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Canada May Sensibly Blow Off Kyoto

by Brian Dunning, Dec 01 2011

No nation concerned with the science of climate change should have ever given the Kyoto Protocol the time of day. Most of them did, and signed and ratified this plan to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of wealthy nations, while granting the two most polluting nations (China and India) immunity to produce as much CO2 as they wish. Continue reading…

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Adding to the Consensus on Global Warming

by Steven Novella, Oct 24 2011

On October 20th Nature News reported on a new analysis of land temperatures by an independent group. They found the same results as previous analyses – since 1950 the earth has warmed by about 0.9 C. The results have yet to be peer-reviewed, but already reports of their analysis are making some waves.

The analysis was designed to be what can be called a consensus study – an independent group is taking a thorough analysis of the data, accounting for prior criticisms, to arrive at a result that everyone can agree on. Prior to announcing the results, in fact, some global warming skeptics stated publicly that they welcome the independent analysis and would stand by the results. PZ Myers reports on Anthony Watts response – initially saying he would accept the study results, but now considering the study to be fatally flawed.

The point of a consensus study is to bring all sides of a scientific controversy together, account for all criticisms of existing data, and then try to specifically address those criticisms so that everyone can agree on the results. This actually does happen at times, although it does seem that there remain holdouts for the view that “loses” when the new data comes out. The consensus data, however, does tend to marginalize the holdouts.

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Faux (Fox) Pas

by Donald Prothero, Oct 05 2011

Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.

—Richard Feynman

To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, but to imagine your facts is another.

—John Burroughs

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

—Philip K. Dick, author

You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.

—Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 2003

What’s real is what’s real, and, like it or not, no one can change the nature of reality. Except, of course, with mushrooms.

—Bill Maher

It happens so often that we are inured and desensitized to it. Creationists spout lies and distortions about science and reality, and no one disputes them (except an occasional high school student who challenged Michele Bachmann’s assertion that Nobelists denied evolution). Politicians like Rick Perry and Bachmann get up and brag about their doubts about the reality of global climate change and evolution, and they become the darlings of the GOP. Partisan media like Fox News and their parent company NewsCorp admit that they are receiving money from GOP candidates, or funneling it to them, and no one seems to care. News Corp and Rupert Murdoch get away with all sorts of outrages in their tabloids, yet they are so powerful that British politicians and cops dare not cross them—until their actions are so extreme that all of the UK is disgusted with them. But every once in a while, the cat is let out of the bag, and someone says something that reveals how these people are either abysmally ignorant of reality because of deluded ideology, or they are smart enough to recognize it but play along in a cynical grab for power over those who are ignorant or ill informed.

The latest incident occurred when two pundits on Fox News were discussing the GOP candidates. They point to Jon Huntsman as the sole candidate who would admit that global warming is real (Romney, Gingrich, and others who also once admitted it are now backtracking to kowtow to the extremists who vote in GOP primaries and caucuses). They comment that he’s losing ground to Rick Perry, who made false claims not only about global warming but also about how scientists were allegedly committing fraud. One of the Fox anchors, Clayton Morris, says it it in no uncertain terms:

Certainly, if you dive into the weeds a little bit on this global warming thing, you see that it seems the facts are certainly on Huntsman’s side on all of this and fact checkers have come out, and we’re actually having our own brain room look at this right now, that any of Perry’s comments don’t seem to hold a lot of water. But it doesn’t matter, because what’s resonating right now in South Carolina is helping Governor Perry tremendously. He fired back at Huntsman on global warming and gaining traction, facts or not.

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Escape from New York

by Donald Prothero, Aug 31 2011

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray

—Robert Burns
To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, 1785

Last week I was in New York City, working on the incredible fossils stored at the American Museum of Natural History, as part of a long-planned museum-hopping tour to see important specimens in New York, Philadelphia, Yale, Harvard, Amherst, and then down to the University of Florida Museum before returning home. I’m on sabbatical, and this research reviewing the evolution of North American peccaries or javelinas (pig-like creatures mainly found in Latin America, but only distantly related to true pigs of the Old World) is the focus of my sabbatical this fall. The trip itself was scheduled over six months ago, since it was the only time I could get away before the kids go back to school and my wife resumes teaching on Labor Day weekend. I flew in on Sunday night, Aug. 21, and was filled with flashbacks of my wonderful six years there as a Ph.D. student at Columbia University and the American Museum (1976-1982). Back then, as a young grad student,  I was footloose and fancy free (although poor) and enjoyed the opera (day of performance standing-room ticket was all I could afford), jazz in the Village, half-price Broadway show tickets at TKTS, all the while working like a maniac on those incredible fossils to publish enough research before I finished my doctorate, in order to have a small chance at a job. (Fewer than 20% of Ph.D.’s in vertebrate paleontology get a decent job in a related field).

For the first four days, the weather was great (low 80s and not too humid, very unusual for New York in August), and I was getting a lot of research done. I was also reveling in the sounds and sights and smells of Manhattan, and even the steam-bath humidity of the subway tunnels and the frequent arguments that break out in the subways didn’t bother me. I’d seen a lot of them in 6 years of living there, especially in the pre-Guiliani days when the city was a lot dirtier and more dangerous, and bums harassed you much more aggressively. It was great to see the amazing exhibits at the American Museum again, stroll around the Park and seeing the sights of Downtown again, or go people-watching along Broadway or Columbus on the Upper West Side. I visited my old building on West 87th just off Riverside (I once had a tiny rent-controlled fourth-floor walkup in a brownstone that cost me only $160/month in 1978, now worth many thousands a month), hung out at Lincoln Center (no time for a concert, and they’re not performing in August anyway), and walked past my favorite haunts on Broadway. It was fun to rediscover the foods, too: a Nathan’s Famous hot dog or a REAL New York bagel and schmear in a genuine Jewish deli, savor the delicious smells at Zabars, or have a slice or two at Ray’s Pizzeria. I walked past the Dakota building where John Lennon was murdered (I was just a few blocks away that night in 1980). I tried to find the Blarney Castle, an Irish bar on 72nd St. where I once took a final exam over pitchers of beer in a seminar taught by Niles Eldredge, but it had changed names and ownership.

High above the Earth from aboard the International Space Station, astronaut Ron Garan snapped this image of Hurricane Irene as it passed over the Caribbean on Aug. 22, 2011.

High above the Earth from aboard the International Space Station, astronaut Ron Garan snapped this image of Hurricane Irene as it passed over the Caribbean on Aug. 22, 2011. Even though it was only a Category 1 storm, it covered an area the size of Europe (Photo credit: NASA)

But by Wednesday I was getting worried about the reports of Hurricane Irene and what it would do to New York, and by Thursday night the reports of the hurricane forced me to cancel my swing through New England and Florida, and rebook my JetBlue flight back on Saturday night. It was clear that the storm would make it impossible to get to those New England museums on Monday or Tuesday, let alone expect the collections managers to show up and help me out. My long-planned museum tour would have to be postponed, and I’d have to spend more scarce grant money trying to do it all over again before my sabbatical ended. Continue reading…

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The Tornadoes of 2011

by Donald Prothero, Jun 15 2011

The national news is dominated by yet another set of extraordinary tornadoes in the southern and central United States. The last month brought enormous twisters, including the May 22 tornado that wiped out Joplin, Missouri, and paved a path of destruction in Oklahoma and Kansas as well. It has killed at least 144 people (so far), making it the deadliest single tornado since the April 9, 1947, event that killed 181 in Woodward, Oklahoma. Back on April 27, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was devastated, with a death toll that is still unknown as searchers comb through the debris. But on that date alone, over 327 tornadoes were reported, causing at least 344 deaths (149 of those in Alabama), with significant damage and deaths from Arkansas to Mississippi and on up into Tennessee and Georgia. The death toll from these storms exceeds the more than 300 killed in the legendary April 3–4, 1974, “Super Outbreak”, which caused death and destruction from Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio to Alabama and Georgia. These recent storms follow closely on the heels of major tornado outbreaks all over the Midwest and Southeast in February, March, and early April.

What is happening? We understand the fundamentals of tornadoes pretty well. Usually there is warm moist air mass rising from the Gulf of Mexico that moves north and meets cooler, drier air from the northern Plains and the Rockies. When these collide, a strong front develops which causes a big horizontal cylindrical vortex to form. The warm air rises up as it meets the cold air and thunderheads grow. If there is also strong shear from the jet stream, the horizontal cylindrical spiral of air will tilt into a vertical funnel. If it continues to grow, it will touch the ground and become a tornado. Continue reading…

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What To Reply When Your Ex Back You Want Him Also

by Steven Novella, Jun 13 2011

The 1936 Literary Digest poll was a telephone surv What To Reply When Your Ex Back You Want Him Also ey attempting to predict the outcome of the 1936 presidential race between Roosevelt and Alf Landon. The poll is infamous for predicting a huge victory for Landon, when in fact Roosevelt won by a landslide. Conventional wisdom is that the phone survey (a relatively new technology) was biased toward the affluent, who disproportionately supported Landon – therefore it was a problem with the representativeness of the sample. However, later analysis shows that the low response rate was also a contributing factor.

This episode is now the textbook example of the broader concept that data may contain spurious patterns or results, depending on the methods used to gather that data. Humans are great at detecting patterns, and researchers will often mine large pools of data looking for connections. We also do this automatically in our everyday lives – mining the massive amounts of data of our daily experiences for patterns and then often responding as if these patterns are real and meaningful.

There are many kinds of false patterns in data other than sampling bias, and it often takes an expert to know how to interpret a complex data set. Meanwhile complex data can be presented to the public in a partial or deception way in order to create a false impression. The global warming controversy is now the poster child for this phenomenon. The notion that the planet is slowly warming and that human activity is playing a significant role is based upon large sets of data that has to be analyzed in very complex and subtle statistical ways. Both sides of the controversy point to biases or errors in the data that falsely make it look as if the Earth is or is not warming.

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Scientific American, Please Stay on Track

by Brian Dunning, Mar 25 2010

I’ve been a Scientific American reader ever since I picked one up in my twenties at the home of my girlfriend’s parents (now my wife’s), as her dad was an exec at Hughes Space Systems and a top expert in photovoltaics. But I have to say, lately they’ve run a few opinion articles that I can’t completely agree with, focusing on energy. They seem to have adopted a clearly anti-nuclear bias (anyone who listens to my podcast knows that I’m a big nuclear fan), and are even critical of fusion research. The April 2010 issue features an article by Bill McKibben, scholar in residence at Middlebury College, and from what I can tell, something of a Luddite, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It smacks of a disturbing trend I see a lot of lately, where anticorporatism (which is as worthy a philosophy as any) is greenwashed with a supposedly environmental, scientific agenda (which is dishonest and does a disservice). We should not make science decisions that promote our favorite philosophies, we should make science decisions that best serve our planet and our people. They may coincide in many cases, but they don’t always. Here is a snip from a sidebar in McKibben’s article:

Job one, on almost anybody’s list, is conservation. The consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimated in 2008 that existing technologies could cut world energy demand 20 percent by 2020. For supply, it makes financial sense to generate power close to home. Most communities spend 10 percent of their money for fuel, and almost all of it disappears, off to Saudi Arabia or Exxon. Yet in 2008 the Institute for Local Self-Reliance showed that nearly half of all American States could meet their energy needs entirely within their borders, “and the vast majority could meet a significant percentage.” Wind turbines and rooftop solar could provide 81 percent of New York’s power, for instance, and almost one third of Ohio’s.

I’ll begin by stating that McKibben and I agree in principal almost entirely. We do need to completely replace our fossil fuel driven power grid, and as quickly as possible. With that said, I disagree with virtually every single point he makes. Let’s go one by one: Continue reading…

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Climate Skepticism

by Steven Novella, Feb 08 2010

Climate science has turned from an obscure and forgotten discipline to the center of a raging world-wide controversy – something I don’t think climate scientists were prepared for. It has also become the third rail of skepticism – don’t touch it unless you want to get burned.

The reason for this is probably obvious – skeptics are divided politically (this is an oversimplification but largely true) between liberals and libertarians, both of which seem to have strong and opposite opinions on the topic of global warming. As a result I have been simultaneously criticized for being too soft and too hard on global warming dissidents. I hope this means that I am striking an objective balance – but then, of course, I get criticized for striking a “false balance.” I have been told that I am losing my skeptical street cred, and that I have faith in global warming as a secular religion. Many people also seem to think they can divine my political persuasion from my opinions on global warming, but then proceed to make very incorrect assumptions on that score.

There has also been intense fighting on what to call global warming dissidents – the term I have settled on as the most accurate and neutral. Part of the problem is that dissidents come in a broad range of opinions. At one end of the spectrum there are what can only be described as deniers – those who engage in all the tactics of denialism against any notion of climate change. At the other end are those who accept the core scientific consensus of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), but are skeptical of some of the dire predictions and proposed fixes. And there is every permutation in between – defying easy categorization or labeling. So I use “dissidents” as a neutral catch-all.

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What, If Anything, Can Skeptics Say About Science?

by Daniel Loxton, Dec 22 2009
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, Larry Stock, Robert Gersten

NASA visualization of arctic surface warming trends. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio, Larry Stock, Robert Gersten

As many skeptics know by now, legendary skeptical trailblazer James Randi set off a firestorm last week with two Swift blog posts about global warming. His first post carried his strong suspicion that consensus science on climate change is incorrect, while his followup post wondered “whether we can properly assign the cause to anthropogenic influences.”

Bloggers were swift to respond. Critics (including PZ Myers, Orac, Sean Carroll, and James Hrynyshyn) chastised Randi for speaking outside his domain expertise; for dissenting from current consensus science; and for lending his name to the disreputable “Oregon Petition Project.” Others, like Phil Plait, corrected Randi while sensibly reminding us that “anyone, everyone, is capable of making mistakes.” And, inevitably, global warming deniers seized upon the event. (One headline, at Britain’s Telegraph.co.uk, gleefully crowed “James Randi forced to recant by Warmist thugs for showing wrong kind of scepticism.”)

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The Climategate Fiasco

by Steven Novella, Dec 07 2009

In March of 2006 a female student and exotic dancer accused three Duke lacrosse players of raping her. In the following weeks media commentators wrote and spoke about the moral implications of this heinous crime. What does this mean about the moral fabric of our society, about the role of privilege, class, and justice? It seemed that everyone had their opinion about the meaning of this crime.

That is, right until it was revealed that the accusations were a hoax – there never was any crime. After the revelation there was barely a “nevermind” (ala Gilda Radner from SNL ) from those so free to moralize based upon the initial accusations. One exception was David Brooks who wrote:

Witch hunts go in stages. First frenzy, when everybody damns the souls of people they don’t know. Then confusion, as the first wave of contradictory facts comes in. Then deafening silence, as everybody studiously ignores the vicious slanders they uttered during the moment of maximum hysteria.

It feels to me, with the Climategate scandal, that we are in the frenzy stage of this witch hunt. But already the “first wave of contradictory facts” are coming in also.

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