Against Overstating or Understating the Case

The ethics of lying are easy; you’re off the hook. You just make up whatever suits you and see what sticks.

The ethics of telling the truth are more complicated, especially if the purpose of your speech is to affect the opinions of the public.

Here’s an interesting article on the Times of London that goes to this point.

Consider on the other hand this piece by Karl Wunsch from a couple of years back. I would consider the piece strictly speaking true but strikingly ineffective. He probably wanted to conclude with “you can never be 100% sure of anything” but noted that was a self-contradictory statement (What’s the opposite of a tautology?) in that “never” expresses 100% certainty. So he backed off to “we have not as yet achieved 100% certainty about attribution”, even though, well, you really can never get to 100% certainty in statistical attribution, can you? What he’s left us with is a pile of doubt that Wunsch seems to have intended as a call to action!

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

So there are two managers who are balloonists for a hobby, and they get blown off track and a bit lost. So one of them yells at someone he sees down on the ground:

“Heyyy! Yes youuu! Wherre arre weeee?”

to which the reply comes back

“You’re in a balloooooon!”

The balloonist shrugs and says ruefully to his companion “That must be an engineer. He responded exactly to my question, everything he said was precisely correct, and yet I am no better off than I was before.”

Getting the right balance is not easy. Stephen Schneider got into terrible trouble (which has never entirely abated) with a sound bite that tried to make that point.

In the end, like an old person who is always too cold when the temperature is below 75 F and always too warm when it’s above 70 F, the best you can do seems to be when both tendencies, toward precision and toward influence, are a little bit stressed.

All of which brings us back to Mamet’s Law, the insight that started this blog in the first place.

“Law, politics and commerce are based on lies. That is, the premises giving rise to opposition are real, but the debate occurs not between these premises but between their proxy, substitute positions. The two parties to a legal dispute (as the opponents in an election) each select an essentially absurd position. “I did not kill my wife and Ron Goldman,” “A rising tide raises all boats,” “Tobacco does not cause cancer.” Should one be able to support this position, such that it prevails over the nonsense of his opponent, he is awarded the decision. …

“In these fibbing competitions, the party actually wronged, the party with an actual practicable program, or possessing an actually beneficial product, is at a severe disadvantage; he is stuck with a position he cannot abandon, and, thus, cannot engage his talents for elaboration, distraction, drama and subterfuge.”

David Mamet in “Bambi vs Godzilla: Why art loses in Hollywood”, Harper’s, June 2005.

So the good news is that we are much smarter than the opposition. But the bad news is that we’d better be.

Dogs, SUV’s, and Freaks

Ray’s excellent takedown of Freakonomics in RealClimate has me shaking my head about people’s abilities to discuss even the arithmetic, never mind the algebra or calculus or statistics, of global sustainability issues.

Of course, Ray is exactly right, not just in the substance, but in the fact that the substantial argument in question is elementary.

Now I am going to say something harsh, but I’m afraid it needs saying.

Anybody who writes on this stuff ought to be able to figure as much out on why the solar panel/albedo question is moot in a few minutes. I mean ANYBODY, not just economists, who writes on this stuff. To be clear that includes journalists. If you lack the skills to do the arithmetic, in my opinion you should not actually be writing on sustainability issues. Period. Also, if you missed the fact that any albedo effect is swamped by the greenhouse effect, if the question didn’t instantly jump out at you on reading the claim, you should be asking yourself very seriously whether your grasp of climate change is sufficient to write about it.

The same holds for many other “consider a spherical cow” type questions. If you can’t do math with large numbers you should find another beat. What you are doing is the opposite of helping. (That said, what am I to make of Joe Romm’s “they are not black, they are blue!” response to the panel albedo issue?)

While I was pondering these matters, a tweet arrived from @Revkin way:

Your dog a bigger CO2 source than an SUV? http://j.mp/PetCarbon (Finally had chance to read; math seems to hold up?)

Well, at least there’s that question mark, but as you can see, it generated a lot of retweets.

Best to nip this one in the bud. I found a very handy page for back-of-envelope energy calculations. Please let me know if you find errors on it, because I plan to refer to it a lot in future.

So, it claims that the energy of a human is about 100 watts (seems about right) and of a car going a sustained 40 mph is about 10000 watts (also seems believable; it’s about 13.4 HP). So let’s figure a dog is about a third of a human, consuming about 1/300 of the car. Roughly speaking, then, the energy of a dog day is equivalent to the energy of driving a car for about 5 minutes, or a big SUV for about two and a half.

So at first glance it appears that there’s really no contest. Even though the referenced article presumed only 10,000 km per year (6300 miles) that’s still about 20 miles per day which is a long way to drive in 2 and a half minutes, especially at 40 mph.

For this to come out in favor of the SUV, we need to get up to a half hour, (even leaving aside the manufacturing and ancillary costs which the original article claims). To do this, we have to make a very unfavorable comparison between food energy and petroleum energy, a factor of about 8.

Now, there are claims that the food we eat consumes about 400 gallons of gasoline per year. This is a few bucks a day, and sounds plausible to me. So about a gallon a day, or a third of a gallon for the dog, if the dog’s consumption is equivalent. Which will get your SUV about 4 miles further. Still not enough to get the 20 miles though.

Then there’s the fact that most of the meat your dog eats is by-product of meat production for humans, rather than independently produced. I’d argue that proportion is free, which greatly reduces the impact of the dog.

However, consider the cost of a meat-eating full grown adolescent child. You will find the child’s food supply (or yours) is indeed comparable to the cost of a lightly driven SUV.

Texas Drought Abates

It’s actually been raining quite a bit these last few weeks, and the outlook is for a wet winter on account of El Nino. Things are pleasant and green again, and we’re hopeful for an especially colorful and cheerful spring next year. Nevertheless, it was the worst drought on record for several counties near Austin, though our own county (Travis) did not quite experience that.

There’s a news report here and the state climatologist’s report (PDF) here.

The image, from the state climatologist’s report, shows 24 month precipitation surplus/deficit expressed as standard deviations at the peak of the drought. Darkest red shows 3 standard deviations, and corresponds to the areas of record-setting drought. At that moment, (late August) San Antonio had received less than two feet of rain over the preceding two years. In addition to the rainfall deficit, this drought was exacerbated by unusual heat.

Regarding climate change, the report is willing to take the bull by the (long) horns:

The drought intensified to exceptional status during late spring and summer 2009.
This intensification was associated with an upper‐level jet stream pattern featuring
troughs on the west and east coasts of the United States and a ridge across the
central United States. This weather pattern persisted for close to two months,
inhibiting convective activity and causing late spring storms to move farther north
than usual. The unusual, persistent jet stream pattern simultaneously led to
drought and heat in Texas and rain and cool weather in the Midwest and Northeast.
The extent to which this particular jet stream pattern was a random event or was
driven by particular patterns of sea surface temperatures is not known at this time.

Global warming has been identified as a possible cause of future extensive droughts
in the subtropics, including the southwestern United States. Computer models on
average project a precipitation decline of 5% over the next forty years. However,
long‐term precipitation trends across Texas remain upward. It is possible that the
present drought is the beginning of a long-term decline in rainfall, but it is also
possible that precipitation will remain steady or continue to increase. Based

on present scientific knowledge, it is not possible to say whether global warming
contributed to the present rainfall deficit. Indeed, whatever large‐scale processes
led to the overall upward precipitation trend may have caused rainfall to be greater
than it otherwise would have been.

Global warming has, however, contributed slightly to the severity of the present
drought through higher temperatures. Global temperatures have increase by about
0.7 °C over the past century, and long‐term temperature trends across Texas are
now at or above the sustained warm temperatures of the 1950s. It seems
reasonable to assume that present temperatures in Texas are on average about
1 °F warmer than they would have been in the absence of global warming. This has

increased potential evaporation and water demands by livestock and humans.
Thus, if a similar precipitation deficit had developed in the absence of global
warming, it would not have been quite as severe.

I’m not sure this is exactly the best way to describe the situation, (“global warming has contributed”, argh…) but all in all I guess it’s a good compromise between getting overly technical, being too vague, and also between being too strident, and being too indifferent.

Transition Towns: Mostly Harmless

I dabbled in the Transition Movement for a little while but quickly became disillusioned for exactly the reasons Alex Steffen describes in a controversial article on WorldChanging.

When I retweeted that article, gl33p, a buddy on Twitter, warned “Nonconstructive conflict on solution side limits network strength. Solidarity smart, no shortage of humans: nonzerosumgame”, and I think that gl33p raises a good question.

It’s clear that a focus on marginal backyard farming is not going to go far toward the massive reorganization of society that is needed. The question raised by this article is whether it does substantial damage. Should we be okay with the most idealistic and dedicated people focusing on a shabby sort of localism, because it offers some solace and some community? Or should we be concerned over the zero-sum game of attention being drawn away from the really big tasks of reinventing, well, everything, at scale?

It’s a hard one. For me, thinking about the problem at scale and casting about for something to do about it is obviously the right thing to do. But then I’m a geophysicist. Most people, even those who see the great outlines of the problem, can’t really begin to get a handle on the stocks and flows, the major risks and the minor ones, the tradeoffs and triages we will have to face.

I agree that there is something scary and off-putting about Transition, especially its accommodation to the paranoid survivalist streak in America. I also understand that many people just see a perfectly innocent revival of the hippie philosophy, and maybe Transition is that too.

So in the end, I just decided to put my attentions elsewhere, and not express my concerns. Had I done so, the concerns would be very similar to Steffen’s. That said, I’m not entirely sure it was worth saying. I guess you pick your battles, and becoming too much like Totnes Town is hardly the biggest threat we are facing, you know?

On the other hand, the Totnes model really won’t solve America’s energy-intensive infrastructure, and won’t make the southwestern urban landscape pedestrian friendly nor its climate conducive to casual gardening. Totnes has the advantage that it was a town in the first place.

Doing it Right

OK, so I griped about a graphically attractive but shallow effort to use information technology to communicate. Being negative isn’t really enough, though, if you can avoid it.

Do I have any examples that I can be enthusiastic about? You betcha.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf
Update: Another excellent instance of web-based communication of complex concepts is here, this one regarding the relative sizes of very small objects. Others?

Web based tool

Do you like this?


I think it is high-design and low information. The thing is, at first glance it LOOKS like it could carry a lot of information, but on playing with it, one discovers that, alas, it doesn’t.

Other climate science sites are high information and low design.

Of course, high information high design is the expensive quadrant, but it’s the place to make progress on how people think.