Archive for the ‘Who needs science?’ category

I’m Still Loving The Smell Of Schadenfreude In The Morning: Geek Edition

November 8, 2012

A tale of two campaigns:

First, Obama, as reported in a fascinating and tantalizingly brief piece by Michael Scherer over at Time.com:

For all the praise Obama’s team won in 2008 for its high-tech wizardry, its success masked a huge weakness: too many databases. Back then, volunteers making phone calls through the Obama website were working off lists that differed from the lists used by callers in the campaign office. Get-out-the-vote lists were never reconciled with fundraising lists. It was like the FBI and the CIA before 9/11: the two camps never shared data. “We analyzed very early that the problem in Democratic politics was you had databases all over the place,” said one of the officials. “None of them talked to each other.” So over the first 18 months, the campaign started over, creating a single massive system that could merge the information collected from pollsters, fundraisers, field workers and consumer databases as well as social-media and mobile contacts with the main Democratic voter files in the swing states.

The new megafile didn’t just tell the campaign how to find voters and get their attention; it also allowed the number crunchers to run tests predicting which types of people would be persuaded by certain kinds of appeals. Call lists in field offices, for instance, didn’t just list names and numbers; they also ranked names in order of their persuadability, with the campaign’s most important priorities first. About 75% of the determining factors were basics like age, sex, race, neighborhood and voting record. Consumer data about voters helped round out the picture. “We could [predict] people who were going to give online. We could model people who were going to give through mail. We could model volunteers,” said one of the senior advisers about the predictive profiles built by the data. “In the end, modeling became something way bigger for us in ’12 than in ’08 because it made our time more efficient.”….

The magic tricks that opened wallets were then repurposed to turn out votes. The analytics team used four streams of polling data to build a detailed picture of voters in key states. In the past month, said one official, the analytics team had polling data from about 29,000 people in Ohio alone — a whopping sample that composed nearly half of 1% of all voters there — allowing for deep dives into exactly where each demographic and regional group was trending at any given moment. This was a huge advantage: when polls started to slip after the first debate, they could check to see which voters were changing sides and which were not….

“We ran the election 66,000 times every night,” said a senior official, describing the computer simulations the campaign ran to figure out Obama’s odds of winning each swing state. “And every morning we got the spit-out — here are your chances of winning these states. And that is how we allocated resources.”

…The numbers also led the campaign to escort their man down roads not usually taken in the late stages of a presidential campaign. In August, Obama decided to answer questions on the social news website Reddit, which many of the President’s senior aides did not know about. “Why did we put Barack Obama on Reddit?” an official asked rhetorically. “Because a whole bunch of our turnout targets were on Reddit.”

And now the Romney approach, from reporting at Politico:

A much-touted mobile app used by Romney campaign poll watchers to track voters faced hiccups across the country Tuesday that left one prominent conservative Romney critic declaring it on Twitter “nothing short of a failure.”The system, known as the ORCA Project, was intended to give the Republican challenger’s team real-time information so campaign workers could call, text or visit people who hadn’t yet voted in attempts to corral them before polls closed.

Yet dozens of Romney poll workers across the country took to Twitter throughout the day to gripe that they were unable to log in, lost data they had inputted or found it moving slower than they needed to keep up with poll traffic.

Jeffrey Cook, a Romney poll worker from Fort Dodge, Iowa, gave up after eight hours of being unable to log in and tried to provide his data over the phone after the campaign sent out information about a telephone helpline….

“This looks like hundreds and hundreds of people,” said Akbar, whose popular Twitter handle @ali became a central repository for ORCA complaints. “Something’s going wrong. More people are experiencing problems than are saying it’s working.”

That’s damning for a feature of Romney’s digital campaign that was expected to be a blockbuster. Earlier this month, in fact, Romney deputy political director Dan Centinello was quoted by the Huffington Post as saying of ORCA, “There’s nothing that the Obama data team, there’s nothing that the Obama campaign, there’s nothing that President [Barack] Obama himself can do to even come close to what we are putting together here.”

The Obama campaign has a similar app, Mobile Pollwatcher, which had no reported problems on Tuesday

Ahhhh. This isn’t getting old, is it.

One more thing.  As ever, it’s never their fault.  Conservatism cannot fail. It can only be failed — or betrayed:

In the heat of the election, some pro-Romney tweeters blamed the press for suggestions that ORCA wasn’t working quite right.“Media stories reporting ORCA efforts shut down by hackers are false,” wrote Tommy Duggan, publisher of The Valley Patriot newspaper in Massachusetts. “We just got first-hand confirm[ation] that system worked brilliantly.”

As we might say in the framing familiar to this blog:  Continue acquiring intimate knowledge of Colonel Sander’s best friend.
Images:  Vincent van Gogh, The Blue Train (The Viaduct in Arles), 1888.
Hendrik Gerritsz. Pot, Flora’s mallewagen. (Allegory of the Tulip Mania.) 1640.

First They Came For The NSF…

January 3, 2011

Belatedly, for I posted this originally over at Balloon Juice some time ago — here’s a bit of justified (IMHO) Godwinization of our New GOPer Overlords for their disastrous approach to science policy:

We’ve seen this one before.

As gleefully announced by Eric Cantor (R – Faust) Congressman Adrian Smith, (R-Torquemada Nebraska), a member of the House Science and Technology is kicking off the GOP “YouCut Citizen Review” of federal agencies with an assault on that known threat to American values and good governance, the National Science Foundation. [Warning:  that link leads to Cantor's website.]

In keeping with the tradition of both Joe McCarthy and that insufferable grandstander, William Proxmire, Smith and Cantor target the usual suspects.  Those dread “university academics” (Oh! the ignominy! — and for my part, I’d have to say: “it’s a fair cop, guv’nor”) who received $750K to work on computer models of what Smith called “the on-field contribution of soccer players.” (Say whut? A missing object, I fear — ed.)…

__

…  Or that wasted $1.2 * 10^6 (I write it that way just to piss Cantor and Smith off, of course) used to “model the sound of breaking objects for the video game and movie industries.”

If Smith leaves any doubt about what’s going on here in his video message, (I mean, he could be a Truman-esque patriot merely seeking to make government work better for all citizens, right? Right?), the text on Cantor’s site to GOP supporters removes that mite of ambiguity.

How should you identify suspect federally-funded science one may ask?  Well, writes Cantor (or rather, his web gnomes),

In the “Search Award For” field, try some keywords, such as: success, culture, media, games, social norm, lawyers, museum, leisure, stimulus, etc. to bring up grants.

I guess I gotta fess up here.  If this witch hunt is retrospective, I’m in trouble.  My last NSF-funded project featured a collaboration with the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, which (as the proposal detailed) formed a network of science museums to help folks grasp ideas about the making of knowledge about phenomena removed from us by distance of space and/or time. So if they come for any of us, I guess they may come for me.

Seriously though, this is thought-police stuff.  Smith concedes that there is good science — physics, chemistry, the hard stuff — or rather, in this climate, the safe kind … for now.

But of course nothing is safe.  Cosmology gives us insight into deep time, godless origins, and, more corrosive than any other thought, the realization that humankind does not occupy a privileged place in the universe.  That’s obviously not on.

And so on. When you get down to it, it’s not the funky, more-than-an-elevator-pitch-to-explain research that’s the problem.  It is, rather, that you can apply reason and formal methods to elicit facts from the material circumstances of our existence that puts the sand in the vaseline down at GOP HQ.  Independent authority is unacceptable.

I’m going to go somewhere a bit dangerous here.  Godwinizing is a touchy game, and calling examples down from between-the-wars-Germany down on someone named Cantor risks a predictable response.  But hell, I answer to Levenson so I’ll take the plunge.

Here’s the background:*

In 1920, just as he reached the first full rush of his fame, Albert Einstein attended a public meeting of the Arbeitgemeinshaft deutcher Naturforsher zur Erhaltung reiner Wissenshaft – the Working Group of German Scientists for the Preservation of Pure Science .

As he sat, silent, in the audience, he heard speaker after speaker denounce relativity as hostile to true Germans and true scientists.

One speaker termed relativity the scientific equivalent of Dada…

…while another, the experimentalist Ernst Gehrcke had already described the acquiescence of his fellow scientists in Einstein’s work was “an interesting case of mass suggestion in physics.”

Einstein laid low that evening, but he had no doubt about what was really being said.  He responded a few days later in one of Berlin’s dailies by writing, “I have good reason to believe that other motives besides a search for truth underlie this enterprise,”  he wrote, and it was clear what they were:  there would have been no problem,  “had I been a German national with or without swastika instead of a Jew with liberal international opinions then…

The controversy did not end there.  Later in 1920, the autumn meeting of the Society of Society of German Scientists and Physicians pitted Einstein against Philip Lenard, a Nobel laureate whose work, ironically, had led to Einstein’s early breakthrough on the quantum theory of light.

Lenard’s role in the ongoing reaction to Einstein was a critical feature of the debate, for at first he ignored the anti-Semitism of some of his allies and spoke simply as one who objected to the corrosive consequences of Einstein’s approach to physics.  Relativity theory, with its reckless assault of space, time and motion, “offended the common sense of a scientist.”

That is, relativity being counter-intuitive, ought to be false.  It would be more comfortable if it were not true, less troubling to the soul.

Put that way, Lenard’s was a pathetic argument but not an actually malicious one.  (After all, Einstein himself would experience the emotional cost that a radical discovery can impose on those who have lived happily with the older, outmoded set of ideas.)

But Lenard did not rest there.  By 1922, the grounds of his objection shifted; now, he denounced Einstein as a false German, decried Jewish habits of disputation, and called for the reassertion of a “sound German spirit” in science, whose revival would ensure the destruction of “the alien spirit…which is so clearly seen in anything that relates to the ‘relativity theory'”

Lenard’s justification for this claim went like this:   step one: Einstein’s science made no sense.  Step two:  therefore, it had to have been produced out of a malign desire to undermine the clarity of science and the certainty of its conclusions.  Finally, the ultimate step in this catechism, Einstein’s evil impulse here was born of the inherent Jewishness of relativity’s author.

The epilogue?  In 1932, Einstein left Germany, weeks ahead of Hitler’s ascension to power.  Lenard became one of the Nazi’s favorite physicists, with the title “chief of Deutche Physik.”

And how did the Nazi preference for allegiance and national origin over scientific competence work out for them?

Not so well, thankfully, as we know.

Leap now from 1922 to 2010:  are Smith and Cantor denouncing particular research grants because of the ethnic or religious affiliation of the researchers?

No.

Are they setting up the conditions in which the question of whether or not a given piece of research is “American” enough?

Yes. They are.

Is this dangerous?

Well, duh.

A last note, just to make myself clear: I don’t think that this latest witch hunt is (yet) a direct threat to people interested in inappropriate ideas.  It does make us dumber, day by day.  Pace every invocation of American exceptionalism, there is no particular reason, as readers of this blog know better than most, that the US of A will remain the undisputed king of all disciplines forever.  There is some uncertainty, however, about how fast our competition will arrive, and how likely it will be that we slip beneath the top rank of scientific and technologically innovative national leaders.

And there, the answer is —  if Smith and Cantor have their way — sooner and more grievously than we think.

*The Einstein/”German physics” material is slightly edited from one of my earlier, published works.  No link-mongering here.  If you are interested in more, dig for it.

Images:  Sebastian Stoskopff Still-Life of Glasses in a Basket,” 1644.

Theo van Doesburg, Poster Small Dada Soiree, 1922.

The End of Climate Science (and much more besides) in the Commonwealth of Virginia

May 2, 2010

Via Doug J, who got it from Thers, this report out of Virginia tells of the assault on (a) climate science and (b) academic freedom at the hands of Virginia’s new and very dangerous Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli.

The report itself is a bit annoying — it refers to a “smoking gun” coming out of the so-called climategate emails, for example.

That would be the smoking gun widely trumpeted by denialist blots (I actually like that typo, as I look at it, though I do mean “blogs”), and credulously repeated by some in the traditional mediahat has so far failed to materialize in two actual reviews so far conducted into the affair.

But perhaps the most insidious implication of Cuccinelli’s demand for…

…any and all emailed or written correspondence between or relating to Mann and more than 40 climate scientists, documents supporting any of five applications for the $484,875 in grants, and evidence of any documents that no longer exist along with proof of why, when, and how they were destroyed or disappeared….

…is that I can’t see how this doesn’t ensure the Virginia’s public universities will be unable to recruit top talent not just to climate studies, but to anything that could be imagined to deviate from the proper political line.

Anyone good enough to attract any other offer would be nuts to accept a publicly funded research job in the Commonwealth:  who knows when every three a.m. frustrated email may yet serve to identify your disloyalty to the Soviet the Attorney General’s office, or the legislature, or the Guardians of the Faithful the Virginia Republican Party.

Seriously, no snark at all: science has certain norms. High, really chief among them, is the commitment to free enquiry.

The reason is, or should be obvious:  once you start telling folks which answers are acceptable and which are not, you’ve just told those scientists under your power that they can’t think without thinking first whether those thoughts are acceptable.

And another thing: Cuccinelli may think he’s just stuffing climate change back in a box where it belongs.  He may actually hope that hounding Mann may scare others off from daring to probe temperature records, or increasingly detailed global models or what have you.

He probably has, in fact, at least in VA.  As noted above why would any atmospheric scientist, any geologist any planetary scientist whatsoever want to risk the career trashing experience of a full-on state-sponsored attack on your work, your records, your colleagues and students — just the time, years perhaps, lost to demonstrating to the political officer the orthodoxy of your views would be intolerable.

But why stop there:  how much of biology falls afoul of one unshakable principle or another?  I’m not sure Ken Cuccinelli knows how much of molecular medicine turns on evolutionary biological ideas, but the researchers know, and they may well wonder what part of that work might suddenly fall afoul of the legislature or law enforcement.

The long and the short of it:  I know that if I were the department head of research departments at major universities, I’d be eyeing Virginia’s schools with a view to poaching top talent.  If I were a young scholar being recruited by Virginia, I’d look at all my other options — even if one imagined that the crazy would never envelope, say, a lab studying quantum dots, who wants the aggravation?  Who would want to work at a place where a fair number of your colleagues are cowering, hoping that the wrath of the AG never descends on them?

I believe the technical term is a chilling effect.

And above all, if I were an aspiring graduate student with chops — why on earth would I think of signing on to a place where I never could know if or when my lab would shudder under siege for years in some know-nothing’s crusade?

I love Virginia.  I’ve got some family down there; U. VA is one of the nation’s historical and architectural jewels; the place is beautiful and so on.

But none of that pays the rent, or creates the environment in which killer labs do great work (and, in many fields, spin off ideas that turn into companies and useful things that lead to the betterment of the human condition).

The impact of this latest nonsense won’t be felt all at once…and if the pushback is really vigorous, it may not be nearly as dire as I’m imagining it now.  But it doesn’t take that much to turn a first rate research institution into something much less impressive.  And Cuccinelli is sure doing his best to set that process in motion.

A parting thought: not to go all quasi Godwin on you, but for a more extreme example of what happens when you go down this road, you might find Loren Graham’s underappreciated book The Ghost of the Executed Engineer instructive.  It tells the story of the most significant victim of Stalin’s cleansing of the ranks of his engineers of any deviant thought.  After that job was done, the Soviet Union continued to turn out extraordinary numbers of academically trained engineers.  They just weren’t much good, most of them.  The consequences of being too good were too obvious.

Image:  Fra Angelico, St. Lawrence before Valerius, c. 1440

He’s got a lot of nerve: George Will commits science wankery of high order.

January 7, 2010

Thanks (sic–ed.) to nutellaontoast over at Fire Megan McArdle (now there’s a blog to love…ed.) I clicked through to Will’s meditation (FSM, I hate it when you link through to the Post — ed.) on cosmic scales of space and matter-density…which led him somehow to solar system dynamics…which led him to the divinely ordered (sic) glories of the federal constitution and the very profligate divinity that achieves change in creation through mass murder.

Don’t believe me?  Then consider this:

…in 1787 other people — Americans call them the Founding Fathers — who were influenced by Newtonian physics and the deist idea of God as cosmic clockmaker, devised a constitutional system of separated powers, checking and balancing one another, mimicking what they considered our solar system’s clocklike mechanics.

Today, we know there is a lot of play in the joints of the Constitution and that every 40 million years or so asteroids more than half a mile in diameter strike Earth. Yet the Constitution still constitutes, and the fact that flora and fauna have survived Earth’s episodes of extreme violence testifies to the extraordinary imperative of life.

Uh, is it just me that wonders at someone who conflates events that transpire over a couple of hundred years with those that require tens of millions to play out?

I mean, if it’s all just numbers, let me assure Will of one thing.  In a few billion more years or so — maybe a hundred, perhaps fewer “generations” of asteroid-strike mass extinctions, following Will’s assumption — we may be sure that both Constititution and life on earth take a final bow.  And of course, if you use more sane measures, say median species survival time, it will be rather less — a few million years or so. (I couldn’t lay my hands on the right number fast, so I asked my secret advisor on all things biological if that’s the right scale, and with the caveat that it varies from group to group, I have dispensation for the claim. ;)

And so on. But why bother.  This is just freshman bloviating taking up space on what should be one of important arenas for public discourse  in the world.  The real message, the not even barely veiled subtext is one of Will’s usual themes.  Science is at best decoration — nice wallpaper to surround the serious thoughts of real intellectuals.

It is a terrible, destructive trope, this use of science as background music, and never an intellectual end in itself. Trope is too grand a word; it’s a trick, really.

Will knows just enough to recognize that science as an enterprise has a particular kind of authority, one eroded but not destroyed by the sustained attack he and others have led on the whole notion of expertise instead of ideology as a guide to statecraft.

He wants that authority; he and others who use the language and images of science to argue against its methods seek to appropriate it to provide cover for all the assumptions-not-in-evidence and teleological reasoning that passes for elite punditry these days.

And yes, all this is truly an over reaction to a lazy, mail-it-in piece of crap from a columnist long past his sell-by date.  The real story underneath Will’s desperate attempts to opine with and on technical matters is that he hasn’t a clue, and it shows.

Here, amidst his mumble of veiled climate change denialism (see, e.g. this: “The discovery, two decades ago, of a bed of dinosaur fossils on Alaska’s North Slope suggests that temperatures may have been warmer long ago, before there were human beings to blame for that…”) and the musings about asteroid strikes and a folksy account of the expanding universe (“Into what is it expanding? Hard to say.”)  what ultimately emerges is the realization that Will has heard about all this stuff somewhere, or an intern has come up with a half dozen or so BBC.com stories or the like, and Will merely mashed all this together into something he hoped no one would notice made no sense whatsoever.

And even if that’s the likeliest explanation for why this thing appeared, I’m still pissed.  We — and by this I mean everyone who tries to make sense of the worlds we live in, political, material, historical, whatever — have a duty of care.  And by everyone I mean all of us from your humble, though not pajama clad blogger to those titans who possess leasehold on irreplaceable media real estate.

You, me, and damn sure George Will are obligated, at the very least, to make sure we don’t leave our audiences stupider after they’ve read our stuff than they were before. Will routinely fails at this minimal task.  This is just one more example.

Image: Rafael, “School of Athens,” detail with Plato and Aristotle, Heraclites and Diogenes, 1509.

The CIA Has Joined the Vast Climate Change Conspiracy.

January 5, 2010

Read this article in the New York Times.*

Here’s the gist of what it’s talking about in this effort to piggy back on national technical intelligence gathering tools (satellites, remote sensing, etc.):

The nation’s top scientists and spies are collaborating on an effort to use the federal government’s intelligence assets — including spy satellites and other classified sensors — to assess the hidden complexities of environmental change. They seek insights from natural phenomena like clouds and glaciers, deserts and tropical forests….In the last year, as part of the effort, the collaborators have scrutinized images of Arctic sea ice from reconnaissance satellites in an effort to distinguish things like summer melts from climate trends, and they have had images of the ice pack declassified to speed the scientific analysis.

The investigators tout the access to data that can be acquired in no other way; they note its economic significance (ice forecasts, aids to oil and gas exploration; and the article also notes that the CIA itself has perceived a national security concern in the prospect of climate change.

And with that, here’s the gist of what I want to talk about:

In October, days after the C.I.A. opened a small unit to assess the security implications of climate change, Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, said the agency should be fighting terrorists, “not spying on sea lions.”

and

The program resurrects a scientific group that from 1992 to 2001 advised the federal government on environmental surveillance. Known as Medea, for Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis, the group sought to discover if intelligence archives and assets could shed light on issues of environmental stewardship.

It is unclear why Medea died in the early days of the Bush administration, but President George W. Bush developed a reputation for opposing many kinds of environmental initiatives. Officials said the new body was taking on the same mandate and activities, as well as the name.

Perhaps the problem is that the scientific opportunity was and is immense.  Among the most difficult elements of the climate system to study is the cryosphere — the ice covered portions of the earth’s surface.

Understanding ice dynamics, especially those of sea and polar pack ice, is an essential component in coming to grips with a whole range of important issues in climate change:  the rate at which it is occurirng, the sensitivity of the climate system to various forcings, the risk of rapid alteration in parts or the whole of the global climate system.  (See as one example among a ton of such research, this paper picked up at random through the magic of teh google.)

If therefore, your political advantage rests (a) with a denial of the usefulness of expertise, of verifiable knowledge combined with the training and skill needed to interpret the data and (b) with economic interests for whom the reality of climate change is costly, what should one do but shut down a cash and risk-free program that would help us grasp the predicament of the planet.  Better a joke about sea lions than inconvenient truths.

And by the way: for all those who say Obama is no different from the guy, consider this:

The Obama administration has said little about the effort publicly but has backed it internally, officials said. In November, the scientists met with Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director.

“Director Panetta believes it is crucial to examine the potential national security implications of phenomena such as desertification, rising sea levels and population shifts,” Paula Weiss, an agency spokeswoman, said.

Elections matter.  They matter in this country now more than ever.  And if you care about science — and I don’t mean just funding levels, but rather the ideal of science, the notion that living a good life includes notion that it is better to know what’s going on than to dream of sugar plum fairies — then the difference between the two parties in their approach to science is existential.

None of this “they’re all alike…I’ll vote for Nader” sh*t, in other words.  We have work to do this and every year.

*I dump on the MSM with reasonable regularity.  I’m working on one of my several thousand word screeds about the Times’ own David Brooks right now.  But it’s important to remember how big media institutions matter — and encourage them to do more of what the informal media can’t.  This is an example.  The article turned on a reporter’s ability to access both very high level science sources (Ralph Cicerone is a seriously good get, for those of you without scorecards handy) and with at least some kind of hook into the intelligence community.  That takes institutional support to develop sources and an understanding of your beat.  So kudos to reporter Bill Broad, one of the Times’ long lasting good ones, and to the great grey lady formerly of 43rd St. herself.

That kind of knowledge/access can be acquired from an independent base — but it’s very hard and it is what the big media at its best distinguishes itself by achieving.  If only places like the Times, and even the Post, long since returned to its roots as the house organ/gossip rag for DC, understood that the one real unique asset they have is reporting other people can’t do because they lack the scale and institutional memory to do so.  That’s a barrier to entry no amount of internet servers can bridge.  Go there, my friends.  We need you to do so, and you can make money there.

Image: Caspar David Friedrich, “Wreck in the Ice Pack” 1798.

Texas is missing (one of its) Idiots: OMG That Man’s A Congressman Dept.

April 22, 2009

Via TPM TV:

Watch it and weep.  I mean really.  There are many reasons the GOP deserves to lose every election:  Joe Barton (R – Magic Beans) is one of them. This man shouldn’t be allowed to operate power tools, much less have 1/435 votes on matters of national and international import. Until that sporadically loyal opposition decides that minimal competence is a virtue, it will continue to earn is deserved losses.

And for his part, Steven Chu deserves a medal for not blowing coke through his nose on hearing that question.

Quicky Alert on John Tierney’s latest outrage.

February 24, 2009

I’m tired; I’m stuck with parts of my day job that I really wish I didn’t have to do; and I have a finite capacity for going over the same tired ground again.

All of which is why I can’t get into the full swing of what must needs be done:  ripping  John Tierney for a really special column today, one of his more impressive efforts at selective quoting, distortion of science-by-insinuation, and accusations that are, ultimately, a projection of his own sins on his betters.

A Siegel over at Daily Kos has already said it better than I would anyway, so go read his diary.  I’ve tweaked Eric Roston, author of The Carbon Age who knows more about this stuff in his little finger than both Tierney and his ego have managed to graps in their entire journalistic (sic -ed.) career.  He’ll get to it soon, I’m sure over at Carbon Nation.

In the meantime, just to give a quick vent to my bile:  Tierney complains that Steven Chu and John Holdren, et al., lie about science to advance their political agenda when they draw on their science credentials to advance arguments about global warming that he, with his deep understanding of the technical issues at hand (his Nobel, perhaps a little delayed past Chu’s is no doubt on the way.  Any year now.  Just wait for it.), finds himself in disagreement.

Tierney argues that, in effect, the default position should be that  it is plausible that these researchers, along with the vast majority of actual climate scientists who have studied the matter for decades, are in fact lying and trying to trick the rest of us into unjustified action.  The notion seems to have passed him by that these and other experts who have warned of the risks of anthropogenic climate change might simply be simply explaining what they understand about the world as best they can.

Poor Tierney, that delicate flower:  he cannot bear to contemplate that even in the face of admitted uncertainty, technical competence might actually offer some insight on how to interpret imperfect results — especially when that interpretation runs afoul of his profitable stance of easy contrarianism.

So he is shocked, shocked to learn that when those who think through potential impacts of global warming are at fault for rigging the conversation by conflating science with politics; whilst those, like Tierney, so deeply infused with the needed intellectual modesty, are truly aggrieved innocents when they suggest that their interpretation of science requires a certain, different course of (in) action.

It’s a profoundly dishonest stance, supported by the usual signposts of dishonest intent — unreferenced “facts;” that old trick of sourcing to “some scientists” or “many researchers” — not to mention a healthy dose of the argument from authority, where the authority in question has already been caught in the act of shading analysis in the direction of the outcome he prefers.

It’s just an ugly, squalid hatchet job.  Tierney has long been a hack with a schtick — he retails that “everything you know is wrong” kind of cleverness — which is fine, when he comes up with something actually surprising.  Here, writing as he does with the odd presumption that there is an enormous conspiracy of global warming scientist/advocates trying to take away our SUVs, it’s just a tired old act.   He, we, and his employers know better.

We Are Ruled By Idiots: Susan Collins/Ben Nelson division

February 5, 2009

Update: TPM points out in one of their updates to this story that (a) the list of proposed cuts keeps changing and (b) that this is in fact an effort to secure the votes for passage of the bill.  So on the theory that some bill is better than none, this may be worth the effort.  But the choices still matter, and cutting science and technology and public health when the bill still retains less-efficient tax cuts is folly.  If the 100 billion that the group seeks to cut slashed tax side money at least as much (and much better much more) than shovel-ready spending, then it would be more palatable.  But given the sausage injunction, I’ve toned down the language of disdain below.

From TPM comes this word:  that Senator Collins (R(know nothing)-ME and Senator Nelson (D(who won that last election?)-NE) have come up the almost 80 billion dollars worth of cuts to the stimulus that will somehow speed our transition back into a simulacrum of economic health.

TPM highlighted the 1.4 billion cut in stimulus funding for the NSF — 100% of the total proposed in the Democratic majority bill.  But in fact the proposals are actually much worse than the topline message at TPM indicates.  One thing that becomes clear from reading the details of the Nelson/Collins “compromise” is that these folks just don’t get science. Which means, in essence that they do not get how to stimulate an economy:  you want to spend the money on stuff that not only gets cash into circulation fast (as buying equipment, hiring students and researchers, renting space, paying for telephony and all the rest actually do), but on stuff that will produce more money-making (and spending) activity in the future.

That is to say, science and its applications leads to figuring stuff out that makes a difference in people’s lives.   Tax cuts, by contrast, do so only indirectly, if at all, and at a fraction of the efficiency that comes from actually just hiring people to go out get to work.

What we are seeing here, thus, is an example of the operative definition of neurosis — the repetition of an action over and over again, whilst expecting a different outcome this time — our distinguished representatives, especially almost every Republican (Ben!  What are you doing in such company?) serving  in Congress right now — are effectively residents of Bedlam

So: what is it that that Collins and Nelson et al. can’t quite see themselves voting for:

Starting from the top, at the Department of Agriculture:  Whack $100 million off food research — 100 % of the total proposed.

Next:  $750 million gone from NASA’s exploration budget, half of the proposed total, along all of the 1.4 billion NSF money, as mentioned above.

Next: NOAA gets a haircut to the tune of $422 million, a 35% trim — suck on that Florida and the rest of the hurricane belt, just for starters — while the National Institute of Standards and Technology, one of the most important unknown agencies in the government, loses $750 million, or half of its proposed stimulus funding.

And the hits keep coming!  One billion, 38% of the total, off of the DOE’s energy efficiency/renewable energy research budget — now there’s some forward looking policy!  4.5 billion — big numbers, folks — or 47% of proposed funds for DOE’s EISA energy technology loan guarantee program. That’s money that goes to folks in private industry (get that free market zealots — companies out in the world) to support commercial-potential energy research.  There is a bunch of political-economy debate you can have about how best to do this, but basically this is money spent to reduce our dependence on energy sources that have been the focus of conflict for a long, long time.  Dumb, dumb, dumb!

The beat goes on.  I’m not sure if you’d call this research, but the enriched uranium processing funds get removed altogether, to the tune of 390 mil.  And the DOE Office of Science — which, for those that want to see a nuclear energy future is a major source of research funds — also loses all the proposed stimulus it would otherwise receive, $100 million.

On the next page of the good senators’ proposal, Department of Homeland Security loses all of the 14 million bucks proposed for cybersecurity research.  Damn — why don’t we just tell Bin Laden to get his cryptographers rolling? And this is surely not scientific research, but these deep thinkers want to cut all 20 million from the Interior Dept’s dream of creating a department wide modern computer and financial management system.  Heaven forfend that the goverment might actually be given the tools to run more effectively!

Let’s see.  What atrocities lurk on this page?  How about a 100 percent cut — 610 million — for Department of Eductation disability research.  5.185 billion, 90% of the total sought, hacked off the HHS’s desire to spend money on disease prevention.  It’s somehow better for the economy to let HIV infected folks go untested and, perhaps, remain disease vectors, than it is to spend money, right now, on work that could save people’s lives.

Other people will, I’m sure, comment on the foolishness of many of the other choices — one of my favorites at a time when (a) US physical infrastructure is in pieces, lagging well behind the quality of basic transport in many of our competitors, and (b) when projects that get US citizens out on the roads and bridges building stuff would be a damn good idea (wait for the new jobless claims tomorrow, if you haven’t figured that one out), these Solons seem to think hauling 5.5 billion in discretionary DOT project funds makes sense.

I mean really?  Just to talk for a moment to my neighbors up the highway:  Maine, you need roads and bridges just like the rest of us,  and you could surely use an extension of the rail line up to Brunswick at least (if you make your money off tourism, figuring out how to get tourists past the bottlenecks in the road system might be a good idea.  Just sayin…), and so on and on,=.  With all that, what were  you thinking when you sent your pinnacle of legislative competence back to Washington last Nov?

But I digress.  Add up all the science/medicine/technology spending Nelson and Collins want to eliminate and it adds up to over 14 billion dollars.  That’s a lot of science, technological development and public health, that won’t get done if these two have their way.  And all this is spending that is, to use the mantra targeted, timely, and as temporary as anything else in government.

In the end what I see here is legislative frivolousness.  This isn’t a list that suggests anyone thought about what they were doing or why.  It’s just a bit of Washington “bipartisanship.”  If you want cuts, get rid of the tax breaks that everyone who actually studies the record of such things agree are the least effective way of adding life to our stricken economy, and spend the money on people and things right now.  And if you can do it buying work that will continue to pay off in the future — that might even be good governance.  Perish the thought.

Image:  William Hogarth “The Interior of Bedlam” from A Rake’s Progress, 1763.

The Science Vote: An Entirely Unsurprising Endorsement by Your Faithful Blogger

October 29, 2008

The past week or so have seen a number of significant endorsements for Barack Obama coming from moderate Republicans (endangered, yes — perhaps less than a hundred breeding pairs in the wild), and in a few cases, genuinely much further right than those, (see Adelman, Kenneth, self described as not a neo-con, but a con-con.)

Adelman’s endorsement and that of the big dog on the block, Colin Powell, both emphasized the larger question of the qualities of the two men running for President over policy specifics. Adelman even allowed that he disagreed with Obama more than McCain on a point by point basis, but that he nonetheless will vote for Obama “primarily for two reasons, those of temperament and of judgment” — as evidenced by McCain’s erratic lurching during the onset of the financial meltdown and his choice of Sarah Palin respectively.

Those are reasons a national security voter would seize upon, and I agree that they are, or ought to be, sufficient to secure Obama an unprecedented unanimous vote next Tuesday.

But it occurs to me that in my discussions of McCain’s disqualifications for the office he seeks from the point of view of what would be best for American science, I’ve tended to focus on process, on political nuts and bolts, to the partial exclusion of the kind of overarching “quality of his mind” arguments that the Powell and Adelman endorsements emphasized.  See especially this post for what I mean, this, and this besides if you are a glutton for punishment.

So it’s a fact that in all likelihood McCain will gut science spending, and pick winners and loser for reasons outside the judgment of professionals as to the promising areas of pursuit (think of it as executive department earmarks) is amply supported by the evidence.

But the deeper danger for US science research and education that a McCain and Palin adminstration lies with their catastrophic failure to understand what is required to do science in the first place.  They lack the understanding, the breadth of knowledge and experience, the judgment to be stewards of the single national endeavour that matters most to our longterm security and  prosperity.

Why do I say so?  Because that conclusion seems to me by far the most reasonable interpretation of the statements made by Sen. McCain and Governor Palin, both recently and over much longer time frames.

These statements are by now familiar to most folks likely to be reading this blog, so I won’t go into my usual logorrhea here.  But the highlights bear remembering.

John McCain repeatedly, and Sarah Palin very recently confirmed that they do not understand the connection between specific inquiries and broader research programs.  McCain has made a habit of decrying research into bear DNA.  Palin, more catastrophically, recently made insufficiently ridiculed remarks about “fruit fly research in Paris France,” adding “I kid you not.”*

Kidding she wasn’t; celebratory in her ignorance she was.  Not to belabor the point, but if you like the prospects of modern gene-centered research in particular and molecular biology in general, you have to do a ton of research just like the two maligned projects.

Elect Palin and McCain if you want put perhaps the single most fruitful research area in all of current science into the category of things you laugh at because they sound wierd.  This is a case where the two candidates demonstrate that they lack  ability to understand and interpret the connections between particulars and the bigger picture.  I can’t think of a worse attribute in potential Presidents.

Then there is the ability to hold contradictory ideas in one’s head without noticing.  There are too many examples of this to list.  Some of them, I think, merely expedient willed ignorance — think of McCain’s hopelessly impossible budget proposals, with its freeze that isn’t a freeze, a promised end to the AMT, renewed tax cuts for the wealthiest, increases in military spending, stimulus and financial bailout to add to the half-trillion dollar current deficit and a promise to balance the budget in four or eight, or four, or eight years or wherever Douglas Holz-Eakin has left his abacus rightnow.

But others are either truly cynical — lies told to gain political power, again, not a qualification for the office such behavior is intended to secure — or signs of real intellectual blindness.

A simple and obvious case is McCain’s attempt to suggest that he is at once serious about controlling climate disruption and increasing fossil fuel use — see e.g. the gas tax holiday, still promised on his website, and drill, baby drill.  The two categories are incompatible.  You can’t control human impacts on climate unless you create incentives to cut carbon use — that is to say, make the price of fossil fuels go up.  McCain has said he supports a cap-and-trade mechanism to do just that (though one of the posts linked above describes just how hollow a promise that is), but such a mechanism is meaningless in the face of determination to expand the availability and drop the price of fossil fuels.  You can’t do one and have the other.

And promoting such policies, as McCain did just today in Florida, means, just to repeat it, that he is either lying when he promises one outcome or the other, or he simply cannot process the fact that the two policy goals are incompatible.  You choose which explanation you like.  It doesn’t matter.  No such person can be trusted to make sensible decisions about the future of science (or much else for that matter) for the United States.

Again: the point I am trying to make is not that McCain and Palin have articulated bad policies for American science, though they have, but that the way they think, their poor judgment about technical and scientific matters, their lack of capacity to grasp how the actual daily work of science proceeds matter more.  Their willingness to ridicule specific bits of research they don’t understand exacerbates the problem by diminishing the value our culture as whole places on inquiry and discovery.

The bottom line:  a President McCain or, should the plausible succession occur, a President Palin, do not possess the qualities required to nurture the future of American science. Their ascendancy would rob the enterprise of both the hard cash and the oxygen of cultural approbation it needs to survive.

On the other hand, if you care about the ability of the United States to retain its narrowing pre-eminence in scientific and technical research, you would do far, far better to vote for Senator Barack Obama and his Vice Presidential partner, Senator Joseph Biden.

*I don’t mean to say that Governor Palin wasn’t ridiculed for her fruit fly idiocy.  It’s just that she wasn’t derided enough.

Image:  Joseph Wright, “An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump,” 1768.  Source:  The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202.

The Great Debate and the Death of Science (in the USA)

September 27, 2008

OK — so that’s hyperbole, by a wide margin.

But the one thing that last night’s debate between the irrecoverably mendacious McCain, and the amazingly calm Obama confirmed for me is that the large subset of basic scientific research conducted in the US funded by the government is in deep trouble.  It’s fate is likely worse, by a wide margin under a McCain presidency than under the administration of President Obama, but hard times are coming, folks; start your canning and get to splitting your cord wood.

How did I learn this?  There was actually one piece of policy news made last night, that makes something I’ve argued to be true for a while now blindingly obvious.

As the situationally astute Marc Ambinder pointed out, that bit of news was McCain’s call for a spending freeze in the non-defense, non-entitlement, non veterans affairs rump of government departments.  Ygelsias has already highlighted the economic and budgetary nonesense of the proposal.

To take that idea at face value, a spending freeze would leave intact the budget priorities established over eight years of Bush administration benign and malign neglect of science.  See this post for a brief review of the numbers behind that bleak assessment.

In the linked post, I also argued that McCain’s budget priorities, as laid out in his own words on the stump and on his website required that there would be no new money for science — nothing to reverse the flat or real-dollar drop in federal support for science under Bush (i.e. — the Bush administration has supported funding just keeping up with inflation for most of its tenure, and called for a real-dollar drop in the most recent budget).

In fact, the implications of McCain’s stated fiscal* intentions are worse than that:  to achieve his tax and cost-cutting goals, along with his pursuit of increased military spending, most or all non-defense discretionary spending would have to go, including federal support for science.  That was all before the mortgage-backed-securities (note — not sub-prime, please) mess came along.

As Jim Lehrer noted last night, cleaning up that mess is going to have an knock on impact on the budget.  McCain’s response was an earmark crusade, pursuit of all those government agencies wasting money, and his promise of level funding, barring those increases still promised for defense and veterans affairs — which is, again, a cut when inflation is factored in.

It’s not hard to see, given McCain’s disdain for sequencing bear DNA — a snark repeated last night–that science agencies have reason to fear being deemed wasteful. (It’s true that he does not seem to mind investigating the genetic code of the seal, for what possible reason, I wonder?)

So, should McCain win, the upcoming budget crater will be navigated by a person and a member of a party that together has a history of taking whacks at science.  Given that, I see no reason to doubt that federal science under McCain would suffer not just a freeze, but an dollar number as well as an inflationary hit.

Obama promises better.  In the economic portion of the debate he said

The third thing we have to do is we’ve got to make sure that we’re competing in education. We’ve got to invest in science and technology. China had a space launch and a space walk. We’ve got to make sure that our children are keeping pace in math and in science.

But at the same time he acknowledged the reality:

There’s no doubt it will affect our budgets. There is no doubt about it. Not only — Even if we get all $700 billion back, let’s assume the markets recover, we’ holding assets long enough that eventually taxpayers get it back and that happened during the Great Depression when Roosevelt purchased a whole bunch of homes, over time, home values went back up and in fact government made a profit. If we’re lucky and do it right, that could potentially happen but in the short term there’s an outlay and we may not see that money for a while.

And because of the economy’s slowing down, I think we can also expect less tax revenue so there’s no doubt that as president I’m go doing have to make some tough decisions.

He’ll try, that is; he understands the importance of not eating your seed corn.  But the last eight years of ordinary Bush/GOP (McCain supported) budget profligacy has just been turbocharged, and the blunt reality is that it will be a struggle for any part of the federal discretionary budget to hold its own.

Obama’s point about tax revenues holds for the states as well, of course, so there is not much real hope of any cushioning of the blow, even for public universities, at that level of government.

It gets worse:

Last Thursday or so, I ran into a senior member of the MIT adminstration this week, someone deeply involved in funding and running the research side of the Institute, and he pointed out the obvious:  when the financial system caves and the stock market trembles, private philanthropy suffers too.  So that’s another leg of the science – funding stool getting sawn through as we go.

The net take-home:  hard times are about to get harder for major science research institutions in this country.  That promises, as Sen. Obama acknowledges, to threaten future economic prospects and to undermine our national strength and the ability to project hard and soft power internationally.

And as for what this means for those who value science as a voting issue this November?

Vote Obama, for specific and systemic reasons.

The specific:  even though I think it unlikely science will get an enormous boost, at least in his first couple of budgets, he clearly understands the significance of the enterprise.

The general:  (a) Obama’s economic policies are better than McCain’s, and are more likely to produce more wealth, and hence tax revenue that can be used for federal support for science than those of the opposition.

(b) “a” is no accident:  Democrats have a much, much better record than Republicans as economic stewards by just about any measure of economic performance, from growth, to stock market return, to compressing income inequality.  (Thanks to Brad DeLong for acting as such a prolific one-stop shop for these kinds of data.)

So:  if you like science and want the US to continue looking in to it, just remember:  friends (of science) don’t let friends vote for McCain this November.

*For McCain’s confusion of the terms “fiscal” and “financial” as modifiers for the word “crisis” — and the implications of that error — see this.  It’s important:  while beyond the scope of this post, and probably of this blog’s competence (not that that will stop you — ed.) the mistake reaffirms the suspicion that McCain  has no idea what is happening with the debt/derivative/liquidity crisis and hence would leave the federal response to the problem to some subset of the eighty or so financial sector lobbyists now staffing his campaign.

Images:  Julian Falat, “Snow,” 1907.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Meteor Crater, Arizona. Image by USGS.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.


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