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Is Science Science?

P.S. 5/8/17: From a New York Times article on this (five members of the scientific review board have now been let go): “A spokesman for the E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, said he would consider replacing the academic scientists with representatives from industries whose pollution the agency is supposed to regulate, as part of the wide net it plans to cast.” While that might make sense for a policy-determining arm of the agency (a very debatable assertion), this is a scientific review board.  The assertion that industry scientists are necessary to provide balance indicates ignorance on the part of the new administrator about how science should work.

When campaigning for the Presidency, Donald Trump responded to the question from the Science Debate 2016 site about scientific integrity, he (or his campaign) responded:

Science is science and facts are facts.  My administration will ensure that there will be total transparency and accountability without political bias.  The American people deserve this and I will make sure this is the culture of my administration.

When asked about regulation, he (or his campaign) said “Science will inform our decisions on what regulations to keep, rescind or add.”

Recent actions from the administration suggests this might not be the way science is used in determining policy. Right now the action is in the Environmental Protection Agency, where first, the budgets for the science advisory panels were nearly eliminated. Then, just before the March for Climate, the EPA’s webpages on climate science were taken down with a notice that the pages were down to be updated to for the new administration’s policy. Most of these webpages are in fact science pages, so their removal seems to reflect a political bias more than a policy update. Then, in the past couple of days, the science advisory boards that review the internal science within the EPA have seen many members fired despite an earlier communication that they were to continue.

When considered along with the HONEST act, this seems to go well beyond a policy change and suggests a desire to silence any external scientific input at the same time as internal scientific experts are replaced with more industry-compliant views. Maybe yo like that, maybe you don’t.  Feel free to let your senator or representative know how you feel.

Asymmetric certainty [updates]

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.


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”.

Public Science, Private Profit

As some of the new administration’s scientific plans start to emerge, one can see a pattern.  Proposed changes to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) budget include a 26% ($126M) cut to the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric research, elimination of the SeaGrant program, and a 22% cut in the satellite data division, all of which smacks of anger that scientists supported under some of these programs failed to confirm some climate denialists’ claims of global cooling. In addition there appears to be a general sense that NOAA needs to operate more like a business. Even the National Weather Service is to be cut under this plan. (Payback for the rain on Inauguration Day?)

In essence, this is an evaluation that climate research must be scaled back. It is a classic head in the sand move, one profoundly unwise in many areas.  First, an awful lot of that research has nothing to do with anthropogenic climate change, so even if you think that research is inappropriate, you are killing a lot of innocent bystanders as a result.  It includes work on understanding some of the various atmospheric oscillations and how they can affect extreme weather events. It includes work on means of improving long-term weather forecasts and monthly climatic forecasts. It includes observations of how temperatures in the oceans and atmosphere are changing–observations, mind you, not interpretations of why such changes are happening, but necessary observations for all the other forecasting activities going on. Previous NOAA heads from the last two administrations have called these cuts unwise. For a country that regularly suffers billion dollar losses in multiple weather events each year, cutting back on research and observation is profoundly misguided.

While part of this is motivated by a change in priorities by the new administration toward military growth, and part may well reflect unhappiness with scientific observations and inferences by some members of the administration, part of this too reflects a long time Republican feeling that government can be replaced by business. For instance, the GOP wanted to kill off the distribution of topographic maps by the USGS during the Reagan Administration. In fact, they wanted the Survey’s data to be freely available to corporations that would then print off their own maps, free of any competition from the USGS maps. One claim, for instance seen in a 1988 National Review article, was that private companies could make better, cheaper maps than the USGS. It is worth tearing this apart just to illustrate why there are some things the government does well, which actually benefits private interests as well as advancing public ones.

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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.

Conflicting Futures

Just where are we headed as a civilization? Energy is the cornerstone of our world today, so just where we get energy will dictate an awful lot of how we live, who is rich, who is poor, where and why we go to war, etc.  Two competing views are out there and worth some contemplation.

The first (thanks, Philip Johnson, for pointing this out) is based on Exxon/Mobil’s outlook for the year 2040. In it, there is little movement from the modern energy mix:


There are a couple of things to note.  First, Exxon/Mobil is, at present, the target of several investigations into deceptive practices resembling those used by the tobacco industry to deny the connection between smoking and cancer. So they are not looking like an oracle of future change pure as the driven snow.  Second, and arguably more pertinent here, industries are not apt to look to the future and see their demise, especially a company like Exxon/Mobil, that has only downweighted the value of some of their known resources under stockholder pressure. So seeing a future powered by oil and gas like the company presently produces is, in a sense, a bit of self-confirmation (and, potentially, could reflect confirmation bias).

But before we walk away thinking this is unrealistic or hopelessly biased, keep in mind something Exxon/Mobil is likely really good at: knowing how much oil and gas might be out there.  That they think this is how the energy mix will look–and that is with the total amount of energy increasing quite a bit–should tell you that this is a possible future. Hoping for Peak Oil to save the world isn’t going to happen. Arguably, this is the future if nothing particularly transformative happens.

That something transformative will happen is the basis for the other view of the future, one advocated by Mark Jacobson at Stanford.

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Can Geology Overcome Climate Denialism?

A piece in ArsTechnica reports on some research suggesting that conservatives are more likely to respond positively to news about climate change if they are seeing that the world of the past is not the world of the present rather than being shown ideas about what the future will bring. The piece ends with the author, Cathleen O’Grady, pondering the reason for this result:

There’s also the question of why conservatives found the material more persuasive: did it tap into their desire to preserve the past, as Baldwin and Lammers suggest? Or could it be because the past-focused materials showed evidence about what has already happened, which is more persuasive than predictions about what may happen?

In a sense, the crux of the matter is twofold: showing that something is happening, and showing what the cause of that something is. This paper is addressing the first point, and heavens only knows we have lots and lots of examples now to point at, from the decline in the size of the North Polar ice cap to the decline in the volume of the Greenland ice sheet to the change in the ratio of record high to record low temperatures to the changes in hardiness zones for gardeners to changing dates when frozen lakes and rivers thaw out to the increasing incidence of non-storm related flooding of low-lying areas. In point of fact, many conservative communities have notices some of these impacts and are working to ameliorate the problem. But this level of recognition might only result in attempts to deal with a particular symptom and not the underlying disease.

So that second level, seeing the connection between the things you can see changing and the underlying cause, is also important.  The climate community has leaned heavily on their climate models to make the case, but these are not compelling for many in the public, in part because of confusion between the use of retrospective models and predictive models and in part because this then seems like predicting an uncertain future. GG has harped on this before; an alternative is to look at what has happened in the geologic past.  And here we can find that times when the earth was warmer were times when carbon dioxide (and/or methane) was present at higher levels. We even have an example of a moment when atmospheric carbon levels rose at a geologically rapid rate: the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM). We find the ocean becoming more acidic in cores of seep sea sediments, shifts in the forest trees on land, and an extinction event that defines the end of the Paleocene. We also learn that many of the environmental impacts grow more severe the shorter the time period when the carbon is added to the atmosphere: the PETM was triggered by a carbon release over a few to a couple thousand years, with many (probably most) scientists who have worked on this inclined toward the few thousand year end. Higher temperatures were achieved more gradually in the early Eocene climatic optimum, but that event was not associated with such a pronounced extinction record.

Would bringing these geologically relevant examples to the fore help in convincing folks that the core problem here is our increase in CO2 levels?  It sure deserves a chance…