Archive | September 2017

Robinson’s Carosel

To many, science fiction is light sabers and hyperdrives and space battles and other mind-numbing eye-candy.  Yeah, it is fun to watch, but it misses the heart of good sci-fi, the consideration of just what we are and where we are going. In that world of (mostly) written science fiction, authors tend to land in a particular part of the landscape.  This is in part because of the effort taken to build their future worlds, and in part just how the author feels about things.  Pick up a Ben Bova book and you may find a heavy-handed government dominated by religious zealots in his future, but the focus is on cleverer protagonists who can outmaneuver such folk to reach an optimistic conclusion. There are fewer authors who really twist around their futures to see dramatically different sides. One of interest to us in earth science is Kim Stanley Robinson.

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Oklahoma Quakes, the Infrastructure Side

Last November, a M5.0 quake caused some damage in Cushing, Oklahoma.  A number of folks at the time were relieved that there wasn’t any noticeable damage to the nation’s largest oil storage facility.  This was only a few months after the Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered a cutback in disposal of wastewater in injection wells. Since then, seismicity has mostly quieted down, but it seems that recognition of the scale of the hazard has been seeping into the awareness of a broader part of the media, leading to a lengthy piece in Politico Magazine on the potential disaster lurking in Cushing from facilities not really designed to survive an earthquake. While most of the stories of earthquake hazards in Oklahoma have been more focused on falling chimneys and old brick buildings, this piece exposes a pretty critical flaw in Oklahoma’s infrastructure.

So we will hope that there isn’t another unrecognized fault slowly being lubed up under Cushing.  But remember, the largest events from the infamous Rocky Mountain Arsenal injection adventure in the 1960s came more than a year after injection was totally stopped.  Oklahoma hasn’t stopped injecting fluids, and the volume of water injected so far dwarfs anything that happened in Denver in the 1960s…

Gagging Science

A couple of recent pieces, one an editorial in the New York Times and another at Vox, argue there is a “war on science” (to use the Times’s hackneyed phrase). First, let’s drop the “war” stuff.  Ever since Fox News went on the “War on Christmas” path, that terminology is meaningless short of armed soldiers killing scientists.

But what we are seeing is incredible. From the disbanding of scientific review panels to the placement of political appointees in the grants cycle to the gagging of scientists employed by the government to the cessation of collections of scientific data to the elevation of a contrarian rear-guard to equal or greater levels of influence with overwhelming scientific consensus in making regulatory decisions, it is abundantly clear that the Trump administration, rather than simply ignoring science, intends to silence science. This is not bulldozing partisan opposition; this is overlooking reality. Given their outlook, we might expect DDT to return to store shelves next to leaded paint.

This is ignorant bullshit. But before all the conservatives get hot under the collar and the liberals give each other high-fives, keep in mind that this game is not being played solely by the right.

Here in Boulder there is a vast expanse of cropland under the control of the county.  The purpose was to retain open space and maintain a rural barrier between Boulder and neighboring towns. Because the land is owned by the county, it can make rules about what happens when it leases the land to farmers. And one of those rules they’ve decided to implement–over the objections of the farmers working those lands–is to remove GMOs from county farmlands. As a five-part series of op-eds in the Daily Camera points out, this decision flies in the face of established science. One can spend hours reading the various letters to the editor, the position papers submitted to the Board of Supervisors, the various blog posts, etc. And it is almost as enlightening as the corners of the internet dedicated to showing that climate change isn’t real; GG earlier termed many of these kinds of arguments policy proxies: you use them as cudgels against actions you dislike (for instance, some GMO opponents seem to hate Monsanto as a corporate monstrosity; some GMO supporters point out that Whole Foods is a far bigger concern directly invested in the “organic = good” mindset; neither argument bears on the safety or efficacy of GMOs in agriculture). About the closest non-crop scientists can get to the science without going nuts might be the National Academy’s report from 2016.  Which really doesn’t support wholesale dismissal of GMOs.

Now the county can do whatever it wants in this regard; there is no law saying that land management has to be scientifically defensible. It is less clear that such an argument can defend the EPA’s removal of scientific review panels, but the mindset that science is a tool to be employed as a partisan weapon seems to be growing more common.  Instead of using scientific inquiry to resolve disputes that are grounded in reality, science is being selectively harvested to support one’s preexisting views.

Science is ideally a tool we use to avoid fooling ourselves.  We have to be open to discovering we are wrong, which is one of the hardest things for many of us to admit. But those who would overturn scientific consensus have to recognize that you don’t overturn such consensus on the basis of a small amount of information. For instance, evolution is observationally confirmed by thousands up thousands of studies of faunal successions in rock strata. Finding a T-Rex tooth in a 10,000 year old human campfire isn’t going to overturn evolution. Anthropogenic climate change at this point is supported by so many observations in so many ways that the possibility that it is an artifact of some other misunderstanding is vanishingly small.  GMO safety is well supported (but not to the degree climate change is; note this is not considering the economics of GMOs). There are many things we can act on now with a pretty solid assurance we won’t be mistaken; on other aspects, we should fund the science.

When making policy these days, it is incumbent on government to at least hear the scientific consensus and know where the edge of that consensus lies. For instance, global warming is caused by burning fossil fuels. Ice sheets will retreat, oceans are much warmer and more acidic, storms can be far wetter, droughts can be much drier, heat waves will be hotter are all so directly supported by simple physics, observation, and numerical simulation that all these can be acted upon without further inquiry. More difficult and unclear are things like the net precipitation budget over years-long time frames in regions of the U.S., the intensity of winter storms, or changes in the frequency of tornados; many such topics deserve continued inquiry.

But what we cannot do is simply pooh-pooh the science we don’t like. Or pretend it doesn’t exist.

Three Current Views on Warming

View number one: The combatant.  This is An Inconvenient Sequel. Increasingly angry man argues and cajoles and negotiates to reduce the magnitude of global warming.

View number two: The angry survivor. This is a narrator in Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140. The oceans have risen in two massive bursts caused by rapid ungrounding of major Antarctic glaciers, leaving New York a bizarre mesh of Venice and, well, New York.  There is anger in how the elites survive as capital flies from the drowned coasts.  Thomas Piketty and Al Gore meet together in a century to decry this future world.

View number three: The ostrich. “Now is not the time to discuss climate change” says our current EPA administrator. There is disaster on the move; let’s not discuss the cause or any means we have of reducing future disasters.  Then there is disaster to survive, disaster to recover from, all preventing discussion of disasters to avoid. Somehow one doubts that the EPA is entirely focused on hurricane preparation; there is room for discussion.  There is need for discussion.  There is no need for dismissal and obfuscation, particularly from the head of the agency most directly charged with considering this problem.

And yet, look at what we have.

UPDATE 9/11.  That view number three has caught the attention of a lot of commentators, for instance here at the New York Times, with the apropos statement “For scientists, drawing links between warming global temperatures and the ferocity of hurricanes is about as controversial as talking about geology after an earthquake.” And political cartoonists:

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How to Serve Faculty

No, this isn’t a Twilight Zone reference to cannibalism in the classroom.  GG would like to discuss the least obvious facet of faculty life, the service component. As such, this is probably of little interest to non-faculty, but might be useful to those seeking the safe haven of academia for their career…

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Take me back to Ahwahnee…

A curious op-ed in the New York Times on Yosemite.  Curious because it points in one direction for a long time before suddenly screeching to a stop and pointing in another. Leveraging off of the controversy over Confederate monuments and the renaming of some park facilities necessary during a court battle, Daniel Duane recounts the sad history of Native Americans in California in general and in the valley in particular. Readers can anticipate the point: we should abandon the Euro-Americanisms in the park and revert to names the Ahwahneechee used. And indeed he reaches this point only to ask the descendants and relatives of these people what should be done.  Their recommendation: get federal recognition for the tribe and cut back on visitation. “Renaming, [Bill Leonard, a descendent of Tenaya] said, ‘is not going to make us feel any better or more important — the reality is, most of us could care less what they call things.'” You get the feeling Duane was asked by some reader or editor to ask these people about their views (much as interviews with descendants of slaves and Confederate generals have appeared) and was given an answer kind of at odds with the thrust of the piece, which he dutifully tacked on.

Anyways, the summary of injustices is fair (Duane fortunately relies on a couple of pretty appropriate references) and something more Americans should be aware of. But he kind of lets the Park Service off the hook, hiding their role behind more generic labels of “park officials” and the “federal government.” Pre-1906 management of the valley by the state allowed the Ahwahneechee to stay in the valley, and while demands for inappropriate “Indian” shows and their menial position in Yosemite Park contrasts with what should have been their place as owners and proprietors of the valley, they were at least considered to be legitimate residents of the place. Federal management systematically marginalized and removed Native Americans; that management was, after 1916, the Park Service. There is something disturbing to most Americans to realize that one of the most highly thought-of groups of public servants did in fact behave in such a manner. And it is distressing to many who call the national parks “America’s Greatest Idea” to recognize that it was prefaced on the exclusion of the peoples who had been there first.

Duane also takes a hesitant slap at John Muir, and here GG asks a bit of forgiveness for delving a bit deeper.   Read More…

Codgertations

There is a sort of odd melancholy portion of the literature that exists in science, a sort of paper or papers that are almost the valedictories of scientists as they stand back from conducting science. A lot of them really don’t belong in the literature per se, as some are a jumble of thoughts, hunches, recriminations and other odds and ends.  Let’s call the whole collection codgertations. Frankly, they need their own home in the literature; to see why, let’s consider what some have looked like (no, GG is not going to name names; he is grumpy, not cruel).

At the more useful end of the spectrum are thoughts on seminal problems in the field that reflect experience of years but an inability to push through to completion, perhaps because of conflicts, physical disability, time, funding, etc. These are the seeds of proposals future, proposals these authors will never write, and so these can be gifts of insight to younger researchers who may have overlooked these problems.

Somewhere in the middle are kind of incomplete papers, stuff that’s been hanging out in a drawer (or a floppy) for many years that finally is being shoved out into the world to justify the effort made in keeping it all this time. Some of these are papers that were superseded years ago by other work; some are on things fairly tangential to ongoing research.  Others just don’t quite get anywhere. None are really damaging anything; they maybe are just taking up space.

The worst flavor of codgertation is the self-celebrating review of one’s greatest hits, the very worst being stewed in a vat of recrimination for past injustices, allowing for debasing the contributions of others. These tend to assert rather than derive or infer and come across as lectures from angry old people who can’t be bothered to properly cite the relevant work or logically support an argument.  “I’ve been in this field forever,” they seem to say, “and this is how things really are!” Right Grandpa, can you go back to watching Wheel of Fortune, please? Or yelling at those kids on the lawn?

What cements all of these is that they aren’t really typical scientific papers–and it is worth noting that only a fraction of practicing scientists ever write anything like any of these. But those that do are often counting on the deference of junior colleagues to allow them their say, and truth be told, there is indeed value in some of these papers. And we might actually be losing insights from those less egotistical senior scientists who choose not to write such unusual documents because they perceive that they don’t really belong. But if you review one of these papers, you can go nuts in trying to come to grips with egregious self-citation and a faint grip on the current literature, loosely connected topics, poorly supported logic, and other flaws that would sink a typical paper. Really reaming a paper written by such a senior scientist can seem disrespectful, yet letting it go as “science” feels dirty. So GG is suggesting that perhaps some journals should allow a new form of communication which (you presumably have guessed) would be termed “codgertations.” [OK, as the comment below notes, that is rude and self-defeating; the commenter’s suggestion of Reflections or GG’s Valedictories would be more appropriate.] The beauty of this is that we could capture the good without having to hammer the bad.  We’d encourage those on their way out the door to share some wisdom even as we know we’ll have to accept some scolding. And we wouldn’t be caught between honoring our elders and defending our literature.