Tuesday, September 27, 2011

President Obama Finally Calling Out the Deniers

Obama finally called out the anti-science position of the GOP candidates:
“Has anybody been watching the debates lately? You’ve got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change. It’s true. You’ve got audiences cheering at the prospect of somebody dying because they don’t have health care and booing a service member in Iraq because they’re gay.”

People who would like to go beyond soundbites, and go see actual science of global warming being done can read John Nielsen-Gammon (American meteorologist and climatologist)'s Analyses of the Impact of Global Warming on the Texas Drought.
[after long discussion of the climate science...]

This record-setting summer was 5.4 F above average. The lack of precipitation accounts for 4.0 F, greenhouse gases global warming [edited 9/11/11] accounts for another 0.9 F, and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (La NiƱa and friends) accounts for another 0.3 F.

Does an extra degree or degree and a half matter? No question it made it a bit more unpleasant. For farmers and ranchers, it made it a little bit harder for plants to survive, it made soils dry out faster, and it made stock tanks dry up much quicker because cattle needed more water at the same time water was evaporating from the tanks at a faster rate. The same applies to reservoirs: greater heat means less water making it all the way to the reservoir, water evaporating faster from the reservoir, and greater demands for water from the reservoir.

For wildfire, it made the grasses and trees a bit drier and killed more trees than would otherwise have died. It thus made fires more likely to start and allowed them to spread more rapidly. Presumably some fires would not have started at all, but we have no way of knowing which ones.

In other words, one-fifth of the tragedy was caused by the this country's government's and the world's government's failure to stop burning coal, oil, and gas.

People have already started to die of global warming. And it's going to get worse before it gets better.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Simon Johnson, chief economist at the IMF, and the Wall St protests

One thing that truly unexpected thing about the Occupy Wall Street protest is that it finds itself on the same side as the IMF.

The IMF is the International Monetary Fund. They are well known for their work coordinating last-resorts loans to bankrupted countries. The IMF has frequently come under severe criticism from social justice groups, since their loans are always attached to strict conditions on the country's policies. It's always a loss of national sovereignty, and people resent that, and the demands often seem to be set against the interest of the people, such as forcing them into mono cultures (in the name of specialization and market efficiency,) which leaves farmers vulnerable to pest epidemics.

Simon Johnson was the chief economist at the IMF until 2008. He wrote a very nice Op-ed in The Atlantic describing how the United States' economic ills are very much of the same nature as that of the 3rd world countries they restructure all the time.

The summary of his thesis is that, in the absence of enough watchfulness on the part of the people, over time the finance industry eventually succeeds in capturing the regulatory agency in the government. Once the regulation is disabled, the banks proceed to pursue their selfish interests (as businesses should.) But the sum total of the effort takes down the economy, and everybody ends up worse off than when they started.

Things worsen further when the banks socialize their losses, as it was done in the United States. There is no moral justification for this; to the contrary, it is the canonical example a ‘moral hazard’ in economy theory. Plus, it doesn't address the problem. It solves individual banks’ problem, up to the scope of responsibility of the businessmen who run them, but it leaves the banking system as a whole dysfunctional.

Simon Johnson’s words for this are:

The first problem is a desperately ill banking sector that threatens to choke off any incipient recovery that the fiscal stimulus might generate.

His prescription is to use the standard Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation process (basically a government-managed bankruptcy procedure for banks):
  • Wipe out bank shareholders;
  • Replace failed management;
  • Clean up the balance sheets;
  • and then sell the banks back to the private sector.
Once that's done, it remains necessary to fix the regulatory capture. Simon Johnson’s words for this are:
The second problem is a political balance of power that gives the financial sector a veto over public policy, even as that sector loses popular support.

His recommendations are:
  • Big banks should be sold in medium-size pieces, divided regionally or by type of business;
  • Where this proves impractical, break them up within a short time;
  • And banks that remain in private hands should also be subject to size limitations.
I had the chance to spend some time amongst the crowd at the Wall Street Occupation. I participated in a group conversation which attempted to discover a consensus (if any) diagnosis for what exactly is the problem with Wall Street, amongst the 30 or so people present. I am quite thankful to the two talented moderators who skillfully ensured everyone’s contribution could be heard. In the end my presentation of Simon Johnson’s 2-paneled diagnosis (socialized losses plus regulatory capture) was received with a cheerful round of applause.

It was at that moment that it occurred to me that those people on the street, those who speak for the 99%, have found themselves on the same side as the IMF. And that's a remarkable thing.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Articles written by the Heartland Institute

There is an anti-climate science article written by the Heartland Institute that's doing the rounds (11'000 facebook-likes, 900 tweets), about Roy Spencer's new paper.

Be careful. The Heartland Institute is a professional disinformation firm. Their business is to write plausible-sounding lies, then trick media outlets into publishing them.

If the Heartland Institute writes something, it's not just wrong, you can expect the reverse is true. Moreover, it also tells you that some big corporation is throwing large amount of money to ensure you are staying in the dark. In this case, ExxonMobil paid The Heartland upwards of $500'000 as part of a larger effort to delay cap-and-trade legislation in Washington.

The Heartland Institute is scary scary stuff. They rely on the fact that constructing proper counter argument takes vastly more effort than to make stuff up. If people consistently insist for proper counter-argument to their articles, they will stay ahead, and they win. It's a technique called Gish Gallop.

The scientist, Roy Spencer, has destroyed his credibility in matters of global warming, by publishing flawed results, being caught, but then nevertheless encouraging disinformation firms to use his papers for advocacy.


What if you held a conference, and no (real) scientists came?

The Heartland Institute Publishes a Bogus List of Scientist with Doubts

and a documentary on the issue, documenting how the Heartland's tactic was first developed by the tobacco industry to fight lung-cancer science :

Naomi Oreskes talk on Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscure the Truth about Climate

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Exxon does not speak for us at WPI Commencement

It is my pleasure to announce that Richard Heinberg, the Senior Fellow-in-Residence of the Post Carbon Institute, will be speaking as a counterpoint speaker to the official speaker, Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil. This will not take place on the WPI Quad where the official ceremony is situated, but will instead take place at a nearby (walkable), separate location. All are welcome to come hear him speak.

Many of the students graduating this year find that Exxon’s disinformation campaign and its efforts to undermine Americans’ trust in their scientific institutions are entirely incompatible with their values and their future careers. Many students will be walking out of the commencement ceremony before the CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, speaks, to instead hear Richard Heinberg.

Richard Heinberg’s work is a powerful symbol of our wishes for WPI: a university which, in line with its budding green image, chooses to honor someone with leadership and vision, rather than a baron of the past, a force of the status quo.

When: Saturday, May 14 · 11:00am - 2:00pm, near Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Check out the Richard Heinberg’s profile at the Post Carbon Institute

Visit the Facebook gorup or the official website for the event.

News coverage:

Worcester Mag: Oil and water, WPI faculty and students launch separate dissenting campaigns
Telegram: Eco-conscious at WPI grumble about grad speaker
NECN: WPI graduation speaker controversy

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Science is About Strength of Evidence: Nutrition

Book review

Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating, by M.D. Walter C. Willett

Eat, Drink and be Healthy discusses a wide range of ways diet affects health. Eat, Drink is remarkable for the amount of respect it hands to issues of strength of evidence. The entire Chapter 2 is dedicated to deepening the reader's intuition of strength evidence. It discusses the different kinds of medical studies people do, and how the confident we should be in each. A study with 20 genetically-modified mice is not the same as a study with 200,000 randomly chosen nurses (which is also not the same as a study of 18 hand-picked children, ran by a fraudulent doctor who gets money from an ambulance-chaser, but I disgress.)

The book is worth reading for its Chapter 2 alone. Reading it grants a heightened standard for the reporting of nutrition news, a standard that most (all?) newspapers will immediately fail. Each recommendation should come with a citation of the primary research, with a discussion of effect sizes for each recommendation, and with a discussion of the strength of evidence. Eat, Drink methodically provides all three for every one of its recommendations.

I found Eat, Drink to be a vastly better than The China Study. Eat, Drink draws from a wider base of studies, and it deploys more care to ensure that each of its recommendation is delivered with a thorough description of the scientific evidence. In contrast, I found The China Study to be too narrowly focused on their own study, and too self congratulatory. I found nothing in the China Study that wasn't covered better in Eat, Drink.

The book chapters starts from the corner with the strongest evidence, then follows the trail down:

Chapter 1: Don't smoke. If you smoke, stop reading. Smoking is going to kill you faster than anything else and nothing in the book can help you.

[Chapter 2: Discussion about strength of evidence.]

Chapter 3: Don't be overweight. If you are, stop reading.

Chapter 4: Avoid all trans-fats like it is a poison. Reduce saturated fat; transition from beef to pork, from pork to chicken, from chicken to fish, and from fish to veggies. Reduce butter and whole-fat milk, prefer olive oil and soy milk instead.

Chapter 5: Minimize refined sugars, including natural white-sugar-equivalents like white rice and potatoes.

Chapter 6: Eat from a wide-variety of protein sources, especially plant-based proteins (since animal protein comes loaded with much saturated fat, c.f. Chapter 4.) The wide variety is a must if your are vegetarian, and it is good for you all the same if you're not.

Chapter 7: Veggies, eat a lot of them, to your heart's content. It is the best food. Eat from a wide-variety of vegetables. Their gifts are spread across all the kinds.

Chapter 8 covers drink (water, juice, alcohol, coffee, tea.)

Chapter 9 debunks the calcium scare.

Chapter 10 debunk the vitamin scare.

Chapter 11 is the conclusion.

Chapter 12 is a quite good recipe book with too few vegetarian recipes.

Along the way, Eat, Drink debunks many diet ideas which are floating in our culture that do not have scientific support. These non-recommendations are as valuable as the rest. They will free a lot of people from pointless anxieties and open a lots of delicious cooking options (c.f. Chapter 12.)