And What’s Wrong with This Picture?

I accidentally hit a site that is promulgating this graph; not the first time I’ve seen it.
Note that it’s perfectly true, and that the vertical scales and start and end points have been carefully chosen to yield a misimpression. Does this constitute lying? To a political or legal mind, I think it doesn’t.

(Update: also note that the two curves have different time filters applied. Consider why this would be so. Hint: it is related to the choice of vertical scale.)

In a blog comment exchange here, I casually mentioned “cherry picking” and “Ted” elaborated:

The summary reference to “cherry-picking” says a lot. What it illustrates, more than anything, I think, is the different sorts of argument that count as acceptable in science and in political discourse.

In science, the assumption is that it’s not okay to treat evidence selectively. You’re supposed to *try* to account for all the evidence.

In political discourse, I’m afraid, the de facto assumption seems to be that it’s fair to pick up whatever data point happens to be handy and throw it at your opponent, while (of course) ignoring and evading the data points they throw at you.

George Will’s recent column was an excellent instance of what happens when you take the norms of political discourse and apply them to science. Will may have thought he was just “spinning” — which is more or less what he gets paid for — but he was spinning a topic where “spin” counts as culpable distortion.

Update: Here’s the same data without the three bugs. Consider plotting the above graph for 1996- 2006 instead of 1998-2008.


Stop the presses, huh?

See also How to Tell Different Stories with the Same Data.

Cassandritis in the Financial Sector

Hats off to Gil Friend for spotting the New York Times’ enthusiasm for Wall Street deregulation a decade ago.

Proponents:

”Today Congress voted to update the rules that have governed financial services since the Great Depression and replace them with a system for the 21st century,” Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers said. ”This historic legislation will better enable American companies to compete in the new economy.”


”The world changes, and we have to change with it,” said Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, who wrote the law that will bear his name along with the two other main Republican sponsors, Representative Jim Leach of Iowa and Representative Thomas J. Bliley Jr. of Virginia. ”We have a new century coming, and we have an opportunity to dominate that century the same way we dominated this century. Glass-Steagall, in the midst of the Great Depression, came at a time when the thinking was that the government was the answer. In this era of economic prosperity, we have decided that freedom is the answer.”

In the House debate, Mr. Leach said, ”This is a historic day. The landscape for delivery of financial services will now surely shift.”

The Cassandras:

The opponents of the measure gloomily predicted that by unshackling banks and enabling them to move more freely into new kinds of financial activities, the new law could lead to an economic crisis down the road when the marketplace is no longer growing briskly.

”I think we will look back in 10 years’ time and say we should not have done this but we did because we forgot the lessons of the past, and that that which is true in the 1930’s is true in 2010,” said Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota. ”I wasn’t around during the 1930’s or the debate over Glass-Steagall. But I was here in the early 1980’s when it was decided to allow the expansion of savings and loans. We have now decided in the name of modernization to forget the lessons of the past, of safety and of soundness.”

Senator Paul Wellstone, Democrat of Minnesota, said that Congress had ”seemed determined to unlearn the lessons from our past mistakes.”

”Scores of banks failed in the Great Depression as a result of unsound banking practices, and their failure only deepened the crisis,” Mr. Wellstone said. ”Glass-Steagall was intended to protect our financial system by insulating commercial banking from other forms of risk. It was one of several stabilizers designed to keep a similar tragedy from recurring. Now Congress is about to repeal that economic stabilizer without putting any comparable safeguard in its place.”

The jovial rebuttal, of course, was that the worriers worry too much, and shouldn’t do so much standing in the way of progress:

Supporters of the legislation rejected those arguments. They responded that historians and economists have concluded that the Glass-Steagall Act was not the correct response to the banking crisis because it was the failure of the Federal Reserve in carrying out monetary policy, not speculation in the stock market, that caused the collapse of 11,000 banks. If anything, the supporters said, the new law will give financial companies the ability to diversify and therefore reduce their risks. The new law, they said, will also give regulators new tools to supervise shaky institutions.

”The concerns that we will have a meltdown like 1929 are dramatically overblown,” said Senator Bob Kerrey, Democrat of Nebraska.

Oh yes, and those gigantic super-powerful super-intelligent razor-clawed crabs bred for work at corporate construction sites? Don’t worry about them either. Almost all experts are agreed that they pose no threat.

 

Slicin’ and Dicin’ with Dyson and Bryson

The mantle of lovable old coot of liberal persuasion who thinks global warming is hooey has been passed to a new old generation.

I tried to avoid saying anything nasty about Reid Bryson while he was around. Reid was, no doubt about it, a very nice man. He was also the founder of the department that gave me my doctorate, at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. (That is its name. I’d prefer the word “at” to the dash, but nobody asked me.) The meteorology department at UW , later the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, has been a major player through the years so this is no small feat.

Bryson used to say “the proper tool of the climatologist is the shovel” but he wasn’t indulging in crude humor. He thought of climatology as a branch of archaeology. The tradition emerged with a presumption of a steady state climate with periodic oscillations superimposed: a powerful analytic method in some fields, but not, it turns out, in climatology. He did, however, take seriously the idea of the human influence on the environment. He was, in fact, the guy who was most responsible for pushing the “imminent ice age kicked off by human activity” idea. He did get some press in the 1970s, no doubt about that.

But there’s little sign in the literature that his idea was taken very seriously. Even in the 1970s, as Oreskes explains in various places, there was a rough consensus among physical climatologists that long-lived, accumulating CO2 causing warming would eventually outweigh short-lived, quasi-steady particulate cooling.

As such he fell into an uncomfortable hole. His intuition that people would change the climate was right, but he got the sign wrong. Nobody paid much attention to his intuition after that. He never had the physical insight to get a grip on radiative transfer physics to be convinced by it. He ended up trapped into holding to his position that humans could not cause warming, and was much celebrated in that by the skeptic camp, but it wasn’t grounded in any reasoned opinion. And, as he was a very nice man and the founder of the department, and as meteorologists and midwesterners are basically controversy-averse, nobody local ever challenged Bryson too hard on it. He’d appear at various media events, hosted by people who would make an effort not to stress the fact that they were really doing the bidding of the Cato Institute and that sort.

Now he has passed on. And though I didn’t know him well, he was a kind and in many ways admirable man. I was saddened at his passing.

The sadness was tempered by a relief, though, that after a year or so had passed (which it nearly has) one could manage to be frank about Bryson’s understanding of climate physics, which, sadly, was nil, and his ironic role in the much ballyhooed but not so much professionally esteemed ice age scare of the 1970s, which was, pretty much, as its most prominent voice.

(So you see, it was never “the same people” who talked about the ice age scare at all. It was largely the denialists’ hero Reid Bryson all along.)

But one didn’t reckon with the fact that the media would be casting about for a replacement. The year hadn’t fully passed before they found their man in the less credentialed but more famed and more predictably curmudgeony Freeman Dyson.

Dyson, it appears, was part of the Jason team that wrote an early report (1979 I believe) by non-meteorologists, essentially confirming the global warming story. So Dyson has the advantage of having thought about this for some time. His conclusion is that the AGW hypothesis is roughly correct, but that there is plenty of room in the carbon cycle to hide the excess carbon. This, like Bryson’s “human volcano” gets little attention. I am not a geochemist, so I don’t know exactly how impractical an idea it is, but it does seem that Dyson hasn’t worked a lick on the idea in the intervening time, so it’s little wonder this doesn’t come up.

How this justifies Dyson’s incredibly broad-brush attacks on climatology as a whole escapes me. He complains that there is no carbon cycle in GCMs. This mistakes the purpose of GCMs. (*) Now climatology is by no means above criticism, but the principles of how the climate system works are understood to a very substantive and sophisticated level. Bryson didn’t understand them, and was in no position to admit it. Dyson appears like most of the denial squad, having no real idea that they exist at all.

(*) Note: People are trying to build combined carbon/climate models now. They look like they are going to be called Earth System Models or ESMs. I think it’s vastly premature but that’s a topic for another time and place.

But similarities and differences aside, the press has their man. I don’t think Bill Gray is on deck; he’s a little too bitter. I think many people right now are wishing Freeman Dyson a long and healthy old age. I can’t bring myself to say otherwise myself. He seems like such a nice man.

That’s no reason to give him much press, until he actually has something of scientific substance to say on the matter. What we’ve seen so far is just grumbling, not counterarguments. The New York Times has done us another disservice by treating Dyson’s ranting as serious or relevant.


The picture of Bryson in his emeritus office at 1225 West Dayton in Madison, an architecturally dreadful building where I spent many hours of my own life, was lifted from denialist site moonbattery.com who probably lifted it from the department or the Madison local media.
The Dyson picture is the Wikipedia one.


Government as Them vs Government as Us

Globe and Mail on Red River flooding (h/t Kathy Austin @kdaustin):

Mr. Shaefer moved to higher ground in the north part of the city. Yesterday, the Red was lapping at a sandbag dike in his backyard. “We guessed this place would keep us clear of the river,” he said. “Maybe we guessed wrong.”

Downriver in Manitoba, authorities have taken some of the guesswork out of the Red equation. Starting with the construction of the Red River Floodway in 1962 – informally named Duff’s Ditch for Premier Duff Roblin – provincial governments have consistently taken a longsighted approach to flood protection. The floodway diverts overflow from the Red around Winnipeg. In 37 years, the floodway has been opened 20 times, saving $10-billion in flood damages, according to government estimates.

“It’s an amazing piece of engineering,” said Dr. Schwert, one of North Dakota’s foremost flood experts. “In 1997, if you were in downtown Winnipeg you were oblivious to the fact that there was a flood going on.”

Since 1997, various levels of government in Manitoba have invested more than $800-million to nearly double the capacity of the floodway and erect ring dikes around small towns capable of keeping out 1997-level waters plus .6 metres.

But the political culture in North Dakota resists such solutions.

Earlier this week, one homeowner 15 minutes north of Fargo talked with pride about the flood-protection measures he’d erected with his neighbours. “That’s how it should be,” he said, trudging through knee-deep water inches from flowing into his home. “We don’t need government in here screwing things up.”

North Dakota hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson, and Libertarian Ron Paul nearly beat John McCain in last year’s Republican primary.

“We have a lot of individualism here – that’s just the North Dakota way,” Dr. Schwert said.

(For the benefit of those from far away, this is not the Red River of cowboy lore, by the way.)

Dr. Austin tweets “Parable for climate change?”


Image of 1997 Red River flood from usgs.gov


Corn Ethanol Disaster

My current position is strongly pro-biofuel for two reasons:

1) Biofuels are the only path to carbon neutral jet fuel. I think if we give up international travel we will lose far more than we gain. Nothing fuels xenophobia more than not having a clear idea of who the foreigners actually are.

2) Biofuels plus CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) is, as far as I can tell, the only plausible path to near term reduction in atmospheric CO2. I hear a lot of talk about 350 and that’s interesting, but most people with “350” hats don’t seem to have a plan to move the number down from the 450 we have already bought.

But things aren’t easy, and despite the fact that global warming looms over everything, we can’t be indifferent to other problems, especially other global problems.

I have heard no sensible defenses of corn-based ethanol, even though politicians from the “aah” states (including President Obama) continue to champion it. But here is a side of it that is terrifying. Via Minnesota Public Radio via Big Biofuels Blog (h/t David Benson):

Mark von Keitz with the University of Minnesota’s Biotechnology Institute said in ethanol production, the main enemy is a bacterial bug that makes lactic acid.

“What these organisms do is they also compete with the yeast for the sugar,” said von Keitz. “But instead of making alcohol, they make primarily lactic acid.”

“What people operating these plants are trying to do is to keep these lactic acid bacteria in check,” said von Keitz. “And one way of doing that is with the help of antibiotics.”

Ethanol producers use penicillin and a popular antibiotic called virginiamycin to kill bacteria. And that raises two potential concerns.

One is that these treatments might promote the growth of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. The development of these “superbugs” is a major concern in health care because they reduce the effectiveness of medicines.

Mark von Keitz found some bacteria that were, in fact, resistant when he sampled bacteria at four Midwest ethanol plants several years ago.

The second concern is that the antibiotics could find their way to humans through the food chain.

Distillers grain is a major source of low-cost livestock feed. Any restrictions on its sale and use as feed will hurt the profit-scarce ethanol industry and the livestock farmers who rely on it.

Charlie Staff, executive director of the Distillers Grain Technology Council, said distillers grain is one of the few dependable moneymakers left for the ethanol industry.

“If they didn’t have distillers grain as a revenue, many more of them wouldn’t be able to operate,” said Staff.

Emphasis added.

Yikes! An object lesson that everything is connected. Plus another argument against agribusiness-produced meat.


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