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Jon Stewart’s irresponsible, anti-science, COVID conspiracy theory rant

Not clear if Jon Stewart spent too much time alone the past year and a half, but the fellow who lambasted Congress for trusting bloggers over scientists is now dissing scientists. Not a good look; The Logic of Science examines his Late Show appearance in a post.

The Logic of Science

stewartI’ve been a fan of Jon Stewart for a long time. I usually find him to be both funny and insightful. It was, therefore, with great dismay that I watched him spread a conspiracy and inaccuracies about science on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and I regret that it is now my duty to explain his errors.

In the clip, which you can see here, Stewart begins by saying that we owe a great debt to science for helping to ameliorate the COVID19 crisis. That much I absolutely agree with. Scientists deserve an enormous amount of gratitude for developing the vaccines that are currently saving lives and reducing suffering around the world. Unfortunately, the interview quickly took a turn for a worse as Stewart endorsed the conspiracy theory that COVID19 escaped from the lab in Wuhan and made numerous dangerous, false statements about how scientists operate.

Mischaracterizations of…

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A talking grump

For your amusement (and maybe a small amount of edification), I chatted with Oliver Strimpel, the host of the Geology Bites podcast, in this episode.

Risk and Sensibility

The Denver Post ran an opinion piece posing a useful question: how did we do in evaluating risk of COVID-19? Answers are all over the map, but so many are so breathtakingly stupid as to make the value of the piece pretty minimal (“Hey, the mortality rate was only 1.4%, so not so bad!” “My restaurant didn’t have a case, so restaurants were safe!”). The tone of the op-ed leans towards “hey, we panicked, this wasn’t such a big threat after all.” Having the cojones to put that in print after over half a million Americans perished in under a year–easily the number three cause of death in 2020, and when you toss in the excess mortality since the start of the pandemic, you are up to ~650,000 deaths either directly or indirectly caused by the pandemic. The age-adjusted death rate increased by nearly 16% in 2020. COVID-19 was the number three killer in the U.S. Sure, your odds of dying if you were between 25 and 34 only increased by about 4%, making COVID about the #6 killer in that age range, but for 44-55 year olds, the odds of dying went up by 11% or so, making COVID the number 4 killer and close enough to “unintentional injury” that it could well be #3. And then none of this considers the long term impacts of having had COVID-19–of the more than two million Americans who have spent time in the hospital, something like a half million or more are seeing long-term effects from COVID-19, effects that are often pretty debilitating.

A way of looking at this is years of life lost to the disease–in essence, if you die at 25 and were expected to live to 85, that is 60 years lost, but if you die at 80 it is only 5 years lost. A paper in Nature tackles this and makes comparisons with traffic deaths, seasonal influenza, and heart disease. In the U.S., COVID-19 has been seven times the losses from influenza, about 2.3 times the loss due to transport (mainly auto accidents) and maybe about 0.4 times the loss due to heart disease. This is with a pretty conservative estimate of COVID’s impacts, and it is worth keeping in mind that we tried very hard to limit COVID-19 but not so much many of these other causes of death. Additionally, this study found that about 20% of the loss of years of life in the U.S. was suffered by those under 55.

So were we overreacting to a disease that did cause more loss of life that auto accidents (by more than a factor of two)? Certainly had we done nothing the toll would have been far, far worse (millions dead), so the question maybe should be, what were the really effective steps, and what was theater that did little? in other words, a better question is, how well did we do in balancing the risks posed by different activities for dying of COVID-19?

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COVID Drivers: Gas or Brake?

A month ago GG opined that what really seemed to permit a massive growth in COVID-19 numbers was the previous history of deaths from the spring. This was shown in this plot:

While this is clearly armchair geophysicist analysis, the basic premise appears to stand up. An academic economic study basically found the same thing: the history of deaths in a county was a far stronger predictor of how people responded (in terms of mobility) than official government orders.

Anyways, GG was kind of curious how that initial jump in COVID numbers played out. It turns out some states turned back from the edge while others leapt in with both feet…

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Reality Bites Back

One of the things GG has watched with dismay has been the growth of alternate universes that facts don’t penetrate. The biggest by far in the U.S. is on the political right, and you had to wonder what it would take to pop the bubble. Update 3/16/20: Looks like we found the needle to pop the bubble: a British report indicating 2.2 million deaths in the U.S. without any action (but also without a higher death rate from overwhelmed medical systems) with a peak in early summer–and pretty high death rates and an overwhelmed medical system without a lot of suppression strategies–appears to have revised White House pronouncements while right-wing opinion hosts on Fox are now taking this threat seriously. (Too bad they are two months late to the party).

Now it isn’t like the U.S. media was always a reliable source of information: the yellow press of the late 19th century skewed the news, and papers prior to the Civil War were virtual propaganda pages. What tends to deflate this kind of partisanship is verifiable misfortune.  If Democratic papers in the North claimed defeat and Union soldiers wrote home to describe victory, the misleading news came to be disregarded.  War dead in world wars made silly the claims of those who would pretend otherwise. And so after WWII American media, in part because of the Fairness Doctrine for radio and television, became quite impartial. This ended in the Reagan administration, when the Fairness Doctrine was dropped and cable television boomed. This led to our modern fragmented media landscape.

[Warning: distressing calculations after the jump]

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Reaping Restraint

GG has written a few times about the state of oil and gas regulations here in Colorado. A lot of that is now changing as Senate Bill 181 has passed the Colorado Legislature and heading for the governor’s desk, where it is expected to be signed.

As is typical these days, the public debate was overheated.  Claims that passing this legislation would end petroleum development and cripple the Colorado economy were broadcast in commercials, while some advocates felt that the bill didn’t go far enough and were upset when amendments loosened some of the language of the original bill. Others felt that this was overturning the voters’ rejection of proposition 112 last fall (e.g., comments here). Votes in the legislature were along party lines.

So is this the death knell of oil and gas in Colorado? Best to see what passed rather than rely on public pronouncements. So let’s look at what is in here.

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Un-time-ly illogic

Well the end of Daylight Savings Time is near and so the demands for year-round savings of daylight increase as the sun drops lower towards the horizon.  Federal action must be taken! We must all be on DST! California voters get to vote on this, Florida passed a law asking for this– except that neither can take effect until the federal government acts. Congress forbid states from going on Daylight Savings all year long.  They can stay on standard time all year (which is what Arizona does, to the confusion of visitors to Laughlin who fly into and out of Bullhead City, whose clocks are only an hour different in the winter). But move that clock an hour ahead? No.

Well, you know you can fake it, right? Just go to standard time (which is allowed under the law) and start school an hour earlier, work from 8 to 4 instead of 9 to 5.  How hard is that? It is even a bit liberating–leaving work at 4 might feel like you are playing hooky every day.

But wait, I hear you cry, even that still wastes daylight! Here in Denver there are 15 hours of daylight near the summer solstice–even with DST the sun gets up at 5:30 in the morning. Who needs that! That’s at least an hour and a half of daylight we’re wasting.

So since we all now use cellphones and computers to tell time, and since they all can make these calculations with ease, GG proposes Uniform Sunlight Time (US time!).  In US Time, every morning the sun rises promptly at 8 am. So in the summer months the sun sets here in Denver 15 hours later, at 11 pm. Lots of saved daylight.  And in the depths of winter when we are down to a miserable nine hours and 22 minutes of daylight, the sun sets at 5:22 pm so the average wage earner gets a few rays after work. No more putting a pillow over your head at 6 am in the summer as the sun blasts through your curtains! No more oversleeping that business meeting at 9 because it was darker than the inside of a dog when you went to get up! And all that saved light!

But…but…but–that would change the length of a day! Spring days would be something like 24 hours and 2 minutes and fall days would be about 23 hours and 58 minutes. Well, if you want to get picky, days don’t stay the same length as it is–if you don’t believe it, put a rod in the ground and every day at precisely noon, see where the shadow points. It won’t be the same direction every day because high noon to high noon is almost never 24 hours. Why? Because of the Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun. Solar noon moves by about a half hour relative to our 24 hour clock over the year. This 24 hours stuff is just an average over the year anyways; why not monkey with it?

Now we probably don’t want to redefine the length of a second every day.  We could, but that probably would mess things up (after all, you probably wouldn’t want to have to change the stickers on computers every day to correct their processor speed for that day–today only 2.0018 GHz!). So just like going on Daylight Savings, we simply tidy up when most of us are asleep, say at 2 am. From the winter to the summer solstice we spring forward a minute or two, so we might go from 2:00 am directly to 2:02 am, and in the other half of the year we fall back a little. No big deal. We could even mildly adjust the frequency of AC power to get mechanical clocks aligned with this while all our digital toys automatically take care of the switch.

GG is sure that this will solve all our problems with time. So feel free to write your Congressman or Congresswoman–GG is sure they would be delighted to hear about something they could actually do and be a pleasant diversion from partisan screeds they currently find in their in boxes.

Yes, its time for US Time!

Super-honey?

“You attract more flies with honey than vinegar” the old saying goes.  It would seem a pretty marginal publisher got the word and is trying it out:

*Dear Dr. **C. H Jones**,

* *Greetings from Nessa Journal of Geology & Earth Sciences (NJGES)*

Recently we have come across your presentation at the *”Seismology of the Americas Meeting Latin American and Caribbean Seismological Commission Seismological Society of America May 2018 Miami, Florida” *with the title *”**Exploring the Extent of Wave Propagative Effects on Teleseismic Attenuation Measurements within the Sierra Nevada**”*. I presume that it will outstandingly attract the readers and will receive applause from the people of all walks of life. I believe it will enrich the knowledge and experiment of people who are involved in all these researches and experiments.

Man, what temptation! “receive applause from the people of all walks of life”! GG cannot wait to walk out to the mailbox to thunderous applause from the neighborhood, or be mobbed in the grocery store for having published in the legendary NJGES!

Though to “outstandingly attract the readers” might mean standing out on a street corner with a sign “please read and applaud.”

Geomovies 2018?

Its been awhile since we looked at how earth science in doing in the cinema.  The short answer is, not much and not well. Superhero and space opera movies have so abandoned reality that it is essentially pointless to be critical. For instance, Star Wars originally had some concept of the scale of space, but that was entirely wiped out by absolutely everything about the Starkiller Base in Force Awakens: the impossibly high stresses needed to make a planetary ditch at least 100 km high to the staggering variations in air pressure this would entail to the ridiculous notion of sucking a star into some weapon chamber to the impossibility of watching this thing fire its weapon in real time from a distant star system. With fanboy-fav and science-oblivious director J.J. Abrams returning for the 9th installment, we can expect to see evermore spectacular violations of reality…

Anyways, the point being that arguing the characteristics of vibranium in Marvel movies is pointless, as is the Bifrost or Dr Strange’s little portals just as the aerodynamics of the Millennium Falcon or TIE fighters is beyond hope. This seems to leave us with the Jurassic World movies.

There is little point here in even criticizing the dinosaurs since they were made imperfectly from the start–differences with real dinosaurs is explained simply as a result of the approximations used in making modern dinosaurs.  This leaves us with Isla Nublar, supposedly off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica (Hawaii acts as a stand-in) and complete with a volcano. Unsurprisingly, there is no volcanic island off Costa Rica, but at least it is on the Pacific Ocean and has volcanoes….So as its been awhile since volcanoes were front and center–how does this one look?

Well we see a lot of smoke from the summit and a lot of lava flowing out the sides. Some of this lava is exceptionally fluid, sneaking through cracks in a building (good luck with that; there’s a lot of video now of how the fairly fluid east rift lavas on the Big Island of Hawaii behave when hitting buildings or cars and it isn’t that fluid). But of course we then get some explosions from the flanks of the mountain and what would seem to be pyroclastic flow coming from the same spot.  A very slow pyroclastic flow at that, for instead of the typical speeds in excess of 100 mph usually seen, this one barely catches up to our protagonists moving at a run. Later the mountain shifts to hurling flaming boulders at everybody before some strange volcanic cloud of doom settles over the remaining dinosaurs. While not as laugh-out-loud silly as the cracks that open and close in Volcano, this is a very Hollywood volcano.

Would the volcano cause everything on the island to die? (what the movie’s news reporters call an “extinction level event,” which is not how any earth scientist would call the obliteration of a small population of animals on one island; “extinction level events” actually refer to events that cause mass extinctions, such as the asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous.  Extinctions of a few geographically limited species can be caused far more prosaically–by draining a marsh or damming a river).  The closest thing in recent history would be the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat 21 years ago, which led to 2/3 of the population leaving and the abandonment of the capital of Plymouth.  Even here, though, the northern part of the island is largely unaffected and there remains large tracts of forest in the southern half of the island. So probably something would still be marching around on the island….

Overall not a lot of excitement geoscience-wise. GG avoided the train wreck of Geostorm and will need someday to see how the kaiju in Pacific Rim 2 were to “activate” the Pacific Rim of Fire (a callback to 1965’s Crack in the World?). We’ll have to wait and see how Alpha plays out (yes, more paleoanthropology than geoscience, but there has been speculation that human access to the New World required the domestication of wolves into dogs to be able to compete successfully with carnivores of the northern latitudes). Looks like the San Andreas sequel is stalled or dead, so maybe no more earthquakes or volcanoes coming up anytime soon.

Probably the most thorough examination of geology in the movies was put together in Earth magazine a few years ago. And GG has weighed in a few times before….

Prestige

The Nature Index stuff made GG wonder just how highly cited are the best geoscience papers from those prestigious journals? And how do they stand up to some other journals?  So here are some results from Web of Science.

For ease of calculation, we’ll just look at the journals that were all earth science, and let’s limit things to since 1960.  So of the prestigious journals in the Nature list, here are the number of citations of the top three papers:

  • Earth and Planetary Science Letters (1966 start): 6600, 5835, 2482
  • Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta: 8167, 3035, 2348
  • Geology (1972 start) 1562, 1158, 1113
  • Geophysical Research Letters (1974 start) 2342, 2241, 1239
  • Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth (1991; 1985-1991 Solid Earth and Planets, before that just JGR B) 2583, 2529, 2516.
  • Nature Geoscience (2008 start) 1374, 1017, 931

The four bold faced citations are those above 3000. Now here are some other reasonably prominent geoscience journals with their top 3 citations.

  • Applied Geochemistry (since 1987) 3593, 776, 692
  • Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 3237, 2388, 1898
  • Chemical Geology (since 1968 WoS) 5846, 2639, 2087
  • Contributions to Mineralogy and Petrology (since 1969 in WoS) 2210, 2090, 2042
  • GSA Bulletin 2143, 1560, 1246
  • Geophysical Journal RAS (to 1987)/GJI (1989-) 3454, 2763, 1910
  • Journal of Geology 2105, 1905, 1850
  • Lithos (1975 start in WoS) 1226, 1147, 976
  • Tectonics (1981 start) 1263, 1021, 785
  • Pure and Applied Geophysics (1964 start in WoS) 2342, 610, 599

Several of the most highly cited papers are in review journals not listed here (which are quite prestigious and often the good review papers carry more than just a review). But looking at this list it is hard to say that this second list is really all that different in producing extremely highly cited papers, and you could argue that this list might be just as important a set of journals as that used in Nature Index.  Even a journal as uneven as Tectonophysics occasionally has a gem in it (1756 citations) and specialty journals like Quaternary Research (2253) and Precambrian Research (1267) often produce influential papers. Even some of the new electronic journals (G^3, Geosphere) have some well cited papers despite starting this century.

The message? Prestige is earned by what you say, not where you say it.