Aloha CNN; NY trillions of times

Residents of Honolulu were probably looking out their windows if they checked CNN this morning…


If you can’t read the small type…


Honolulu is of course on Oahu, several islands away from the Big Island where the eruption actually is occurring.

While CNN showed off their unusual understanding of geography, the NY Times pushed Earth’s history back to far before the beginning of the universe:


Wow, 202 trillion years ago the Earth wandered somewhere different?  What was Earth even doing back then, given there was no universe? [The article correctly talked about 202,500 years].

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.

Recreation vs. Re-creation

GG has from time to time wandered on a bit about some of the contradictions surrounding public lands (as a geoscientist, GG has spent a fair bit of time on said lands). So three articles in the latest issue of High Country News (their “Outdoors and travel special issue”) caught his eye as they threw light on three different aspects of our varying and changing views of wild lands. In a sense, all three pieces reflect views that would probably have distressed John Muir and other 19th century celebrators of the wild.

The first (and cover) story documents the growing disconnect between realities: that on the ground, and those developed in social media. The story recounts the five 2017 deaths on Capitol Peak in the Colorado Rockies, focusing on one in particular where the temptation from social media wore down any resistance to doing something very risky. In a real sense, this documents the continuing replacement of wilderness as a place for reflection and understanding of our place in the big wide world with a handy backdrop for our social media musings. This has made the great outdoors nothing more than a different edgy stage for our narcissistic self-promotion (“Look at what I did!”). Unfortunately the real world has taken little notice, and so bad injuries and deaths can pile up as the temptation of one-upmanship continues.  Although the piece lays the blame on our obsession with social media, it is worth pointing out that this has gone on far longer.  Once cell phones started getting signals in wilderness areas, people would just assume they could march out and get into any fix they liked and they would be rescued.

The second deals with another aspect of the wilderness as personal gym mentality, suggesting that outdoor equipment companies might not have the best interests of the land in mind when they advocate for preserving landscapes.  In particular, the author, Ethan Linck, points out that these companies are far more interested in saving places with dramatic and photogenic places than ecologically more valuable lands. He buttresses this with some insights from research showing that outdoor recreating is only weakly related to broader environmental concerns. Thus people who recreate outdoors can be passionate about preserving access to the lands they use but are far less likely to care about other places and other threats. The author goes on to note how older distinctions between consumptive and appreciative uses of wild lands are increasingly confused. The result is something of a fraying of the coalitions that advocated for Wilderness Areas over the past 50 years; deferring to corporations to take up the slack might not be the best way to preserve what should be preserved. At the same time, the way companies glorify wild lands in advertisements acts in a way similar to social media trivialization of these places.

The last is more of a current news item: legislation in Congress would remove restrictions on bikes in Wilderness Areas (along with motorized wheelchairs and a few other wheeled vehicles). This bill splinters the mountain biking community: the Sustainable Trails Coalition supports the bill while the International Mountain Biking Association opposes it. This is again moving to further trivialize the wild, to say it is really only useful as a free gym.  While there are legitimate complaints from the biking community about how some Wilderness areas are drawn, there are some good reasons for excluding bikes from Wilderness.

All three stories point to nature becoming little more than a scenic backdrop for feats of derring-do, for getting pumped up, for setting records and personal bests.  And if that is all we want, that is all we’ll save, and we’ll lose a lot more than we’ll know.

(Updated on 5/15 with links to the HCN stories now online)

Count….down, please

Sneha Kulkarni asks at the Scholarly Kitchen

Is the deluge of scientific publications taking us closer to unraveling unanswered questions? Or is it adding to the noise that makes identifying the really significant publications difficult?

One guess as to the answer.

We’ve been in this neighborhood before a few times but it bears repeating. Simply making the reward structure in science revolve around numbers of papers and their derivatives (like h-indices) is just plain bad.  As the post reminds us, it burdens reviewers, it tempts shingling, it encourages sloppiness if not outright dishonesty, it clutters the literature, maybe even deletes all your email.  Maybe we should rename the process “publish and perish.”

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.

Who is a Geologist?

Its been mildly amusing to see the kerfuffle over Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s claims to be a geologist, which even caught the attention of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. Of course this isn’t helped by his obvious dedication to the field, as documented in his autobiography:

“I studied geology [at the University of Oregon] as a result of closing my eyes and randomly pointing to a major from the academic catalog, and I never looked back. I am just glad I did not find electronics.”

Some of the criteria mentioned in some news stories make GG wonder if he, too, is not a geologist (GG is not enrolled as a member in the American Institute of Professional Geologists or the Association of State Boards of Geologists as one story suggests as a criterion). While the CNN story on this correctly says Zinke never held a job as a geologist, other news reports simply say he is not a geologist. Is that fair? Read More…

Funding Myopia

Few if any scientists are wild about the modern funding environment.  With the exception of some big planetary probes, where the shear cost of the probe ensures some long term funding, nearly all science is funded on a 1 to 3 year timescale. Competition can be fierce and news of getting funded is often accompanied by a request to reduce the budget some amount.

GG reminds you who read this that this was not the sort of environment originally envisioned for NSF.

Even as this environment might not nurture an Einstein or Newton, one could argue that it rapidly prunes away uninteresting science. Such a view would not find comfort in the last paragraph of a perspective in Science on new research into the response of C3 versus C4 plants in a higher CO2 world (research that appears to challenge if not overturn the assumption that C3 plants will do far better than C4 plants):

Reich et al. were only able to make their discoveries because their experiment ran uninterrupted for two decades. This is extremely rare globally, showing that funding for long-term global-change experiments is a necessity. The experiment relied on a concerted effort to continually apply for funding, given the largely short-term nature of funding cycles. Because most funding agencies place a value on innovation and novelty, scientists are forced to come up with new reasons and new measurements to keep existing experiments running. The tenacity of Reich et al. and their ability to keep their experiment running has overturned existing theory and should lead to changes in how we think about and prepare for Earth’s future. Who knows how many processes remain undiscovered because of the unwillingness of funding agencies to support long-term experiments?

Frankly, similar long term programs in very diverse fields have been terminated for similar reasons, including solid earth science, so this isn’t just biology or climate change. For instance, the USGS has pulled a large number of stream gauges over the years in the western U.S. under the logic that we had seen enough to know what we needed to know–an absolute travesty given both long-term climatic oscillations, the reality that rainfall in arid and semi-arid areas is highly erratic, and the real possibility that a long term set of observations would be crucial in better understanding impacts of global warming on the hydrologic cycle. And that is for an agency that has monitoring as part of its mission; individual scientific projects are even harder to keep going.  It would seem we really need a program for taking the long view–something few in politics ever do.