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Does Education Make you Stupider? Pt. 2

Well, the first post didn’t quite have that name but that was kind of the message.  In a nutshell, that post discussed research showing that a better basic understanding of science made for more intense partisanship. Now a short article in The Atlantic describes a somewhat similar exercise generated by More in Common, but this time directly addressing partisanship itself. Basically, this summarizes a study asking people questions about the beliefs of their political opposites.  And once again, more education seems to make people misjudge reality.

Honestly, this is discouraging. But wait–it gets more bizarre.

Basically Democrats lacking a high school education had a pretty firm fix on the opinions of members of the Republican party, correctly estimating what fraction of Republicans agreed or disagreed with certain policy statements. But as you go up the education ladder, Democrats get worse and worse.  Republicans, on the other hand, are pretty much the same at all levels with no discernible correlation with education.  The study claims this is because graduate-educated Democrats have few or no Republican friends.

Now there are a number of other interesting correlations that are probably less surprising. The more you consume political news, the more you vilify your political opponents. And the more you share political news on social media, the more you vilify your opponents.  Basically, the farther in the echo chamber you go, the more you think your political opponents are utterly hopeless.

So there you go. Media consumption and education make you more ignorant. So if you ever wanted an excuse to become oblivious to the news, here’s your excuse.

War on Science: Muzzle Edition

What do you call people who disbelieve a consensus in the scientific literature on the basis of ignoring observational evidence?

In this administration, you call them the National Security Council, among other things.

While not a surprise, documentation on exactly how the administration tried to muzzle a senior State Department intelligence analyst is in stories in the New York Times and Washington Post. Best line: the National Security Council said that “a consensus of peer reviewed literature has nothing to do with the truth.” So truth is what the NSC says it is? A lot of the objections were to verifiable, measurable facts like how many of the hottest 5 years on record occurred in the past 5 years (answer: all of them). Frankly, if given the choice of choosing between a very rich literature and a political apparatchik, give GG the literature every time.

If war on science was an impeachable offense, this administration would be on the street in a split second.

War on Science, USGS edition

Well, the sad litany of undercutting the scientific community continues, most recently at the U.S. Geological Survey, where (according to the New York Times) the director has commanded that no climate models shall peek past 2040. Now a lot of climate modeling is done under the supervision of NOAA, which presently is not similarly limiting modeling, but the USGS incorporated the short-lived Biological Survey many years back and so those scientists work within the survey. Clearly changes in the range of many species is of interest in understanding the potential impacts of global warming. Most glaciological work is done by the survey, as is a considerable amount of work on flooding hazards and coastal erosion. So cutting off the survey from considering a slightly more distant future–a future many alive today will live to see–hardly seems the wisest approach to governing.

Review Relief

GG has been telling (begging?) folks for some time that all he really wanted was for somebody, somewhere, to review his book The Mountains that Remade America (latest count remains 0).  The old saw that any publicity is good publicity seemed to make sense, and even when reviewers aren’t terribly fond of a book, they rarely would discourage you from looking at it.

But now GG sees some advantages in anonymity courtesy of a review of Jared Diamond’s latest book. Diamond, being now a name brand non-fiction author, is not to be overlooked, which means that a review must appear for better or worse.  And worse it is. It would be hard to find a review more negative than this one. Reviewer Anand Giridharadas hammers Diamond for numerous factual errors, for substituting apocryphal stories for research, for forcing facts to fit his theory, and for being woefully out of touch with barriers facing minorities and women in many cultures. It is, frankly, devastating.

Perhaps this is just water off Diamond’s back; his bank account is probably in a pretty healthy state regardless. You could hope his publisher (Little, Brown and Company) is wondering if fact checking such high profile texts might be a good investment. But GG is now taking some small measure of solace that at least he didn’t get a review that would have made him want to crawl under a rock.

Avoiding Volcanoes (Book Review)

Thirty nine years ago today 57 people died when Mt. St. Helens blew out its side early on a Sunday morning. Just why those lives were lost–and how it could have been far worse–are questions addressed in Steve Olson’s 2016 book,  Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens

It would seem easy to avoid volcanoes.  We know where they are, that they are dangerous.  Yet as we have seen recently in Hawaii, we somehow can’t find it in ourselves to stay away and so, when the inevitable happens, we find lives threatened, ruined or ended and property destroyed. The 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens is often described as unpredictable and thus the loss of lives hardly a surprise, but the reality was different.

Olson’s book takes a curious path, wandering through the origins of the Weyerhaeuser empire and the national forest system before reaching the tales from the eruption itself. Reading these when expecting more immediate stories of death or survival, destruction and salvation can feel like assembling the blank parts of a jigsaw puzzle–you don’t feel like you are seeing the picture you are seeking and wondering why you should bother with the effort.


Mt. St. Helens from closest pubobservation point, Sept. 1982, showing the blowdown forest and steam coming off the growing dome in the crater. (c) Craig Jones

But just as the big blank areas on a jigsaw are critical to the final image, these background stories are essential to the author’s main focus on those killed or nearly killed by the eruption and how they found themselves at risk. Read More…

The Geology Candidate?

Perhaps it was inevitable that among the teeming masses seeking the Democratic Presidential nomination that there would be a geologist.  It’s just that most folks don’t recognize that because former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper is more often portrayed as an ex-brewmaster.  And yet there is an interesting snippet in what may turn out to be the most thorough profile of the candidate (in Politico Magazine) that suggests that that old geology stuff might still be sticking around with him:

Whereas most of his rivals are lawyers by trade, he is a scientist, the first geologist ever elected governor in the U.S. (And, he adds for good measure, the first brewmaster elected governor since Samuel Adams.) His point is that while lawyer-politicians are trained to argue, scientists are taught to deliberate.

“I’m sure you’ve seen many of the same stories I did. ‘What chance does he have?’ And, ‘He doesn’t take a strong enough position on this or that,’” Hickenlooper says, rolling his eyes. “Which is sort of how science works, right? You don’t jump to snap judgments. You try to make sure you get all the facts, and think it through, then make better decisions.”

(Now, one might want to quibble with that “first geologist elected governor” line–Bruce Babbitt was a two-term governor of Arizona and sported a geology bachelors and a geophysics masters before heading to law school. But then recall our discussion of just who can be called a geologist–Hickenlooper was, unlike Babbitt, a working geologist for several years, so maybe we let this go).

Of course some might recall that there has been a geologist-president: Herbert Hoover. That rather unpromising precedent might be a reason to push that geology background into the deepest parts of campaign biographies.  And a science background didn’t seem a spectacular pitch in the midterms….but most scientists who run in 2016 had never started a brewpub, either. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to watch and see if Hickenlooper can prove to America that having a different approach to analyzing problems is something Americans are interested in.

Whether they agree or not, it certainly distinguishes him from the current administration.

War on Science: Ostrich Edition

A disaster has befallen a major city.  Scientists offer to shift planned research to help understand the extent of the disaster and perhaps help guide remedial efforts with more concrete information. You head a government agency asked to allow this scientific research.  What do you say?

If you work in the current administration, you say “no.”

The particulars, as outlined in a Los Angeles Times story, are that NASA was getting ready to run a calibration flight of a pollution-sensing aircraft as floods hit Houston. The scientists were eager to shift from their original test flight to a flight over Houston, but somehow the EPA as asked if this was OK. They said thanks but no thanks, we have this with a few ground crews. NASA higher ups decided not to cross the EPA and so the flight never happened.

Nobody knows what might have turned up–maybe nothing.  Maybe major pollution sources that were unrecognized on the ground. But why not do this? Frankly, it is hard to see the answer being anything but “what we don’t know we can’t penalize or correct,” and the most likely folks facing penalties or corrective action would be in the oil and gas and chemical industries.  After all, if there were no measurements of, say, a release of volatilized hydrochloric acid, then residents who had developed nasty respiratory symptoms would probably be unable to sue responsible companies.

The Times piece has inspired a Congressional inquiry, but that will mainly be a game of seeing whose ass was least covered. The mindset of “the less we know, the better” is foolish and dangerous. And, down the road, the backlash might be far more damaging, as the oil and gas industry in Colorado has been learning. Faced with community opposition to some development plans, industry has largely followed a policy of opposing any intrusion on their plans. They are now faced with a bill in the Colorado Legislature that would give local governments the ability to limit drilling, would increase forced pooling requirements from a single mineral rights holder to 50% of those holding rights, would require public disclosure of where critical infrastructure is, and would require pressure testing of abandoned lines. While the fate of this bill is uncertain, that it has reached the floor of the state senate is a major step up from the past when similar legislation never got a hearing.

Each time industry tries to cover its failures, that Green New Deal currently being vilified gets a bit closer to being something Americans will come to demand. Opponents might want to defang such desires by behaving as though they care about knowing the risks citizens face both day-to-day and during disasters; asking for less information is not that behavior.