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Uncertain Path (book review)

William Tweed’s Uncertain Path is essential reading for anybody interested in the national parks, wilderness areas, or the challenges of ecological change. Tweed, in framing his story around a backpack in 2006 along the John Muir and High Sierra trails, finds ample motivation for uncovering the many different facets of the twin jewels of parks and wilderness. 

The book is a curious combination of travelogue, mea culpa, history and ecology. Tweed’s background working in the parks for decades, including a stint as chief planner for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, means he has skin in this game. In addition to the insights such familiarity provides, this also provides a driving motivation. 

The mea culpa aspect is most interesting. Tweed left the park service in part because he felt key challenges were papered over by the promise of the organic act for the park service, a promise he had vocalized on many occasions: that the parks would be preserved unimpaired for future generations. No longer finding that promise possible, he left the parks to help steer them from the outside. It is clear that recognition haunts him still. 

His hike leads yields observation after observation, some of small note (the presence of hot showers and a passing military jet) and others that build up (forest fires along the route lead to the revelation that climate change has increased fires even in remote wildernesses). As he passes features named for Muir and Pinchot, he reminds us of the rift between extractive and preservational uses of the land. Seeing horse parties and trail runners, he wonders about the changing mix and number of users.  Seeing shrinking glaciers and ghost forests leads to worries about ongoing climate changes. Crossing from parks to forest wilderness and back leads to consideration of the difference between preserving for future generations and providing a “wild” experience. 

At bottom, he argues that twenty-first century problems require a renegotiation with the American public. Parks solved the 19th century problem of resource development, and they could address internal problems in the 20th century like overuse. But climate change, fragmented habitats, pollution and invasive species demand a thoughtful change in management on how to accommodate change. The biologist would argue for a kind of interventionist  approach, actively transplanting species to newly favorable climates, for instance. Were the author a biologist, this might end the book. 

But Tweed was a ranger and planner; all those observations about human visitors and their desires comes into play. He is no Wilderness purist: Tweed argues that parks and wilderness will only survive as long as people will defend them and demanding purity can decrease the circle of defenders. Thus he worries about those using these lands as an outdoor gym, noting that the special protections for parks and wilderness are not necessary for such activities. But traditional users are declining. And so he argues that the parks also have to build support for any changes-and so he suspects the ideal ecological response is politically unwise. 

His hike in 2006 preceded publication in 2010. Some of his worries have materialized: his notes on the poor health of the mixed conifer forest anticipated the massive die-offs the last few years from insects. Others have not: after a few years of flat attendance, numbers at Yosemite have skyrocketed-and backcountry use has grown rapidly as well. Does this mean nature has reacquired favor? Or is the glut of throughhikers really marking the victory of the outdoor gym rat?  The answer is critical for plotting a path forward; we can hope for an updated edition someday. 

The book is an easy read, flowing nicely despite the frequent diversions. For those of us familiar with these trails, his descriptions, while not memorably poetic, evoke these places clearly (hard for GG to say if non-visitors would be similarly charmed). An experienced backcountry traveller, Tweed doesn’t have the stories of grotesque overpacking, blisters, neophyte behaviors and calamity that fill many other backcountry accounts. Although Tweed does tend toward a solution of sorts to his worries, it is his struggle with history and science that makes the book far more than a policy polemic. Many backpackers will recognize moments and thoughts Tweed shares, though he then integrates them and shows a broader theme at work than most would discern. In a way, this is the complement to Wild-an intellectual reflection on wilderness instead of the emotional journey of the hiker. Highly recommended. 

Confirm bias or desire?

A piece in the New York Times by the authors of a paper in press in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General has kind of baffled the Grumpy Geophysicist for a few days now. It argues that confirmation bias is not a problem, but desirability bias is.  In essence, you favor new information that aligns with what you want to happen rather than what you think is true.

Now, had you asked GG before this to define confirmation bias, he might have said “favoring information that says what you want it to say.” What the paper says, though, is that this describes desirability bias. To tease the two apart, you need a situation where what you want and what you expect are two different things [frankly, though, this is a capsule definition of a pessimist].

The experiment described used the desired and anticipated results of the last U.S. presidential election as expressed by 811 participants (89 others were disqualified, 48 for saying they made a mistake or were dishonest).  If you believed candidate A was likely to win but wanted candidate B and you were given information that indicated that candidate A was ahead in the polls, you didn’t change your estimate of who would win by much.  If you saw information that candidate B was ahead, you gave candidate B a substantially greater chance of winning. The authors then assert that confirmation bias isn’t an issue, but desirability bias is.

It isn’t hard to expect a disconnect on other topics.  Do you want climate change to occur and likely to lead to societal disruption? Probably not, yet many exposed to evidence that climate is warming increase their belief that the climate is warming, no? This possible conundrum didn’t slip by the study’s authors, who wrote (R1 version of their manuscript):

When confronted with new information regarding global temperature increase, strong believers updated their beliefs more upon receipt of ostensibly undesirable information (i.e., a faster temperature increase than expected), whereas weak believers updated their beliefs more upon receipt of ostensibly desirable information (a slower increase than expected). Though this pattern appears consistent with an independent confirmation bias, such an outcome may emerge when individuals are personally invested in “being right”—indeed, for many climate change activists a belief that the world is warming constitutes a core part of their identity (Stern et al., 1999). For such people, objectively undesirable (but confirming) information about the rate of global warming may be subjectively desirable: vindicating their commitment to combatting climate change (Sunstein et al., 2016) and affirming their cultural group identity (Kahan et al., 2012).

In other words, those anticipating climate change want to be proven right, so their acceptance of evidence confirming their evaluation that climate change is occurring is because they desire to be right more than they desire the climate to not change. Um, precisely how is this different from confirmation bias again? Is confirmation bias supposed to be free of emotions? It feels like you can always make it seem as though desirability bias is at the root, making the term confirmation bias irrelevant.

The op-ed closes with this summary: “Our study suggests that political belief polarization may emerge because of peoples’ conflicting desires, not their conflicting beliefs per se. This is rather troubling, as it implies that even if we were to escape from our political echo chambers, it wouldn’t help much. Short of changing what people want to believe, we must find other ways to unify our perceptions of reality.”

Sorry, but this is feeble. It implies we are prisoners of our present beliefs. This is the precise mindset underlying the mantra that science advances one funeral at a time–a mindset precisely contrary to what science should be. If this is so, how exactly did same-sex marriage advance when the echo chambers kept up their respective drumbeats? A lot of folks who are OK now with same-sex marriage don’t personally want it or even like it, yet they have come to feel that is the fair thing to do. How did they come to change their minds if they didn’t favor it all along? At a more general level, how could we ever recognize hazards? Why would you want to believe that DDT killed birds? Why would you want to believe that humans created an ozone hole?

Hell, how did all those study participants ever reach the point where they expected their preferred candidate to lose? Doesn’t the existence of those folks somehow disprove the rigidity of this hypothesis?

GG’s feeling is that in parsing the question of belief versus desire, the study’s authors have made a distinction with little value. The cute example they used feels artificial.

Maybe instead of studying why we don’t change our minds, we need to study why we do. There are folks working on this (GG has noted one example before). Hopefully all they desire is to get a correct answer–then their desirability bias will work for us all.

Rock, teach oil, or maybe vice versa

GG attended a workshop here at CU on lessons from mining that could help guide oil and gas development (since the conveners encouraged outcomes to be shared on social media, figure this is OK). In kind of an odd way, the focus was more on what happens at the end of mining or oil development more than what happens at the start, so that will tend to be the focus here.

So a quick summary of points GG noticed.

  • Mining is highly focused, oil and gas far more distributed with a web of infrastructure.
  • Mines active today have to meet bonding requirements and increasingly have to have reclamation plans; oil and gas wells have far less specific requirements (e.g., bonding is not by well but by state or even nation).
  • Mines are a single use of the land; oil and gas production often shares the land with other rural uses.
  • Problem mines are problems for thousands of years–there is no true long term remediation. They can foul a lot of water for a long time. Wells are more insidious, typically failing silently until you know groundwater is compromised or a house blows up.
  • Mines these days are rarely totally shut down; they frequently are mothballed and then brought back online.  Oil and gas wells are frequently plugged and closed.
  • Mining’s main impact seems to be contaminating surface waters.  Oil and gas activity mainly affects subsurface waters.
  • Modern mining remains dominantly rural [save for mining towns!], but oil and gas has moved into suburbia. However, old mines are around a lot of western towns and there is renewed activity (and opposition) from time to time.

So what would the public want for post-development lands? In both cases, one can presume a safe environment available for any subsequent use. In many cases, they might want something resembling the pre-mining landscape. How realistic is this?

For mines, it depends on the mine. Big, modern open pit mines with sulfides are likely nearly hopeless. Strip mines for coal probably can be reclaimed provided they are not in areas where erosion is likely. Many small legacy mines can be shuttered to have an acceptably low level of impact. You can probably tell when a mine can be safely shut down.

For oil and gas wells, there is a surprisingly high level of uncertainty. Modern plugging procedures will usually work for the near term, but if gas continues to migrate up the well bore, any weaknesses that develop in the well plug or around the outside of the well bore will allow the gas to vent to the surface. Degradation of the well materials will connect shallow and deep aquifers, which can be troublesome if the deep aquifers have sufficient pressure to invade a shallower drinking water aquifer.  Or if the deep aquifer has negative pressure, you can lose drinking water to the deeper aquifer. That oil and gas wells are not of the same material as the surrounding rock means that it is likely over long periods of time that some kinds of failures of the well’s plug will occur (chemistry and stress will focus on that interface).  How often is this likely? How often will a failure produce surface problems? We really aren’t certain.

One suggested solution for problem mines is to make use of the waste material. This might help for acid mine drainage, but is less helpful for some other environmental hazards from mines. It is unlikely that a plugged oil or gas well that leaks has any economic utility.

So at the end, what does full closure of mines or wells look like?  Mines are unlikely to have their footprint totally erased, and some will be problems for centuries, but many others will be available for other uses. Oil and gas wells are tougher.  Most rules require a plugged well’s pad to be returned to something looking like the original landscape. When bonding is insufficient (as has been the case in Wyoming, for instance), failed companies’ wells might not be reclaimed. But even where surface reclamation is done (and oil and gas companies like to show pictures of old well sites to show they don’t look particularly bad), the well below is still subject to failure and leaking. While some mine sites might well be safe to build on (and many mountain resort towns are in fact built on old mine sites), building on an old well is playing a bit of Russian roulette. Shallow aquifers could fail as well. Perhaps monitoring for natural gas and pollutants in the water would permit full reoccupation of well sites, but it seems just as likely that rules will prevent building on or too near old well sites.

What do local communities need to know? They should probably understand that oil and gas wells are forever–plugged wells in most cases will cause no problems, but given that we haven’t watched a bunch of wells plugged with modern techniques for a really long time, that there is a non-zero risk of future leakage, and so monitoring appropriate for the subsequent use of the land should be required. Ripping out as much of the oil and gas infrastructure as possible is wise. For mines, it kind of depends. Any mine with underground workings can later collapse, so building on top of such mines should be considered with caution. If a mine is leaking colorful water into streams, odds are this will continue for centuries and some kind of action is desirable, but know there are not, at present, permanent fixes.

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.

Policy Proxy Hazards

The beginning of a five-part series on GMOs in the Boulder Daily Camera does a nice job of making clear one of the problems with complex problems in the public sphere, namely that very specific terms get burdened with ills not necessarily associated with the core meaning of the term.  Thus, as pointed out in this article, GMOs are a stand-in for mega-agriculture despite the fact that here in Boulder County, use of GMOs is made by small-acreage farmers and the use of GMOs has a smaller environmental impact than “organic” farming. Call this misrepresentation of a term a policy proxy: something that is used publicly as a substitute for some broader set of concerns.

Another policy proxy is fracking, as we’ve discussed many times. Fracking opponents are not usually concerned specifically about fracking but instead are complaining about dense industrial-scale oil development in residential areas or environmental impacts from oil and gas development to the need to reduce our carbon output. Arguably things like anti-vaxxing, creation science, and global warming attract similar concerns really directed at an opaque medical establishment, religion, and party identification.

Scientific proxies are useful so long as they are understood to be proxies.  A simple one is the use of a barometer in the 19th century to measure elevation: you are measuring air pressure and using the decrease of that with elevation to estimate elevation. Proxies fail when other issues interfere with the relationship you hope to exploit: for instance, a barometer also records storm systems and failure to account for that will not give you proper elevations (something familiar to those of us who have used altimeters when hiking).

Policy proxies are arguably even more hazardous. Take the GMO case in the Daily Camera article.We’ve been conditioned over the past several decades to accept “organic” produce as “better” produce and that organic farming means less harmful chemicals are used. GMOs are viewed as anti-organic, thus opposing GMOs is a policy proxy for wanting fewer harmful chemicals to be used. The problem is that these associations are weak. Some synthetic herbicides are less damaging than some organic ones; GMOs can allow for even less use of herbicides than in organic agriculture. So it is possible that accepting the simple policy proxy when opposing GMOs that people are actually advocating for a greater use of herbicides with a greater environmental impact.

Or consider fracking. In opposing fracking, advocates might be assuming that they are reducing the environmental impact of oil and gas development. But if fracked gas deposits replace strip-mined coal (as has been happening the past few years), is fracking really the environmental disaster?

Let’s face it: policy proxies are for mental lightweights and the peripherally involved.  They encourage tossing babies out with bathwater. They are designed to inflame opinions and they make it easy to make clever placards and impassioned speeches. In some cases they will align with good public policy, but in many cases they will impede it. So GG urges folks to oppose what really concerns them and not to fall into the trap of opposing things that seem to represent the bad stuff they don’t want. It can be possible to find alternate solutions once you abandon the simple proxies. GMOs can be bad if their use increases carbon output or increases pesticide applications or requires more damaging pesticides or compromise seed ownership for neighboring forms, but they can be good if they work the other way.  Fracking can be good if well pad locations are regulated, wellheads and casings and feeder lines are checked, and oil companies are liable for environmental impacts and the fossil fuels produced replace dirtier fuels; it can be bad if it enables bad practices.

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.

dis-HONEST?

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”.