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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:



Geologists have for a long, long time been telling people not to build things in certain places.  Barrier islands? They move and evolve, which means property comes and goes. Not good.  Floodplains? They, um, get flooded.  Landslides? Only if you want a mobile home with a mobile yard. Sometimes we get heard, but usually we don’t. And the more subtle stuff, like recognizing how paving large areas can make floods worse? Lots of luck there. Doesn’t matter if the communities are rich or poor, building in bad places seems a national habit.

Maybe that is changing.

Even as the national media seems to just be noting that flood insurance is encouraging building in vulnerable spots, Politico has a big story on Louisiana’s program to consider how some communities will be forced to move and how to prepare to absorb that exodus as it occurs. For the Grumpy Geophysicist, this is a moment of actual hope, a ray of sunshine in the currently clouded over world of using science to guide public policy. [If you want more darkness, consider that politicians are rewarded for disaster relief and not disaster preparedness.]

The basic point is that people don’t like getting hammered by really bad weather (you know, like floods).  And so they leave–and this isn’t typically a slow migration but instead a real wave of refugees from hurricanes or floods or other such unpleasantries. They don’t often go really far away, so neighboring communities suddenly are flooded with people. There are two main forks to preparing for this: one is to try and get the vulnerable communities to start to think about how they will evolve in the face of the next storm, and the other is for those neighboring communities to prepare for the eventual migration of their neighbors. The state is actively trying to do this kind of work.

While there are uncertainties in our future, there are a few things that will happen.  There will be sea level rise.  There will be bigger rainfall events. These are both so clearly tied to the basic physics of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere that there really is no avoiding them; the best we can do now on that side of the ledger is to try and keep the magnitudes lower than they might otherwise be (and some areas also see land subsidence, which is unrelated to global warming but also causes problems). So we need to prepare, which means surrendering land we cannot defend and defending land we dare not surrender.

That Louisiana is starting to consider this landscape triage may just mean we’ve moved off the “we will rebuild it” mantra of the past century. As the article makes clear, this won’t be easy–but it should be much better than letting the chaos of the next disaster drive change.

Courting Disaster

For those of us in earth science, this past week has highlighted an awful lot of potential “told you so” moments. Like how warming climate and a warming ocean will lead to higher precipitation events. Like how you really do need to plan for floods. And we just missed hearing more about the barrier island/marsh protection talking point. And almost at the same time we’ve been greeted with ever more evidence that the Trump administration has little or no use for scientific input–not even choosing to ignore it, they seem more eager to simply not have any scientific input at all. Just as it is ever clearer that we are facing real decisions in trying to prepare for a warmer world, we seem the have a government yelling “la la LA LA” with its fingers in its ears.

But that isn’t the point here today.

One aspect of the tragedy in Houston is that the absence of any sensible planning has led to more flooding (the worst example might well be letting houses be built within the basin and below the spillway elevation of flood control dams); this is exacerbated by the combination of government subsidized flood insurance and the out-of-date or inadequate flood zone maps. Of course some now point to the zoning-free and laissez-faire approach to building in Texas as the bargain they made with the devil, implying that other places where strict zoning has been enforced will be safer.

Dream on.

If GG has noticed one thing about strict zoning (and Boulder has a pretty heavy hand on building), it is that it is rarely used to prevent building in stupid places–it is mainly used to keep people from building on land other people enjoy as it is. Some years ago when Colorado Springs was approached by a developer who wanted to build houses on an active landslide, the city council had to look away from the evidence they were given in order to approve this ongoing disaster. You can find similar stories elsewhere. Yes, fear of flooding is brought up when a new development is proposed…but mainly as part of the larger arsenal serving Fort NIMBY (sometimes there is a legitimate fear, but sometimes it is greatly exaggerated). California has the Alquist-Priolo act to prevent construction near active faults, but it only moves buildings 50 feet from an active fault.  Direct destruction of a building by a fault being directly under it is one of the least likely modes of destruction (even some dams do OK on faults: the Upper Crystal Springs dam survived having several feet of offset in the 1906 earthquake). Earthquakes do most damage by shaking weak soils: recall the Marina District in San Francisco, far from surface faulting, where shaking from the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged dozens of structures. What strict zoning clearly does is raise housing prices.

The main exceptions to non-use of zoning as a disaster preventative is in the wake of disasters. Even then, the most common refrain after a disaster is “we’re going to rebuild and bring it back better than before.”  After a tornado, this makes sense.  After a flood, whether storm surge or heavy rain? Not so much. The harder statement? “We learned a lesson and we aren’t going to make that mistake again.” It is very hard to say, but if we are going to avoid paying to rebuild over and over again in increasingly vulnerable places, risking the lives of inhabitants in the meantime, it’s time to start saying it and then walking the walk.


Utility of Fantasy

Secretary of State Tillerson was quoted this weekend as saying “Racism is evil — it is antithetical to America’s values, it is antithetical to the American idea.” From this, a naive listener might think that racism has been opposed throughout American history, which is of course fantasy. Racism has lived within America for a long time and has been embraced at times (as in the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry in WWII, not to mention slavery and Jim Crow laws) as formal government policy. We like to think we are better than that, and so we think that our good ancestors of course embraced our modern vision of “the American idea.” This all got GG mulling about a far more pedestrian fantasy.

You see, we Americans (well, mainly non-Native Americans) have this fantasy of the empty wilderness continent. The idea that there was Nature, untouched and primeval, that Euro-Americans encountered on invading the New World. Now this is utter and complete balderdash on several levels.  First is the obvious presence of Native Americans in the many millions on the continent; although some rationalize away their impact as somehow treading so lightly on the land that they made no changes, this is absurd.  These peoples were apex predators, and many groups farmed or managed “wild” lands through burning, harvesting, planting and so on such that their absence from many landscapes led to vast changes in ecosystems. There was no “wilderness” for them.

Read More…

Patently Geoscience

When representatives of scientific organization and funding bodies go before Congress, they will often remind representative and senators that basic science is a crucial underpinning of practical progress.  Those of us who pursue such basic science often feel warm and fuzzy inside at such defenses, but how delusional is this?

In Science, Ahmadpoor and Jones attack this question by following citation trees, both within the patent world and the scientific world to see what fraction of the literature is connected to patents. And, kind of amazingly, the connections are stronger than many of us might have guessed; they come up with 80% of cited papers are connected down the line with patents, and 61% of patents are sourced in part on scientific literature.

Not surprisingly, this varies a lot by discipline. Virtually every nano-technology paper has spawned a patent, while only 38% of mathematics papers are linked to a patent. So GG dug into the supplementary material to see where geoscience came out in all this.

Geochemistry and geophysics had 66% of papers being connected to a patent with an average chain of about 3.4 citations to the patent (a value of 3 meaning the average paper was cited by another paper was cited by a paper that was cited by a patent). Interdisciplinary geoscience was about 63% and an average chain of 3.6 papers, geology 61% and 3.9.  Oddly mining and mineral processing papers (about as applied as earth science categories get) only figured in patents 61% of the time and still needed about 3.4 citations to get to a patent (evidently the more useful papers got classified as metallurgy and mining, a category with 77% of the papers tying in to patents).  Mineralogy did surprisingly well,  67% of papers figuring in eventual patents after an average of 3.5 citations.

Oddly, petroleum engineering was rather poor with only 52% of papers being cited in patents (one wonders if some papers had to come out after patenting had started).

Given that a lot of the geoscience literature is probably more closely tied to understanding individual resources than new techniques that might be applicable to eventual patents, these numbers are pretty reassuring to those of us who don’t follow how our work might go into practical application.  But a caveat: by using full citation indices, the authors of this study make no attempt to determine which of the cited papers really were critical and which were window dressing. So, for instance, a paper that developed a new geophysical tool that was tested in the western U.S. might cite a review paper on the geology of the region in the introduction; that paper gets credit for contributing to the new tool even though any insights in that paper might be utterly incidental. Still, these numbers do make us on the basic research side of things feel like we aren’t selling snake oil in suggesting that eventually our research will prove of practical use….

Fire Away!

Time again for “Not Quite In Time–the NY Times again steps on a bar of soap when looking westward”.  Today’s installment concerns an article on fire in the forests of the west and in particular California.  This would be a fine article…were it written about 1975 or so. Reading it today feels like, well, hearing from a cousin that there is now this great amusement park in Orlando called Disneyworld….

OK, so what is the beef? First, this is a retread of an argument that has gone on for at least 40 years over fire suppression in western forests. Prior to the great Yellowstone fires of 1988, the Park Service in particular had decided that fire suppression was bad and the Forest Service was leaning in that direction.  But when blazes on the margin of Yellowstone blew up and some blamed the Park’s “let it burn” policy, that policy was quickly dumped. Nothing had changed on the science side; this was entirely a change driven by public perception.  Heaven only knows how many stories in High Country News covered the various efforts to deal with the twin goals of forest health and protection of communities that discussed this issue with more depth and insight.

But here’s the thing.  In that 40 or 50 years since the science was pretty clear that fire suppression was a problem has come a second recognition, one this Times article utterly missed:

Scientists are still trying to figure out how regularly forests burned in what is now the United States in the centuries before European settlement, but reams of evidence suggest the acreage that burned was more than is allowed to burn today — possibly 20 million or 30 million acres in a typical year. Today, closer to four million or five million acres burn every year.

Scientists say that returning forests to a more natural condition would require allowing 10 million or 15 million acres to burn every year, at least.

“More natural condition”? The thing we know really well at this point is that fire before European settlement was in fact frequently managed by Native Americans, who used it as a tool to control their landscape. That the reporter goes to the Sierra Nevada, where this practice is very well documented, and utterly overlooks this aspect of the problem is troubling.  Because the fires natives set were not the massive conflagrations that we are seeing now; they were more like the management fires set within, say, Sequoia or Yosemite national parks to try and reduce the fuel load without a catastrophic fire. So when the reporter in essence is claiming that big, huge fires were both natural and the pre-Columbian norm, he is creating a fantasy.

This makes it seem like the biologists arguing for these big fires are themselves ignorant of this past behavior (it seems this is unlikely to be a fair evaluation of their knowledge, though you do wonder a bit). Hopefully this is an incorrect impression, but if it is not, then there needs to be some education of the biological community about this.

Here’s the deal: “Pre-Columbian” or “before European settlement” is NOT the same as “natural”. Arguably we know little or nothing about fire in a human-free landscape as no ecosystem in the U.S. has been free of humans since the end of the last Ice Age. There was some work in the lodgepole forest of Yellowstone suggesting that big fires have been the norm there for many centuries, and there is a decent argument to be made that this does not reflect human activity.  But in the Sierra, there is evidence of Indian-created fires from the foothills to treeline.

You’d like to think we could at least advance arguments about land management to somewhere near the current science.  This article makes it seem that widespread recognition of a problem that was really roughly 40 years ago has only just occurred. Can we please move the setting on the time machine to 2017?