Classic Bad Headline

“Arctic Ocean has become less salty, more unstable: scientists” says the Montreal Gazette (h/t Brad Johnson).

No, no, no, no.

Increasing fresh water may indeed affect the climate of the entire world, but that is because the water column is becoming more stably stratified as the salinity decreases, suppressing overturning. Somehow the deep circulation has to respond to this. In my opinion no ocean model and no oceanographic theory is really strong enough to predict how, or what effects that will have on climate.

But that qualitative uncertainty, which colloquially may be considered “unstable”, traces back to an increase in the stability of ocean stratification in the Arctic.

Get it? Less salty at the surface = more stably stratified. The word “stable” does not appear in the article in any sense. It’s just another bad copy editor headline.

Does this matter? To the editor, to most of the readers, no. Probably nobody will bother trying to get a letter published about this.

To those interested in science, yes. It makes things hard to understand when a word is used to mean the opposite of its technical meaning. To the press, yes as well, because the scientists interviewed will come away with a bad experience and lots of unnecessary explaining to do, adding to their reluctance to talk to the press.

Deus ex Machina

Science Magazine has the story of a potentially huge technological win, an “artificial leaf” made of cheap materials via MIT that uses ambient sunlight to catalyze the production of hydrogen and oxygen from water. If this works out, the “hydrogen economy” will suddenly be back on the table.

It won’t solve all of our problems by any means, but if it’s cheap enough it would pretty quickly resolve some of the biggest ones.

There are some other solutions out there that (as far as I know) remain in the plausible category. While it’s crazy to depend on the technofix to our energy problems, it’s equally crazy not to root for it.

Sustainability through Chemistry

An interesting compendium of problems and solutions is in a slick 30 page pamphlet put out by the British Royal Society of Chemistry entitled “A Sustainable Global Society: How can Materials Chemistry Help?“, h/t Phil Randall via Twitter. The Foreword concludes with an interesting exhortation, oddly straddling nationalism and globalism:

With the aid of materials chemistry, we can create a
world in which our energy requirements are delivered
sustainably, where usable energy can be produced,
stored and then supplied wherever it is needed.
We can minimise and remove pollutants from our
environment as we create new consumer products
which place less of a burden upon our natural
resources. While the challenges in each geographical
and political arena may vary, it is important that
national thinking not be limited to the challenges of
that country alone.

Many of these goals should be achievable within a
relatively short timescale, and will help to improve the
world for this generation and the succeeding ones.
Although financial investment is required, in the mid-to-
longer term this investment can be economically
beneficial, will create new, greener industries that
create sustainable jobs, and will ensure global security.
We must act now if we are to reap the benefits
materials chemistry can offer.

FOIA and Fishing Expeditions Revisited


I have only mentioned William Cronon on this blog once, but I’ve been a strong admirer of his since his amazing book about the intricate relationship between city and countryside, Nature’s Metropolis, came out. It is therefore horrifying to see him get the full Phil Jones treatment.

As always, I will preface my discussion of these matters with a protestation that I favor radical openness and strict reproducibility to the maximum feasible extent in publicly funded research products, with a couple of caveats. The relevant caveat here is that we are talking about research products. Email exchanges are not research products.

Academic life (despite some recent number-fudging that shows unrealistically low hours and high pay for “earth scientists”, which might just possibly be distorted by petroleum geologists, don’t you think…) generally doesn’t pay very well. Its main reward is the blurring of the boundary between work and play. If you want to have any academics at all, you will need to reward them by letting them think for a living, and be wary of slicing their lives into “work time” and “off duty” time. A good professor is a professor in every waking hour. The distinction between funded research, speculative investigation, and goofing off is something that doesn’t enter into the academic life. Some of us should just be whole people. That makes up for the hassles and the reduction in earnings.

And so, a professor writing opinions (short of blatant electoral advocacy, which is widely known to be illegal) more or less relevant to his professional interests is, well, par for the course. The question, here as in Phil Jones’ case and those of other victims of anti-climate-science FOIA persecution, is whether this is a reasonable use of FOIA at all. Is a professor responding to a student email or chatting with a colleague acting as a government functionary?

If this is the case it is a disastrously bad law, as it allows anyone with a gripe against a faculty member of any sort to make a profound nuisance of himself or herself for no legitimate reason. Now, perhaps those who want to shrink government enough to drown it in a bathtub feel the same way about academia. If so, they should say so, and not hide behind a law intended to protect the public from official abuse.

FOI was never intended as a weapon to allow random members of the public to abuse people with hassles. In geek-speak, a “denial-of-service” attack: make so many demands that the normal services are disrupted for ordinary users of the service.
If the law can be so interpreted, it must be changed. And openness aside, once an intrusive request comes in a FOIA envelope the victim should oppose it with every available means. The fabric of academic life is at stake.

Fortunately, the victim chosen in this instance has a very high profile, as the propagator of the nuisance (who did not even spell Cronon’s name correctly) must have been unaware. Cronon is the current president of the American Historical Association.

For anyone just picking up on the story:

The ‘offending’ blog post, the Times oped and Cronon’s response. Josh Marshall at TPM, James Fallows at the Atlantic, Krugman, etc. etc., but so far the only person I’ve seen tie it back into climate is Alex Steffen.

“Wisconsin GOP tries using FOIA demands for chilling effect at WI universities: http://goo.gl/ehnxY (shades of “ClimateGate” fake scandal)”

So, somebody please tell the movers and shakers on this story that this is not without precedent.

Update: The New York Times follow-up editorial mentions the climate connection.

The latest technique used by conservatives to silence liberal academics is to demand copies of e-mails and other documents. Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli of Virginia tried it last year with a climate-change scientist, and now the Wisconsin Republican Party is doing it to a distinguished historian who dared to criticize the state’s new union-busting law. These demands not only abuse academic freedom, but make the instigators look like petty and medieval inquisitors.

Update: See also comment #57 on Krugman’s piece for further precedent.

The Key Realization

I think us climate folk have been trying to say this for decades, but it’s nice to see it from new quarters. Judge Richard Posner, also a member of the University of Chicago law faculty (now where have I heard of them before…) discusses the policy failures behind catastrophic risks:

It would not be surprising, however, if as seems to be the case Japan failed to take cost-justified measures to minimize the damage from a 9.0 or greater earthquake. Politicians have limited time horizons. If the annual probability of some catastrophe is 1 percent, and a politician’s horizon is 5 years, he will be reluctant to support significant expenditures to reduce the likelihood or magnitude of the catastrophe, because to do so would involve supporting either higher taxes or a reallocation of government expenditures from services that provide immediate benefits to constituents. In principle, it is true, politicians would take a long view if their constituents did out of concern for their children and grandchildren. But considering how the elderly cling to their social benefits, paid for by the young including their own young, I doubt the strength of that factor, although I do not know enough about Japanese politics to venture a guess on whether politicians’ truncated policy horizons was indeed a factor in Japan’s surprising lack of preparations for responding promptly and effectively to the kind of disaster that has occurred.

Now, my present understanding of the nuclear issue in Japan is simply that the ample backup systems weren’t sufficiently tsunami-hardened; thus it was (on my current understanding) a design failure rather than an expenditure failure that accrues the risks, such as they were. But the question raised by Posner stands.

The motivations for long-range thinking and planning are structurally missing from our institutions. Indeed, they are not easy to build in, but one could at least imagine doing better somehow. As things stand, our obligation to future generations is entirely imposed by ethics, and this in an era in which cold calculation reduces ethics to brand reputation and little else.

Fixing this is not a matter of a tax on carbon; it goes much deeper than that. But how can we imagine a tax on carbon otherwise? Any policy which takes us away from disaster imposes almost pure and certain costs in the short term in exchange for (as it happens, highly likely, but even this is not universally recognized) benefits in the future, essentially beyond the political careers of present day politicians.

And it always will! No matter how bad climate impacts get, policy implemented in a given year will impose immediate costs at the expense of benefits delayed by decades.

This is why there is so much focus on secondary benefits of “green economy” etc. But this comes down to an argument about public sector investment vs pure market-based employment. It’s really secondary whether the public sector investments are “green” or not. So in the end, however compelling the need for a green economy, it fails on purely economic grounds, because the future is systematically discounted.

Whenever calculations are reduced to money, long term prudence fails. And this, not the fundamental truth of the Malthusian argument, but its conditional truth in contemporary institutional settings, is what is driving us off the cliff.

Who speaks for the future?

More Griping on Science Journalism

At Pharyngula there is a science journalism thread worthy of your attention.

Dissatisfaction with journalism among scientifically literate people is widespread. It’s not just climate people. My favorite comment there is by llewely, who quotes Carl Zimmer saying “It’s always important in these situations to bear in mind that reporters almost never write their own headlines.” and responds

As a result of this practice, the headline is often the stupidest part of an article – even when the article itself is really, really stupid. Often times, the article goes to press with the equivalent of a fresh turd sitting on its head. Yet another case of an industry-wide practice that is blindingly stupid.

Ben Goldacre (“Bad Science”) is piling on as well.

So people who are miffed at me for “broad generalizations” really ought to look at what the people who ought to be their market are saying.

h.t @BoraZ


New Rules™:

  • The first author of a peer reviewed paper has to sign off on any institutional press office press release.
  • The journalist writing the story has to write the headline.
  • Every research-related news report needs proper citation to every cited research article, with links in online versions.
  • The journalist reporting on a science story press release has to run it, headline and all, past an author, if possible the first author, of every cited paper

That would help a lot.


Again, nothing generalizes perfectly. There are plenty of good stories out there, and some reliably good science journalists. I thank them for their efforts in spite of a not very supportive environment. Meanwhile, though, I think that the real demands of a large swath of the population for reliable, informed, and proportionate science reporting simply aren’t being met.