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It’s worse than you think…

…or maybe worse than the NY Times thinks.  They have collected all the various scraps of  examples of how the current administration ignores/villifies/overrules/denigrate science and scientists.  None of this is new if you’ve been following along, but it is depressing litany of persecution that is unlikely to improve.

But wait, they left some stuff out.

One point then NY Times makes is that there are a lot of unfilled science advisory positions; what they don’t investigate is how many qualified scientists would be willing to take one of those positions.  A quick guess suggests the answer is not many. Why bother when it is clear the boss doesn’t care what you say?

Recall that the scientists running for Congress this past Tuesday all lost to Democratic opposition within primaries.  Scientists, it appears, are not desired by the people in the halls of Congress.

And while there is comfort in the words of Democrats (and a very few Republicans) running for office about the role of science, one has to wonder how much is simple political expediency–since climate change has become so fiercely partisan in this country, it is unsurprising to hear Democrats say that science is important.  Will they say the same of research that shows GMOs are not harmful or that challenge the presumed ecological benefits of farm-to-table or organic farming? If not, they might not be the big boost science is looking for.

Science is the art of asking observational questions whose answers can change your view of how the world works.  If you want to find policies that will have impacts in the directions you want to go, it is wise to see if there is science that bears on those policies. Silencing the scientists won’t change the end results of bad policy choices, it just makes the inevitable bad decisions more tragic.

Science in the Backseat

While the political press continues to chatter endlessly about horse races, pardons or the prospect of pardons and the apparently unending series of Scott Pruitt missteps, more substantive stuff dribbles into the background.  Among those things is the role science and scientists play in American governance.

Yesterday saw a pretty serious failure of scientist-candidates to survive primary battles.  As Science notes, only one of the candidates endorsed by 314 Action survived to appear on a November ballot–and that candidate had no primary opposition. Most of the scientist-candidates fell to the bottom of the vote. It would seem that a science background is not something voters desire in their representatives. The experience of getting clobbered does not seem to be encouraging at least some of the losers to return to fight again in the future, though some other losers are continuing to be interested in public policy.

While the losses of scientist-candidates suggests a lack of desire among Democrats for that kind of expertise (nearly all the scientists are running as Democrats), administration action continues to sideline science, suggesting an equal lack of respect from the conservative part of the body politic. The science advisory board for EPA was sidelined from the development of the “transparency” policy proposed by the administration; it will instead weigh in separately, but having been left out of the loop, it seems clear that the board’s review will have little impact. This continues trends of disbanding advisory groups, barring scientists receiving grants from serving on remaining advisory panels, etc.

It is as though the world is putting on their virtual reality headsets and setting them to “personal ideal,” oblivious to real impacts resulting decisions might have. Meantime, science, the actual attempt by humans to develop a conceptual framework about the world around us that accurately describes reality, is being dropped to the wayside.

War on Science: House Edition

Imagine, if you will, that a Congressional committee on transportation decides to have a hearing focusing on improving our transportation infrastructure.  The session opens with the committee’s chair noting that there is considerable controversy in the engineering community on the use of steel beams in building overpasses, and so we should refrain from building overpasses until the community agrees on the need for steel beams. A highway engineer then testifies that no, there is no such controversy; at most, there are some disagreements on some details about anchoring beams and such not, and regardless of the choices made, new overpasses with steel beams are far better than the overpasses we continue to use today. A committee member then pipes up suggesting that overpasses are collapsing because of the weight of birds’ nests in the nooks and crannies on the overpasses. Nothing is done and roads continue to crumble.

You’d wonder just when Congressmen became such experts in engineering and marvel at their ability to keep anything from being done. And yet hardly anybody bats an eyelash these days when this scenario plays out with the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology’s hearing on “Using technology to address climate change” , where committee chair Lamar Smith added to his already considerable collection of misrepresentations of the science by claiming that humanity’s role in climate change is unknown and that there is “legitimate concern” that climate scientists are cooking their studies to get desired results (as opposed to, say, certain politicians misstating the science to get desired outcomes). Perhaps best of all was the suggestion from Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks, who offered that rocks falling into the ocean could be driving rising sea level.

Well, to be fair, Brooks actually asked about all the material being dumped into the oceans from rivers and such not, which at least isn’t unscientific. But these questions are often posed as though nobody had thought of that (the answer is that of the >3 mm/yr rise we see today, perhaps 0.02 mm/yr is from sedimentation). No doubt we’ll soon get pop quizzes from Congressmen about plate tectonics, glacial rebound (which is a player, but actually dropping sea level at about 0.3 mm/yr), the rise in sea level from more and more boats, etc. Yes, the people whose careers are spent worrying about this stuff have indeed thought about this stuff. We’re still waiting for the day when a Congressman’s question reveals a truth about science previously overlooked by scientists.

What was more disingenuous was Smith’s display of plots of fossil fuel use and sea level rise over time and saying that obviously the rates were so different that a connection was unlikely. (Phillip Duffy’s response kind of missed the point). Um, OK, time for a science experiment at home.  Take a pot of water, put it on a gas burner.  Turn on the burner–what is the rate of use of fuel?  Pretty high right away, no?  How about the temperature of the water? Um, still pretty cold, no? If you plotted them up, you’d probably find that while the rate of gas usage might be constant, the temperature of the water in the pot gradually increased.  Obviously these are unrelated since they look different. (And the real world version involves 2 more levels of integration–first as CO2 levels increase, which is an integral of the fossil fuel use rate, then the change in heat in the atmosphere and oceans, which has both some integration and lag time, and finally the connection of that to sea level rise similarly has a lag and integration of sorts as thermal expansion is aided by melting ice. Yes, the curves will look different).

There are precisely two explanations for the kinds of misrepresentation engaged in by several members of Congress.  Either they are stupid or they are crooked. GG actually doubts stupid; getting elected and managing a staff and doing all the fund raising and everything else requires some basic level of competence. This leaves crooked, and by that GG means that they need a certain result for reasons not being shared with the public and so seek to obfuscate. No doubt all or nearly all politicians make public pronouncements they know to be false as a means of appealing to their constituents, but one has to wonder at this point who this charade is for when significant majorities of Americans think the government is doing too little to deal with climate change.

War On Science: EPA Update, May Day Mayday Edition

A short pointer to a nice Economist article going through more of the background on the EPA’s utter disregard for science under administrator Scott Pruitt. This includes the formal unveiling of the policy of pitching science where the raw data is inaccessible (usually because of the confidential nature of medical records). However, Politico noted that many industry studies are similarly unavailable, and internal messages within the administration point to an effort to try to make industry studies somehow accessible while barring academic studies.

This clear and utterly shameless attack on scientific research outside industry with the totally transparent goal of removing regulations deserves all the invective available.  There is already a strong bias in the U.S. system in favor of allowing things that haven’t been demonstrated to be safe to be made or sold or released into the environment. As nearly all demonstrations of illness caused by environmental factors will require confidential medical records, the Congressional Budget Office (per the Economist article) estimated that it would cost $100M per year to properly redact these datasets to comply with this new rule.  Naturally, the Trump administration has called for budget cuts rather than seeking the funds necessary to implement their rule.

Unfortunately, too many have been yelling about far lesser transgressions so the outrage that should be directed at this move won’t register. But please yell.

Hubris

The New York Times has a very nice piece on the risks of high rises in San Francisco.  And although the story focuses on San Francisco, the issues brought up apply as well to Los Angeles (which, for a very long time, forbid any building to be taller than 13 stories, the exception being city hall). [Later note: the LA Times also celebrated the 112th anniversary of the 18 April 1906 earthquake with a story on preparedness and a look at the potential for disaster on the Hayward Fault in the East Bay].

Some of the quotes in the New York Times article are priceless:

“Buildings falling on top of other buildings — that’s not going to happen,” Mr. Klemencic [the chief executive of Magnusson Klemencic Associates, designer of the tallest SF skyscraper] said.

Er, has he looked at what has happened?

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6 February Hualian, Taiwan M6.4 earthquake, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-42966916

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5 February 2016 M6.4 Yujing, Taiwan earthquake. From https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2016/feb/06/earthquake-in-southern-taiwan-in-pictures

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9 February 1971 Sylmar, California M6.5 earthquake. From https://www.dailynews.com/2016/02/08/sylmar-san-fernando-earthquake-45-years-ago-tuesday-64-killed/

(And those are just a few of the collapses in M6-ish EQs.  Just wait for the right M7+, where the ground shaking will last longer).

GG has heard this kind of hubris before, and it is not comforting.  Buildings do fall over, and if they are close enough together, they do fall over onto other buildings.  All too often this is because the foundation is compromised by liquefaction–which is the very risk in the part of San Francisco where the building Mr. Klemencic’s firm designed sits–next to another building already tilting and sinking.

(Engineering certainty probably increases the closer to a CEO a person sits, but many Japanese were confident they would not see structural failures like California saw in the 1989 Loma Prieta or 1994 Northridge earthquakes until the 1995 Kobe earthquake proved them wrong. And Americans were able to design an overpass that failed not in just one earthquake, but two: the high overpass of the I-5/SR14/I-210 interchange failed in both the 1971 Sylmar quake and the 1994 Northridge earthquake.)

Mr. Macris [who led the planning board under four mayors] said the issue of seismic safety of high rises was “never a factor” in the redevelopment plans of the South of Market area.

Astounding. Look at the USGS liquefaction susceptibility map.  The whole area is at an extreme risk. How–HOW!–could seismic safety NOT be a factor in a community that as recently as 1989 saw much smaller structures destroyed in the Marina District from the Loma Prieta earthquake.

All this is amazing.  Years ago, there was the 1971 documentary, “The City that Waits to Die” about San Francisco’s disinterest in any kind of seismic safety. GG remembers seeing this long ago, and it was just amazing that San Franciscans were so oblivious to the obvious risk.  This extends to how they interpret their own history: the 1906 quake is often buried under the subsequent fire, with claims of fatalities both downplayed (probably more than 3000 died instead of the 498 claimed at the time) and tied to the fire (a more common urban problem seemingly cured with brick buildings).  All this was to make San Francisco appear safer to businesses and visitors from other places.

And if you want to feel safe in LA, don’t.  The welding failure mentioned in the NY Times piece was recognized from the 1994 Northridge earthquake–but the failures were not remediated. The broken welds are not obvious in buildings that did not fail in that quake, but most likely will in then next one. (If you want the gory details, look at Tom Heaton’s notes from a class he taught).

The overconfidence and denial evident in the construction habits in San Francisco are probably not limited to that jurisdiction. There will be deaths and monetary damages that could be devastating if the right quake is the next one to occur.  Maybe San Francisco will get a solid warning shot across its bow if, say, the Hayward Fault on the east side of the Bay ruptures from north to south–shaking San Francisco enough to maybe demonstrate enough that these problems are real to make the city take care to prepare better while not producing  the truly devastating outcome that seems possible.

War on Science: USGS edition

It seems like there has been a cascade of information building up to the second March for Science. One of the latest entries comes as part of a Politico article on how federal workers are responding to the new administration:

For Larry Meinert, who spent six years as a senior official at the United States Geological Survey, the last straw came late last year when he was asked to supply a report on updated oil reserve forecasts to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke before the tightly held and market-sensitive information was made public — a request he considered a bridge too far, ethically.

But even before his resignation late last year, there were plenty of other things that got under Meinert’s skin. Administration officials asked his department to supply the topics of each scientific paper it planned to put up for publication up to five years in the future.

War on Science: EPA update

It is impressive within a few hours to see different facets of the current administration’s desire to sideline science within what we should now call the Environment Plundering Agency. On one front, there is effectively an implementation of the gruesomely misleading HONEST act that Lamar Smith pushed awhile back under the guise of “sound science.” Basically this will throw away a huge amount of peer-reviewed science on the environmental and health impacts of various pollutants. That the EPA really wanted to bury this news is that their own press release was just a pointer to a Daily Caller interview with administrator Pruitt, a result that led the National Association of Science Writers to write a letter complaining about the failure to respond to questions and the use of partisan publication for the sole source for policy information. All this as the agency claims it is pursuing “transparency” (which, it would seem, they take to mean something you don’t ever see).

While this is the most pernicious move, at the same time the EPA is engaging in false equivalence in their latest talking points guidelines, which try to say that we don’t really know how much human activity contributes to global warming.

It bears repeating that pursuing ignorance as government policy is profoundly stupid, and amplifying it is inappropriate.