Archive | July 2017

Who’s counting?

Another day, another piece in the scientific literature arguing that we need to stop counting publications and instead focus on quality-a noble goal.  The latest, in Nature, is focused more on the biomedical research literature, but the recommendations sound familiar:

Politicians must understand that job creation is not — and furthermore, should not be — a primary goal of the NIH or any other science-funding agency. Funds should be distributed on the basis of merit alone, not geopolitical considerations and interests. Institutions need to realign their mentality with their original academic mission, and reduce soft-money positions. Publishers should care less about publishing flashy stories and more about disseminating solid science. Individual scientists should emphasize excellence and rigour over stockpiling more and more papers and grants.

Quite the wish list. This paper is kind of interesting for two reasons.  One is it does make you ask, just who is counting?  And two, it claims to identify the moment that the scientific endeavor went off the rails.

Read More…

All quiet on the plains…

Its been awhile since Oklahoma earthquakes made news and so it seems timely to look in on the Sooner State to see how things are going.

Last we looked in, numbers of earthquakes were down but the moment release was still pretty high. Predictions from Stanford late last year were that the decreased injection of wastewater would lead to a decrease in earthquakes over the succeeding five years. The USGS, in contrast, has continued to note that the decrease in the number of events does not mean a decrease in damaging earthquakes.

So far, the news is good.  Not too surprisingly, the number of earthquakes continues to drop:


So that continues the trend from 2016.  What about moment release?  Well, given the absence of news reports, you’d guess there is a decline there, too, and you’d be right:


And, indeed, 2017 has been dead quiet moment-wise as well.

Does this mean that the seismic risk is now gone?  Well, no.  That M5.7 earthquake in late summer last year was on an unrecognized fault.  The fluids migrating in the basement could encounter another critically stressed fault and trigger a significant earthquake. But for now, this is good news for Oklahoma residents.

Uncertain Path (book review)

William Tweed’s Uncertain Path is essential reading for anybody interested in the national parks, wilderness areas, or the challenges of ecological change. Tweed, in framing his story around a backpack in 2006 along the John Muir and High Sierra trails, finds ample motivation for uncovering the many different facets of the twin jewels of parks and wilderness. 

The book is a curious combination of travelogue, mea culpa, history and ecology. Tweed’s background working in the parks for decades, including a stint as chief planner for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, means he has skin in this game. In addition to the insights such familiarity provides, this also provides a driving motivation. 

The mea culpa aspect is most interesting. Tweed left the park service in part because he felt key challenges were papered over by the promise of the organic act for the park service, a promise he had vocalized on many occasions: that the parks would be preserved unimpaired for future generations. No longer finding that promise possible, he left the parks to help steer them from the outside. It is clear that recognition haunts him still. 

His hike leads yields observation after observation, some of small note (the presence of hot showers and a passing military jet) and others that build up (forest fires along the route lead to the revelation that climate change has increased fires even in remote wildernesses). As he passes features named for Muir and Pinchot, he reminds us of the rift between extractive and preservational uses of the land. Seeing horse parties and trail runners, he wonders about the changing mix and number of users.  Seeing shrinking glaciers and ghost forests leads to worries about ongoing climate changes. Crossing from parks to forest wilderness and back leads to consideration of the difference between preserving for future generations and providing a “wild” experience. 

At bottom, he argues that twenty-first century problems require a renegotiation with the American public. Parks solved the 19th century problem of resource development, and they could address internal problems in the 20th century like overuse. But climate change, fragmented habitats, pollution and invasive species demand a thoughtful change in management on how to accommodate change. The biologist would argue for a kind of interventionist  approach, actively transplanting species to newly favorable climates, for instance. Were the author a biologist, this might end the book. 

But Tweed was a ranger and planner; all those observations about human visitors and their desires comes into play. He is no Wilderness purist: Tweed argues that parks and wilderness will only survive as long as people will defend them and demanding purity can decrease the circle of defenders. Thus he worries about those using these lands as an outdoor gym, noting that the special protections for parks and wilderness are not necessary for such activities. But traditional users are declining. And so he argues that the parks also have to build support for any changes-and so he suspects the ideal ecological response is politically unwise. 

His hike in 2006 preceded publication in 2010. Some of his worries have materialized: his notes on the poor health of the mixed conifer forest anticipated the massive die-offs the last few years from insects. Others have not: after a few years of flat attendance, numbers at Yosemite have skyrocketed-and backcountry use has grown rapidly as well. Does this mean nature has reacquired favor? Or is the glut of throughhikers really marking the victory of the outdoor gym rat?  The answer is critical for plotting a path forward; we can hope for an updated edition someday. 

The book is an easy read, flowing nicely despite the frequent diversions. For those of us familiar with these trails, his descriptions, while not memorably poetic, evoke these places clearly (hard for GG to say if non-visitors would be similarly charmed). An experienced backcountry traveller, Tweed doesn’t have the stories of grotesque overpacking, blisters, neophyte behaviors and calamity that fill many other backcountry accounts. Although Tweed does tend toward a solution of sorts to his worries, it is his struggle with history and science that makes the book far more than a policy polemic. Many backpackers will recognize moments and thoughts Tweed shares, though he then integrates them and shows a broader theme at work than most would discern. In a way, this is the complement to Wild-an intellectual reflection on wilderness instead of the emotional journey of the hiker. Highly recommended. 

Crazy Circles

Perhaps one of the most confounding things about American politics are the assertions of things that simply are not true and firestorms of anger over actions that are nearly immaterial.  Most of the time, most of us come up against these so late in the game that we have no idea how such misperceptions could have started, let alone become so powerful. But at the moment, here in Colorado, we can watch a vicious circle close on itself.

As has been widely reported, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity has requested voter data from states. Created, apparently, out of Donald Trump’s insecurity over his Electoral College win and popular vote loss, the commission is charged with ferreting out voter fraud; its initial request appears to be an attempt to identify voters registered in multiple locations. Many such voters exist and include Steve Bannon,  Tiffany Trump, Sean Spicer and Jared Kushner. Multiple registrations are legal, though voting in multiple places is not. At present, one kind of voter fraud that would not be caught would be voting in multiple states for a national election; thus the most likely fraud the commission could uncover would be people who have been registered in multiple states who vote for president more than once.

Set aside for the moment that the request itself is not capable of yielding data that the commission could reasonably use for its goals and instead focus on the chain of responses….

In Colorado, the Republican Secretary of State said he would provide the commission the publicly available information but withhold confidential data. Specifically, the datafile contains full names, addresses, political party, and voting history (meaning having voted, not what the votes were). The data provided is the same file that anybody can get from the state for $50. Indeed, it is far less informative than the numerous commercial databases that are out there for companies to use to try to sell you stuff. Public sharing of this information was defended by a Democratic County Clerk as important for democracy. So, no big deal, right?

Well, it should be no big deal, but not surprisingly, many voters were unaware that the state routinely shares such data. And of course a number decided their privacy was being invaded, or they were at risk for identity theft, or that the release of data was to be used for politically unacceptable purposes. And so a few thousand voters have asked to be removed from the list of registered voters. As these are probably Democratic leaning voters, you might think that the GOP would simply celebrate a possibly inadvertently successful partisan voter suppression action and go on its way.

But one good overreaction deserves another, and so some conservatives have concluded that these people are actually illegal voters.  Never mind that the Secretary of State (currently a Republican) in Colorado has actively investigated possible voter fraud and found a total of 18 cases since 2000.

So now there are Democrats who would say that the president’s commission is violating their privacy (when it isn’t) and Republicans who say that widespread voter fraud is now proven (which it is not).  And what is left of the rational part of the country is left wondering how we came to this point….

What’d we do wrong?

One of the typical surveys run by Pew Research Center is one asking about the impact of different institutions on America. Not surprisingly, there are differences between Republicans and Democrats in views on things like the media, churches and labor unions. But the latest iteration of this survey had a bit of a surprise: the partisan divide suddenly yawned open and swallowed higher education. Republicans have suddenly turned against higher education in the past two years, making the partisan divide on education (at 36%) greater than any other institution, including the much-maligned media.


In other words, seven years ago higher ed was thought to have a positive impact by 58% of Republicans and 65% of Democrats, and while that slowly diverged in the following 5 years, the big change was over the 2016 election cycle.

The news stories out of this suggest that this is a backlash against higher ed because of high tuition and debt or views that they are liberal strongholds. But really? All of that has been going on a long time.

There are a couple of possibilities here.  One is that the members of the 2015 GOP who liked colleges were so turned off by the Trump campaign that they aren’t identifying that way any more, while the GOP attracted less well educated members of the Democratic party. After all, one of the great divides in the presidential vote in 2016 was on education. But then you might expect a sharp rise in the favorability of college among Democrats, and that number barely moved.

Another notion in the media is that colleges got dinged for making headlines about intolerance directed at right-wing speakers. But most of that postdated the election and the sudden decline was far earlier. Although accusations that college students were “snowflakes” have certainly increased, college free speech has long been viewed as questionable in conservative eyes.

No, it seems it was something a lot more specific, and GG would like to suggest it was, ironically, the arguments within the Democratic party about making college free.

Before you argue that such a program might be beneficial for a lot of Trump supporters, keep in mind that many of them oppose other government programs that might help them.  Their objection, as often as not, is that you shouldn’t be a “taker.” Getting a free ride through college probably made college less of something you do for self-improvement and more of an entitlement.

Whatever the cause, this is not good for public institutions.  If bashing colleges is in vogue, tuitions will rise where GOP candidates are successful–and ironically, they will rise most at schools that right now are most affordable. Is it really in the national best interest to make college even more of an elitist institution?

Dear Elsevier Editors…

…this is what you will get from the Grumpy Geophysicist if asking for a review for your journals:

Sorry, I am part of the anti-Elsevier resistance. Elsevier’s practices in both their extortive pricing and their inflexible and aggressive assertion of their ownership of anything carrying their copyright (as all <journal name here> articles do) prevents me from participating in the extreme monetization of scientific work as practiced by Elsevier.

While GG does not object to scientific societies holding copyright (as they are generally protecting the content from exploitation rather than for monetary gain, and their policies are subject to the wishes of their membership), he does object to copyright ownership being in the hands of a for-profit (and very profitable) company. We discussed a lot of this recently here.

GG feels bad in saying stuff like this, because the person asking is somebody essentially volunteering their time to help publish the journal. Making their job harder isn’t really pleasant. But, well, maybe they hadn’t appreciated how editing an Elsevier journal might be different than a society-run one. And maybe this might help them question their participation.

Or, it just angers a colleague with GG.  *Sigh*.


The Denver Post profiles a group of (apparently earnest) Flat Earthers. They say they are persecuted for their beliefs.  Note to group: “ridicule” is not “persecution” [though to be fair, no member of the group is quoted using the word “persecution”].  It doesn’t sound like thugs are showing up to break up their meetings, for instance. In an age when a group of students can launch a balloon with a cell phone high enough to record the curvature of the earth, and thousands of years after the Greeks got a decent estimate of the size of the globe, it is embarrassing (on multiple levels) to hear somebody trained in software engineering say “I can’t prove the globe anymore.”

If a few folks can believe this stuff, is it any wonder that more complex ideas face stiff opposition?