Archive | June 2016

I choose to question your question…

A classic trope for political candidates is to rephrase a question and then answer their own rephrased question, which often bears no resemblance to the original question.  But an interview by newly minted GOP Senate nominee Darryl Glenn might just set a new standard for trying to not answer a question.  While the full interview can be found on the CPR website, the excerpt below can be found at the end:

Warner (CPR interviewer): To get you on the record, you do not agree with the majority of scientists who say climate change has human causes. Is that correct?

Glenn: Well that’s your assumption. You’re bringing an assumption to the table and the premise to your question has me to basically adopt your position and I can’t do that without verifiable data.

Warner: Oh it’s not my position. It’s that the majority of scientists believe that climate change has a human caused component. Do you concur with them?

Glenn: Again, you are bringing facts to the particular issue that I don’t have, been presented to me. You’re saying that the majority of scientists are saying that. That’s your statement.

Warner: Right. Well, that’s a fact. Is it a fact that you agree with?

Glenn: Well that’s the fact that you’re representing and I don’t accept your premise of that question.

Warner: Do you believe that climate change has human causes?

Glenn: Well again, I would, I am a data guy, I would want to see the, a verifiable information of that.

Warner: There’s a lot out there. Have you looked at it?

Glenn: We’ve looked at a lot of things. We’ve also looked at that and we’ve also looked at the economic impact of this policy and how they are disproportionally hurting people when it comes to their livelihood. So that’s really where the focus is. We need to make sure we’re looking at policies like that that we’re looking at both sides of the equation instead of just one. And unfortunately I gotta head into another interview. But I really appreciate this opportunity. I look forward to talking to you again in the future.

Warner: Thanks for your time.

[Full props to Warner for pushing Glenn to try and go on the record one way or the other. Many interviewers seem to just give up after one try.]

A breath of light air

Geoscience has benefited from being an economically useful pursuit for a very long time. Some of the justification for Strata Smith’s mapping of England was to be able to predict where coal deposits could be found.  In the U.S., state surveys were initially to locate mineral resources.  Many western educational enterprises started as mining schools, helping to locate and exploit precious metals.  In the twentieth century, there was a shift into energy, with the oil and gas industry supporting institutions educating its employees. As a result, geologists have had access to rich databases of their own literature far longer than most other sciences. Conversely, extractive industries have benefited from the insights of academic pursuits like plate tectonics as the relationship of resources to other earth phenomena made searching for resources less erratic. Although earth science has provided many other instructive insights, it was the search for resources that largely allowed geology to be pursued at a grand scale.  As the desire to reduce carbon emissions has grown and as hard rock mining has dialed in to a pretty well-known set of deposits, it seemed that the practical side of the field was withering.  Academic appointments in fields like mining geology have been fading for years, and petroleum geology has looked more and more like petroleum engineering the last 20 years or so.

So it was kind of a blast from the past when researchers at Durham and Oxford announced that they think they know how to find deposits of helium. This drew attention from the BBC and Ars Technica as helium reserves have been plummeting, in no small part because of some short-sighted actions from the U.S. Congress. Helium for most of us is kind of a balloon filling gas, but the increased use of liquid helium in various activities (most notably in MRI scanners) has made it of far greater value than something to be allowed to float into the sky and vanish.

Up to now, helium has pretty much been an accidental discovery associated with oil and gas exploration.  The new work more or less argues that economic deposits are things we can anticipate in some areas, making the prospect of searching for helium a plausible one.  The basic logic of this work is in some ways tangled up with academic interest in helium for other, very different reasons.  So it might be worth a moment to contemplate helium.

Read More…

Why Aid the Unneedy?

In wandering through the web the other day, GG was struck by the following statistic in an Inside Higher Ed story: 78% of institutional aid at private colleges and universities went to students with financial need.  So 22% went to students who didn’t demonstrate financial need.  Many folks would ask: Why would you do this?

First off, colleges and universities are increasingly looking like new car dealers. “Hey,” the guy in the showroom says, “it says $33,500 on the sticker, but that’s just the suggested price.”  So you suggest what you’d like to pay, and the salesman heads off to the manager and returns with a counteroffer and so on.  And a week later you talk to a friend who managed a better negotiation and paid several thousand dollars less.  And you would just prefer that there be a “real” price without all this hustling.

Now, keep in mind that college tuition at many schools amounts to a new car.  Every semester. Suddenly the new car salesmen’s tricks seem penny ante.

Now 88.2% of first-time freshmen get institutional support. And not a little: the average grant was 55% of tuition and fees.  (Imagine how the parents of the other 11.8% feel). Given that schools lacking much of an endowment are essentially paying for this from the tuition they receive, why not just drop the tuition and quit playing a game where for every 2 dollars a student pays, you turn around and hand back a dollar? The answer? “It could be difficult for colleges and universities to slash sticker prices without hurting their perceived value among students.” [Public universities play this game to a smaller degree: CU Boulder, for instance, gave an average of $6788 to 45% of its full time students from institutional funds–this averages to about 30% of tuition plus fees, though tuition varies by more than a factor of 3 between in- and out-of-state students. The average net price of attendance for in-state students receiving some aid was about 2/3 of the sticker price]

This idea that a colleges “perceived value” might drop is a hint why 22% of students receiving aid from their college or university might get it despite not exhibiting financial need (and GG is willing to bet the percentage might even be higher for freshmen). Colleges and universities want to preserve their perceived value.  One measure?  How strong a student body they have (see the criteria US News and World Reports uses).  So if you have applicants with high SAT or ACT scores, you want to try to get them in the door so you have a stronger student body.  You are competing for those students (and with enrollments declining at many schools, it is very much a competition). As GG noted some time before, the attraction of places like Harvard or Stanford is the strength of your fellow classmates and those connections.  It would be interesting to know if Stanford or Harvard bother with merit-based aid (Stanford, for instance, says that they adjust tuition so that it is affordable, which would basically be need based).

There are those out there saying that offering any aid other than for financial need is amoral (and they might point out that the discussion above doesn’t necessarily mean that those with financial need are receiving aid in direct proportion to need).  Such a sentiment is understandable; as a society, we’d like to make sure that those capable of college work get that chance.  But from the viewpoint of an individual institution, you want to maximize the quality of the students you get for your long-term health. And so it is likely that, for better or worse, many institutions will continue to offer tuition breaks to some well-off students who excel.

Costly College Update

Just over a year ago, GG lamented the rather amazingly broad collection of suspects in driving the upward cost of a college education. The problem was in trying to sift through all the ideas for real facts. Now some aspects are pretty obvious: education is basically a personal service, and such purchases rise more rapidly than cost of living, which is balanced by our ability to make more and more stuff more and more cheaply. Public universities have been hit hard by budget cutting in state legislatures and essentially have passed on the burden by raising tuition. The net cost of college can be far lower than the sticker price owing to the moneys being spent on scholarships (see the “discount rate” plot for private schools). The current “crisis” in college affordability actually looks like a divergence in the rise in median household income (which stagnated some time ago) from the ongoing rise in tuition. [Sorry, have misplaced links to the sources for these]. Yet it feels like there is something more going on, and a couple recent things have provided a little bit of insight.

First, GG’s university proudly promoted a self-study showing that tuition isn’t going up because of the growth of administration (the message from the president seems to have wandered offline, but pointed to the information here); instead, the email said, tuition was rising because more students were majoring in the expensive STEM fields. And, rather amazingly, this apparently self-serving declaration was supported by a rather more convincing study by the Cleveland Fed (though another headline indicates that the top of the university totem pole is beginning to look a lot like the top of corporate totem poles). So shall we all now forgive administration and look elsewhere for higher costs?

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Illusions of Discovery

When GG was in Switzerland last year, his daughter wanted to visit Lauterbrunnen (near Interlaken and Grindelwald) and then take the train up to Wengen.  OK, great idea.  As we rose up from the valley floor and the train turned back to the north, she snapped a picture.  She then studied it for a minute and then looked at a brochure and pronounced success: she had captured the same picture.

This was not a unique moment, and it seems something of a cultural shift.  GG knows of folks who seek to reproduce photographs already taken (one of the funnier stories was one person seeking to replicate Ansel Adams’s “Clearing Winter Storm” and actually managing nearly everything only to discover in the darkroom that an RV was clearly visible). Google has imaged the whole world one way or another.  You can see it from satellites in Google Maps. Turn on “Show Imagery” in Google Maps in even some pretty obscure places and you’ll find pictures.  Use Google Earth and you can pretend you are anywhere.  The most extreme version is street view: you can, for instance, visit the Routeburn Track in New Zealand in street view.

Maybe this is behind the scourge of selfies these days.  After all, if all the photos worth taking are taken, the only way to make yours unique is to be in the photo.

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Indices and Science Quality

A perpetual dilemma in science, it would seem, is trying to figure out who is ahead. Why should GG say that? The proliferation of metrics proposed to measure scientific success.  For instance, a recent paper added a new one, the “I-index”, to measure how independently a scientist works (if you wonder, it is the sum over an author’s papers of the citations each paper receives divided by the number of authors, then that sum divided by the total number of citations and expressed as a percentage, so the index varies from near zero for perpetual et al residents to 100% for an individual who only publishes on their own). Arguably this index is only of value if you are unable to read a person’s cv. Anyways, this isn’t so much about the I-index (which does have something of a noble purpose at its root) as how these metrics interact with the peculiar behaviors of many scientists and so can produce incredibly misleading results.

One sentence in the paper kind of started Grumpy here on his way to the warpath: “[W]e identify three most important aspects of an author’s research output— (a) quantity, (b) quality and (c) author’s own contribution in his/her published works. In other way [sic], these three aspects are the collective impact of the published papers, author’s productivity and author’s share in the total impact of his/her works.” So the first thing you think of when considering the most important aspect of a researcher’s research is the quantity? Ouch.  Look, the ONLY reason quantity is still in the mix at all is because there is no dispute how to count integers. What you really care about is how did this researcher’s work change the field they work in; that can be done in one paper. N>0 is important, after that?? Read More…

The Mountain Mystery (Book Review)

Many months ago, Ron Miksha was kind enough to send a copy of his book, The Mountain Mystery, to GG (Ron writes a blog under the book’s name).  Although the book was mostly read long ago, other things kept getting in the way of condensing GG’s scattered thoughts. The quickest summary of this book might be to compare it to visiting caverns.  While most visits are on nice paths that lead you in a very direct way to the highlights, often avoiding the original historical paths into the caves, Miksha’s book is more like a discovery tour, poking into every side chamber and crevice, sometimes revealing rarely visited gems and sometimes just getting all dirty for little payoff.

Most histories of plate tectonics tend to start with Wegener or even later, but The Mountain Mystery starts far earlier, invoking the ghosts of such lesser known men as Anaximander, Immanuel Velikovsky and Thomas Burnet (and, among the others, a couple of women overlooked over the ages). Much of the first half of the book describes geological thinking on topics ranging from magnetism to the Great Flood. Virtually every person mentioned is the subject of a mini-biography; tidbits that emerge include reminders that Mohorovicic moved from meteorology to seismology and Clarence Dutton plumbed the depths of Crater Lake. For GG’s taste, the book’s structure in the first half is rather grating: every new notion is immediately sidetracked by a scientist’s childhood or forays into materials not related to earth science, and so GG felt yanked back and forth from biography to science. Geological insights are forgotten and then rediscovered, or new insights lack connection to older ones. Readers like yours truly might find all this frustrating, but here you will find pieces of the intellectual history regarding the earth that are omitted from most other histories. It will be the rare reader who recognizes all the players in this book.

The text hits a surer stride near its midpoint. Once we find Wegener, the number of scientific players drops to a more tractable number and so the biographies are more complete and less jarring. The scientific work too is building on other material discussed, so a sense of forward motion develops. The main focus for much of the second half of the book is the marine geophysics that led to the recognition of seafloor spreading. This carries us almost to the complete theory of plate tectonics. Unfortunately the book pretty much stops at that point, failing to carry the reader on into theory that helps to convert plate tectonics into some understanding of the origin of mountains. Perhaps the author thought this self-evident, but the growth of the geologic literature reinterpreting observations in the light of plate tectonics would have been a worthy complement to the information presented. (There is a hint of what would have been an interesting example, namely Tanya Atwater’s 1970 paper exploring the geologic history of California in the context of plate tectonics; the roots of this paper are briefly mentioned but not pursued).

There are a number of limitations of this book that are a bit baffling (some of these might reflect Ron’s hope that this is the prelude to a more thorough volume). The single most unfortunate drawback is the absence of an index. For a book that actually covers far more of geologic thought than most, a good index would have made this book invaluable as a reference. There are odd choices in topic material. Why not discuss the emergence of continental paleomagnetism, which arguably had shown in the 1950s that continents had to move? The last chapter, which somehow elevated Michael Manga above the rest of the community, seems a mistake as the focus of the book suddenly sharpened from too wide to exceptionally narrow. Some worthy parts of the plate tectonic story are left untouched (for instance, the curious inference and then dismissal of deep thrusts by Caltech seismologist Hugo Benioff, and the detective story that led George Plafker to recognize that the 1964 Alaskan earthquake was in fact proof of subduction). And not too surprisingly for a book covering such a huge amount of ground, there are some factual errors, but probably inconsequential ones given the scope of the book.

On the whole, this is a good book if you want to see the deep historical roots for geological thought and some of the more unusual blind alleys some scientists have taken. Miksha explores some of the more wild-eyed ideas more thoroughly than more traditional histories of the subject (you don’t often see Velikovsky mentioned at all in histories of plate tectonics). A good subtitle for this book might have been “A geological biography.” This is not a replacement for Oreskes’s histories of continental drift and plate tectonics, nor is it a text explaining our modern understanding of the earth. It is a rather unique entry into the discussion about the evolution of earth science.