Monday, May 29, 2017

The Cost of Doing Nothing

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” - Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan

In the early 20th century, Glacier National Park in Montana had 150 glaciers. By 1966, there were only 37. Today, there are 26 and many of these have shrunk by as much as 85 percent since the 1970s. This is a fact.

Based on current trends, the U.S. Geological Survey now estimates that the last remaining glaciers in the park will be gone in the next few decades. This is a prediction, based on trends that have been well-nigh inexorable.

The New York Times recently hired a new columnist, Bret Stephens, who, while acknowledging that human-caused global warming is real, thinks that the case for doing something about it is overblown because, you know, scientists have been wrong before.

By way of example, he used, and I kid you not, the results of the 2016 elections, where the pollsters apparently got it wrong. Pollsters used statistical analysis. Climate scientists use statistical analysis. After all, if the geniuses at 538, Gallup, Pew, PPP, and Quinnipiac got it wrong about the last election, couldn’t climate scientists be wrong about the impacts of climate change?

If you saying to yourself “Huh?”, then you have just been introduced to the rhetorical device known as the “straw man argument,” where misrepresentation is used to make an opponent’s argument appear weaker and thus induce uncertainty in the minds of an audience.

There is a world of difference between political polling data and temperature data. People’s opinions can change from day to day. People lie. People you talked to one day are not there the next. Polling methodology varies between different organizations. People decide not to vote and vice versa.

In contrast, temperature data collected from say, the Blue Hill Observatory on October 21st, 1953 at 4 PM will not change to another value tomorrow. It will always be the data value collected on that day at that time. The size measurements of the Sperry Glacier in Glacier National Park which were collected in 1966 and 2015 will not change either.

Apples are not oranges and political polling analysis is not climate science.
Something else Mr. Stephens said in his column was that the global average temperature change of 1.5 degrees F since the late 1880s is “modest”. Compared to the daily swings in temperature, that doesn’t seem like much, but the amount of energy required to make a 1.5 degree average global temperature increase is equivalent to 1.1 million megatons of TNT or about 71 million Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.

Bottom line is that there is nothing “modest” about a 1.5 degree F increase global average temperature. Another fact Mr. Stephens fails to mention is that two thirds of the temperature increase, in the air at least, has occurred since 1970.

I suppose it’s all about how you present the numbers.

Brett Stephens does not think that addressing climate change is worth the cost, because climate science deals with probabilities and probabilities means uncertainty.

It’s highly probable that sea level rise will drown coastal cities in a couple of centuries. It’s less probable that it will happen in our lifetimes, but not impossible.

Even with the most modest estimates of sea level rise, about 3 feet by 2100, flood risks rise dramatically. Current projections are that just between now and 2050, the costs of flooding could be as high as $1 TRILLION per year in the world’s 136 largest cities, including New York, Tampa, New Orleans, and Boston.

This is the cost of doing nothing.

Published in the Westborough News, May 26th, 2017

Monday, May 1, 2017

Science is not a Liberal Conspiracy

The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Scientific endeavor can be boiled down to this: It is the process of using observation and experiment to come up with explanations about how nature works. These explanations are always subject to revision as new data comes along.

A really good explanation supported by a lot of facts which makes consistent verifiable predictions becomes a scientific theory. Scientific theories do not become facts, they explain them.

Newton’s explanations for why apples always fall from trees or why planets orbit the sun worked well for centuries. In fact, they still work and we still use Newton’s laws to chart the course of NASA probes to the outer planets. But when scientists started to measure the speed of light and perform detailed measurements of the movement of stars, they found that Newton’s laws broke down.

Enter Einstein and his theories of general and special relativity which can be used to derive Newton’s laws (just don’t ask me to do it) and explain the motions galaxies or how time appears to slow the faster one goes. But even relativity has its limits at the subatomic level. We just haven’t come up with a better model . . . yet.

Scientists get things wrong a great deal of the time – that’s another definition of research, but it is through the process of finding which explanations consistently make good predictions and which ones fail, that science advances and builds a consensus about how nature works.

Do scientists screw up or become wedded to ideas that in retrospect, look silly, or even commit fraud? They sure do, because they are human. What happens though is that new information comes along or another scientist will eventually try to replicate what an earlier scientist published. Screw ups and fraud are exposed and outmoded ideas get derailed.

Case in point - geologists ridiculed Alfred Wegner back in 1912 when he proposed the idea of continental drift. Wegner had all sorts of data which showed that continents had once been joined together, but his explanation for how they moved was wrong. Not until the 1950s did geologists and oceanographers gather the data which formed the basis of plate tectonic theory, which explained how continents move and mountain ranges arose. In retrospect, previous geological explanations for how mountains and ocean basins formed now look ridiculous.

I used to be a practicing scientist. More than once I got things egregiously wrong and fell victim to my own preconceived notions, which were subsequently not born out by the facts. In all cases, either I corrected my own errors or other people did. These were learning experiences.

Critics of scientific work will point to mistakes that scientists have made as if to say “See, they messed up here so why should we trust them on anything?” Critics will cite questions or uncertainties scientists have not yet addressed.

It’s a specious argument to say that because scientists do not know everything, they therefore know nothing or that because some aspect of science turns out to be wrong means that an entire branch of science should be ignored. Still, those arguments get made.

There will always be uncertainty. There will always be questions to answer. If that weren’t the case, there would be no reason for scientific endeavor.

Science is important. It always has been. Science has gotten this country to where it is today.

Abraham Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences because he realized how important science would be to the future of this country. Government support for scientific research has paved the way for many of the technological and medical advances that now sustain us.

As a whole, researchers and academic scientists have tried to stay out of the hurly burly of politics or become activists for fear that their field will become a target of partisan politics.

Scientists and science have become targets anyway. A century ago, and sadly to this day, the targets were biologists who either taught or researched evolution. Today, climatology is in crosshairs in the form climate change denial, which is now present at the very highest levels of our federal government.

But it is science which shows that pollution poses real risks for people or life in general. It is science which shows that our planet is billions of years old, that life has been on it for almost that long, and that life changed via the process of evolution. It is science that shows that our climate has always changed and that humans are the ones changing it now, to our detriment. It is science that shows that vaccines save lives and do not cause autism.

These scientific findings are inconvenient for certain businesses, politicians or religious groups, most of which are on one side of the political spectrum.

Still, we ignore these inconvenient findings at our peril.

I have a T-shirt that reads, “Science is not a liberal conspiracy.” It’s really sad that such a slogan is even necessary, but I really like wearing the shirt, because it’s true.

Published in the Westborough News April 28th, 2017