Tag Archive | society and science

Would Really Old Grumpy People Matter?

Update 4/16/19: Seems people normalize to about 8 year sliding windows according to a study of tweets. Worth noting that there is no attempt to examine whether this depends on age (are more tweets from 20-somethings and so 2-8 years is their youth? Or do grumpy old people really forget how things were?).

Science fiction stories and some prospective science fact articles suggest that much longer lifespans are just around the corner.  GG wonders how things would be different now if we had natural lifespans of, say, a couple centuries.  On the face of it you can imagine some fun meetings (say, Albert Einstein chatting with Stephen Hawking, or John Muir swapping stories with David Brower or Edward Abbey; seeing Harry Truman dress down Donald Trump might be entertaining).  It is hard to imagine that today’s political perspectives would remain the same were Eisenhower and Marshall still around to defend NATO. But GG’s point here is one of societal perspective on what is normal. This is most clearly discussed in the context of climate and the natural environment.

Most of us tend to define as normal weather the kinds of weather we grew up with. A period of exceptionally bland weather like the late 1950s and 60s tuned a generation into thinking that weather should be pretty calm, but those people who grew up a few decades earlier saw far more extreme weather events. The result of baby-boomer misapprehension in some cases was to underestimate the chances of major floods or droughts, oversights that have proven costly to correct. Would having living voices from different periods recalibrate how society views weather and climate? Would having, say, a 200 year old resident of an area telling of how winters were in the 1890s and 1880s when blizzards could isolate communities for months affect younger people enough to realize that things really have changed a lot?

Perhaps more telling might be that testimony on how the land has changed. Most people today think of woods in the northeastern U.S. as wild and primitive where the reality is that nearly all are second or third growth over old farmlands. How might we view those woods if the last farmers on those lands reminded us how they came to be? People driving across Nevada today might see an empty natural environment, but the folks who lived there or passed through with wagons in the 19th century might recall the grasses that fed their animals being wildly different from the plants there now. Fishermen in California might drool at the stories of the fish that were in the rivers just over 100 years ago. Farmers in some areas might be startled to hear how much soil used to be present in their fields. Would this inform us at a gut level on how deeply altered the physical landscape is? Would it make us better stewards of the land? Or might these same voices express even greater satisfaction at having made such profound alterations? Would an old beaver trapper look out over Salt Lake City or Denver with remorse or pride?

We as a society technically know a lot about these changes.  Field biologists can point out the plants that don’t belong because of the descriptions and samples made by those who encountered these lands far earlier. Historians can point out where the old fields were, geologists can document the rapid erosion in some places. Maybe we can imagine standing on the Santa Monica Mountains and looking out over an oak-dotted grassland that is now the totally urban San Fernando Valley, but how much more would we truly embrace that knowledge were we standing next to one whose eyes had actually seen that sight?

The point? Humans constantly reset their collective view of normal by simply dying off. And in some ways, that is probably for the best.  We don’t need old Germans advocating for the return of the greater Germany of 1900 any more than we need a return of the USSR or the colonialism of the British Empire. But when it comes to the planet as a whole, the lack of perspective hurts. Efforts to preserve nature can be misdirected to preserve “natural” places that are are utterly unnatural while neglecting ecological treasures that don’t fit in with our evolving sense of normal nature. We get unglued about addressing global climate change because we don’t remember such a big snowstorm from our youth. In short, we have trouble placing our own limited experiences within a broader context; we often instead replace that broader context with those experiences. Frankly, we need help to do this better, and maybe longer lifespans might help. Too bad it will be too late for much of the natural world…

Ludicrous Certainty

One of the fixtures of modern life seems to be the hearty embrace of uninformed certainty. People who just know that certain things are an unqualified bad and will go to any lengths to fight those things seem to make up the vast majority of social media contributors. Although there are many fine examples of this on the political right, let’s complain about some on the political left.

Two such issues are centerpieces of complaints here in Boulder.  One is the presence of genetically modified organisms used in crops (GMOs) and the other is the practice of fracking. Neither warrants the blanket condemnation they receive.

Most opponents of GMOs know little about how we’ve ended up with the food crops we have now, though occasionally you get clues, like if you stumble on wild strawberries and wonder why they are so tiny.  Our food crops are the products of generations of hit or miss efforts of artificial selection (picking the outcomes you like best) and crossing of different plants to get useful hybrids. The genetic tools now available remove a lot of the hit and miss part of the effort allowing scientists to directly target the aspects of a plant that are causing trouble.

When you say that all GMOs are bad, you might as well say all spot welds in a car are bad and you only want a car assembled with no welds. The use of genetic tools is a technique and not an end per se. A spot weld might make a tougher car, but it will not make a better computer.  It is what you do with the tool that matters.

Does this mean all GMOs are good? Hardly, if for no other reason than the law of unintended consequences. For instance, there was a desire to have a variety of common golf green grass be resistant to Roundup; as High Country News tells the story, the new variety was successful–but when it escaped from where it was being grown, it became a troublesome weed along irrigation ditches in eastern Oregon. Human endeavors are filled with such mistakes, many having nothing to do with GMOs (think of all the times an exotic species was introduced and found to be a pest, and then the effort to use the pest’s natural enemy simply created another problem). Just as we recognize that bringing exotic species into someplace requires some forethought, development of GMOs needs to face similar scrutiny.

Fracking is a slightly different issue, though it shares the same blanket opposition that has little to do with what it is and does. Most of the concerns with fracking have nearly nothing to do with the actual process of fracturing rock deep in the earth to release hydrocarbons.  Instead when you hear the actual harms people complain about, it is the industrial noise and associated air pollution of the drilling and fracking operations, the greater density of drill pads often needed for the current “non-traditional” horizontal drilling, surface water pollution from spills, aquifer contamination from improperly sealed wells, earthquakes from injection wells disposing of accessory fluids from production, or even the antiquated forced pooling laws that greatly limit the options for those holding both surface and mineral rights. When people talk of banning fracking, it would be like a city banning a car company from using welds–it is not the welding that is the problem, it would be the noise and impacts of the car factory that are being opposed. Fracking is really being used as a proxy for resurgent oil and gas development.

Is fracking then an unalloyed good? Well, no.  There are some very positive aspects of it: by increasing the recovery of hydrocarbons from an existing field, it can slow the desire to expand production into virgin areas. The recent application in associated with horizontal drilling has opened up a lot of natural gas, which has been replacing dirtier coal in electricity generation as a result. But there are some instances where fracking is indeed a direct evil.  In a few places, it has indeed caused larger earthquakes (though far, far fewer than injection wells).  There is an indication that fracking in some shallow rocks immediately below an aquifer in Wyoming has indeed directly contaminated fresh water. And no doubt a few fracking operations have spilled fracking fluids into surface waters. And, of course, the application of the technique has opened up areas that previously were uneconomic (which is a mixed bag depending on where you are and what the land use looks like).

Most folks would probably like the world to be black and white, good or bad. But there is gray all over the place, and GG earns his nom de plume when encountering absolutism. This desire to polarize to the extreme removes all sensible middle ground.  We would all win if GMOs were not so misrepresented but also if the regulation on their development made more sense. We would all win if oil and gas development was throttled back by a more driven effort to move on to renewable energy sources. Recognizing the strengths and weakness of things like GMOs and fracking could focus our attention on the specific instances that are most troublesome. But when you just paint the whole thing one color, you lose the ability to separate the dangerous from the innocuous.

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.

Irrational Expectations

Humans are really bad at understanding risk.  This is hardly a new or major insight. We know that driving drunk can lead to a host of bad outcomes, yet this happens on a nightly basis. We know that airplanes are safer than cars, yet many will eschew the fast airplane ride for a slower car trip on a safety basis. We know cigarettes shorten lives, and yet people start smoking every day.  Probably each and every one of us engages in some mental slight-of-hand to do something we rationally know we shouldn’t. [And we are equally bad on the other end of the spectrum: hang out in Vegas if you want to see that kind of bad understanding of expectations].

*Yawn*. Old news.

Related to this is the way that national news media trumpets the latest dramatic event.  A school shooting. A plane crash. A train derailment. A terrorist attack. People feel threatened even though all of these events are profoundly unlikely to occur in their lives. They get stressed (like the kid writing his will anticipating a school shooting). They change plans. Even though their lives might be more threatened by an unfilled pothole than these other events.

The bizarre part though is that these same misunderstandings of risk and amplification of the unusual find their way into places where we could hope for a more rational evaluation. And yet bad decisions can be found in legislatures across the country. As some folks have pointed out many times, nearly all gun deaths are not mass shootings but more personal events–domestic disputes and suicides. Spending a lot of time focused on hardening schools or arming teachers is diverting a lot of energy and resource from more productive places (like improving education or immunization). This isn’t to say that there should never be consideration of efforts to avoid school shootings, but that the amount of effort is out of proportion to the impact.

And yet, we do have mechanisms to address some of these kinds of issues.  We buy life and fire insurance even if we don’t expect to die during the term of insurance or have our house burn down.

Then there is the other side of the equation: stuff that matters a lot but gets no attention until it is a disaster. There are lots of varieties of this, from decrepit water systems that poison a population to failing pipelines that pollute water and ground to atmospheric pollution that shortens lives. Mine dumps that pollute streams. Usually these are local disasters and so there isn’t quite the spotlight that might make clear how large of a problem these might be nationally.

At the high end of the risk spectrum is global warming. Here our native issues with future risk vs. present reward and evaluating the combination of magnitude of impact with the probability of outcome get super amplified. For instance, at this point we know that sea level will rise and that the seas will become more acidic, and both of these events are producing observable impacts from king tide flooding in Florida to changes in aquaculture in Washington. We know that we will see more record high temperatures. We are awfully certain that there will be more intense heat waves and more droughts because of the direct relation of these events to mean atmospheric temperature. These events, by themselves, are capable of producing thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in damage or costs of mitigation. And we know that failing to limit greenhouse gas emissions will make all this even worse.

And frankly, there are a lot of less certain but still quite probable events even more worrying, ranging from crop failures to ecosystem collapses to more frequent high-intensity storms of all stripes (including, ironically, snowstorms). Civilization was built on a pretty stable and forgiving climate.

Now, there are a number of rational responses to this, ranging from planning on migrations and mitigations to imposing cap-and-trade or carbon tax policies in place to even banning new oil and gas development, yet we have instead seen instead scrubbing of climate change from government websites and documents. Nothing is more irrational than denial without evidence.

One of the rational responses might be to encourage nuclear power, an argument put forward forcefully (probably a bit too forcefully) in an Analog science-fact article by C. Stuart Hardwick [not online]. Here without question our fear of the unusual comes into play, and the number of warnings in popular media make this seem undesirable. And yet it might not be, as things do get safer as engineers recognize limitations of earlier designs. Germany has been keeping high-carbon soft coal power plants in the mix longer than necessary because they have instead chosen to shut down nuclear plants as solar and wind plants come online. It is possible that even the health effects of long-term exposure to coal plant emissions might make nuclear even more attractive. Yet people are familiar with finding coal dust on window sills or having a nagging cough, but worry about radiation exposure at any level, despite the fact we all are exposed all the time at some level.

Consider this: back in the early 1990s, there were still underground nuclear tests going on at the Nevada Test Site as characterization work was underway for a nuclear waster repository at Yucca Mountain (on the edge of the test site).  The Nevada congressional delegation was unified: testing must continue, but waste storage had to be stopped.  This was stupendously irrational (even if it was politically acceptable): a main argument against waste being stored was that it would have to pass through the greater Las Vegas area on its way to Yucca Mountain and there might be a spill.  But to conduct tests, actual nuclear warheads were being moved through Vegas. Arguments that the waste repository might leak seemed to overlook the fact that underground explosions were forcibly injecting radioactive material into the rock and groundwater system.

We will never have rational personal behavior; there are just too many things about people that are harder to correct than is worth the effort. But as our power over the globe tightens, we need to put that personal irrationality behind us and find ways to govern from a more rational risk/reward understanding, one that necessarily will require scientific study of many topics. Or, as a recent New York Times op-ed put it, we can ignore science at our peril.

Can Curiosity Kill The Sciences?

There’s a book out there that seems to be attracting lots of lightning bolts (Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now!).  GG is not interested in reading or discussing that, per se. It sounds as though logic and empirical observation got confused in there (they are not the same). What got his attention was one of the responses by Ross Douthat of the New York Times, who essentially argues that smugness by those who purport to know better will stifle real science. The nub of the argument is in this quote:

I’m reasonably confident that both of the stranger worlds of my childhood, the prayer services and macrobiotic diet camps, fit his [Pinker’s] definition of the anti-empirical dark. And therein lies the oddity: If you actually experienced these worlds, and contrasted them with the normal world of high-minded liberal secularism, it was the charismatic-religious and “health food” regions where people were the most personally empirical, least inclined to meekly submit to authority, and most determined to reason independently and keep trying things until they worked.

Basically he argues that these are the people being the most empirical–the ones really out there who are curious, the ones really sparking science.

There is a grain of truth there. If all in society passively accept what Doctor Authority Figure Type (DAFT) tells them, we aren’t going to get far. For a long time explanations of the world were attempts to logically extend notions from really old DAFTs. So yes, curiosity and intellectual ferment are good for making progress.

But, there is empiricism and then there is empiricism.  Doing empirical tests like seeing where in your garden the carrots grow best is a pretty clean experiment with a pretty clear outcome. But what Douthat describes are people who are trying everything to get healthier or avoid death. Presumably some in his experience got healthier by praying; some by eating macrobiotic foods.  And no doubt some did not. When you figure in the complexity of human medicine and fold in the amazing strength of the placebo effect, you expect quite a number of people to find a cure in things that, frankly, are not curative. Thinking you can find a better way is a pretty universal behavior: Steve Jobs, hardly an idiot, initially rejected modern medicine for his pancreatic cancer. All are free to explore this with their own lives, but there is a point where society suffers, and presumably this is what Pinker might have been driving at (remember, GG is not reading that book). But, you ask, when is it bad to ignores the DAFTs out there? Read More…

Whose Fault?

Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist at MIT who is perhaps best known for arguing that in a warming climate, hurricanes will be stronger, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post basically saying that it is high time to recognize that disasters are not entirely natural.  Well, he was bit stronger than that:

We must first recognize the phrase “natural disaster” for what it is: a sham we hide behind to avoid our own culpability. Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and wildfires are part of nature, and the natural world has long ago adapted to them. Disasters occur when we move to risky places and build inadequate infrastructure.

So there are no natural disasters? Op-eds like this are to challenge the reader and try to get that reader to come to grips with uncomfortable facts.  Reading the comments online suggests it didn’t really do that…. But here we can parse things more finely. There is both truth and exaggeration in Emanuel’s piece.

Read More…

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. 

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.

Why the AAPG should march, part 2

Earlier, GG argued that the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and Society of Exploration Geophysicists should join the March for Science.  Another reason has cropped up since, namely a study in Nature Human Behavior arguing that there is something of an echo chamber in the science books that are read by conservative and liberal readers. A Wired version of the story ends with this thought:

If scientists want to do a better job of making their research more accessible—which they probably should if they don’t want their line of work targeted by the same kind of ideological philocide currently being perpetuated against climate science—they should try to preach beyond their own choir.

Now delving into the original article (behind a paywall) will show that the divisions described in the news articles are a good deal more subtle than advertised, but the main point still stands. So scientific organizations that represent a more conservative view of science would do well to be visible in supporting science in places that are trying to be non-political: it is a chance to be seen and to have a voice with others whose political views might diverge from those of the members of these societies.

Seeing opinions

Quick note–CNN has done a nice job laying out the mapping of opinions related to climate change in a Yale study, which itself has a very elegant map interface. Lets you see where people know about climate change, and what aspects they know about (it is amazing to see the disconnect between the large number of Americans aware of climate change and the dramatically smaller number aware of the consensus of the climate community).  Worth taking a look at.