about what it’s like to be on the other side of the notebook — and in such sessions we’ve regularly found Easterbrook’s classic bad faith advance of this tired old trope in this Wired feature  serving as a “don’t-do-this” example.

And here it is again, more subtly framed than usual.  I got nothing against Easterbrook’s noting that there are ongoing discoveries in paleo-anthropology, though I have a bit of a problem with his fatuous statement that these ancestral paint works, amazing as they are, reveal any desire of early homo sapiens to communicate with us.  The past is a foreign country, Gregg.  They do things differently there.

But anachronism is a venial sin.  More serious is Easterbrook’s cleverly un-ostentatious transition to the power of telescopes to reveal cosmic riches. It’s a subtle move, but the effect is to link human aspiration with some kind of cosmic teleology, a goal to which we and the universe aspire.



He’s still retailing gaps and God:  look, Easterbrook says, every time we chip away at our ignorance, we find more wonders.  All that we don’t know is evidence of … he doesn’t quite say. But the implication is clear:  it’s an enterprise, it’s cosmic, and it’s heading somewhere.

As a matter of fact, he’s wrong.  The history of astronomy since Copernicus is one that continuously deflates the idea of human centrality in the universe (which is what makes his anthropology-cosmology faux transition so egregious).  The suggestion of a goal, especially one in which (by juxtaposition) human ingenuity is implicated, gives the game away.  And most of all that phrase, “the human experiment,” is a tell.  If we are the objects of experiment, who is the experimenter?

And that’s what makes Easterbrook’s the worst kind of science writing in my book:  the goal of this writing is not to illuminate, but to emphasize false mysteries, to conflate hugely disparate ideas and discoveries, all to advance an argument that theologians themselves have long disparaged.

I suppose, amongst those we read and mock as needed, he’s hardly the worst.  But he gets my goat, so there.

*referencing this, for those among us with little interest in holes in the water into which you throw money.

Images: Francisco de Goya, The Inquisition Tribunal, between 1812 and 1819

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Creation of the Sun and the Moon(Sistine Chapel ceiling) 1512.

Programming Note, Naomi Oreskes edition

October 19, 2011

Shuffling my feet a bit at the self-promotion involved, I’d like to invite anyone interested to tune in to a conversation I’m going to have with Naomi Oreskes tonight.

Oreskes, for those of you who may not know, is a professor of history and science studies at UC San Diego.  Our chat will center on her recent book, Merchants of Doubt co-authored with Erik Conway.

I think I’ve mentioned that book more than once here.  IMHO, it’s one of the most important works published in America in the last several years.  In it, Oreskes and Conway document how a clutch of cold-war scientists, many of them physicists, transformed the truth of scientific uncertainty and incompleteness into hugely damaging lies, first about the (lack of) risk associated with cigarettes, and then on just about every other major science/policy issue of the last several decades.

We’re going to talk about how these ego-ideology-and-money driven figures did that, and how their actions shaped the specific stories of tobacco, acid rain, climate change and the like.

But to me the larger story — and here’s where I think our exchange will go over the course of the hour — is the way that these self-styled iconoclasts have managed to undermine the whole idea of science as a way to gain real insight into critical policy issues.  If you want to know why the GOP candidates can get away with denying climate change, it is at least in part because staged controversies about scientific “doubt” have undercut the whole idea of technical expertise or knowledge gained through specialized skills and methods.

To me that sets up an enormous personal and professional question:  as a science writer and teacher of incredibly idealistic and hopeful aspiring science writers one of the goals has always been to tell stories that help to inform our civic conversation.  But on the evidence that Oreskes and Conway bring to bear, we’ve lost ground on that hope over every year of my career.  So one question I’ll have tonight is what can be done that will take public engagement with science beyond the cool story and into some usable appreciation of scientific habits of thought.

I do have some notions of my own on that  — but these are matters Oreskes knows well and has considered deeply.  So check out what she has to say.

Which means, I suppose, I should link to the venue!

That would be Virtually Speaking Science, and new weekly feature of/spin off from Jay Ackroyd’s Virtually Speaking empire. (Jay comments here, and FP’s over at Eschaton.)  I’m in the rota of hosts for the show, taking on the third Wednesday of every month.  You can listen to tonight’s program here Update:  at 9 p.m. EDT.   It’s also going to run live in Second Life, for those of you tired of your first one.  You can take part in live chat through the IRC servicee.  (Instructions below the fold.)

Image: George de la Tours, Cheater with the Ace of Diamonds, 1635

1. Connect to http://webchat.freenode.net/
2. Create a log-in name
3. Enter #vspeak into the channel field.
4. NOTE: ‘Relay Rinq’ is not a person but a bridge to IRC chat.
5. Type into the text field along the bottom of the screen.
6. Begin your question with ‘QUESTION’ so it’s easy to spot.

It Really Is A Village

October 19, 2011

Via Bloomberg (h/t TPM):

Federal employees whose compensation averages more than $126,000 and the nation’s greatest concentration of lawyers helped Washington edge out San Jose as the wealthiest U.S. metropolitan area, government data show.

The key fact to extract from the data:

In recent years Washington has attracted more lobbyists and firms with an interest in the health-care overhaul and financial regulations signed into law by President Barack Obama, according to local business leaders.

“Wall Street has moved to K Street,” said Barbara Lang, president and chief executive officer of the DC Chamber of Commerce, referring to the Washington street that’s home to prominent lobbying firms. “Those two industries clearly have grown in our city.”

Which isn’t to say that the concentration of high end civil service and appointed jobs doesn’t have an impact: 

Update (see the explanation below):  Bloomberg also suggests that well paid (is the suggestion overpaid?) civil servants help drive DC’s rise to the top of the wealth tables:

Total compensation for federal workers, including health care and other benefits, last year averaged $126,369, compared with $122,697 in 2009, according to Bloomberg News calculations of Commerce Department data. There were 170,467 federal employees in the District of Columbia as of June.

Update: As several commenters at the mirror post at Balloon Juice have pointed out (with the usual BJ reticence) this is a red herring, the more so for the conflation of benefits with salary to come up with a compensation figure.

A ruling elite economically and emotionally disconnected from the reality that most Americans recognize.  Which is one of the reasons that both policy and the coverage of and discourse coming out of the center of government is so unbelievably bad.

Update: As noted, several commenters at Balloon Juice pointed out that the reference to highly paid civil servants is a red herring at best, and a slander at worst.  And I agree with that, or at least with the notion that such an implication could be drawn from the above.  What I meant to do by including that last block quote was to include the survey results, but not to suggest that the GS14 working at the Dept. of Commerce is screwing up policy or its presentation to the American people.

The real point I think this very coarse bit of data allows us to draw is that it has become exceptionally lucrative to buy and sell influence…to the point that it becomes very hard to see how to construct a disinterested policy apparatus.  When your exceptionally good living depends on not knowing stuff, or knowing things that ain’t so…well, we’re living with how that ends.  And when the decision makers — Congress, and senior staffers there, and top folks at the agencies, top “journos” (scare quotes to indicate the distance such folks have traveled from actual journalism) — all know exactly how it’s possible to live in this policy-making/policy-influencing nexus, you get a Village with both experience and skin in the game that disconnects them from everyone and everywhere else.

Image:  Simon Vouet, Wealthbetween 1635 and 1640.


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