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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.

StHelens1982

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.

The Biggest Disasters

GG recently commented on Lucy Jones’s [no relation] book on the Big Ones, disasters out of proportion to recent experience. An LA Times article on concerns that dams in the Los Angeles basin are not up to dealing with a superstorm brings up an interesting question: how big can you go? Forty days and forty nights?

For seismologists, the magic equation has often been the Gutenberg-Richter equation which basically says that the log of the number of earthquakes of a given magnitude over a specified time is inversely proportional to the magnitude (so log N = a + bM, where N is the number of earthquakes of magnitude M and a and b describe the distribution in some area). The rate of decrease in number of earthquakes with increasing magnitude, the b-value, is close to -1.  So say you have 10 M5 earthquakes in a year, you expect to have one M6. You’d then expect over 10 years to have 100 M5s, 10 M6s, and 1 M7.

If you keep playing this game, you might say that in 100 years you should see a M8, and in a thousand a M9, and in ten thousand a M10. And this is where seismologists see a problem: physically, a M10 is probably impossible (and if the area we’re concerning ourselves with is anything less than a quarter of the globe, it is certainly impossible).

Read More…

Unrepresentative?

It’s been awhile since the midterm elections and its worth looking at how all those science candidates did.  A Nature article makes it sound like scientists made massive gains in Congress, with 11 Congresspeople with some scientific background (including medicine, which arguably is often quite different). When you consider that more than 50 science-oriented folks tried to get through primaries, that 11 (which includes some incumbents) isn’t all that impressive.  Some of those who lost in the primaries were pretty discouraged, though others felt that they were making progress.

But the descriptions of the campaigns makes it sound like being a scientist was a pretty peripheral aspect of most of the campaigns, and you get the sense that the people who emphasized their science backgrounds had the least success. The funny thing is, if you really believe in representative democracy, scientists should be pretty competitive.  After all, what you want in a representative is somebody who probably shares your overall worldview but who will take the time and effort to study the facts relevant to particular pieces of legislation. So why are scientists doing poorly electorally?

Arguably it is because we don’t want our representatives to think for themselves.  We want them to be our proxy, to vote however we want them to vote despite the possibility that we know a lot less about the topic. And scientists just don’t tend to approach problems this way.  It doesn’t help that both liberals and conservatives have positions that are scientifically indefensible, so an honest scientist is likely to get crosswise with virtually any audience.

So its great there are now some 11 people with science or science-like backgrounds out of the 435 members of the House or the 100 Senators. But when less than 2% of our representatives have science backgrounds, it feels like we could stand to see a few more and a few less lawyers.

Any Adults in the Room?

Many of those who find President Trump’s instincts on foreign policy misguided frequently state that they are relieved that there are “adults in the room” that prevent rash military action by the President. At times, Congress has even stepped in to override the President’s dismissal of intelligence findings from the CIA or FBI. Those relieved “there are adults in the room” point to episodes described in various books on the administration where the President demanded action and others either dissuaded him or simply ignored his wishes; the most dramatic (and hotly debated) version of this was in an anonymous New York Times op-ed earlier this year. Whether such actions are honorable or not continues to be debated, but that is not our topic today.

GG would like to know where the adults in the room are when it comes to science.  Frankly, the answer would seem to be, nowhere. This was underscored this past week by what followed President Trump’s dismissal of a major climate report that the administration tried to bury by releasing it weeks ahead of time on Black Friday.  Basically, nobody stood up and said, you misunderstand what this in.  No, instead we had the EPA misrepresent instructions given to the group assembling the report, we had claims that this was a way for climate scientists to get rich, we had claims that lots of scientists disagree with the report.  All of which is wrong.

What is closer to reality is the necessity of the Climate Scientists Legal Defense Fund, or the  Silencing Science tracker, which is a sobering list of efforts made to ignore, obfuscate, blockade, defund, demean, ridicule or prevent scientific research.  The intense harassment Michael Mann faced, the time lost by two Arizona climate researchers ordered to hand over nearly all their emails–this is the reality of many climate scientists.  There is no big money in doing this work. Most are utterly anonymous and so don’t even get some perk from being quoted in the newspaper. A life of fame and fortune it is not.

While there might be adults in the room to mitigate President Trump’s evident distrust of experts in foreign policy, they are notably absent when it comes to using information from the experts on scientific matters.  And in the long run, that might prove to be more harmful to both the nation and the world than any reckless military adventures.