Spinning Tornados

Adopting Andrew Sullivan’s methodology I point you to interesting stuff elsewhere.

There’s a huge kerfuffle about attributing severe weather in Alabama to climate forcing. Kevin Trenberth and Peter Gleick among others proclaim “this is the sort of thing”-ism.


It is irresponsible not to mention climate change.The environment in which all of these storms and the tornadoes are occurring has changed from human influences.

David Appel, who gets far too little credit as a pioneer of climate blogging, is, perhaps surprisingly, appalled.

You don’t have to look very far to disprove this — in fact, you don’t even have to look farther than the Drudge Report, which today links to this story:

5 P.M. UPDATE: Hundreds treated at DCH
“The loss of life is the greatest from an outbreak of U.S. tornadoes since April 1974, when 329 people were killed by a storm that swept across 13 Southern and Midwestern states.”

When are activists going to learn that they will never make their case by falsifying the science, and that, in fact, they only harm their cause when they do so? You cannot draw conclusions about climate based on weather. You can only do it via long-term (decadal or more) statistics.

Please tattoo this on your foreheads, so you don’t ruin this for those of us trying to communicate actual, real science, with all its inconvenient unknowns and uncertainties.

Judith Curry, who has many good links, is somewhat more predictably appalled.

I think that we are seeing another instance of excessive attention to “attribution” in a statistical sense. The climate is changing with increasing rapidity. Some of the changes will be anticipated, some not. We shouldn’t presume that changes will be locally monotonic. They won’t be. Under the circumstances, we’ll get extraordinary runs of just-the-sort-of-awfulness-we-get-around-here in various places as the system wobbles about. I mean, what did you expect?

On that basis, +1 Trenberth

h/t for Tuscaloosa F5 tornado video Dan Satterfield. This is right on Dan’s turf. Check out his report.

More on Belief Formation; Mooney & Kay on MSNBC

I don’t usually care for the intellectual bandwidth of audio and video chats on commercial media but here’s an impressive exception, about conspiracy thinking and denialism, following neatly on some of my observations about belief formation yesterday.

Another related article, via David Brin’s Facebook: “Belief in Conspiracies Linked to Machiavellian Mindset” by Tom Jacobs on the Miller-McCune Magazine site.

“At least among some samples and for some conspiracy theories, the perception that ‘they did it’ is fueled by the perception that ‘I would do it,’” University of Kent psychologists Karen Douglas and Robbie Sutton write in the British Journal of Social Psychology.

“These studies suggest that people who have more lax personal morality may endorse conspiracy theories to a greater extent because they are, on average, more willing to participate in the conspiracies themselves.”

Energy Information Administration Press Release

H/T KoTR, who asks “does anybody see a problem with this?”

Immediate Reductions in EIA’s Energy Data and Analysis Programs Necessitated by FY 2011 Funding Cut

WASHINGTON, DC – The final fiscal year (FY) 2011 budget provides $95.4 million for the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), a reduction of $15.2 million, or 14 percent, from the FY 2010 level.

“The lower FY 2011 funding level will require significant cuts in EIA’s data, analysis, and forecasting activities,” said EIA Administrator Richard Newell. “EIA had already taken a number of decisive steps in recent years to streamline operations and enhance overall efficiency, and we will continue to do so in order to minimize the impact of these cuts at a time when both policymaker and public interest in energy issues is high,” he said.

EIA must act quickly to realize the necessary spending reductions during the present fiscal year, which is already more than half over. The changes in products and services identified below reflect initial steps to reduce the cost of EIA’s program. Additional actions are being evaluated and may result in further adjustments to EIA’s data and analysis activities in the near future.

Initial adjustments to EIA’s data, analysis, and forecasting programs include the following:

Oil and Natural Gas Information

  • Do not prepare or publish 2011 edition of the annual data release on U.S. proved oil and natural gas reserves.
  • Curtail efforts to understand linkages between physical energy markets and financial trading.
  • Suspend analysis and reporting on the market impacts of planned refinery outages.
  • Curtail collection and dissemination of monthly state-level data on wholesale petroleum product prices, including gasoline, diesel, heating oil, propane, residual fuel oil, and kerosene. Also, terminate the preparation and publication of the annual petroleum marketing data report and the fuel oil and kerosene sales report.
  • Suspend auditing of data submitted by major oil and natural gas companies and reporting on their 2010 financial performance through EIA’s Financial Reporting System.
  • Reduce collection of data from natural gas marketing companies.
  • Cancel the planned increase in resources to be applied to petroleum data quality issues.
  • Reduce data collection from smaller entities across a range of EIA oil and natural gas surveys.

Electricity, Renewables, and Coal Information

  • Reduce data on electricity exports and imports.
  • Terminate annual data collection and report on geothermal space heating (heat pump) systems.
  • Terminate annual data collection and report on solar thermal systems.
  • Reduce data collection from smaller entities across a range of EIA electricity and coal surveys.

Consumption, Efficiency, and International Energy Information

  • Suspend work on EIA’s 2011 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), the Nation’s only source of statistical data for energy consumption and related characteristics of commercial buildings.
  • Terminate updates to EIA’s International Energy Statistics.

Energy Analysis Capacity

  • Halt preparation of the 2012 edition of EIA’s International Energy Outlook.
  • Suspend further upgrades to the National Energy Modeling System (NEMS). NEMS is the country’s preeminent tool for developing projections of U.S. energy production, consumption, prices, and technologies and its results are widely used by policymakers, industry, and others in making energy-related decisions. A multiyear project to replace aging NEMS components will be halted.
  • Eliminate annual published inventory of Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States.
  • Limit responses to requests from policymakers for special analyses.

In addition to these program changes, EIA will cut live telephone support at its Customer Contact Center.

The changes outlined above and the additional actions that may be required to align EIA’s program with its FY 2011 funding level are undoubtedly painful for both users of EIA energy information and EIA’s dedicated Federal and contractor staff. We will work with stakeholders to minimize the disruption associated with the changes identified above and will issue specific guidance to affected survey respondents soon. We remain committed to maintaining the bulk of EIA’s comprehensive energy information program and strengthening it where possible, consistent with the available level of resources.

EIA Press Contact: Jonathan Cogan, 202-586-8719, Jonathan.Cogan@eia.gov


What to Believe and Why

OK, forgive me, this one’s a bit philosophical. It starts with why we believe what we believe, and ends with a justification for science outreach, not despite the fact that people’s belief structures are stubborn, but because of it. (As usual, just a first pass.)

And it refers to a brewing argument about which “side” of the climate “debate” is most dogmatic and quasireligious. In fact, beliefs are beliefs. I claim that idea that anybody is entirely rational about anything, the idea that some of us form our models of the world entirely on evidence, is excessive. The question is how to deal with reality knowing that these biases exist.

I refer you to this argument by Prof John Stackhouse, about as intelligent a person as you can imagine being a Bible literalist; the resurrection, the loaves and fishes, the whole nine yards, if I understand correctly. I have been following him to try to get insight into how the thought process of dogmatism works, and it’s presented an interesting challenge:

I think we share a lot of common ground here. We agree, for example, that one ought to have good reasons for what one believes or, at least, be able to reply adequately to challenges to that belief. We agree that if one cannot adequately defend one’s beliefs, including one’s premisses, one ought to change one’s beliefs, or premisses, or something. One shouldn’t just keep believing things that one cannot adequately defend.

But let’s stop there for a moment. Why shouldn’t I be entitled to keep believing things that I cannot adequately defend?

Suppose, for example, I believe something because I have believed it all my life and it seems to make good sense of whatever it is it is supposed to describe or explain. It seems to fit the facts. Perhaps it is, in fact, true. So when someone comes along and offers apparently strong arguments against my belief, I could certainly accede to those arguments and give up my belief. But couldn’t I also decide that, while the arguments against my belief certainly seem sound for the moment, perhaps they are not as sound as they appear? Perhaps, in fact, they are not sound at all, and I am just not sophisticated enough to see immediately why they are not sound. Indeed, since my belief has seemed to me to be true for quite a long time and over quite a number of relevant circumstances, wouldn’t it be rather reckless of me to drop a belief simply because I can’t defend it well right now? Wouldn’t such an attitude dispose me to credulity and even abuse at the hands of magicians or charlatans or con men or preachers of false doctrines?

When I think, furthermore, that lots of apparently capable people hold to that belief also, it would seem reckless indeed to drop that belief simply because I can’t defend it adequately, for perhaps some of them can. Indeed, isn’t it very likely that some of them can, since it is exceedingly unlikely that I am now encountering a brand new, devastating argument never before encountered and handled well by any of my fellow-believers? So perhaps I might ask around a bit, do some reading, get some expert counsel, before I drop my belief at the first sign of serious trouble.

That’s what a scientist ought to do. That’s what a scholar of any discipline ought to do. That’s what any rational person ought to do.

Now, if you follow the rest of his argument, you will see he takes it to a place that is (not just to an atheist or an agnostic, but to someone like me who finds value in religion but constructs a religious view on evidence rather than defending an inherited and outdated package) transparently ridiculous.

The argument, though, is not easy to dismiss.

Indeed, this is why we tend to eschew debate with denialists. It is not hard to construct a single argument that to somone unprepared for it seems logically coherent. Take the “tropospheric hot spot”. Assert that all GCMs produce a feature that no observations reproduce (without noting that this isn’t a complete refutation even of the predicted feature). It is best if the scientific community is not especially interested in this contradiction, so that the innocent debater has nothing in his or her arsenal to refute it. Conclude that climate models are flawed (stipulated) and allow the audience to infer that this flaw amounts to a warmING bias everywhere. (The denialists themselves seem incapable of distinguishing between a warm bias and a warming bias, as we see by their squawking about underrepresentation of “cold” (rapidly warming) polar data.) Claim that all predictions are BASED ON these “flawed”, implicitly biased models. Conclude that there is nothing to worry about.

An argument like this is convincing coming from an unibased investigator. But nobody is unbiased about the climate question anymore. We want our juries ignorant of the case at hand for a reason, which is why jury trials of celebrated cases are difficult. However, everyone, regardless of background, claims to be the genuine self-questioning scientific party.

How do we react to an argument of this sort? Much as we’d like to say we are not swayed by prior beliefs, nobody is innocent in that way, on either side. We take the argument and slot it into 1) how credible other arguments we have heard are 2) our social connections to other people that we respect and 3) how coherent it is with our “priors”, i.e., our pre-established beliefs.

So when I say, come on, if a deity capable of inserting itself into the womb of a virgin existed, why would it choose to spend nine months sweating in a moist sack and a dozen years suffering the indignities of childhood? Why would it not just show up from the sky, a far more impressive performance? I mean, the whole story just doesn’t add up, what does the literalist Christian answer? First, that they have heard many arguments form incredulity in the past that have been unconvincing. Second, that most everyone they most love and respect believe exactly the contrary. Third, that their well-being corresponds closely to their perceived relationship to the deity in question, reinforcing their prior (and in fact, reinforcing my own interest in religion, which is ultimately about the nature of the subjective, not about the nature of the objective).

How is this different from out belief in climate science, and in particular, to its not especially subtle conclusion that we are doing a lot of damage with our current rate of greenhouse gas emissions? Presented with a challenge, we note that past challenges have all been defeated. We point to the impressive list of institutions that support the consensus (somewhat ignoring that the list is not compelling to our interlocutors). And we point to the broad coherence of evidence.

Is there some way that this set of “beliefs” really is qualitatively different from the beliefs of our opponents, or form the beliefs of religious dogmatists? Yes, there certainly is, but the answer doesn’t lie in the oversimplification of Popperian refutation. As I have said before, the sensible scientific belief in the nature of our problem is not about a hypothesis, but about a set of estimates. There must be a sensitivity of the climate system to greenhouse gases. There must be an impact function from that system to dependent systems. There must be a threshhold rate of change, and a threshhold absolute change, that exceeds the cost of avoiding it, and another that is intolerable and must be avoided at all costs. What those numbers are is what we should be discussing.

But we are still left with the question of whether these estimates are based on a legitimate evidence-based framework or a constructed dogma. By becoming associated with “environmentalism”, we allow ourselves to be tainted by the excesses, real or imagined, of the environmentalist movement. The denialist frame sees claims made by climate science as being of the same ilk as intuitive claims made by environmentalists in the past, some of them established as sloppy and excessive, and others attacked as such. Make no mistake, paranoid excesses of environmentalists have damaged essentially innocent economic activities in the past. So what we see as physics they see as politics, making it easy to slot into a category of doubt.

So from the deniers’ frame, the position we espouse is packaged with a whole bunch of other positions (cancer from transmission lines, e.g., or autism from vaccines) that are not well-supported. Our social connections are perceived to be with dubious social elements who are perceived as superstitious and wantonly destructive. And our recommendations are grossly incoherent with their beliefs about economics.

This last, of course, is head-vise territory for us. How could your economic theory falsify an analysis in physics, chemistry and biology? But explaining why physics, chemistry and biology have to be mutually coherent and economics slave to the others is actually not all that easy, given that people really believe economics is a “science”! How often do we hear “this can’t be true because…” followed by an argument from economics or politics. We dismiss these arguments out of hand. We are like the dog, these arguments are “blah, blah, blah, Ginger” to us. But we need a way to counter them.

We believe what we believe based on a whole set of inputs. Those who want us to believe things that are not true (e.g., a literalist interpretation of the English translation of the Bible, AGW denial, non-native birth of President Obama, etc.) must replace the set of inputs which we receive from the environment around us with a contrary set.

So what makes arguments from physical science different from arguments from other bases? We know that it is because of a far higher level of coherence than any other human activity has achieved. Some of our opponents know this too, but they haven’t had enough experience with it to take their hard knocks.

But others, notably the engineers, get it. They understand about coherence. And they are leaders of the opposition precisely because of the importance of social connections in forming beliefs.

They just don’t understand the depth of our fields, nor the social context in which it emerges. That is why, despite what journalistic professionals and people like Randy Olsen say, despite the fact that the number of people who really will roll up theior sleeves and study is small, it is crucial to present information in depth and in a cognitively accessible didactically sound way.

And speaking as someone who has taken graduate level classes in both engineering and in climate science, I assert from experience that we have a more difficult task, but also that we do it quite badly.

So that’s why, for all my other disagreements with the naysayer squad, I agree that we need to make the science visible. They think they can just look in our notebooks and figure it out, though! That just shows how badly they underestimate the maturity of the field. That makes the visibility all the harder.

There is still plenty of room for climate research, but it will be quite some time before the predictive capacity of the field improves substantially. We probably have to settle for the very coarse picture of the future we already have, and make decisions based on that. The main practical role for climate science now is didactic. And no adequate institutional support exists.

To connect reason to policy discourse, reason has to be made accessible. This isn’t just about openness – that’s really a somewhat inadvertent insult. It’s about explanation. And at any given level, at any given moment, any given explanation will carry very little weight. We have to accept that. And some people will cling to superstitions or biases. We have to accept that too. But, like the emissions themselves, science is cumulative. And it’s beautiful and interesting, but it’s unnecessarily obscure. The real task is to make it more visible.

On Waking Up, Or Perhaps Not

Forbes Blogs may not really be the responsibility of Forbes.

An interesting piece there by Rick Ungar, says (in part)

A Bloomberg National Poll of adults 18 and over reveals that 40% of Tea Party supporters are 55 or older. It should, therefore, come as no big surprise that, according to an April 18th Marist Poll, 70% of Tea Party members strongly oppose the Paul Ryan plan to dismantle Medicare as we know it – a plan which received the overwhelming support of the GOP Congress when put to a vote.

The fog was lifting and the death rattle of the Tea Party movement suddenly grew audible.

As Tea Partiers took a look at their own bank accounts and realized that they were, sadly, not among the millionaires and billionaires who have funded their movement, yet another light bulb switched on. Why, they began to wonder, were they being so completely supportive of continuing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy when the wealthy were leaving it to the rank and file of the movement to actually pay the bill for smaller government while the rich squirreled away another 10% in tax reductions?

While Tea Party acolytes may have been misled, they aren’t stupid. Thus, the previously unthinkable began to appear all too true.

Could it be that it was never the government who was their enemy after all? Had they been used by their wealthy sponsors as some perverse investment in a scheme to lower taxes even further for those who need it the least at the cost of those who gave their loyalty to the cause?

Even worse, supporters had to wonder if the Tea Party had inadvertently -and ironically- created government as the enemy by electing people who would take away Medicare and other entitlements that are a part of our cultural and national covenant that the Tea Partiers rely on every bit as much as the rest of us – and all so that they could allow billionaires and others who can afford high-priced lobbyists to keep more of their money?

Meanwhile, Steven Lewandowsky makes the obvious connection between birthers and climate deniers.

The McGuffin Itself


What motivates people who, based on Republican demographics, likely earn a living in business or dentistry or some other well-paying job requiring at least a modicum of literacy, to take leave of their senses and to subscribe to patent absurdities instead?

On May 19 2010, the US National Academy of Sciences, America’s highest scientific body, summarised the current state of climate science particularly clearly: “Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small. Such conclusions and theories are then regarded as settled facts. This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.”

The late Stephen Jay Gould referred to a fact as something that it would be “perverse to withhold provisional assent.” Notwithstanding the Academy’s clear statement about the existence of global warming and its human-made causes, recent surveys reveal that the majority of US Republicans do not accept this scientific fact.

Indeed, tragically and paradoxically, among Republicans acceptance of the science decreases with their level of education as well as with their self-reported knowledge: Whereas Democrats who believe they understand global warming better also are more likely to believe that it poses a threat in their lifetimes, among Republicans increased belief in understanding global warming is associated with decreased perception of its severity. The more they think they know, the more ignorant they reveal themselves to be.

Will people eventually wake up to how badly their trust has been abused?

James Fallows thinks it will not be soon. On the birther episode (h/t Andrew Sullivan) and the recent release of the infamous “long form” birth certificate, he says:

“Here we have a wonderful real-world test: if ‘actual knowledge’ mattered, the number of people who thought Obama was foreign-born would approach zero by next week — with exceptions for illiterates, the mentally disabled, paranoid schizophrenics, etc. My guess is that the figures will barely change,”

Chris Mooney agrees.

Now it can’t escape our notice that Fallows’ sardonic prediction seems to align with the “facts don’t matter” school of communication; the idea that even if we have facts we ought to be communicating “narratives”. But I think we should leave the construction of narratives to fiction, and somehow get people to understand that “science communication” by definition is about what is most true, which is almost always interesting, and not about what is most interesting, which is almost always untrue.

Update: Some examples of the denialist mindset hard at work, denying.

CO2 fertilization

Regarding encouraging plant growth, that is a direct CO2 effect. Interestingly, I just learned that it is killing koalas. You see, CO2 fertilized plants put more of their energy into structure. Eucalyptus leaves become harder for present day koalas to digest because they are more fibrous.

The person I heard this from (a world renowned ecologist) suspects that many food plants may become more fibrous and harder to digest. So the CO2 fertilization effect is not obviously a win for us fauna.

In general, rapid change in the environment is bad for niche species and good for pests. That is why the concept of “degraded ecosystem” makes sense.

Now picture ever increasing disruption everywhere…

Image: New Zealand Herald, at the first link above.

Not Boring

Let’s start at the very beginning. Every month we dig ourselves deeper in the hole. Every month the future bottleneck looks tighter, the future crisis deeper, the future losses more tragic. And for a few years, we have been out of the realm of the hypothetical, with real damage starting to occur.

The changes we will need to avoid a disaster are immense. Politicians try to sell them by minimizing them, by pretending they are a jobs program. Many people don’t believe in jobs programs. Most people don’t find them interesting, either way.

The messages we send are soothing, boring and earnest, because politicians are in the business of achieving short term victories. You don’t achieve short term victories by saying “we need to lose the growth imperative, we need to reorganize, we need to urbanize, we need more calculus and more spinach, less ATV riding and less barbecue.” It’s not a product that is easy to sell.

What is the alternative product? Doubt of course, as Oreskes and Conway explain so well. Doubt sells better than calculus and spinach. In times of poor educational standards and stress, doubt feeds paranoia, a favorite pastime of many. Suddenly the earnest hippie is the establishment that is being rebelled against!

Allons enfants de la patrie! For freedom! For gasoline! For beef! (Liberte, petrol, boeuf!)

Who provides the doubt product? Pseudoscientists, of course, or at best arithmeticians and nitpickers. You know who I mean. And who buys? People who flatter themselves that they know some science and who (in some cases desperately) want to believe that the unsustainable is going to be sustained.

To some extent this dynamic is insurmountable. There are people whose only interest in the science is to provide cover for their hostility and their anger and their disbelief. Providers of pseudoscience will emerge to serve that market. It’s capitalism at work.

But who takes the long view? Where is the actual reality-based science-informed world view in all this?

Increasingly isolated.

People who support action do so in a tepid sort of way, not understanding what vast changes may be in store. A couple of degrees of warming doesn’t sound like much, and all the talk is about “warming”, not about the accompanying climate change. A cessation of all net carbon emissions is seen as an absurd goal. And much as we need to move that way overnight, we cannot convince people of the necessity overnight.

What’s the problem here? It’s simple. People have forgotten that spinach can be fun. And calculus too! Political types do what they do not because they adore science but because they are afraid of it. Some can’t handle it, some just think they can’t, some just don’t want to. Grant agencies encourage outreach but abhor political controversy.

The paranoid story, the environmental equivalent of Obama’s birth certificate, is an exciting narrative full of intrigue, cloak and dagger stolen emails, forged data, and competing lawsuits. It’s engaging. The opposing story is about retraining steel workers to install solar panels. Good visuals, but really, ho hum. Small scale renewable energy is a niche market, not a solution. And large scale renewables are, well, big, and controversial, and make for tedious town council meetings and sleepy reporters in those towns where somebody still bothers to collect the news.

So we have two competing ideas: 1) The future is a boring place full of nice windmills where we don’t want them or else some fluffy creatures will starve 2) the future is a dangerous place where people want to steal our money for stupid windmill projects, but if we stop them, nothing will change at all and gasoline will be cheap again and we can all drive to the coast for a weekend on the beach again hurray!

This is really weird stuff for an old science fiction fan. The future is not boring! It’s dangerous, it’s strange, it’s full of new threats and new opportunities, and it is a world of survival of the fittest, where fittest means smartest. WIRED magazine, which sells gadgets, generally tells only half the story. But every smart young person needs no assistance in seeing the other half. The old world is never coming back. I think Bush Jr. hastened the end of it by a decade or so; I can’t understand anyone blaming Obama who is trying very hard to put Humpty back together again. But Humpty will never be quite the same even under the best of circumstances.

We have to give up on fossil fuels or face massive starvation (or maybe factory foods imported from the moon?). And people think this is dull? The whole way we talk about the future here in the 21st century is so bizarre and alienated and avoidant.

Our job as communicators is not just to get the science across, but to get its implications across. They are pretty huge. And though there is hope, whatever will come out in the end will be strange. We need to understand it, and exercise collective will to prevent it from being awful. And we need careful and diligent thinking to get there. But thinking itself is not an awful fate. An obsession with the future, which is collectively adaptive, is also great fun once you have enough of the puzzle pieces in your hand. As LBJ liked to say, come, let us reason together.

As long as people are bored they just aren’t getting it.

It’s a small world now. A large world is an environment. A small world is just a vehicle. And once it crashes, you are just about done.

So that’s really the message, not politics, not culture, but reality.

The thing you are tuning out, that is reality. It will no longer take care of itself. Wake up and start learning how to drive. This thing is moving already!

Image: NASA