The beginning of a five-part series on GMOs in the Boulder Daily Camera does a nice job of making clear one of the problems with complex problems in the public sphere, namely that very specific terms get burdened with ills not necessarily associated with the core meaning of the term. Thus, as pointed out in this article, GMOs are a stand-in for mega-agriculture despite the fact that here in Boulder County, use of GMOs is made by small-acreage farmers and the use of GMOs has a smaller environmental impact than “organic” farming. Call this misrepresentation of a term a policy proxy: something that is used publicly as a substitute for some broader set of concerns.
Another policy proxy is fracking, as we’ve discussed many times. Fracking opponents are not usually concerned specifically about fracking but instead are complaining about dense industrial-scale oil development in residential areas or environmental impacts from oil and gas development to the need to reduce our carbon output. Arguably things like anti-vaxxing, creation science, and global warming attract similar concerns really directed at an opaque medical establishment, religion, and party identification.
Scientific proxies are useful so long as they are understood to be proxies. A simple one is the use of a barometer in the 19th century to measure elevation: you are measuring air pressure and using the decrease of that with elevation to estimate elevation. Proxies fail when other issues interfere with the relationship you hope to exploit: for instance, a barometer also records storm systems and failure to account for that will not give you proper elevations (something familiar to those of us who have used altimeters when hiking).
Policy proxies are arguably even more hazardous. Take the GMO case in the Daily Camera article.We’ve been conditioned over the past several decades to accept “organic” produce as “better” produce and that organic farming means less harmful chemicals are used. GMOs are viewed as anti-organic, thus opposing GMOs is a policy proxy for wanting fewer harmful chemicals to be used. The problem is that these associations are weak. Some synthetic herbicides are less damaging than some organic ones; GMOs can allow for even less use of herbicides than in organic agriculture. So it is possible that accepting the simple policy proxy when opposing GMOs that people are actually advocating for a greater use of herbicides with a greater environmental impact.
Or consider fracking. In opposing fracking, advocates might be assuming that they are reducing the environmental impact of oil and gas development. But if fracked gas deposits replace strip-mined coal (as has been happening the past few years), is fracking really the environmental disaster?
Let’s face it: policy proxies are for mental lightweights and the peripherally involved. They encourage tossing babies out with bathwater. They are designed to inflame opinions and they make it easy to make clever placards and impassioned speeches. In some cases they will align with good public policy, but in many cases they will impede it. So GG urges folks to oppose what really concerns them and not to fall into the trap of opposing things that seem to represent the bad stuff they don’t want. It can be possible to find alternate solutions once you abandon the simple proxies. GMOs can be bad if their use increases carbon output or increases pesticide applications or requires more damaging pesticides or compromise seed ownership for neighboring forms, but they can be good if they work the other way. Fracking can be good if well pad locations are regulated, wellheads and casings and feeder lines are checked, and oil companies are liable for environmental impacts and the fossil fuels produced replace dirtier fuels; it can be bad if it enables bad practices.
The initial column from the New York Times’s newest columnist, Bret Stephens, makes the case that advocates for doing something about climate change are expressing too much certainty about what will happen. In making his case, Stephens makes two logical mistakes.
First, he says that anybody who expresses certainty about the future is a conceited fool. OK, so GG will risk this one: the sun will rise tomorrow. Summer will come and the days will get longer. Want more specific? OK; there will be a solar eclipse August 21st at 11:42 am in Casper, Wyoming.
Well, you say, this is silly; after all, these things are really well understood. Yes, all true–and why? Because of careful observation and development of theory–you know, science. So ridiculing certainty as a general principle is, um, foolish.
Second mistake? By suggesting that skepticism is warranted, he implies that the unstated uncertainty would reduce the risks, that it is one-sided. Unfortunately, until recently the climate science community has been rather conservative about what is going on in the Arctic (for instance, only the last IPCC report tried to deal with melting ice), and now you have a report suggesting that things in the Arctic are worse than have been assumed. Yes, what will happen is uncertain–but it can be worse than is being forecast just as it could be better. So if you are going to be skeptical, allow that the forecast might be too optimistic.
[Arguably there is a third mistake in misrepresenting his opening quote, which applies to all the predictions a person might make, versus the confidence a community might have in a single prediction.]
Now, GG does agree that climate change advocates all too often place too much faith in their models, and he would tend to agree that oftentimes things are presented as more certain than they are, but he has pointed out that the basic relationship of carbon dioxide to global temperature is robust from a geologic perspective. If your decision to spend money on combating climate change hinges on, say, the size of the snowpack in the Wind River Mountains in the last half of this century, yeah, the uncertainties are huge. But if all it depends on are ocean acidification, which goes directly with atmospheric CO2, or sea level rise, or more intense droughts and heat waves, well, the uncertainties get relatively small. And Stephens does seem to recognize that the predictions are really probabilities and that the risks are real. So Mr. Stephens, how about taking the next step and working with expectations and risk minimization rather than simply criticizing the strategy of some of the players? Its fun to second guess a coach or manager; its a lot harder to get in the game.
P.S. A story at CNN claims lots of people are cancelling subscriptions to the NY Times over this column. A sillier response is hard to imagine; while the column has problems as noted above, it is at least material one can engage with, and the news side of the Times operation is really pretty good on climate change. You aren’t going to hone your arguments by only listening to those you agree with (and if you think this guy is a waste of space, you could just not read his contributions).
P.P.S. A Vox story goes into far greater detail of why many people are unhappy with this columnist, much of which predates this column, but also notes how these kinds of “we don’t know enough” arguments are really irrelevant.
Honestly, why this needs to be said, again and again, gets the Grumpy Geophysicist aggravated. Bibliographic metrics are no substitute for reading science, whether reviewing proposals, reviewing papers, or granting tenure. So the latest paper to make this point also makes the nice point that papers that step away from incremental science tend not to have great short-term metrics. Basically, it takes the field awhile to recognize something new and worthwhile. Even more infuriating is that journal impact factors are being used to evaluate individual pieces of science! This is insane.
Maybe all evaluators should be given the same advice accompanying investments: “Past performance is no guarantee of future success.”
GG has previously been frustrated with the combination of imprecise speech of anti-fracking groups as well as the double speak of industry. The reason you might want to be precise might be well illustrated by a recent home explosion in Colorado.
The exploding house killed two men working on a hot water heater in the basement; usually when you hear these things, it turns out there is a gas leak or something like that in play. The startling news has been the move by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to shut down 3000 wells they are operating while the wells are checked out (that is more than 5% of the active wells in the state). The exploded house was 170 feet from a 1993 well reactivated this past January. Although a new well can not be drilled there, houses can be built that close to existing wells (these houses are only a couple years old).
Oil companies are loathe to shut down operations (see opposition to claims of induced earthquakes, for instance). Shutting down this number of wells even as investigators are saying that they still don’t know what happened strongly suggests something may have gone wrong. Given that the oil company feels that shutting down wells is likely to reduce a risk, they are presumably not thinking that any gas leaked up around a bad casing job in the well but instead are concerned there might be leaks in the underground lines connecting wells to pipelines or storage facilities.
And here’s the thing. This is not a modern, horizontally-drilled heavily fracked well. This is one of those older-style vertical wells. So when anti-fracking groups say they don’t want to stop oil and gas development but do want to stop fracking (as was the case in Longmont, Colorado a couple years back), this is the kind of well they think is OK. So once again a reminder: fracking is very rarely a cause of problems, but all the other stuff with oil and gas development is the real problem people are complaining about.
The irony might well be that if Anadarko’s infrastructure was the cause of the blast, there is likely to be enough of an outcry to allow far more stringent rules on any new oil and gas development–even though a blast caused by a leak of a subdivision gas supply line would probably not shut down the use of natural gas in houses. So “anti-fracking” groups might get their wish not because of fracking problems per se but because houses were built in the vicinity of active oil and gas operations.
(Equally ironic is the request from the Boulder County Board of Supervisors for companies to shut down all their vertical wells in the county–apparently unaware that it is the near-surface infrastructure that could be the problem, which can exist at both directional and vertical well pads).
It should be interesting to see what happens. Almost certainly it points to a need to check up on the older oil and gas infrastructure in the state. Whether it changes the politics of new oil and gas operations remains to be seen.
One of the questions from the staff at UC Press about GG’s upcoming book was, could this be used in a class? GG’s first response was, well no, it wasn’t written that way. But thinking on it, maybe there is a role there. This is more a reference post to consider the possibility…
Although there has been a lot of focus on actions in the executive branch, a rather curious piece of legislation is working its way through Congress. HR 1430, called the HONEST act, might just be the legislative proof of how the ideal can be the enemy of the good.
At first blush, the act’s requirement that the EPA base its analyses and rules on publicly available science sounds fine. But it appears that the bill’s main purpose is to shut away most of the available science from the EPA by preventing, for instance, “non-reproducible” science such as the analysis of multi-year health surveys or analysis of one-off events. All data must be “publicly available online in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results.”
In an ideal world, this might well exist. But we don’t live in that world; a considerable amount of peer-reviewed science is in journals with paywalls. And some studies rely on industry data that industry might not be willing to share in full, especially if they recognize the opportunity to kill information that might work against them. And then a host of older studies probably are not in a form that can be placed online “in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis” (a phrase that, for instance, precludes putting pdf versions of old papers online but probably requires the creation of usable spreadsheets). One wonders what might be an acceptable form of decades of climatological data. Maybe these problems could be overcome with an army of people to convert old papers and datasets, but the bill authorizes (wait for it)… ONE…MILLION…DOLLARS.
That’s probably not enough to buy out enough of Elsevier’s stranglehold on much of the scientific literature, let alone deal with formatting issues.
If there was any doubt about the intentions behind the bill, many will recall some earlier actions of its author, Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, who helpfully reminded everyone about his belief that the entire scientific establishment is dishonest with the statement shortly before the bill left his committee that “much of climate science today appears to be based more on exaggerations, personal agendas and questionable predictions than on the scientific method”.
A FiveThirtyEight podcast recently included a segment with their senior science writer, Maggie Koerth-Baker, where she opined on what scientists were marching for, and in so doing she made the following comment (about 49 minutes in):
Something that I have been trying to get scientists to understand when I do, like, public speaking with them is that, you know, it’s important that evidence is a part of how we make decisions in politics, but evidence about, like scientific evidence, is never going to be the only thing people make these decisions on. You know, you have ideology, you have philosophy, you have, you know, what your personal conception of ethics and morality is, you have money, you have, like, all these different things that sort of come together to make political decision making, and just telling people facts isn’t going to shift people on all of those other things, because the facts, they might be perfectly willing to believe the facts, but if all those other things outweigh the facts in one direction, like, that’s, that’s not going to fix it. So I think it’s kind of an example of sort of how complicated this can be that, you know, we want there to be this really easy way to, like, well, if science says yes, well let’s do that, but that’s not like how reality works.
Kind of patronizing.
As she kind of indicated earlier in the podcast, the real motivation and goals of the March for Science have been, um, somewhat unclear (as we’ve discussed), so easy to agree that scientists are kind of naïve in hoping for a kumbaya moment that would return science to some position of unquestioned respect. Now agreed, any scientist who thinks they should be able to walk into Congress and say “do this, because that is what the science says” is hopelessly clueless. GG has yet to meet this scientist. Certainly scientists are naïve in many ways, such as hoping to change opinions by presenting more facts (as we’ve discussed here and here and here), but no practicing scientist GG has met is so clueless as to think that decisions should simply be based on what a scientist says.
No, GG will argue that it is Ms. Koerth-Baker who is not paying close attention. What has pissed off scientists is NOT that their preferred course of action on several topics is not being followed, it is that politicians and celebrities willfully misrepresent the science.
Let’s put this in a way that should make it really clear. You go to the dentist, who tells you you have a cavity. In walks your CPA, who announces that in fact your teeth just need more candy. And you listen to the CPA because, well, he has the checkbook (and you like candy). How do you think the dentist feels? He or she would be fine not filling the cavity if you so choose, but she or he won’t be happy that you made this decision because an unqualified quack has not only made an incorrect analysis, but misdirected you towards a more harmful solution.
Look, if the arguments in Congress over climate change were accepting that we know the globe is warming and that the cause is CO2 increasing because of fossil fuel burning, there would not be the kind of unhappiness from the scientific community, because at least the premise for making decisions would have been clear. If because of money or because of philosophy Congress chose to do nothing, well, we’d probably argue that that was a stupid choice, but at least it could be an honest one that might represent some rational balancing of competing aspects to a solution. Instead people in Congress are misrepresenting the science in order to duck the issue–they aren’t considering scientific evidence, they are pretending that the evidence is something else entirely. (There are other issues producing similar tendencies to discount science, like homeopathic remedies, nuclear power, genetically engineered foods, intelligent design, and vaccinations). In other words, when Ms. Koerth-Baker says “it’s important that evidence is a part of how we make decisions in politics,” scientists agree, and their problem is that scientific evidence is not being recognized as such in some places.
[Realized later that this point is well made in a pre-March for Science video with Neil deGrasse Tyson