Archive | February 2017

Seeing opinions

Quick note–CNN has done a nice job laying out the mapping of opinions related to climate change in a Yale study, which itself has a very elegant map interface. Lets you see where people know about climate change, and what aspects they know about (it is amazing to see the disconnect between the large number of Americans aware of climate change and the dramatically smaller number aware of the consensus of the climate community).  Worth taking a look at.

Marching Orders

After weeks of behind-the-scenes discussions and introspection, many of the major American scientific societies have decided to support the March for Science. While some of the societies aligning with the march tend to be identified with advocacy of some sort or another (like the Center for Biological Diversity  and the Union of Concerned Scientists), having such large and politically neutral or even politically inactive organizations as the American Geophysical Union, Sigmi Xi, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the American Society for Cell Biology align themselves with this march is extraordinary. Basically, these organizations are putting their reputations on the line–and risking alienating members–by openly supporting a march that certainly carries the risk of being labelled as a partisan activity.

The flip side is that by having such substantial partners who are deeply concerned that the march remain non-partisan, there is a far better chance that it will be largely a non-partisan activity, so the fears of some that this might just appear as a left-wing love fest might prove unfounded.

And so, once again, as a reminder to all, science abuse is not limited to the political right in the U.S. The science on vaccinations and homeopathy is clear despite some of the left of the political spectrum thinking that vaccines are bad and homeopathy is good. Currently available GMO foods have no demonstrated ill-effects on humans who consume those foods. Issues with oil and gas development are not nearly as clearcut as some on the left would say. So while the right deserves to be pilloried when denying that the globe is warming or that humanity has little effect, or when it wants to replace the science of evolution with faith-based intelligent design curricula, it can also be true that science will inconvenience the desires of other parts of the political spectrum.

Marching for science should be marching against ignorance, marching against seeking confirmation bias for things you want to do as well as marching for evidence-based decision making and the continued support for understanding the universe we inhabit. It should not be simply a march for or against a particular politician.

Is Bird ’88 Flying Again?

Back in the 1980s, Peter Bird considered how the Rockies might have been formed through a pair of papers.  The first laid out the physical pieces of how a subducting plate could affect the overriding continent if it was in contact; the second combined all those pieces into a numerical model to see what would happen if enough stress was transmitted into the crust to create the Rockies in Colorado and Wyoming. One clear answer at the time was that the mantle lithosphere in the western U.S. would basically go away; the very clear response from those studying volcanic rocks sourced in the mantle was no, that won’t work. Despite this, the flat-slab hypothesis remains the front runner with most geoscientists.

A new paper by Copeland et al. in Geology [paywalled] seems to return to the basic hypothesis Bird envisioned:

Following the hypothesis that Laramide shortening was a consequence of the traction between the base of the North America (NA) plate and the top of the Farallon plate (e.g., Yonkee and Weil, 2015; Heller and Liu, 2016), we suggest that the southwestward migration of the inboard deformational edge (Fig. 1B) was a consequence of a narrowing of the zone of FA–NA lithospheric interaction by progressive rollback of the Farallon plate from northeast to southwest beginning at ca. 55 Ma and continuing into the Oligocene.

Now a lot of the paper is dealing with that rollback, which is actually an investigation of the post-Laramide landscape, but it is some of the material dealing with the start of the Laramide that caught GG’s eye.  So we’re going to unpack in detail one figure in order to see if the data is what it seems to be–and to see if this is different that what GG outlined in a 2011 paper. (And hopefully today GG won’t anger yet another unsuspecting author who never expected their work to be examined in public). So hang on if you are coming for the ride….

Read More…

I am biased…but so are you!

All of us who do science walk around with a lot of baggage.  So when we encounter a new piece of scientific work, we are biased about it when we pick it up. The key is what we do about this.

“Now wait” GG hears you cry “I always keep an open mind when I read a new paper.”

Really?  So you pick up a piece of young earth creation science and say “yep, as likely to be right as wrong.” Either you are a saint of some kind or lying to yourself.

Read More…

Tyson v. Abrams


Can somebody please introduce Neil deGrasse Tyson to J. J. Abrams?

The last Star Wars movie, this planet killing weapon destroys a bunch of planets that are across the sky as viewed from another planet.  Apparently orbiting another star. Far away. Hello? Seen any planets orbiting other stars when you look up at the night sky lately? And, um, seeing this would involve light which, you know, travels at light speed. Hard to imagine this taking less than a year.  Kind of muddles up the plot if the Republic was demolished for a year and nobody noticed.

Fire from one solar system to another in a couple of minutes? Yes, they did say it was a hyperspace weapon, but that fast? That far?

Sucking hot gas off a star won’t just turn the star off. Or be a wonder fuel for destroying other planets. Or fit inside your little planet killer. Unless this all goes into Hermione Granger’s magic bag.

Wonder what atmospheric pressure is like at the bottom of a pit hundreds of kilometers deep. Or the temperature for that matter.

Wonder what they use to keep such a pit from collapsing gravitationally. Deviatoric stresses are truly incredible at that scale.

For all his failings, George Lucas did have a sense of cosmic scale that Abrams lacks.

While Star Wars is really fantasy rather than science fiction and so maybe can absorb this silliness, Star Trek was more mainstream science fiction in the pre-Abrams universe. Trekkers had the scales for how fast warp speeds and how far things were, etc. This all went by the boards (along with a lot of other stuff).

In Abrams’s version of Trek, there is a planet with a breathable atmosphere so close to Vulcan than that planet is moon sized in its sky. And yet all that is on this planet is a piddly Federation base. Um, this would have to be orbiting Vulcan…and they didn’t colonize it to some degree? Or is there just a big magnifying glass in the sky?

Vulcan is a few minutes at warp from Earth. The Klingon home world is only a bit farther (seemed a lot closer when coming home than heading out–did they take the scenic route?). Quite the cozy neighborhood.

This all bled into the latest Trek where a nebula suddenly becomes a goofy dreamscape of colliding rock-like things that again only required a few minutes to pass through. Super challenging going in, piece of cake going out.

Look, space is really, really, really big.  Distances are equally big.  Is it really that impossible to develop dramatic tension without ignoring that?

If Tyson can help us to come to terms with an unpleasant election outcome, maybe he can convince Abrams that keeping space big is OK?


(Yes, those long drives do end up inducing odd wandering thoughts…)

Interstate driving

Trivia from a long drive. Just saying….

California drivers prefer to pass on the right instead of the left.  Wonder what they do if they visit Britain?

Most places the leftmost lane is fastest.  In California, it is the number 2 lane. In Utah, it seems they all want to go the same speed.

California drivers know what the number two lane is.

Colorado drivers have their own version of the “3 second rule” (you know, the one usually applied to food hitting the floor).  A red light isn’t really red if you get to the intersection in the first three seconds after it turns red.

Colorado drivers are slow to go on a green light. This has nothing to do with legal cannabis.

Some California drivers will use any and all lanes to go 1% faster than the rest of traffic.

Massachusetts drivers will use any and all lanes AND the shoulder AND, if necessary, lanes usually reserved for opposing traffic.

Texas drivers are some of the fastest around on flat, straight roads–and some of the slowest on mountain roads.

Kansas drivers confuse merge signs with stop signs when entering freeways.

Wyoming drivers outside their state keep ending up on the shoulders because they expect to be blown back on course by the wind.

California drivers can be in traffic thicker than a Walmart parking lot on Black Friday traveling at 65 mph without batting an eyelash.

Las Vegas drivers have never seen three miles of freeway without road construction detours, barriers or lane closures.

Utah drivers pretend their freeways are roller coasters: slow on the uphill, fast on the downhill.

Don’t silence science

David Frum has a piece in the Atlantic arguing that effective popular action has to have a focused message. Otherwise all you accomplish is a massive cathartic moment (hey look! Lots of other people are pissed off too!).  That might feel good, but it doesn’t necessarily change the political calculus.

This brings us back to the March for Science. What is it, precisely?  More to the point, what is the demand being made by people marching in it? Is it to say “Science is great”? An anodyne theme like that could have all kinds of folks agreeing, including many the marchers would likely view as opponents.  Make lots of folks happy to see science isn’t viewed negatively. Is it “More money for science?” Er, wow, that sounds pretty self-interested.  Might want to see how the veterans’ march on Washington in 1932 (the Bonus Army) worked out-and those were military veterans who were driven out of town with tanks. Is it “do what the scientists say?” Ooooh, yeah, let’s propose a ruling elite after having an election that arguably showed widespread discontent with an elite.  Frankly, the March’s website is kind of vague on all this: “What unites us is a love of science, and an insatiable curiosity. We all recognize that science is everywhere and affects everyone.” Kumbaya, anyone?

Here is GG’s slogan: “Don’t silence science.” Short and simple. What are the demands? That scientists within the government and funded by the government be free to speak out about their scientific findings–these folks are being paid by taxpayers across the country and those taxpayers should be allowed to hear what the scientists have to say, not merely the parts some political appointee finds convenient.  That their data is available for others to examine–it too was bought with taxpayers’ moneys; hiding results because they are politically inconvenient should be unacceptable. A corollary is that research dollars cannot be directed to politically favored projects.  Imagine deciding not to fund research into the cancer-causing characteristics of tobacco while funding projects investigating the weight-control benefits of smoking. If you think health is important, fund health; if climate, fund climate, but don’t try to steer dollars more closely than that.

Scientists love to add caveats, specify details, allow for wiggle room, etc. We enjoy being long-winded and revel in gray areas of knowledge. Don’t do that here. Short, sweet, and simple: “Don’t silence science.”

P.S. 23 April. Noticed that the March for Science almost adopted GG’s theme, going for “Science, not Silence”. Not quite the same, but pretty close….