Archive | April 2015

Quake Coverage (updated)

[addendum 4/29/15. Roger Bilham has added a webpage on this event, which includes an estimate from Max Wyss that fatalities from this event are likely to exceed 50,000, far above the 5,000 currently mentioned]

Ah, to live in the first world and be barraged by video and animations and discussions of the travails of a couple hundred mountain climbers/thrill seekers/bucket listers as tens of thousands of locals suffer far worse fates and face far more uncertain futures…. (this isn’t new; Roger Bilham has noted on one of his web pages that “In the past 50 years more than 94,000 people have been killed by building collapse and avalanches associated with Himalayan earthquakes. In the same time period,148 climbing related deaths have occurred climbing Mt. Everest, which is located some 20 km north of the epicenter of the great Bihar/Nepal earthquake of 1934.” Which have had best selling books written about them? It is reminiscent of the old parody of the Boston Globe describing a nuclear attack on New York: “2 Hub men die in blast; New York also destroyed”)

Anyways, from the press coverage you get the feeling that “wow, this was bad, but it could have been a lot worse”.  And indeed looking at photos of Kathmandu, while most might be astonished at the structures destroyed, many seismologists are surprised at some of the structures that survived the quake. But…

The big worry of Himalayan seismologists has actually been a chunk of the Himalayan front a bit farther west, which last ruptured in 1505.  It appears there is ample strain built up on that segment of the main plate boundary to unleash a M8.5+. And it is likely that the recent earthquake has put more stress on that segment to the west.

It will rupture some day.  If we are lucky, it may turn out to be smaller than expected, but that is still likely to be over M8. So one of the best things that could come out of this recent M7.9 is a major effort to rebuild and reinforce buildings for the next great earthquake.  It could come sooner than we’d like.

Post post-publication review

A current meme in science is to use the ability with electronic journals and the like for everybody and their cat to weigh in on a scientific paper; this goes by the rather haughty name of post-publication peer review. A prime example is PubPeer, which so far seems to have gained little traction in the solid earth science community.  In the wider internet, this often leads to flame wars and other incendiary communications, but there seems to be a hope that this can be an improvement on peer review for scientific publications. In some cases, there is no pre-publication review. But what happens after post-publication review?

Does this really work?

OK, first there is the issue with human nature.  Publish a paper that is publicly available and then have somebody point out a flaw, your first instinct might be to defend the paper rather than look to see if you screwed up.  As there is no barrier to publication if you don’t reexamine the point in question, it is often a lot faster to just react “no, I got it right, you must be wrong” (GG has seen this even in a review context where there really was an error). And there is usually no need to respond at all if you don’t want to. And then there are some interesting ethical problems that have emerged.

But then there is the issue of just what happens to the science in the paper.  Say the authors agree after some months that there was an error.  Does this mean the paper is retracted?  Amended? If this is serious enough, it is a retraction, but that is pretty rare in earth science.  If it is trivial enough (missing labels in a figure, stuff like that) it is often a correction. But maybe the publisher doesn’t amend the published version; do you have to find all the post-publication review spaces to learn of this issue? Perhaps, even, publishers think that this takes them off the hook from bothering to correct such mistakes even if requested by the authors. Maybe articles should have version numbers.

How about if the discussion reveals some useful information that maybe doesn’t have to be in the paper but is enlightening, and say you want to cite that information.  What do you do? And is the journal archiving any post-publication peer review they host on their site? Is this the equivalent of a personal communication?

Do we now have to rely on clever Google searches to find all the relevant review on a paper?

Is it possible to plagiarize post-publication review comments?  Who is minding that store?

Look, there is always muttering in the peanut gallery about papers that folks care about.  When things get serious enough, the usual mode of communication is a comment (usually accompanied by a reply), or publishing a paper directly addressing the concerns on the first paper. The nice thing about these is that they usually have been more carefully thought through than ramblings on a webpage, and they are citable.

In this space GG occasionally engages in what some would call post-publication peer-review, largely to simply take the time to really try and work through a paper that bears on GG’s research interests.  Are these comments fair?  Not always, and sometimes we’ve seen a few comments pointing out where GG is wrong or differences of opinion.  All fine.  But should people be relying on these near-random comments on papers as a real substitute for pre-publication peer review? Exactly what is the problem we are trying to solve? Is there bad science that would be exposed by post-publication review that wouldn’t be if there wasn’t such review?

Did Al Gore Retard Efforts to Confront Global Warming?

GG watched an enjoyable and energetic lecture by Dan Kahan (will post a link if it becomes publicly available).  His basic premise is that belief in certain things gets tangled up with a sense of identity (this was a point raised in a paper we discussed awhile ago). So, for instance, asking if man is descended from other animals yields results that very closely parallel religiousness. And if you have a separate measure of scientific understanding and plot the percent answering the question correctly versus that measure of scientific ability, you find a poor correlation.  If you separate the respondents into religious and non-religious groups, you see the fraction of religious groups rejecting scientific evolution increase as they are more scientifically competent.  So, he argues, this question is actually asking people to identify themselves, and those who identify as religious and who are scientifically literate are simply more agile at amplifying marginal arguments and rejecting other arguments to bolster their position.  He suggests that this has little to do with the understanding of evolution: when the question is rephrased to ask, what does the theory of evolution tell us, everybody tends to do better and tend to do better with increasing science literacy (the paper we discussed earlier simply uses level of education as a proxy for science ability but more or less found the same relationships).

So Kahan argues that it is hopeless to pound on such people to try and get them to change their professed belief: that isn’t helpful and can be counterproductive.

Now he also showed that belief in human-caused climate change is similarly polarized, though this time the identification is with Democrats or Republicans.  And so he argued that the problem in Congress isn’t that the science of climate change isn’t well understood by both sides, but that the argument has been framed using a question that, fundamentally, now is heard as “Are you a Democrat or Republican?”

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Time to fund failing science?

There is an increasing sense that the Grumpy Geophysicist gets that science is the victim of its own success.  Having touted things arising from science funding that appeal to Congress, Congress turns around and asks to fund the things that are successful. And then asks for metrics-what percentage of grants yielded results that were of interest outside that scientific community? And so NSF adds more reporting requirements that are peripheral to the original scientific merits. And then Congress, sensing there is a way to better manage the program, might seek to use such reports to tune the way funding is handed out.

Here’s the problem.  Curiosity driven science will often lead to dead-ends and failures. It may lead to results that might seem trivial and bizarre and easily ridiculed. But it occasionally leads to huge jumps and wonderful gains. The problem is that you cannot direct funding to the “most promising” areas for such research.  This was clearly recognized in Vannevar Bush’s outline that led to NSF:

Basic research is performed without thought of practical ends. It results in general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws. This general knowledge provides the means of answering a large number of important practical problems, though it may not give a complete specific answer to any one of them. The function of applied research is to provide such complete answers. The scientist doing basic research may not be at all interested in the practical applications of his work, yet the further progress of industrial development would eventually stagnate if basic scientific research were long neglected. …

Research is the exploration of the unknown and is necessarily speculative. It is inhibited by conventional approaches, traditions, and standards. It cannot be satisfactorily conducted in an atmosphere where it is gauged and tested by operating or production standards.

Basic science is like a patch of ground in the wild.  throw some fertilizer and water at it and see what you get.  You might get a nice strawberry or some blueberries, but you also get a lot of weeds.

What seems to be happening is that we have steered things to where we expect to be funding successful science. So if we got a strawberry plant, we now plow under part of our wild garden and plant more strawberries.  For awhile this is great–we get maybe better strawberries. But we lose the chance for a blueberry plant to appear, or maybe an apple tree.  We refine the successes we already have while missing out on things we never suspected were there.

So we need for those representing the interests of science to march in front of Congress and announce that they should fund a lot of science that will fail.  And that this is a good thing.  And that they should fund science with little or no obvious societal advantage.  And this should be a good thing. Why? Because the wild garden is where the really neat plants will emerge, but we can’t know what they are until we give them room to grow.

The significance of erosion

Still pondering some Sierran things that Gabet brought up, and one is the significance of the post 3-5 Ma erosion in the Sierra, and that is how significant 1000m of erosion through Mio-Pliocene volcanic rocks really is.  Basically, Gabet takes John Wakabayashi to task for assuming that rivers were graded to the top of the volcanic pile on the canyon rim:

The assumption that volcanic rocks on canyon rims define the channel bed elevation at the time they were deposited is therefore falsified by the presence of volcanic rocks in the S. Fork of the American River canyon (p. 1245)

The main observation is of basalt flows found down to 5440′ in elevation, about 720′ above the modern South Fork of the American River just below.  And the basal contact of these volcanics varies within a mile from that 5440′ up to nearly 7000′, revealing that the volcanics buried at least 1500′ of topography. Does this mean there was no uplift?

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The further politicization of geoscience

We’ve already seen numerous suggestions that scientific progress isn’t a top goal of many members of Congress who oversee science spending; there is a definite sense that they wish to only support science they agree with.  So the move by the chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee to introduce a bill that attempts to manage spending levels at the directorate level in NSF is hard to see as anything but a political move. One of the directorates with a big bullseye on its back is geosciences, slated for an 8.6% cut (relative to 2015 spending levels; a 10% cut relative to the President’s request).  Why? Given a number of the other targets in the bill, it would see than the Congressman desires to see less research into global warming.  This is curious, as if he really meant what he said in an op-ed in 2013, you might think more research would be warranted:

“…there is a great amount of uncertainty associated with climate science. These uncertainties undermine our ability to accurately determine how carbon dioxide has affected the climate in the past. They also limit our understanding of how anthropogenic emissions will affect future warming trends.”- Lamar Smith, Washington Post, May 19, 2013

Instead you get the distinct impression that his preference is to kill off research into climate science as results are proving to conflict with his worldview.

Of course there is an irony to this; it also cuts funding to research that seeks to understand geologic hazards, locate mineral resources, and evaluate more conventional environmental threats, so traditional extractive industries might lose out, too.  And it doesn’t guarantee that NSF will in fact follow his preference: it is possible Geoscience might cut solid earth a lot and leave climate science well funded. (Though not likely, given how NSF confidential documents have been examined by Congressional committees). What this would certainly do is tend to cut funding to more marginal proposals submitted to NSF, which would probably include a greater proportion of proposals along the lines Rep. Smith might prefer to see funded.

[It is interesting to see what he increases funding for: fusion, biology, and engineering along with general math/physical sciences.  Of these biology is something of a surprise–much modern biological research is largely predicated on evolution and natural selection, whipping boys for some on the right.]

Coming at the same time that fellow-conservative Newt Gingrich is arguing that NIH’s budget should be doubled because of the societal need, it seems ironic to be cutting research into another societal need, the risks of a changing climate.  And while NIH research might help us live longer, the NSF research might help us avoid wars and famines (or better quantify those risks), both of which would make the NIH funding worthless.

Look, this isn’t helpful in the long run. It is easy to imagine a change in majorities in Congress which might flip-flop priorities in equally unuseful ways (for instance, aversion to immunization and opposition to genetically altered foods are popular points on the left). While it is certainly Congress’s role to decide what to do based on what science learns, Congress is a lousy place to be determining what scientists decide to investigate (hey, peer review stuff also has problems, but they aren’t nearly so mendacious). What all this does is to make science more of a political football, encouraging scientists to seek to ally themselves with political partisans simply in order to continue to conduct their apolitical research (and recall, global warming was a bipartisan issue not long ago).

Evaluating paleochannels

Just what, if any, significance is there to the paleochannels from the Eocene on the west side of the Sierra Nevada? These have been held up as demonstrations of post-Eocene uplift of the range and demoted to insignificant artifacts of a landscape developed on metamorphic rock. Consider these conflicting statements from the abstracts of two recent papers:

Eocene paleochannels show lowest gradients parallel to the range axis, steepest ones perpendicular, and reaches with significant “uphill” gradients that rise in the paleo-downstream direction. Modern Sierran rivers lack this relationship. The azimuth-gradient relationships of paleochannels, especially the uphill gradients, require late Cenozoic tilting and uplift.-Wakabayashi, Geosphere, 2013

and the counterpoint:

The studies supporting recent tilting in the northern Sierra Nevada are inconclusive and rely on observations not unique to tectonic forcing. Indeed, much of the evidence based on the paleogradients of the Tertiary channels is consistent with an early trellis drainage network formed across alternating bands of resistant and weak lithologies. –Gabet, Am. J. Sci., 2014

Now to be transparent, GG has published the view that the drainages do support post-Eocene uplift, but that was then and this is now; given the work done in the past decade, reexamining this is worth some effort. (Hopefully sometime we’ll take a long look at the Gabet paper, which is a more comprehensive attempt to consider the surface geology of the Sierra).

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