Archive | January 2015

Global Warming v. Billionaires

A new survey published in the New York Times shows that most Americans–and 48% of Republicans–support government action on climate change.  This kind of supports GG’s earlier notion that climate change is looking a lot like gay marriage did a few years back. One part of the piece highlights the tension within the GOP on this:

Political analysts say the problem for many Republicans is how to carve out a position on climate change that does not turn off voters like Mr. Becker [an independent who said candidates denying global climate change would seem out of touch], but that also does not alienate powerful conservative campaign donors. In particular, advocacy groups funded by the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch have vowed to ensure that Republican candidates who advocate for climate change action will lose in primary elections.

Will climate change be a real winner for some candidates? It depends on what else is going on in a year’s time, but if these polls are right and we see, say, intensification of the California drought appearing to be linked to atmospheric changes and, say, a killer heat wave, the GOP primaries could get interesting.  By ensuring a GOP candidate denying that anything should be done to mitigate global warming, the Koch brothers could actually end up damaging their chances of controlling the White House.  It should be an interesting time….

Mysterious admissions

No, GG is not going to talk about where he was when the space shuttle exploded or why the cat went missing.  As it is that time of year when hopeful students look to move forward into graduate school, it seemed a time worth reflecting on how oddly this process works, at least (for the most part) in geosciences.

You might think that the very best students–students with the highest GREs and best GPAs would be a lock to get into grad school.  Oddly, the answer sometimes is not.  We here at CU routinely end up declining to admit a number of very highly qualified applicants–sometimes people who might appear to be better qualified than some of the students we admit. how could that be?

A big criterion for places that admit students faculty member by faculty member is, will this student fit into my research program? Are they going to show up and, three months later, realize that they really don’t want to do XXX? Is this really the way to run graduate education?

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Review Writing 101

Having taken the seriously minority position in favor of signed reviews of papers, GG feels obliged to discuss what, in his view, makes for a good review (mind, that is not to mean a review that necessarily favors publication).  Some time ago we discussed how to digest getting a negative review. This is going to wander on a bit, so you are warned.

First off, a reviewer is not  deciding if a paper should be accepted for publication or not.*  The reviewer is usually asked to express an opinion on the suitability for publication, but the editor makes the final decision.  So writing a brief review saying “this is garbage” and checking the “reject” box is worthless. You have to provide enough information for the editor as well as the author.

So what are we doing in review? This depends to some degree on the paper itself; most papers offer new data, new analysis, and new interpretations.  We’ll discuss those separately. But overall we are seeing if the science done was adequately presented and logically complete. And while the point deserves a longer post, prepublication review is a place where serious errors can be fixed and positions changed most easily.  Once in print (virtual or real), an author’s views tend to become far more rigid and errors far harder to remove.  Spending the time as a reviewer to really help the author correctly convey their work is a great public service, for it should reduce the possibility of later workers having to struggle with errors or misinterpretations.

But a suggestion: ignore the abstract until you are done with everything else.  Why? Because the abstract is increasingly being written to get attention and so might highlight the most controversial aspects of the work.  You might get strongly predisposed to attack or favor the paper based on what is in the abstract.  GG has actually seen a review that seemed to mainly be based on the abstract: the reviewer saw a conclusion he hated and proceeded to assume that the authors had made some of the same assumptions as some earlier papers on the topic (the authors had, in fact, done no such thing). You know what? The papers you agree with are the ones you need to review most deeply.  It is easy to overlook weakness when you agree with the destination.

A second suggestion: Write the review as though the author were across the table from you.  Even if you choose to remain anonymous to the author, you are not anonymous to the editor.  Being a high-handed jerk will not help anybody, tempting as the poison pen might be. Be contrite; after all, just as the author could well be wrong in some aspects of the paper, so you could be wrong, too.

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Is Peer Review Better Anonymous or Signed?

A line in a lengthy post considering PubPeer (where we shall not go at the moment–PubPeer seems not to have gotten much of a foothold in the corner of earth science GG plays in) got GG a bit grumpy:

Those who critique science need to be protected, otherwise they will never be able to speak freely about a paper[‘]s problems. This is why scientific peer review is conducted anonymously, and why any website attempting post publication review also needs to guarantee the anonymity of its user base.

Actually, in earth science peer review anonymity is optional (Science and Nature are journals that make it very hard not to be anonymous).  More to the point, GG has always signed reviews. It would seem then that GG is a bit of an idiot.

So why sign reviews?  Here’s one reason: so people know when you were the one who suggested rejection of their paper (and yes, GG has signed such reviews).  Authors have the habit of trying to guess who wrote reviews; GG’s experience as an associate editor suggests that such guesses are typically wide of the mark, even for experienced senior scientists. By consistently not being anonymous, GG doesn’t take the blame for stuff he didn’t write. And you should take the blame for stuff you wrote that was bad.

Second, anonymity breeds contempt. Flame wars on websites make this obvious, but it extends into professional work as well. A review should be written as though you were on the opposite side of a table from the author, explaining what is unclear, what is demonstrably wrong, etc.  You are criticizing the work, not the worker, and there should be a common goal of making the work the best it can be. With only the very rarest of exceptions, this in the end improves the work the author is seeking to publish. Also, it means you have to be careful not to be flippant: if you sound off about something and the author shows you were fantasizing about how you think things should be, you look like an idiot to both the editor and the author. That extra sense of possible mortification can mean that you will construct your review more carefully.

Third, this blunts ad hominum attacks by the author in responding.  Occasionally GG has seen authors respond with vitriol to a review, claiming profound ignorance of the anonymous reviewer, utterly unaware that they are demonstrating a greater ignorance than the reviewer, who is often an equally accomplished scientist with strong grounding in the questions being discussed.  Knowing who was writing would force the author to be more contrite and careful in rebutting arguments.

Fourth, this provides the author an opportunity to note a potential conflict that the AE might have not known about.  GG has yet to see such an issue, but it isn’t impossible.

Fifth, the author will often acknowledge a reviewer by name if known.  This makes reviewers somewhat more responsible participants in the publication process (and also provide readers with some additional information as to how thoroughly a paper might have been reviewed).

The usual reason presented for protection by anonymity is to prevent retaliation.  For tenured professors, this is ridiculous; the only position where realistically somebody can cause you serious damage (provided they aren’t homicidal maniacs) is if they are a government grants officer (e.g., NSF program manager). Even if somebody really hates you and writes evil reviews on all your proposals, you know what? The panels or program officers evaluating those reviews will learn very quickly to discount them. Admittedly there is a greater risk for junior faculty and students, but there is also a greater upside that usually gets overlooked.  A careful and thorough review reflects a careful and thorough scientist; if your review is well done and persuasive, the author is apt to note who you are in a good way.  Now there are awards for reviewing that are ways for some individuals to gain recognition while preserving their anonymity on the particular review they wrote, but these are more impersonal and less apt to really make a strong impression.

Anonymity might bring out the full extent of the disdain of a reviewer for a piece of work, but it isn’t clear to GG that this is actually the best means of obtaining the desired results.  Maybe another day we shall revisit just what reviewing should and shouldn’t be.

What exactly should the rules be on injection?

One of those small stories following the adventures with an injection well near Greeley, Colorado. Basically it says that the injection company didn’t break any rules.

What exactly does this mean?  In detail, it means regulators couldn’t show that the company exceeded the permitted volume of injection fluid. It doesn’t mean that the injection well didn’t cause the earthquakes, it means there are no rules about induced earthquakes. So while you could read this as “the company did nothing wrong,” which is legally true, you could also say that “there need to be rules to cover situations like this.”

So be sure to read the fine print when you see stories like this.

“Lost to History”

“Lost to History” is a phrase that comes up when people and events disappear owing to the absence of historical materials.  This comes to mind after passing by to marker below on ski trails near Nederland:

Marker place in early 1980s over a grave of two people supposedly with Fremont's expedition in 1845-6.

Marker placed in 1983 over a grave of two people supposedly with Fremont’s expedition in 1845-6.

There is no indication Fremont passed this way on that expedition, nor did he lose any men in the Rockies on this expedition.  Apparently some local amateur historians/archeologists took an interest, and some of what they found is now posted on a sign near this grave marker.  Their research suggested that the bodies here could be a local rancher who died, some military men who were heading up Rollins Pass (to the west of this spot), or perhaps two of Fremont’s earlier expedition who had left the second expedition at Ft. St. Vrain.

The identities of the men buried here are lost to history.

In a sense this seems to be potentially a useful phrase in geology.  Most fossils are “lost to geology” as are most ancient landscapes and much other evidence that could be useful.

Owens Valley and Water Myths

Nothing like seeing the New York Times kind of trip over its shoelaces in trying to describe some western American story to make GG all grumpy. They wrote on the evolving arrangements between Owens Valley residents and the City of Los Angeles in regards to minimizing the dust problem in Owens Valley. OK fine.  But there are a bunch of silly choices in the article that should have sent it back to the drawing board.

Start with the obvious: there is a whole paragraph about Alpine County, how few people there are, how rural it is.  This is evidently relevant because the current head of the regional air quality district lives there.  But Alpine County is not in the Owens River drainage, nor indeed on the same side of the Sierra Nevada, nor is it affected by the dust storms that occasionally rise from Owens lakebed.  The author might as well have listed all the characteristics of Stanley, Idaho for all the relevance it has here. This seems like stereotypical easterner ignorance of geography. The actual towns affected have more people, actual stoplights, and chain restaurants.  Don’t try to make this a story it isn’t by misrepresentation.

Then there is the usual simplistic “theft” of the water from Owens Valley by Los Angeles.  Now make no mistake, many valley residents were furious that LA was buying up the valley in order to dry it up; the dynamiting of the aqueduct demonstrates that. But did LA steal the water? Well, no, they actually bought up all the water rights (and usually the land with it).  Some sellers were willing, some were not, some were victims of the way the irrigation districts were set up.  LA used techniques that were morally and, perhaps, legally questionable. But if you like to apply theft, GG suggests looking at how San Francisco got its hands on the Tuolumne River; to avoid dealing with prior water rights, they chose to get the federal government to relinquish rights within a National Park.  In essence, they got something for nothing, which sounds a lot more like theft.

Finally there is the implicit story, one many buy into with little thought. Without big, bad LA, there would be Owens Lake, shimmering in the sunlight, reflecting the glory of the Sierra Nevada across its wonderful waters. You have to be oblivious to the fate of other western lakes to buy this.  The largest freshwater lake in the west, Tulare Lake, filled much of the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley in the mid-19th century.  Try and find it on a map today: agriculture drained it long ago.  Sevier Lake in Utah has similarly been dried out from time to time as the Sevier River’s waters are spread into agricultural areas arguably less fertile than what was in Owens Valley. Walker Lake in Nevada is on the verge of total crisis as its levels have dropped to the point where it might become an ecological dead zone (and it generates dust similar to what Owens Lake bed generates). None of these lakes were drained by distant metropolises.  They were drained by agriculture along the feeder rivers. Owens Lake, a smaller body than these, was almost certain to suffer the same fate.  And then where would things stand? At least then the folks who had drained the lake would be the ones suffering the dust from its exposed lakebed, but other than that we would have a lot more people in Owens Valley, a lot more pollution of other kinds.

The loss of these western lakes is ecological devastation writ large, but it would be great if we recognized the full extent of the problems and their origins. LA is indeed responsible for the unhealthy air in Owens Valley when the wind comes up, and it is great that persistence by locals has allowed for at least some mitigation of this. But we’d be better served by a better understanding of how we got here.