When the curtain fell on the Trump administration, there was hope that science would again be consulted as government struggled to address societal issues where scientific knowledge is helpful. But the punitive actions of the Trump administration struck deep into the scientific staffs within the federal government. As the New York Times reports, lots of people left as they refused to bow to political pressure or had their positions uprooted and moved across the country. And having had that perception that science was above politics ripped away, a lot of those who left (along with younger scientists seeking employment) are skeptical of entering governmental service. In general, governmental work pays less than private industry, so the perks are generally considered to be continuity (typically the government doesn’t fail the way a company might) and the opportunity to help society move forward. While political appointees are used to the revolving door of Presidential administrations, this has not been the case for scientists and other professionals (e.g., diplomats).
This underscores the profound asymmetry between tearing down something and building it up. Although there were civil service protections where many of those who left couldn’t be fired, when people were assigned to jobs they were ill-suited for, or told they had to move, or told that their work had to be revised to fit the outlook of political appointees, they decided that their job wasn’t worth their time. As a result, the scientific expertise to address a lot of the concerns the current administration has is simply not present, at least not in sufficient numbers to answer all the calls for expert input.
Now some of you might be thinking, well, every administration bends the science to their policy goals, and this isn’t that special. From conversations GG has had with colleagues, the magnitude of meddling from political appointees was far, far greater from 2017 to the start of this year than ever before (and there certainly had been some meddling in previous administrations). Previous administrations might try to spin the scientific results in a direction; the Trump administration sought to have a void of scientific results so that they could fill that void with their own illusions.
How will the Biden administration deal with this? While it sounds like they hope to hire more people, one possible route for now is to convene some expert panels for specific challenges. This isn’t as good as having permanent, in-house staff who can provide continuity, but such a route would let experts participate without feeling like they were risking their careers in going back into government service.
This whole experience shows just how fragile the presence of science in government really is. This was most obvious to the public when the CDC was cut out of pandemic communication (a change that still seems to have left the agency stumbling), but also became clear when the former president wanted to revise storm warnings to soothe his ego at having misspoken. The playbook for getting rid of pesky scientists has now been written in large block letters. The only question will be, will we elect another administration eager to use it?
GG occasionally gets annoyed with the New York Times over their provincial view of the West, and this extends to essays they publish. The latest is from a woman who spent a glorious summer in Yosemite in 1993 and returned this year to find a sooty husk of the place she remembered. The reason? Climate change, she says, and all the comments online echo this melancholy.
However, this is at minimum exaggeration and at worst misdirection, and the shallow understanding of ecosystems becomes painfully clear in the certitude of many commenters. Of course the forest having experienced beetle kill is from climate change. Of course the fires are from climate change. Of course the drought is from climate change. And if you disagree, you are a tool of the evil carbon fuel industry.
GG is no tool, but hates to see bad arguments made for good causes, and this is a bad argument. First, the basis for the article is that she remembered a very wet Yosemite and it isn’t that right now. Well, welcome to the west: 1993 was a pretty wet winter, and 2021 follows a pretty intense drought. So yeah, it is a lot drier.
We’ve known for decades that the west suffers from megadroughts and that the twentieth century was unusually wet. Attribution studies found that the recent series of California droughts were made more intense by extra heat pulling moisture from soils, but the dearth of precipitation may be more typical of the natural system, though the 2015 low snow year might be quite exceptional in the past 500 years. [This is very much moving target territory, and if you have better intel, please make a comment below].
In contrast to uncertainty there, there is a lot of certainty about other factors. Native Americans regularly burned the forests and meadows in the Sierra in low intensity fires. The cessation of that activity c. 1860 led to a century and a half of accumulating debris that would make for far more intense fires. Pollution stress has been a major issue in the Sierra, though it is increasingly overlooked because of other threats. But widespread browning of needles from ozone (which tends to hang out at the top of atmospheric inversions) has been seen for decades; how much of the insect infestations were because of stressed trees? GG doesn’t know, but it seems a potential issue (here in Colorado, though, a lot of infestations were a combination of cyclical issues and winters lacking a killing cold, so climate change could be a player here). And a few studies have pointed out that weather systems associated with fires in California (Sundowner, Santa Anas and the like) did not produce widespread fires in the prehistoric past. But today we have lots of ignition sources (especially in California, PG&E power lines) that start fires in these conditions.
Look, *people* are the problem, and there certainly is a problem. That much is easy. But if the issue is the Sierra forests, just how people are messing things up remains unclear. If you want to write about places where climate change is clearly the singular cause of change, have at it: there are places in Greenland, heat waves in Europe, bleached reefs in Australia, Alaskan towns falling into the ocean–even the forest fires in the boreal forests–all that have the fingerprints of climate change as the main cause. But when you take a complex story and boil it down to “climate change” you miss the chance to really understand how the system works. The irony of course is that it wasn’t long ago when *nothing* could be attributed to climate change, and now it seems *everything* can. Reality is in between, maybe closer to the latter than the former.
A story in the LA Times cuts close to home for the grumpy geophysicist. It describes scientists as vandals. Not a good look. And it is kind of hard to argue with that characterization. It cuts close to home because GG has done similar work and has worked in (or had students work in) the labs that have stumbled.
No doubt you are expecting a story of bad science, but it is really what happens when an old “anything goes” ethos hits a more nuanced reality. In this case, two prominent paleomagnetists were caught drilling holes in rocks right near petroglyphs in separate incidents. (“Prominent” you say? Well, one got an award from each of the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America; the other was a president of GSA, among other laurels). The main case discussed came from Caltech some four years ago, where a class was taken to an outcrop near Bishop California to drill out samples. Without having obtained permission. Off a road that is mainly used to visit petroglyphs. A few feet from a petroglyph. Frankly, it is almost impossible to imagine how this came to pass (did nobody in the class notice where they were?), but a person who passes through to watch for vandalism spotted them and reported them. The other was a year later in a less prominent locale in Nevada with a UT Dallas investigator. Both resulted in five figure fines that their universities covered, not to mention this bad press.
Now GG may one day hear from the individuals involved their side of the story (and indeed one is to write a journal article as part of his reparation), but GG is willing to speculate on what went wrong so, you know, he and others might not screw up the same way. “How could you possibly think it a good idea to drill holes next to sacred petroglyphs?” Well, that was not the question at hand, not that this excuses what happened.Read More…
As we in the U.S. stand at the brink of our fifth (!) wave of COVID-19, it is worth taking a moment to ponder what this says about society as a whole and our chances of reining in climate change.
First up, why a fifth wave? Unlike the previous four (March-April 2020, mid summer 2020, late fall 2020, spring 2021), this one is one that should have been prevented. An irony is that the Trump administration put all its eggs into one basket marked “vaccine”–and it paid off–and yet the people who are most disdaining of the vaccines are Trump’s supporters. Because we are increasingly living in politically uniform communities, the result has been some communities where nearly nobody has gotten vaccinated and others where nearly everyone has. With the delta variant rolling along (it has been responsible for most Colorado cases for well over a month), case numbers have returned to rising. In places like Boulder, this is a rise from very small numbers of cases to small numbers. In places like Branson, MO and Grand Junction CO, it is a rise from kind of OK to oh-my-gosh. It seems clear that we’re headed for a long haul of COVID kind of rumbling around, flaring up in unvaccinated areas while just steaming a bit on corners of well-vaccinated communities.
The first and obvious lesson is that even experience isn’t enough to fully educate some fraction of the populace. Lincoln supposedly said that you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. With dying patients spitting in the eye of nurses who are telling them they have COVID and people who spent many days in ICU saying that COVID isn’t that big a deal, it is pretty clear we have identified the people who can be fooled all the time. The science is about as crystal clear as it gets: COVID-19 is a transmissible disease that can be made far less infectious and far less dangerous through the use of vaccines. Everything else is quibbling.
So it is clear that no number of hurricanes or droughts or forest files or king tide floods or historic heat waves are going to convince some people–probably close to 30-40%–that climate change is a real problem. There will not be a hosanna moment when we all unite to defeat the scourge of climate change. After all, if we can’t unite to defeat a fatal disease by getting one or two shots, how likely is it that we’ll be willing to unite behind a realignment of society’s energy system?
So we’re doomed?Read More…
GG was out-grumpied recently on a hike in the mountains when he encountered a hiker still seething from his discovery that he was supposed to have a timed entry permit for the hike he was originally planning on. Grumbling about the eco-Nazis, as he put it, he felt that we needed to get loggers into the dead trees in the parks and to quit making it hard to get into the parks.
And it got GG to thinking there is something to that. But not quite what the grumpy hiker was thinking.Read More…
Here in Boulder, there is a dispute over some property the university bought many years ago to allow for some expansion. The university is now poised to develop the land, which has been open to the public as open space in the interim. It is a bit of a three-sided dispute, with some treasuring the former gravel pit as a nature refuge, some wanting it to be developed to provide flood protection in the wake of a disastrous flood in 2013, and some wanting the university to go through with plans to develop housing for students and faculty to reduce the pressure on the local housing stock. As is often the case, there is some disingenuity on all sides (e.g., if you value the nature there, why are there so many unleashed dogs and such a large volume of dog feces everywhere?); while this can get a geophysicist grumpy, there is a facet of this disagreement that deserves some thought. You see, one of the arguments is that the university is already big enough and should stop growing.Read More…
Not clear if Jon Stewart spent too much time alone the past year and a half, but the fellow who lambasted Congress for trusting bloggers over scientists is now dissing scientists. Not a good look; The Logic of Science examines his Late Show appearance in a post.
I’ve been a fan of Jon Stewart for a long time. I usually find him to be both funny and insightful. It was, therefore, with great dismay that I watched him spread a conspiracy and inaccuracies about science on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and I regret that it is now my duty to explain his errors.
In the clip, which you can see here, Stewart begins by saying that we owe a great debt to science for helping to ameliorate the COVID19 crisis. That much I absolutely agree with. Scientists deserve an enormous amount of gratitude for developing the vaccines that are currently saving lives and reducing suffering around the world. Unfortunately, the interview quickly took a turn for a worse as Stewart endorsed the conspiracy theory that COVID19 escaped from the lab in Wuhan and made numerous dangerous, false statements about how scientists operate.
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On the face of it, science has gotten a huge boost the past few weeks with the passage in the Senate of the Endless Frontiers Act (Senate bill 3832). This envisions a massive increase in money going to the National Science Foundation, although a lot of that money is destined for a new directorate for technology. Ironically, this could be pretty damaging to the scientific enterprise as envisioned when NSF was created.Read More…
Awhile back, GG speculated that the closest historical analog to the present situation in regards to global warming was what transpired in the Sierra Nevada in the last half of the nineteenth century. As a reminder, hydraulic mining in the Auriferous Gravels of the Sierra was flooding downstream properties, and for many years the farmers losing their fields to floods of mud and debris felt powerless. The farmers took all the risk, though they felt the miners were responsible. And then a court case got some traction, and the entire hydraulic mining business was shut down in the Sawyer decision that found the mines responsible for all the debris covering fields. In doing this, the court effectively stranded millions of dollars of assets owned by the mines.
The question has been, if (and when) something similar might come through in regards to climate change. And this past week has seen a lot of legal action suggesting that global legal and economic balances are shifting against the oil and gas titans. Between a Netherlands court case demanding that Shell accelerate its shift into a carbon-neutral company, a skeptical hedge fund group getting a couple of people on Exxon’s board, and a host of smaller actions around the globe, the perception is growing that the days of “drill, baby, drill” are about over. And something similar had happened in the Sierra in the run up to the Sawyer decision. Miners working at the hydraulic mines, seeing the writing on the wall as things progressed, stopped contributing to the mines’ legal funds and started to move on to other places or other careers well before the Sawyer decision was handed down.
After roughly a half century of dismissal of climate change in the halls of government and corporate board rooms, it seems that tables are turning. And probably the most encouraging part of this is those economic forces coming into play: investors, including large institutional investors, are feeling that their money is threatened by a head-in-the-sand approach to climate change. Investors had already forced companies to downgrade the value of their known reserves under the logic that those reserves might remain in the ground. How fast might the turnaround in oil and gas occur? While inertia of the massive infrastructure society is built on guarantee these companies a few more good years, when the economics turn south, change is in the wind.
We are still a long, long way from turning the corner and having a sustainable energy mix. But the prospects are improving, from the low price for new solar and wind power to a massive shift in the auto industry to electric cars. It can’t come fast enough, as residents of the Arctic are witnessing, but come it will.