So Lawrence Summers Was Fired For Being Correct?

So, apparently Lawrence Summers was correct:

Wall Street Journal -- Girls and boys have roughly the same average scores on state math tests, but boys more often excelled or failed, researchers reported. The fresh research adds to the debate about gender difference in aptitude for mathematics, including efforts to explain the relative scarcity of women among professors of science, math and engineering.

The latest study, in this week's journal Science, examined scores from seven million students who took statewide mathematics tests from grades two through 11 in 10 states between 2005 and 2007.
The researchers, from the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Berkeley, didn't find a significant overall difference between girls' and boys' scores. But the study also found that boys' scores were more variable than those of girls. More boys scored extremely well -- or extremely poorly -- than girls, who were more likely to earn scores closer to the average for all students. The study found that boys are consistently more variable than girls, in every grade and in every state studied (see crude diagram above - showing distributions where mean intelligence is the same, but the standard deviation of male intelligence is greater than female intelligence).

In Minnesota, for example, 1.85% of white boys in the 11th grade hit the 99th percentile, compared with 0.9% of girls -- meaning there were more than twice as many boys among the top scorers than girls.

Of course, Summers did not get in trouble for being incorrect.  He got in trouble for saying something he was not supposed to say.  And it seems that the media are trying to avoid the same mistake, reporting what they want to believe, and not what the study actually says.

As I write in a post at Climate Skeptic, this is part and parcel of a new post-modernist science, where (as MaxedOutMamma writes) "If a research finding could harm a class of persons, the theory is that scientists should change the way they talk about that finding".

Posted on July 28, 2008 at 07:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (24)

From the Guy Who Really Deserved His Peace Prize

Last year, Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for proposing world-wide government actions that will prevent a billion of more people form escaping poverty.  But, once upon a time, Norman Borlaug won a Peace Prize for actually helping the poor help themselves.  Here is what he is saying today.  Folks from the EU to Bono to Al Gore are standing in the way, again, of people feeding themselves by aggressively applying the technology we take for granted in America:

Yields can still be increased by 50-100% in much of the Indian sub-Continent, Latin America, the former USSR and Eastern Europe, and by 100-200% in much of sub-Saharan Africa, providing political stability is maintained, bureaucracies that destroys entrepreneurial initiative are reigned in, and their researchers and extension workers devote more energy to putting science and technology to work at the farm level....

I now say that the world has the technology - either available or well-advanced in the research pipeline - to feed a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology. Extremists in the environmental movement from the rich nations seem to be doing everything they can to stop scientific progress in its tracks. Small, but vociferous and highly effective and well-funded, anti-science and technology groups are slowing the application of new technology, whether it be developed from biotechnology or more conventional methods of agricultural science. I am particularly alarmed by those who seek to deny small-scale farmers of the Third World -and especially those in sub-Saharan Africa - access to the improved seeds, fertilizers, and crop protection chemicals that have allowed the affluent nations the luxury of plentiful and inexpensive foodstuffs which, in turn, has accelerated their economic development.

Posted on June 7, 2008 at 12:12 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Geothermal

I don't know much about geothermal power, but I do know I don't hear much talk about it of late.  Anthony Watt thinks this is a mistake, and discusses the potential.  To some extent, the problem with geothermal's acceptance is that it breaks our current centralized power model in favor of distributed power.  There are few spots where geothermal potential is large enough to run a big power plant, but apparently many where there is the ability to heat a single building.

Posted on June 7, 2008 at 11:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Plasma Rain

A little astronomy pr0n for you today, a video clip of plasma rain on the surface of the sun, via Anthony Watts.

Posted on May 22, 2008 at 02:51 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Phthalates and Cargo Cult Science

First it was breast implants, then thimerosal, and now it is phthalates.  Each have been attacked in turn by the junk-science / media / tort law complex.  Nobel Prize-winning chemist William Knowles wrote this week:

Lawmakers -- representing the concern of parents influenced by certain environmentalists -- are calling for an outright ban of phthalates from children's toys because of the misguided belief that by exposing children to toys made with these chemicals we are putting their health at risk.

Phthalates have a long history of attacks by environmental groups dating back more than 30 years. Even then babies were of prime consideration. Few chemicals have undergone such extensive testing and survived as being safe. In fact, diisononyl phthalate, the most commonly used phthalate in children's toys, has been subjected to more than 200 tests....

Today, with no new scientific evidence, we are again challenging phthalates as dangerous to babies and threatening to ban them. These are products that have survived the toughest test of all, the test of time. There is no evidence that babies or anyone else has ever been harmed by them.

Eliminating phthalates from consumer products would be a true challenge. Even more worrisome, however, is the notion that any replacement would ever be able to pass the extreme scrutiny diisononyl phthalate and other phthalates have.

There is nothing wrong with examining the products our children come into contact with to be sure they pose no health risks. However, in this case, it would be a great mistake to ban what has been proven to be a benign product without some further scientific evidence.

Posted on May 12, 2008 at 09:28 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

While We Are On The Subject of Oil...

Glen Reynolds brings us this:

A provision in the US Carbon Neutral Government Act incorporated into the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 act effectively bars the US government from buying fuels that have greater life-cycle emissions than fuels produced from conventional petroleum sources.

The United States has defined Alberta oilsands as unconventional because the bitumen mined from the ground requires upgrading and refining as opposed to the traditional crude pumped from oil wells.

California Democrat Representative Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and Republican Tom Davis added the clause.

Uh, right.  Since we all burn pure unrefined crude oil pumped right from the oil well in our car. 

Here is what a traditional crude oil goes through before it becomes gasoline:

  • Water and salt must be removed
  • The oil is heated up to over 700 degrees, and is separated into its fractions via distillation.  Oil is made up of hydrocarbon chains of many lengths, from short ones (methane, ethane, propane) to very long ones (asphalt, heavy motor oils).  Gasoline is somewhere in between.
  • Each fraction generally has to be de-sulfurized.  This generally occurs by injecting hydrogen into the fraction across a catalyst bed to remove the sulfur as Hydrogen Sulfide, a dangerous gas that must be further processed to produce pure sulfur.
  • The gasoline fractions in a typical oil are nowhere near large enough for the relative demand.  So additional steps must be taken to produce gasoline:
    • Very heavy fractions have their molecules cracked at high temperatures, either in cokers, high temperature crackers or in fluid catalyst bed crackers.  These processes either remove carbon in its pure form or remove it by combining it with hydrogen
    • Certain fractions are reformed in combination with hyrdrogen, sometimes across a platinum catalyst, to produce molecules with better properties for gasoline, including higher octane.
    • All over a refinery, there are small units that take individual fractions that use a variety of processes to create specific molecules that have useful properties
  • All of these different fractions and products are blended in various proportions to make different grades of gasoline.  These blends and proportions can change from city to city (to meet environmental regulations, Phoenix must have a gasoline blend that is unique in the US) and must change season to season (gas that burns well in winter will vapor lock in the summer time).

I am sure I left tons of steps out, but you get the idea.  Below are my old digs at Exxon's Baytown Texas Refinery, where I worked as an engineer for 3 years out of college:

Baytown2  Baytown_2

Posted on April 30, 2008 at 09:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (8)

The Wussification of America

From the Arizona Republic, presented without comment:

Phoenix fire vehicles, including some hazardous-materials units, responded to a small mercury spill at Mountain Pointe High School Tuesday afternoon. No one "complained of medical problems" or was transported to a hospital, said Mark Faulkner, Phoenix Fire Department division chief for the public affairs.

At about 1:30 p.m. a call came to the Fire Department about a "dime-size spill of mercury" on the campus at 4201 E. Knox Road in Ahwatukee Foothills, Faulkner said.

The mercury was in a science laboratory but how it spilled is unknown. It could have been part of an experiment or possibly a thermometer cracked, Faulkner said.

Posted on April 29, 2008 at 10:02 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Arthur C. Clarke Was Wrong, So Progress Must Have Stopped

Neo-Erlichism from Paul Krugman:

Much of what I did back then was look for estimates of the cost of alternative energy sources, which played a big role in Nordhaus’s big paper that year. (Readers with access to JSTOR might want to look at the acknowledgments on the first page.) And the estimates — mainly from Bureau of Mines publications — were optimistic. Shale oil, coal gasification, and eventually the breeder reactor would satisfy our energy needs at not-too-high prices when the conventional oil ran out.

None of it happened. OK, Athabasca tar sands have finally become a significant oil source, but even there it’s much more expensive — and environmentally destructive — than anyone seemed to envision in the early 70s.

You might say that this is my answer to those who cheerfully assert that human ingenuity and technological progress will solve all our problems. For the last 35 years, progress on energy technologies has consistently fallen below expectations.

I’d actually suggest that this is true not just for energy but for our ability to manipulate the physical world in general: 2001 didn’t look much like 2001, and in general material life has been relatively static. (How do the changes in the way we live between 1958 and 2008 compare with the changes between 1908 and 1958? I think the answer is obvious.)

My goodness, its hard to know where to start.  Forgive me if I do not remain well-organized in this post, but there is so much wrong here it is hard to know where to start.

A forecast is not reality

First and foremost, the fact that forecasters, whether they be economists or science fiction writers, are wrong on their forecasts does not say anything about the world they are trying to model -- it merely says that the forecasters were wrong.  The fact that the the Canadian will be wrong in its prediction that 4.5 billion people will die by 2012 due to global warming does not mean that the physical world will somehow have changed, it means that the people at the Canadian are idiots.  The fact that an ice shelf in Antarctica collapsed earlier than one forecaster expected does not mean global warming is accelerating, it means the forecaster was wrong.

In fact, I can play this kind of game in exactly the opposite way in the energy field.  I can point out that economists like Krugman predicted that we were going to be out of oil (and food, etc) by 1980, then by 1985, and later by 1990, and by 2000, and by... now.  Does the fact of their continuing forecast errors on oil supply and demand tell us anything meaningful about oil markets, or does it tell us something about economists?  He practically begs for this counter-example by titling his article "limits to growth..." which hearkens back to the horribly wrong sky-is-falling forecasts in the 1970s by the likes of the Club of Rome and Paul Ehrlich. 

Advances in Energy

But his key statement is that progress on alternative energy technologies has consistently fallen below expectations?  Whose expectations?  Certainly not mine, or those of the knowledgeable energy industry insiders, who have been consistently pessimistic about most of these alternatives over the last decade or two.   Perhaps they have fallen below Krugman's or Greenpeace's expectations, but so what?

At this point, though it is embarrassing to have to point this out to a man who once was a real economist rather than a political hack, I must remind Mr. Krugman that since we are talking about substitutes for oil, then perhaps oil prices might have something to do with this "lack of progress."  Because, while we may tend to forget the fact over the last few years, for 20 of the last 25 years oil prices have been, on a real basis, near all-time lows.  They languished for decades at $20 or less, a price level that made the economics of substitutes impossible.  Nobody is going to put real money into substitutes when oil is at $16 or so.  Exxon, for example, had huge money invested in LaBarge, WY oil shale in the late 70's until decades of middling oil prices in the eighties and nineties forced them to pull the plug.  Ditto everyone and everything else, from shale oil to coal gasification.  And I can't even believe any sentient adult who lived through this period actually needs it pointed out to him that maybe there are non-technical reasons breeder nuclear reactors have not advanced much, like say the virtual shutdown of the nuclear business by environmentalists and local governments.

I will myself confess to being a bit surprised that solar efficiencies have not advanced very much, but again I remind myself that until the last few years, there was virtually no economic justification for working much with the technology. 

But all this masks another fact:  One of the reasons that these technologies have not advanced much is due to the absolutely staggering advances in oil exploration and production technology.  The last 35 years has seen a revolution, from computer reservoir modeling to horizontal drilling to ultra deep sea oil production to CO2 floods, it is in many ways a totally new industry.

Here is the way to decode what Mr. Krugman is saying:  It is not that the energy industry is not making huge technology gains, but that it is making gains in areas that Mr. Krugman did not expect, and, even more likely, it is not making its gains in the areas that Mr. Krugman wanted them to be.

Other technological advances

But Mr. Krugman did not stop there.  He could not resist throwing out a bit more red meat when he posits that all of our advances over the last 50 years in manipulating the material world have been disappointing.  Really?  Again, by what metric?  The revolution in computing alone has been staggering, and I feel like I could just say "Moore's Law" and leave my rebuttal at that.  Kevin Drum, oddly, suggests that Krugman means to say "besides computers" by using the "manipulate the physical world" wording.  If so, that is pretty hilarious.  Saying that "when you leave out computing and semiconductors, we haven't done much with technology over the last 50 years" is roughly equivalent to saying "leaving out the energy revolution and the application of steam power, there was not much progress in the early industrial revolution."   It's a stupid, meaningless distinction.  I am sure he would include a "car" in his definition of manipulating the physical world, but then how would you explain all those semiconductors under the hood?

But, that being said, I will take up the challenge.  Here are a number of technological revolutions besides computing and semiconductors over the last 50 years that clearly outstrip the previous 50:

  • Cost / Affordability Revolution.  One can argue that many of the technologies we enjoy today existed, at least in primitive form, in 1958.  But the vast majority of these items, from television to automobiles to air conditioning to long distance travel were playthings for the rich.  Over the last 50 years, we have found a way to revolutionize the cost and availability of all these items, such that most are available to everyone  (more on this below)
  • Reliability revolution.  In 1958, and even in 1968 and to a lesser extent in 1978, it was critical to have an address book full of good repair people.  Cars, televisions, home appliances, radios, air conditioners -- all were horrendously unreliable.  They could fail on you at any time, leaving you in an awkward or even dangerous spot, and repairs were common and expensive.  When I was a kid, we used to have a guy in our house at least twice a year fixing the TV -- when was the last time you saw a TV repair man?  I would argue that reliability (and this applies to industrial products as well) barely budged from 1908 to 1958, but has improved exponentially in the last 30-40 years.
  • Environmental and efficiency Revolution.  This one is no contest.  The environmental improvement -- in air quality, in water quality, in litter, in just about every category -- has shown substantially more improvement since 1958 than it did in the first half of the century.  This one is no contest
  • Safety revolution.  While there are ways in which this has gone too far, there is no denying that a huge amount of engineering over the last 50 years has gone into making products and services safer to use and operate.  And by the way, on the topic of flying cars (everyone likes to lament, "where is my flying car") could one not imagine that one reason we don't have flying cars is that anyone who is smart enough to design one is smart enough to know the government is never going to let people fly around willy-nilly, so maybe there is no mass market for them worth the investment and time?
  • Bio-medical revolution.  In less than 20 years from the time the world really recognized and understood the AIDS virus, science had a fairly good treatment for it.  And people complained it took too long!  Think of it -- a new, totally foreign virus that is extremely deadly appears nearly out of nowhere, and science cracks it in 2 decades.  No such ability existed before 1958.
  • Communications and Entertainment revolution.  1958:  Three US TV networks.  2008: 300 million people with the ability to broadcast their thoughts, their movies, their works of art to the world.  'nuff said.

In many ways, all of these thoughts come together if we look at a car.  Its easy to say that cars have not changed much - no wings yet!  But in fact, a car mechanic from 1909 would have a fighting chance to work on a 1958 engine.   No way a 1958 mechanic could make much progress with a 2008 internal combustion engine, much less a hybrid.  A car in 1958 was nearly as unsafe, and unreliable, and inefficient, and polluting, as a car in 1908.  Today, all of these have improved by orders of magnitude.  In addition, our cars have air conditioning and leather seats and hard-top convertible roofs and satellite radios and DVD players for the kids.  And mostly, the don't rattle like they used to after 6000 miles.

Material Life

But Krugman is still not done throwing out red meat, as he concludes that material life has not improved much over the last 50 years, and the answer is "obvious", to him at least, as to whether it has improved more in the last 50 years or the previous 50 years. 

Well, first I would observe that one should probably not trust people in data-based professions like economics who say that the answers to complicated questions are obvious without feeling the need to put any facts on the table.  By so positing, he looks extraordinarily lazy compared to folks like Steven Levitt who are out there trying to quantify the seemingly unquantifiable.

But the question is not at all obvious to me.  I suppose one could argue that the very rich have not seen much change in their material condition.  In 1958 they could jet around the world and had televisions and air conditioning and could afford the costs of unreliable products  (it does not matter so much if your car breaks down a lot if you can afford to have five or six cars).

But is strikes me that the material condition of the poor and middle class have improved markedly over the last 50 years.  As I mentioned before, there has been a revolution in the price and availability of what used to be luxury items:

The following are facts about persons defined as "poor" by the Census Bureau, taken from various gov­ernment reports:

  • Forty-three percent of all poor households actu­ally own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.

  • Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.

  • Only 6 percent of poor households are over­crowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.

  • The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)

  • Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 31 percent own two or more cars.

  • Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.

  • Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.

  • Eighty-nine percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and more than a third have an automatic dishwasher.

What has not improved

To bring us back full circle, the one thing I would argue that definitely has not improved much is forecasting and modeling.  It appears from Krugman in this article (and form global warming modelers)  that orders of magnitude increases in computing power have improved neither the hubris of the modelers nor the quality of their forecasts.  I am sure I could as easily find someone in 1958, or even 1908, out there crying "My forecast is fine - its reality that's broken!"

OK, I am spent.  I am sure there is more that could be said on this, but I will leave the rest to you guys.

Posted on April 22, 2008 at 11:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (30)

Modern Witch Trials

Kevin Drum, while sympathetic (as we all are) to the plight of parents of kids with autism, is obviously frustrated that a few people with no science behind them are causing kids to go un-vaccinated.  Both he and Megan McArdle suggest some reasons for this.  I added this in the comment section:

It all strikes me as part of the general rebellion against reason we see today, alas.

Last week in my class on the late Middle Ages, we learned about the early origins of witchcraft denunciations. Most denunciations were initiated by someone who had undergone a tragedy that seemed inexplicable -- e.g. the death of a loved one due to disease or a crop failure or, most commonly, the death of a child. It seems to be part of human nature to seek out something or someone to blame, and in this case people latched onto the least sympathetic, most marginalized people around them (often widowed women) and accused them of witchcraft as the cause for their tragedy.

The parallels, to me, are striking. I think many of the witchcraft accusers had the same motivation with the Thimerosal crowd, with only the target changing (now drug companies are the unsympathetic ones). The only real difference is that we have in fact added a positive feedback to this point of human nature, by creating a tort system dominated by sympathy over reason, which tends to pay off on such wild accusations of witchcraft. 

Breast implant makers?  Burn them!  Vaccine manufacturers?   Burn them!  Obstetricians?  Burn them!

Posted on April 22, 2008 at 01:36 PM | Permalink | Comments (12)

Solar Cells in Sheets From Dalton, Georgia

Every 2-3 years I do the math on solar cells for my home.  I live in a house with a large flat roof and in one of the top 10 cities in the world for solar potential, so it seems to make sense in theory.  Unfortunately, even with large government / power company subsidies, the math never works as an investment.

The problem for me is not efficiency - I have enough flat space on my roof for a lot of cells - but cost.  We need a solar technology that can be rolled out of the factory like carpet from Dalton, Georgia.  To this end, this looks promising.

Posted on March 6, 2008 at 09:36 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

A Junior High Science Project That Actually Contributes A Small Bit to Science

Cross-posted from Climate Skeptic

Tired of build-a-volcano junior high science fair projects, my son and I tried to identify something he could easily do himself (well, mostly, you know how kids science projects are) but that would actually contribute a small bit to science.  This year, he is doing a project on urban heat islands and urban biases on temperature measurement.   The project has two parts:  1) drive across Phoenix taking temperature measurements at night, to see if there is a variation and 2) participate in the surfacestations.org survey of US Historical Climate Network temperature measurement sites, analyzing a couple of sites for urban heat biases. 

The results of #1 are really cool (warm?) but I will save posting them until my son has his data in order.  Here is a teaser:  While the IPCC claims that urban heat islands have a negligible effect on surface temperature measurement, we found a nearly linear 5 degree F temperature gradient in the early evening between downtown Phoenix and the countryside 25 miles away.  I can't wait to try this for myself near a USHCN site, say from the Tucson site out to the countryside.

For #2, he has posted two USHCN temperature measurement site surveys here and here.  The fun part for him is that his survey of the Miami, AZ site has already led to a post in response at Climate Audit.  It turns out his survey adds data to an ongoing discussion there about GISS temperature "corrections."

Miami_az_mmts

Out-of-the-mouth-of-babes moment:  My son says, "gee, dad, doesn't that metal building reflect a lot of heat on the thermometer-thing."  You can bet it does.  This is so obvious even a 14-year-old can see it, but don't tell the RealClimate folks who continue to argue that they can adjust the data for station quality without ever seeing the station.

This has been a very good science project, and I would encourage others to try it.  There are lots of US temperature stations left to survey, particularly in the middle of the country.  In a later post I will show you how we did the driving temperature transects of Phoenix.

Posted on February 17, 2008 at 05:37 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Did the World Overlook a Volcano Eruption?

An interesting story told by Anthony Watts, of trying to figure out if an seemingly extinct volcano erupted in Antarctica last October.  No definitive answers yet, but a reminder that  even in a world of billion dollar particle accelerators, amateurs still have a role in science.

Posted on February 11, 2008 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Pseudo-Science Wack-a-Mole

Well, another pseudo-scientific "threat" that made front pages everywhere has been shot down by careful science.  Most of these stories are so dumb they shouldn't have ever made the press in the first place, but even when the weight of science is piled up against scare-mongering conjecture, the media addiction to treating these "threats" seriously still cannot be cured.  Just observe the continued media treatment of Thimerosal-autism concerns as somehow justified despite rock-solid science that there is no connection.  How long do we have to keep playing pseudo-science wack-a-mole?  Will media editors ever be able to bring respectability to their profession vis-a-vis science-related issues?

Posted on February 5, 2008 at 01:06 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fuel Without the Fossil

A number of years ago I read The Deep Hot Biosphere by Thomas Gold because I was working on a novel which included extremophile bacteria.  Gold's premise was that some/many/most underground hydrocarbons were actually produced underground from methane deep in the earth that is converted by underground bacteria to longer-chain hydrocarbons as they move toward the surface.    Many thought gold to be a quack, including most in the oil industry, but I thought his hypothesis at least intriguing enough to test.  Which someone apparently has:

An article in Science today seems to suggest that the abiotic theory is correct. In a fairly dense article entitled "Abiogenic Hydrocarbon Production at Lost City Hydrothermal Field," researchers Proskurowski et al., find evidence of the abiogenic formation of short-hydrocarbon chains in an area where hydrocarbons would not otherwise be able to form by the biogenic theory. What Proskurowski et al. identified was the formation of carbon chains 1 to 4 carbon atoms in length, with shorter chains forming deeper, and with isotopic signatures ruling out biogenic origins. The conclusion of the article is as follows: "Our findings illustrate that the abiotic synthesis of hydrocarbons in nature may occur in the presence of ultramafic rocks, water, and moderate amounts of heat."

My sense is that we may now say a fraction of oil is abiogenic, but are a long way from saying that any serious percentage is of non-fossil sources.  But it is interesting.

Posted on February 1, 2008 at 11:18 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

It Had to Be a Controlled Demolition!

If flying a fuel-laden passenger jet into a building is not considered sufficient cause for a building structure to fail, then surely the failure of eight 1/2-inch steel plates is not sufficient to bring down a large structure.  Right?

Posted on January 15, 2008 at 10:45 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Uncovering Some Really Bad Science

Kevin Drum thinks he has a killer analysis supporting government health care.  In a post he titles sarcastically "Best Healthcare In the World, Baby," Drum shares this chart:

Blog_deaths_amenable_healthcare

The implication is that the US has the worst healthcare system, because, according to this study, the US has the highest rates of "amenable mortality," defined as deaths that are "potentially preventable with timely and effective health care."

I get caught from time to time linking to studies that turn out to have crappy methodology.  However, I do try to do a little due diligence each time to at least look at their approach, particularly when the authors are claiming to measure something so non-objective as mortality that was "potentially preventable."

So, when in doubt, let's look at what the author's have to say about their methodology.  The press release is here, which gets us nowhere.  From there, though, one can link to here and then download the article from Health Affairs via pdf  (the site is gated but I found that if you go through the press release site you can get in for free).

The wording of the study and the chart as quoted by Mr. Drum seem to imply that someone has gone through a sampling of medical histories to look at deaths to decide if they were preventable deaths.  Some studies like this have been conducted.  This is not one of them.  The authors do not look at any patient data.

Here is what they actually did:  They arbitrarily defined a handful of conditions as "amenable" to care.  These are:

Ischemic Heart Disease (IHD)
Other circulatory diseases
Neoplasms (some cancers)
Diabetes
Respiratory diseases
Surgical conditions and medical errors
Infectious Diseases.
Perinatal, congenital, and maternal conditions
Other (very small)

All the study does is show how many people died in each country from this set of diseases and conditions.  Period.  It doesn't determine if they got care or if they in particular could have been saved, but just that they died of one of the above list of conditions.  This study was not an effort to identify people who died when their particular condition should have been preventable or amenable to care;  all it measures is the number of people in each country who died from list of conditions.  If Joe is talking to me and in the next second flops over instantly dead of a massive heart attack, the author's consider him to have died of a disease amenable to care.

We can learn something by looking at the breakdown of the data.  If you can't read the table below, click on it for a larger version

Amenablediseases_2

Let's take the data for men.   The study makes a big point of saying that France is much better than the US, so we will use those two countries.   In 2003, France has an "amenable disease" death rate 56 points lower than the US.  But we can see that almost this whole gap, or 42 points of it, comes from heart and circulatory diseases.  The incidence of these diseases are highly related to diet and lifestyle.  In fact, it is well established that the US has a comparatively high incidence rate of these diseases, much higher than France.  This makes it entirely possible that this mortality difference is entirely due to lifestyle differences and disease incidence rates rather than the relative merits of health care systems. In fact, this study is close to meaningless.  If they really wanted to make a point about the quality of health care systems, they would compare them on relative mortality with a denominator of the disease incidence rate, not a denominator of total population.

But in their discussion, the study's authors reveal themselves to be, if I am reading them right, complete idiots in terms of statistical methods.  The authors acknowledge that lifestyle differences may be a problem in their data.  This is how they say they solved this problem:

It is important to recognize that the development of any list of indicators of amenable mortality involves a degree of judgment, as a death from any cause is typically the final event in a complex chain of processes that include issues related to underlying social and economic factors, lifestyles, and preventive and curative health care. As a consequence, interpretation of findings requires an understanding of the natural history and scope for prevention and treatment of the condition in question. Thus, in the case of IHD, we find accumulating evidence that suggests that advances in health care have contributed to declining mortality from this condition in many countries, yet it is equally clear that large international differences in mortality predated the advent of effective health care, reflecting factors such as diet and rates of smoking and physical activity.16 To account for this variation, we included only half of the mortality from IHD, although, based on the available evidence, figures between, say, 25 percent and 70 percent would be equally justifiable.

I have a very smart reader group, so my sense is that many of you already see the gaffe here.  The author's posit that 50% of heart disease may be due to lifestyle, though the number might be higher or lower.   So to correct for this, they reduce every country's heart disease number (IHD) by a fixed amount of 50%.  WTF??  This corrects for NOTHING.  All this does is reduce the weighting of IHD in the total measure. 

Look, if the problem is that lifestyle contribution to heart disease varies by country, then the percentage of IHD deaths that need to be removed because the deaths are lifestyle related will vary by country.  If the US has the "worst" lifestyle, and the number for lifestyle deaths is about 50% there, it is going to be less than 50% in every country.  The correction, if an accurate one could be created, needs to be applied to the variance between nations, not to the base numbers.  Careful multiple regressions might or might not have sorted the two sets of causes apart, but dividing by 50% doesn't do anything.  This mistake is not just wrong, it is LAUGHABLE, and calls into question the author's qualification to say anything on this topic.  They may be fine doctors, but they don't know squat about data analysis.

There may be nuggets of concern for the US lurking in this data.  I don't know how they measure deaths from surgical conditions and medical errors, but its not good to be higher on this.  Though again, you have to be careful.  The US has far more surgeries than most other countries per capita, so we have more surgical deaths.  Also, medical error data is notoriously difficult to compare country to country because reporting standards and processes are so different.  In the US, when the government measures medical errors, it is a neutral third party to the error.  In Europe, the government, as healthcare provider, is often the source of the error, calling into question how aggressive these countries may be in defining "an error."  Infant mortality data is a good example of such a trap.  The US often looks worse than European nations on infant mortality because it is defined as infant deaths as a percentage of live births.  But the US has the most advanced neo-natal capabilities in the world.  Many pregnancies that would result in a "born dead" in other countries result in a live birth in the US.  Since these rescued births are much more problematic, their death rate is much higher.

There is good news for the US in the study.  The item on this list most amenable to intensive medical intervention is cancer (neoplasms in the study above).  In that category, despite a higher incidence rate than many of these countries, the US has one of the lowest mortality rates as a percentage of the total population, which implies that our cancer mortality in the US as a percentage of cancer incidence is much better than these countries.  This shows our much higher 5-year cancer survival rates.

Update:  I thought this was pretty clear, but some of the commenters are confused.  The halving of IHD numbers was applied to all countries, not just the US.  So the actual male US IHD number is about 100 before halving and the actual French number is about 40.  Again, this halving only reduces the weighting of IHD in the total index; it in no way corrects for differences in incidence rate. 

Posted on January 8, 2008 at 08:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (31)

Things I Didn't Know

The length of a day varies slightly year by year.  I would presume this is due to small changes in the Earth's core, which would effect angular momentum.  I wonder if the water cycle on the earth (ie moving water from the ocean say to lakes or high-altitude ice) measurably affects angular momentum.


Goodridge_fig8_lodvariance

Posted on October 16, 2007 at 11:13 PM | Permalink | Comments (10)

New iPod

The newly announced iPod, which is basically an iPhone without the phone but with all the same screen, interface, wi-fi, etc. looks pretty good.  The only problem I have with it (without having actually held one) is that the storage is pretty thin* at 16GB given that it is such a natural for movies.  Still, I can see having one of these for travel while keeping my current 60GB iPod for my music collection  (and by the way, new, thinner traditional iPods with more memory are also on the way.  160GB, woot!).  This is getting close to what I had hoped the Nokia 770 was going to be, but was crippled by lack of memory.  If they would make a folding wireless bluetooth keyboard work with this, it will be great.

* Spoken by the person who thought he would never fill his first 10BM hard drive add-in card on his first PC

Posted on September 5, 2007 at 04:35 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Changes around Uranus

Sorry, but its just impossible for me to resist juvenile Uranus humor.  However, the rings around Uranus are indeed changing.  The other day, I wrote about something I call "scientific anthropomorphism," or our tendency to define "normal" in long-time-frame phenomena based upon our very short observational history.  Events on Uranus bear out this fallacy:

The images revealed that the inner rings of micron-sized dust have changed significantly since the Voyager 2 spacecraft photographed the Uranus system 21 years ago. Today the inner rings are much more prominent than expected.

"People tend to think of the rings as unchanging, but our observations show that not to be the case," said Dr de Pater. "There are a lot of forces acting on small dust grains, so it is not that crazy to find that the arrangement of rings has changed."

via The Reference Frame

Posted on August 24, 2007 at 08:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

FAQ of the Day

This is perhaps my favorite FAQ question that I have ever seen, in a Popular Mechanics article on 9/11:

But why didn't you talk about U.S. foreign policy, corporate imperialism, oil empire, Bush family ties, Halliburton, the Mossad, the CIA, the Freemasons, the Illuminati or Opus Dei?

Posted on August 21, 2007 at 12:43 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

What is Normal?

I have said for years it is hard to know what is "normal" in a chaotic climate system that has everything from 1 year to 10 year to 10,000 year cycles, when we have only been observing it for 30 years.  It's a bit like exploring around Nebraska and deciding that you know the full extent of geologic variance. Craig Limesand makes a similar point here.

Posted on August 20, 2007 at 11:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Aerogels look cool

Q&O links a cool article from the London Times on aerogels, apparently the least dense substance manufactured by man.  They are apparently great insulators and can be apparently be tweaked to be selectively permeable or absorbent of various substances, making them useful for filtering applications.  And they are being used in tennis rackets  (I have a theory that tennis and golf equipment manufacturers are to new materials what pornography is to new digital distribution mechanisms -- they seem to always be early adopters). 

Postscript: Of course we get this same article about material X every five years ago in the press, so it is OK to be skeptical.  But the picture is still wicked cool.

Posted on August 20, 2007 at 11:25 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Hold off on the Funeral for Special Relativity

Harvard physicist Luboš Motl throws some cold water on recent claims to have broken the speed of light.  He argues:

Two years ago or so, Robert Helling explained what these experiments are all about. As far as I can say, there is nothing new about Nimtz's findings or observations and not much interesting about them either. He's been doing the very same things for decades.

He builds a setup in which the maximum of a wave moves faster than light (although you need amplifiers to find where the maximum is at the end). That's of course possible. In fact, it's very easy. You can make such things with normal classical electromagnetic waves as long as you have a layer of material where they exponentially drop. In analogy with Schrödinger's equation, you may realize that tunneling can be very fast.

However, microscopically, no signal or information is moving superluminally and nothing is violated about special relativity whatsoever because all these waves perfectly satisfy Maxwell's equations where the speed of light is safely bounded. Nimtz must know that, I think, so his behavior seems dishonest to me.

Posted on August 17, 2007 at 08:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tautology (and Thoughts on Ward Churchill)

Todd Zywicki notes that Congress "has been on a binge diet of junk social science."  Is there another kind of social science?  Particularly in the media, I really think the main influence of social science has been to substantially lower the bar for scientific inquiry and skepticism thereof.

Update: On a related note, these really low academic standards in the social "sciences" are the reason I think firing Ward Churchill is bogus, as I wrote here.  Academic standards for things like ethnic or gender studies are incredibly low, particularly for the "research" done in these departments.  As I pointed out before, Cal State Long Beach, for example, hired a paranoid schizophrenic who had served prison time for beating and torturing two women as the head of their Black Studies department.  It is almost impossible to imagine Ward Churchill fired for violating the academic standards of his discipline because his discipline tends to have none, and everyone knows it.  The University of Colorado fully knew what it was getting with Ward Churchill, but they hired him to check a politically correct racial/gender/ethnic box.  Everything UC supposedly fired him for were known to them or should have been known to them with the most minimal of due diligence when they tenured the guy.  Nothing has changed, except that he is no longer a PR asset for the university.  As I wrote previously:

I could go out tomorrow and find twenty tenured professors of ethnic/racial/gender studies in state universities whose academic credentials are at least as bad as Churchill's and whom no one would dare fire.  This has nothing to do with Churchill's academic work or its quality.  UC is getting exactly what it expected when it tenured him.  This is about an attempt to fire a tenured professor for the content of his speech, speech that has embarrassed and put pressure on the university, and I can't support that.

Even More:  Background from KC Johnson:

Churchill was hired through a "special opportunity" position, designed by the university to help "recruit and hire a more diverse faculty." He had an M.A. from little-known Sangamon State University and no Ph.D at all. As documents from the time noted, his qualifications included only two items: strong lobbying from Evelyn Hu-DeHart, the chair of the Ethnic Studies program, and the now-disputed fact that "Ward is a Native American," meaning his hire would contribute "to increasing the cultural diversity on campus."...

How, then, could his fellow academics have originally found Churchill's scholarship acceptable? The outcome, alas, suggests that in politicized fields such as African-American Studies, Women's Studies, and Ethnic Studies, the message too often trumps quality. In this case, it appears that Churchill's extremist arguments that the U.S. government engaged in genocide against Native Americans blinded his academic reviewers to the poor quality of his scholarship. Indeed, some Churchill sympathizers, led by Cornell professor Eric Cheyfitz, have continued to maintain that the former professor's writings constitute appropriate scholarship for the field of Ethnic Studies.

I contend that Churchill was and is still exactly what UC thought he was, and his scholarship was and still does exactly conform to the (miserably low) standards of his discipline.

Posted on July 28, 2007 at 12:13 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Absolutely Atrocious Science

Via Hit and Run, this is some of the worst science I have seen in a while, and it really makes you wonder about what other schlock gets published (as long as the findings support politically correct principles)

A study in Preventive Medicine finds that a smoking ban in Bowling Green, Ohio, was followed by a 47 percent drop in hospital admissions for coronary heart disease. According to the researchers, "The findings of this study suggest that clean indoor air ordinances lead to a reduction in hospital admissions for coronary heart disease, thus reducing health care costs"....

A look at the raw hospital-admission numbers for Bowling Green, as reported by Michael Siegel, may help resolve this mystery:

1999: 35
2000: 24
2001: 24
2002: 36
2003: 22
2004: 26

Although the smoking ban took effect in March 2002, Siegel notes, the researchers treat that year's admissions as if they all occurred before the ban

That's hilarious.  What responsible researcher would look at that data set, with a March 2002 start date for the program, and be able to come to a conclusion that a smoking ban had any effect at all.  I'm not sure I even fault the "researchers" -- they are obviously trying to flog their point of view with BS data and must be happy they found a sucker to publish them.  But Preventative Medicine should be ashamed.

Posted on May 25, 2007 at 01:15 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Greenpeace Blasts Exercise of Free Speech

Today, Greenpeace attacked ExxonMobil for exercising its free speech rights.  In particular, it criticized Exxon-Mobil for spending $2 million funding about 40 groups it calls "global warming skeptics."  For perspective (missing from this article), pro-anthropomorphic global warming research receives over $2 billion in the US alone (and that is just government money, it does not include private money), making Exxon's funding less than 0.1% of that provided to groups with opposing viewpoints. 

How settled can the science be if the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) believers feel horribly threatened by a group they outspend more than 1000:1?  This is like Hillary Clinton complaining that Mike Gravel is being allowed to spend too much money.  The AGW folks have consistently lost debates where they went head to head against credible skeptics.  If you don't want to argue the issues, you resort to ad hominem attacks.

By the way, shame on Exxon-Mobil for getting all defensive about their spending.  They should have said "sure we are skeptics, and we think there are a lot of good reasons to be skeptics.  In fact, we'd love to have a televised debate with Greenpeace on AGW."

Update: In a related announcement, scientists declared the science of Phlogiston settled.

Posted on May 18, 2007 at 02:19 PM | Permalink | Comments (9)

Correction on Life Expectancy

Bird Dog writes me with a correction to my statement that even the poorest today enjoy much longer life spans than folks 100 years ago.  He writes:

In the past, average life span was short, due to infant and childhood mortality, and young adult mortality, due to infectious disease. It's a statistical error, really.
 
There was a bi-modal mortality, peaking in the early teens, and again in old age. Infant mortality was high.  That youth mortality has been eliminated by antibiotics, so we no longer have a bimodal mortality graph. But that youth mortality falsifies the historical averages, giving the appearance of a lower life span than today..

That is a valid point.  Of course, the much longer average life span has meaning, just not in the exact way I implied.  In a previous article, I formulated this difference more carefully, and in a way I think is consistent with Bird Dog's observation:

1)  A hundred years ago, you would have been more likely, by an order of magnitude, to see at least one of your kids die.  Even in my father's generation (born in 1922) it is unusual to find anyone who did not lose a brother or sister young, as both my mom and my dad did.

2)  Many people from centuries past lived as long as we today might expect.  Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Adams all lived to ages we would even today call "old".  However, I would venture that most of these folks' lives in their last ten or twenty years was of much lower quality than our lives at these ages today.  We may not live much longer, but our last 10-20 years are much more enjoyable.  My father-in-law was biking and white-water kayaking in his seventies right up to his untimely death in a car accident.  Among other things, teeth, eyes, and joints are all body parts that tend to fail in a non-terminal manner.  We can fix many of the age-induced problems with these parts, and while it may not extend life, it sure as hell extends living.

Posted on April 24, 2007 at 08:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

What Do We Know and How Well Do We Know It

"Consensus" is an absurd word to apply to science.  It is more accurate to say that we have a series of hypotheses about the universe with varying levels of confidence.  Luboš Motl has a post to get all you physics geeks arguing:  His estimate of the probability certain hypotheses about the universe are correct.  Some examples:

  • 99.999% - String theory is a mathematically consistent theory including quantum gravity, even non-perturbatively, at least in some highly supersymmetric vacua
  • 99.999% - General relativity correctly predicts phenomena such as frame dragging and classical gravitational waves in the real world
  • 99.995% - Black holes exist  ...
  • 60% - At very high energy scales, a GUT theory with unified gauge interactions becomes more natural zeroth approximation: GUT is correct
  • 50% - Supersymmetry will be found at the LHC
  • 40% - The Hartle-Hawking wavefunction or its generalization that will require the author(s) to cite Hartle and Hawking correctly predicts non-trivial features of the initial conditions of the Universe...
  • 0.0001% - Loop quantum gravity, with the metric as the only and well-defined degree of freedom and with quantized area, is a correct description of gravity in the real world at the Planck scale
  • 0.00001% - One of the ESP phenomena measured in the Princeton lab actually exists and can be measured again with a similar equipment

Many more here.

Here are some of my own:

  • 95% - Probability that the Raiders, Browns, and Lions will all botch their first draft picks next weekend
  • 85% - Probability someone will introduce legislation in Congress in the next 7 days in direct response to the Va Tech shooting rampage
  • 80% - Probability that man-made CO2 is contributing a non-zero effect to global temperature
  • 70% - Probability that Barry Bonds will break the home run record this season
  • 60% - Probability that Prince Charles will ever serve as King of England
  • 50% - Probability that all-electric vehicles will make up more than 10% of the auto market in the US in ten years
  • 5% - Probability that man-made CO2 will contribute more than 2 degrees C warming in the next 50 years
  • 5% - Probability of meaningful earmark reform getting passed in Congress
  • 5% - Probability that ethanol or other bio fuels will make any measurable reduction in oil imports.
  • 1% - Probability that the costs of CO2 reduction will be less than the benefits of CO2 reduction
  • 1% - Probability that a true libertarian candidate will be elected president in the next 20 years

Posted on April 17, 2007 at 09:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Anti-Science From Both Left and Right

The political left in this country likes to claim the moral high ground of being scientific, and claims that it is the Christian right that opposes science.  While certainly the right can be justly criticized for opposing the teaching of evolution and certain types of stem cell research, the left has more than its fair share of Luddites:  (via Overlawyered)   

In the first injunction of this kind, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer of the Northern District of California declared that no Roundup ready alfalfa seed can be planted after March 30, 2007....

Crop safety is not the issue. The court has already accepted that Roundup Ready alfalfa poses no harm to humans and livestock, according to Monsanto representative Andrew Burchett. And, other regulatory agencies around the world, including Canada and Japan, have confirmed its environmental safety....

 The suit filed last year by the Center for Food Safety, Trask Family Seeds, and Geertson Seed Farms and others charged that USDA failed to follow procedural requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act in granting non-regulated status to Roundup Ready alfalfa under the Plant Protection Act, and would have to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement.

Every time someone on the left preaches about how important it is to overcome the Republican's barriers to stem cell research, I want to gag.  Sure, I'd like to see more such research happening, but this is a field of endeavor that is very young and any potential benefits are uncertain and far in the future.  GM crops could be saving lives among the poor today, but the left consistently resists their spread, doing far more damage, at least in the near term, than the right has with stem cell research bans.

Posted on April 10, 2007 at 11:13 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Breathing is Pollution

The Supreme Court has ruled that your breath is a pollutant.  And not just because you ate that garlic bread for lunch.  From my Princeton classmate Henry Payne:

Henrypaynecartoon4407

Posted on April 5, 2007 at 08:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Rosie O'Donnell and the Failure of Scientific Education

Rosie O'Donnell is a great example of the failure of scientific education in this country.  Of late, Rosie has joined the "truthers," using her show to flog the notion that the WTC was brought down in a government-planned controlled demolition.

I will have to yield to Popular Mechanics for most of the discussion about WTC7.  However, I can, from my own engineering training, rebut one point on WTC1&2.  (Note again, future commenters, this applies to WTC 1&2.  There was a different dynamic at work in WTC 7).

Rosie, as others have, made a point of observing that jet fuel does not burn hot enough to melt steel, and therefore the fire in the main towers could not have caused the structure to yield and collapse.  This is absurd.  It is a kindergartener's level of science.  It is ignorant of a reality that anyone who has had even one course in structural engineering or metallurgy will understand.  The argument made that "other buildings have burned and not collapsed" is only marginally more sophisticated, sort of equivalent to saying that seeing an iceberg melts proves global warming.  (Note that this is all written by a person who has no faith in government and is at least as suspicious about government motivations at any truther).   

Here is the reality that most 19-year-old engineering students understand:  Steel loses its strength rapidly with temperature, losing nearly all of its structural strength by 1000 degrees F, well below its melting point but also well below the temperature of burning jet fuel.  For three years I designed piping and pressure vessel enclosures at a refinery.  Many of the processes in a refinery crave heat and run better at elevated temperatures.  In fact, what refineries can do, and how efficient they can be, is really limited by the strength of steel at high temperatures.  Refineries end up being limited to process temperatures no higher than 600 to 800 degrees, and even then these require expensive special metallurgies.  Anything higher requires a very expensive vessel lined with some sort of ceramic insulation material.

The strength curve of steel vs. temperature is dependent on the type of steel, but the curve below is about what I remember from my old textbooks.  Note by 930 degrees the steel strength has dropped by half and in the next 100 degrees it halves again.

Steel

But the proof of what went wrong in WTC1 and WTC2 does not take a college education.  You only have to look at building codes.  Building codes generally require that structural steel members be coated with a fireproofing material

As the critical temperature for steel is around 540°C (give or take, depending on whose country's test standards one reads at the time), and design basis fires reach this temperature within a few minutes, structural steel requires external insulation in order to prevent the steel from absorbing enough energy to reach this temperature. First, steel expands, when heated, and once enough energy has been absorbed, it softens and loses its structural integrity. This is easily prevented through the use of fireproofing.

You have probably seen it- that foamy tan stuff sprayed on girders before the rest of the building is filled out.  In fact, this stuff is not fireproofing per se but insulation.  It is there to keep the structural steel cool during a fire, so the steel will not fail.  Generally the standards are set in the code that the insulation has to be able to stand X time of fire (generally several hours) and keep the steel below its critical yielding temperatures.   Engineers know that a building fire, which burns much cooler than a jet fuel fire, can cause steel members to weaken and fail and the building to collapse.  If this were not the case, then why do builders spend billions every year to insulate structural steel building components?? 

I wrote about this issue in more depth here.  In this post, one of the commenters listed a series of building fires and asked, why did these buildings not collapse?  The answer is:  Because insulation is applied to the building structural steel members to try to prevent the collapse.  Even insulation is just a stopgap -- if the fire burns long enough and hot enough (or if the insulation is stripped off, say by an airplane shearing through the building) then the steel will heat up and fail.   So there are three reasons that some buildings have fires and don't fail while the WTC did fail:

  • Some building fires can and do cause buildings to collapse.  Insulation on steel members help many buildings to survive, and often does save the building from collapse, but not always.  This building did collapse, at least the top 6 stores.  Oddly, this is actually used by truthers as further proof, somehow, that the WTC fires could not have brought down the building (the link is actually one of their web sites, I think).  But in fact, the Madrid building failed the same way as WTC 1 and 2, with the top six floors collapsing.  Since the building was not fully constructed on these top floors, there was not the huge weight collapsing that created the battering ram effect that brought down the WTC.  The Madrid floors took longer to collapse, but they were 1) under far less stress, since the building above them was not complete; 2) the fire burned much cooler and 3) the insulation had not been mechanically scrubbed from the beams, so it took longer for the beams to heat up.  To me, this is a clear parallel to the official version of the WTC collapse, but even this is distorted somehow by the truthers.
  • Fuel burns hotter than normal building fires, so even insulated members will heat up faster.  I have many pictures in my personal collection of refinery fires where the main thing you can see in the aftermath is all the structural steel bent and collapsed.  Truthers may not be able to find many examples of building collapsing in a fire, but you would be hard-pressed NOT to find examples of collapsed structural steel at every refinery and petrochemical fire.
  • The insulation that normally protects buildings was stripped off by the mechanical action of an enormous airplane shearing through the building at 300 miles an hour. 

This is in addition to the actual removal of some support columns by the crashing aircraft, which put more load on the remaining structure and thereby hastened the collapse.

postscript: By the way, can anyone tell me why the so called "reality-based" community, that so often criticizes the Right for theocratic attacks on science, is so quick to fall for this pseudo-scientific junk?

Update: One other thought:  The hallmark of truthers is that they take small abnormalities or uncertainties in the failure analysis and event reconstruction as justification for throwing out the whole explanation of events in favor of an alternate series of events with much, much larger gaps, contradictions, and logical problems (e.g. how did the buildings get wired for demolition without anyone noticing? or, how did the planes manage to crash into the precise floors wired for demolition without dislodging the charges and their wiring?  or, how did such a massive conspiracy get pulled off without one leak when the administration can't even competently fire 9 US attorneys?)

Anyone who has ever done root cause analysis of a catastrophic failure knows there are always questions no one can answer when all is said and done.  And people who say things like "always happen" or "can never happen" typically don't have any real-world engineering experience.

Update2: One other thought on WTC7, since most of the sites I have visited over the last several days really seem to focus on WTC7.  I consider our government capable of all kinds of hijinx, but why WTC7?  I would argue that about 0.00001% of the outrage that resulted from 9/11 is attributable to WTC7.  How many people not associated with the truthers have even heard of WTC7?  In fact, one could argue that the strike on the Pentagon was effectively irrelevant, since no one really even seems to remember that one.

One minor note:  I saw on a conspiracy site the claim that all military planes were ordered to stand down on 9/11.  I know from personal experience that can't possibly be true.  I was in Manhattan during 9/11 and remember well people in the streets hitting the ground in fear every time a military jet rocketed over the city.

I don't buy all this conspiracy theory not because I think well of the government, but just the opposite.  I consider the conspiracies posited at these various sites to be orders of magnitude beyond this government's capabilities.  Remember Coyote's Law:

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity.

Update3:  I guess I need to throw out a few more things.  This was not meant to be a comprehensive or definitive rebuttal of the 9/11 conspiracy theories.  I merely used as a starting point one stupid comment by Rosie O'Donnell on melting, a comment I have heard a lot of times, and that I knew I could refute of my own knowledge.  Those who want to get mad at me because I did not refute this or that, sorry, go deal with the book by the Popular Mechanics guys.  The only other thing I can contribute other than engineering sanity is the fact I have participated in many engineering failure analyses and the fact that I watched the towers fall live, with my own eyes, from the streets of Manhattan.

Every single engineering failure analysis I have ever participated in, from refinery explosions to airplane crashes, has always left unanswered questions and nagging inconsistencies that had, I am sure, nothing to do with conspiracies. We had many things we could never explain about a heat exchanger fire at our refinery in 1985, but I don't think that those unknowns and uncertainties leave the door open to blame government agents for the fire. 

I'll say again, if you want to argue that the WTC buildings were demoed by explosives, you have to explain how the explosives were laid, and, more important, how the explosives and their delicate wiring and detonators survived a plane crashing into the same floors.  And by the way, given that the buildings had not external markings showing the floors, how did the people flying the airplanes hit the exact correct parts of the building?  For every problem with the core hypothesis I could name 10 problems with the truther alternative.  I have no problem with offering an alternative hypothesis to the original thesis, but it is silly to criticize the core thesis for small problems only to replace it with a hypothesis that has problems that are orders of magnitude larger.

Posted on April 2, 2007 at 08:30 PM | Permalink | Comments (24)

Statistical Insanity

Congrats to Peter Austin for making a great point about medical research, particularly the advocacy-driven risk research we see in the media every day:

PEOPLE born under the astrological sign of Leo are 15% more likely to be admitted to hospital with gastric bleeding than those born under the other 11 signs. Sagittarians are 38% more likely than others to land up there because of a broken arm. Those are the conclusions that many medical researchers would be forced to make from a set of data presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science by Peter Austin of the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences in Toronto. At least, they would be forced to draw them if they applied the lax statistical methods of their own work to the records of hospital admissions in Ontario, Canada, used by Dr Austin.

Dr Austin, of course, does not draw those conclusions. His point was to shock medical researchers into using better statistics, because the ones they routinely employ today run the risk of identifying relationships when, in fact, there are none. He also wanted to explain why so many health claims that look important when they are first made are not substantiated in later studies.

Thanks again to TJIC for the link

Posted on March 3, 2007 at 07:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

How Climate Science Works

When I was an undergraduate in physics, and later in engineering, we had this quaint process where we would conduct experiments and generate data, and from these results generate conclusions.

Climate science works differently.  First, political types and activists write the management summary in as alarming and as headlines-grabbing terms as they can, largely without the help or concurrence of the majority of the scientists involved in the study.  Then, they spend months modifying the underlying data, models, and scientific analysis to fit this management summary.

The summary of the most recent IPCC climate survey has already been released.  The body of the study, with the actual facts and models and stuff, has not been released (won't be for months) and carries this warning on the last draft:

"Changes (other than grammatical or minor editorial changes) made after acceptance by the Working Group or the Panel shall be those necessary to ensure consistency with the Summary for Policymakers or the Overview Chapter."

Posted on February 28, 2007 at 09:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

On Being Skeptical of Data That Supports My Point of View

I am pretty convinced that the case for anthropomorphic global warming is being overblown, and part of my reasoning is that other factors, like recent increases in solar activity, are being virtually ignored in the race to place a big fat blame sign on man (and on the US in specific).

So I was ready to really like this chart, via Q&O via RedState via Hall of Record (click image for larger view):

Globalwarmingaa

Increases in sunspot activity are generally correlated with increases in solar output, so the chart seems to show a correlation between solar output and global temperatures that is much better than the correlation with CO2 concentration.  Now, this still may be correct (I have what is probably a better chart below), but this particular graph is odd in a few ways.  First, the Y-axis scale is "Sunspot Cycle Length" presumably in years (thus the "y").  But how does that make sense?  If it is the length of the trailing cycle, it should go up uniformly then drop to zero, like a sawtooth.  I don't know who a cycle length that seems to average around 11 years can look like that line on that timescale.  I tried to get back to the original, but it was attributed to a presentation that did not seem to be online by a professor that doesn't seem to work in exactly this field of study.  If anyone has any insight on this chart, please comment.

So, as much as this chart would be good news (remember my definition of good news here), I have to be skeptical of it.  I do think the underlying point is a good one:  It is well known that we are in a period of unusually high sunspot activity and solar output.  A better chart may be this one, from this study and via junkscience.com:

Posted on February 28, 2007 at 09:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Neptunists and the Vulcanists

I like reading about the history of science, and one of its more famous chapters is the debate between the Neptunists and the Vulcanists in early 19th century Great Britain.  At the risk of oversimplifying, the debate was over whether the earth's features (and life on it) were formed slowly over long periods, or relatively quickly through catastrophes.  Secondarily, it was about heat and fire vs. water as forces shaping the Earth (thus the names).  Eventually a consensus  (an actual consensus, not a declared one) developed that they were both right in some ways and both wrong in others. 

What struck me reading about this again over the weekend was that it took decades, and sometimes centuries, for this to sort out.  Take the part of this debate over extinction.  The initial consensus was that extinction was due to catastrophes, ala the Biblical flood.  Then Darwin came along and shifted the consensus away from catastrophes, showing that extinctions occurred in the normal order of species action-reaction to threats and opportunities.  And then in the 20th century, revisiting the K-T geologic layer we have come around to dinosaur extinction being catastrophic as a result of a big meteor.  Except nowadays there are scientists who think this is too simplistic.  Geology, in turn, made it all the way until the 1960's before anyone was even talking about plate tectonics, something that was still being derided in the 1970's but is fundamental to our understanding of numerous aspects of the earth today.

And so it goes in normal scientific inquiry.   Scientists expect it to take decades and generations to really shake out new theories and areas of inquiry.  Sometimes, as with Newton's laws of motion, we still accept the theory, though even here we have tweaked at the edges (e.g. relativity when things are moving fast) and exempted certain regions (e.g. quantum mechanics and the very small).  Other times, we have thrown theories that were cherished for decades completely away (e.g phlogistan).   After decades of work, string theory in physics could easily be thrown out completely and looked upon as the 20th century's phlogistan, or it could really be the theory of everything Einstein searched for in vain.

Which is all fine and expected, except when governments are standing by to make trillion-dollar choices, as they are in global warming, a scientific body of inquiry that is barely 20 years old.  Go back to any new scientific theory in its first 20-years, and think about the governments of the world betting the entire global economy on scientific understanding of that theory at that point in time.  It's pretty scary.  We'd probably have a 5-trillion dollar government controlled medical leach industry.

Posted on February 12, 2007 at 11:33 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Climate "Consensus"

Please stop tell me that I have no right to question Al Gore when he wants to take over the world economy to his own ends.  And please stop telling me that catastrophic man-made global warming is now beyond question:

One of the many disturbing aspects of global warming hysteria is the way moonbats who use it to promote their ominous political agenda insist on a consensus that simply does not exist. A recent survey of more than 12,000 environmental scientists and practitioners by the National Registry of Environmental Professionals shows that despite the hysteria and considerable pressure to conform to the "correct" view, many scientists are choosing skepticism over the safety of the herd.

The survey found that:

  • 34% disagree that global warming is a serious problem;
  • 41% disagree that warming trends "can be, in large part, attributed to human activity";
  • 71% disagree that human activity has significantly contributed to hurricanes;
  • 33% disagree that the US government is not doing enough about global warming;
  • 47% disagree that international agreements such as the preposterous Kyoto Protocol provide a useful framework for addressing global climate change.

There are good reasons to believe in some man-made global warming, but there are very good reasons to doubt it will be as catastrophic as portrayed in the media, and very, very good reasons not to hand over the throttle of the world economy to environmental groups in anticipation of such uncertain events.  My position on the skeptical middle ground on climate change is here.

Posted on January 1, 2007 at 08:47 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Bad Science Remembered

Top 10 Junk Science Stories of 2006

Posted on December 14, 2006 at 06:46 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Squashing Dissent

The word "censorship" is used all-too-often in this country.  I take a much more narrow definition of censorship.  In my mind, only the government can be guilty of true censorship, which I define as using the coercive power of government to prevent certain forms of speech.  By even this narrow definition, the recent threats against Exxon by Senators Jay Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe come awfully close to censorship:

We reprint the full text of the letter here, so readers can see for themselves. But its essential point is that the two Senators believe global warming is a fact, and therefore all debate about the issue must stop and ExxonMobil should "end its dangerous support of the [global warming] 'deniers.' " Not only that, the company "should repudiate its climate change denial campaign and make public its funding history." And in extra penance for being "one of the world's largest carbon emitters," Exxon should spend that money on "global remediation efforts."

The Senators aren't dumb enough to risk an ethics inquiry by threatening specific consequences if Mr. Tillerson declines this offer he can't refuse. But in case the CEO doesn't understand his company's jeopardy, they add that "ExxonMobil and its partners in denial have manufactured controversy, sown doubt, and impeded progress with strategies all-too reminiscent of those used by the tobacco industry for so many years." (Our emphasis.) The Senators also graciously copied the Exxon board on their missive.

This is amazing stuff. On the one hand, the Senators say that everyone agrees on the facts and consequences of climate change. But at the same time they are so afraid of debate that they want Exxon to stop financing a doughty band of dissenters who can barely get their name in the paper. We respect the folks at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, but we didn't know until reading the Rockefeller-Snowe letter that they ran U.S. climate policy and led the mainstream media around by the nose, too.

While I tend to believe that the warming camp is correct that manmade CO2 is creating or will create some global warming, there are a lot of very very good reasons to be skeptical of the magnitude of their warming estimates and their hysterical calls for massive government intervention in the world economy.  I call this the skeptical middle ground on climate.  (Update: more reasons to be skeptical of current "consensus" models here).  A skeptics guide to An Inconvenient Truth is here.

Posted on December 4, 2006 at 09:43 PM | Permalink | Comments (14)

Death of Fact Checking

Kevin at Truck and Barter has a great article where he fact checks a statistic he found in a "non-fiction" book.  And what do you know, it was not only wrong, but way off.  And, to make matters worse, changing the statistic to its correct value undermines much of the premise of the book:

What an utter refusal to check sources and validate simple statistics! THIS IS NOT MY JOB, nor the job of any of Ms. Robbins' readers. It's the job of the author and editors. I don't know if I should even bother continuing to read the book at all, as I've spent 1/2 hour tracking down just one horrendously wrong data point. How many more will be this wrong???

My hypothesis is that this happens all the time, especially in media reports about various social ills.  We have all suspected that if you add up all the people in articles that suffer from X or Y, it would include everyone in the country, probably three times over.  Part of this is the very poor scientific and statistical background of most writers and editors.  However, I think it also is a problem of skepticism.  Editors and reporters don't necessarily have the time to fact-check everything, so they do a kind of triage using their own personal skepticism as a guide.  And I think most reporters and editors are more than willing to believe that nearly every social ill discussed -- homelessness, teen suicide, drug abuse, hunger, etc. etc. -- are prevalent and getting worse, so they seldom really push back on relevant numbers for these issues.  Most publishers and media outlets have pushed hard for diversity of skin color, but these groups remain pretty uniform in their outlook and basic assumptions about society, and so their failures of skepticism are pretty predictable.

Posted on November 17, 2006 at 05:04 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

The "Nature" of Modern Scientific Consensus

I am often told, in emails that vary from friendly to downright threatening, that global warming science is not scientific consensus and my skepticism puts me on par with tobacco company lobbyists.  An upcoming paper in Theoretical and Applied Climatology looks back at a recent peer-reviewed Nature article that purported to provide more evidence for man-made global warming and found the much quoted article by Isabel Chiune in Nature to be complete crap:

What is important here is not the truth or falsity of the assertion of Chuine et al. about Burgundy temperatures. Rather, what is important is that a paper on what is arguably the world’s most important scientific topic (global warming) was published in the world’s most prestigious scientific journal with essentially no checking of the work prior to publication.

Moreover — and crucially — this lack of checking is not the result of some fluke failures in the publication process. Rather, it is common for researchers to submit papers without supporting data, and it is frequent that peer reviewers do not have the requisite mathematical or statistical skills needed to check the work (medical sciences excepted). In other words, the publication of the work of Chuine et al. was due to systemic problems in the scientific publication process.

The systemic nature of the problems indicates that there might be many other scientific papers that, like the paper of Chuine et al., were inappropriately published. Indeed, that is true and I could list numerous examples. The only thing really unusual about the paper of Chuine et al. is that the main problem with it is understandable for people without specialist scientific training. Actually, that is why I decided to publish about it. In many cases of incorrect research the authors will try to hide behind an obfuscating smokescreen of complexity and sophistry. That is not very feasible for Chuine et al. (though the authors did try).

Finally, it is worth noting that Chuine et al. had the data; so they must have known that their conclusions were unfounded. In other words, there is prima facie evidence of scientific fraud. What will happen to the researchers as a result of this? Probably nothing. That is another systemic problem with the scientific publication process.

Oops.  By the way, accepting the hypothesis that man made CO2 is causing some warming does not require that one also accept Al-Gore-type estimates of catastrophic 6-8 degrees C warming or more in the next 50 years.  In fact, the evidence still is that man-made warming effects will be small, and predictions of massive warming are way out on a scientific limb with little proof.  I discuss these issues in my article on the skeptical middle ground on climate, as well as my earlier primer on an Inconvenient Truth.

Posted on November 3, 2006 at 11:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Indoors, not Outdoors

My post on the lack of correlation between air pollution (in the form of ozone and particulates) and asthma has led several people to ask me -- well, what else could possibly be causing the rise in asthma cases?

One "cause" for increases in measured disease rates that almost always plays a role in modern epidemiology is better diagnosis and reporting.  There have been a number of diseases where changes in definitions and better diagnosis have led to an increase in reported cases, while the actual occurance rate has remained constant.  The rise in asthma cases seems to go beyond this effect.

The best guess I have for the increase in asthma in this country, and the strong positive correlation between asthma and economic development, is that it has something to do with indoor pollution.  The spike in asthma cases seems to parallel the rise in energy prices.  Beginning in the 1970's, we began sealing up houses tighter and tighter to conserve energy.  Increasing penetration of air conditioning simultaneously caused people to close the windows.  The spread of office-type service work had brought more people indoors.  I am convinced its something inside, not outside, that is causing the asthma spike.

Update:  More on the lack of correlation between air pollution and asthma here, this time in California.

Posted on October 27, 2006 at 09:10 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

From the Correlation does not Equal Causation Files

On this blog, I have often felt the need to point out that correlation does not equal causation.  For example, if X increases at the same time Y increases, it is not necessarily true that X causes Y or Y causes X.  The correlation could be a coincidence, or it could be that both X and Y are related to a third variable Z that drives their movement.

Anyway, I see this mistake all the time.  What I did NOT expect to see was that someone would have to explain that non-correlation does not equal causation.  But that seems to be the wacky world that environmental science has descended into, via the Commons Blog:

EPA's new report "America's Children and the Environment" notes that air pollution declined, but asthma prevalence continues to rise. One possible conclusion from this is that air pollution is not actually a cause of asthma. In fact, that's the most plausible conclusion. Every pollutant we measure has been dropping for decades pretty much everywhere, while asthma prevalence has been rising pretty much everywhere. This is true throughout the entire western world, not just the U.S. In fact, asthma incidence is highest in countries with the lowest levels of air pollution. Asthma is rare in developing countries with much more polluted air. Asthma incidence is simply unrelated to air pollution. Asthma attacks are probably unrelated as well. But even if air pollution can cause asthma attacks, it is a minor cause, responsible for less than 1% of all asthma attacks.

Despite these two trends going in the opposite direction, environmental activists still insist that large increases in asthma rates are driven by pollution:

A report by E&E News (subscription required) makes it clear that what’s in EPA health reports doesn't actually matter. The story opens with "While the number of children living in areas violating ozone and particulate matter (PM) standards has declined in recent years, adolescent asthma that results from exposure to such pollutants continues to rise, according to new U.S. EPA statistics." The journalistic goal is to raise health alarms, whether warranted or not. Thus, the news story itself says air pollution, the presumptive cause of asthma, went down and yet asthma prevalence went up. However, the reporter claims air pollution is responsible for rising asthma just the same.

Wow.  These guys could be the poster-children for refusing to adjust their beliefs in the face of actual facts.  They even acknowledge that pollution and asthma are going in opposite directions and still they insist on their causation theory.

P
ostscript:  I am willing to believe, maybe, that there is some unknown, unmeasured and unregulated pollutant out there that is increasing and is causing increases in asthma.  However, that is not the argument these folks are making - they are using asthma increases to lobby for tougher standards on known pollutants.

Update:  The best guess I have for the increase in asthma in this country, and the strong positive correlation between asthma and economic development, is that it has something to do with indoor pollution.  The spike in asthma cases seems to parallel the rise in energy prices.  Beginning in the 1970's, we began sealing up houses tighter and tighter to conserve energy.  Increasing penetration of air conditioning simultaneously caused people to close the windows.  I am convinced its something inside, not outside.

Posted on October 25, 2006 at 08:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (11)

I am only $79.99 Million Short

I'm not really into the culture, so prevalent here in Scottsdale, of purchasing expensive cars and boats for use as ego-prosthetics (I drive a Volvo, for god sakes, a chick-anti-magnet if there ever was one).  But I have to admit this is cool, a new supersonic business jet.  The real breakthrough seems to be their ability to substantially reduce the sonic boom, which got the Concorde banned from over-land flights, to a legal and manageable level.  They claim sound levels 99% lower than the Concorde at ground level, though this is theoretical and has not been tested.

Qsst09
They don't mention fuel economy -- the Concorde drank fuel. 

Oh, and the price - expected to be $80 million for a twelve seat aircraft.  For those of you who don't routinely shop for private aircraft, this price is steep even in that rarefied market.  You can get a Boeing 737 outfitted very nicely as a private plane for half that.  But this new plane will get you to your house in Gstaad twice as fast.

Posted on October 5, 2006 at 08:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Cool Automation

My independent work in college was on interfacing micro computers with mechanical devices.  Most of the work was in assembler language on an S-100 bus CP/M computer tied to some simple devices.  In one project, for example, I used an ultrasonic range-finder stripped off a Polaroid camera (brand new auto-focus technology, for the time) and put it on a stepper motor.  I wrote a program to turn it into a radar that painted a picture of the room on the screen.  In the next iteration, I experimented with having it control a "gun"  (a pencil on a stepper motor) and keep it locked onto a moving target in the room.  Seems pretty basic but it was not that easy in 1982  (also, coincidently, the last year I ever ran a mainframe computer program from a card deck).  In the spring of 1983, we programmed electronic devices that managed various functions on an N-Scale model railroad, a dream class for me given that model railroading has always been my preferred hobby.

Anyway, in this context I thought this was really cool:  A Lego robotics machine that solves the Rubiks cube.

Cubesolver1_sm

Posted on September 21, 2006 at 03:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tall People Rule!

This makes perfect sense to me.  The fact that I am 6'-4" tall has nothing to do with it:

Economists have long been irritated by the weird fact that tall people have better jobs and earn more money. Many explanations have been offered, various forms of social and individual discrimination first among them. But two Princeton economists disagree: "In this paper, we offer a simpler explanation: On average, taller people earn more because they are smarter."

Update: I am amazed that I even have to say this, but of course I am having fun with this and don't take it seriously (I can't believe all the emails this has generated).  Besides, just think about the math for a minute.  There is a broad normal distribution of intelligence for both short and tall people.  The study says the averages of these two distributions diverge a bit.  But even if they do, the distributions themselves are much, much wider than this divergence.  This means in practice, even if true, this study has no predictive power for individuals you meet.  Short and tall people will be both smart and dumb.  It only means that if you somehow met all 300 million people in the US, you might notice you met a few more smart-tall people than smart-short people, but that is all it would mean.  Now, I do believe tall people might make more money.  There is good evidence that tall people get disproportionately favored in hiring and promotions than equally qualified folks who are altitude challenged.

Now, if you said short people were touchier and more over-sensitive than tall people, I would have a hard time disproving it from my email.

Posted on September 6, 2006 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (5)

The Surgeon General Should Switch to Climate Science

From Michael Siegel, with a hat tip to Reason's Hit and Run (use of colored text in the original):

An article in the current issue of JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), reporting on the recent Surgeon General's review of the health effects of secondhand smoke, brings to the forefront the controversy over whether the Surgeon General misrepresented the science in his public communications surrounding the report's release ...

The controversy stems from the press release and other ancillary materials released by the Surgeon General to accompany the report itself.

Here is what those ancillary materials stated:

According to the Surgeon General's press release:

"Even brief exposure to secondhand smoke has immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system and increases risk for heart disease and lung cancer, the report says."

According to the Surgeon General's remarks to the media:

"Breathing secondhand smoke for even a short time can damage cells and set the cancer process in motion. Brief exposure can have immediate harmful effects on blood and blood vessels, potentially increasing the risk of a heart attack."

According to the Surgeon General's accompanying fact sheet:

"Breathing secondhand smoke for even a short time can have immediate adverse effects on the cardiovascular system, interfering with the normal functioning of the heart, blood, and vascular systems in ways that increase the risk of heart attack."

And according to the Surgeon General's accompanying brochure:

"Even a short time in a smoky room causes your blood platelets to stick together. Secondhand smoke also damages the lining of your blood vessels. In your heart, these bad changes can cause a deadly heart attack."

These claims are markedly different from those made in the Surgeon General's report itself, which concludes that chronic exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk for heart disease, but does not conclude (or even present evidence that) a brief exposure to secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer, heart attacks, or heart disease.

This is a classic technique used today in scientific reports on global warming, where the report itself is often full of cautionary language about potential problems in the models and the uncertainties in predicting climate, but the summary and press releases make doom and gloom statements with absolute certainty that aren't actually supported by the research they purport to summarize. 

In both cases, the principles justify the exaggeration of the public message as all in a "good cause", which of course is the justification every lying politician uses.  Even Ted Stevens.

Posted on August 30, 2006 at 10:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Suppresion of Scientific Enquiry

From the Boston Globe today:

"We do not understand the natural internal variability of climate change" is one of Lindzen's many heresies, along with such zingers as `"the Arctic was as warm or warmer in 1940," "the evidence so far suggests that the Greenland ice sheet is actually growing on average," and "Alpine glaciers have been retreating since the early 19th century, and were advancing for several centuries before that. Since about 1970, many of the glaciers have stopped retreating and some are now advancing again. And, frankly, we don't know why."

When Lindzen published similar views in The Wall Street Journal this spring, environmentalist Laurie David, the wife of comedian Larry David, immediately branded him a "shill." She resurrected a shopworn slur first directed against Lindzen by former Globe writer Ross Gelbspan, who called Lindzen a "hood ornament" for the fossil fuels industry in a 1995 article in Harper's Magazine....

For no apparent reason, the state of California, Environmental Defense, and the Natural Resources Defense Council have dragged Lindzen and about 15 other global- warming skeptics into a lawsuit over auto- emissions standards. California et al . have asked the auto companies to cough up any and all communications they have had with Lindzen and his colleagues, whose research has been cited in court documents.

"We know that General Motors has been paying for this fake science exactly as the tobacco companies did," says ED attorney Jim Marston. If Marston has a scintilla of evidence that Lindzen has been trafficking in fake science, he should present it to the MIT provost's office. Otherwise, he should shut up.

"This is the criminalization of opposition to global warming," says Lindzen, who adds he has never communicated with the auto companies involved in the lawsuit. Of course Lindzen isn't a fake scientist, he's an inconvenient scientist. No wonder you're not supposed to listen to him.

My position on global warming and the state of global warming science is here.

Posted on August 30, 2006 at 06:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Correlation Not Equal Causation

Apparently there is a new study being trumpeted by social conservatives to help them begin a new attack on raunchy song lyrics.  The Rand study to be published in the journal Pediatrics did phone interviews with a bunch of teenagers, asking them about their sexual habits and what songs they listen to.  They found a correlation that teenagers tend to listen to more sexually-degrading music also are more likely to subsequently begin having sex (or having more sex).  The articles reporting on this study have headlines like this:

Study: Raunchy Music = Earlier Sex

The implication is that listening to sexually-charged* music causes more early sex.  But in fact, they don't know that.   Before it starts to rain here in Phoenix, the sky goes dark and the winds pick up.  Does this mean that darkening skies and increasing winds cause rain?  Or are darkening skies and winds merely a leading edge symptom of a broader phenomena that also includes rain, which we might call "a thunderstorm moving through town."

Does interest in sexually degrading lyrics actually cause teenagers to have sex when they might not have otherwise?  Or is this interest in such music merely a leading indicator, a symptom on the leading edge of a larger phenomena that one might label "adolescence" or "hormone overload."  As an alternative hypothesis to explain the data, one could argue that listening to this music is merely an early low-risk form of sexual experimentation, like sneaking a peek at the Playboy magazines at the local 7-11, which then gets followed up by (but doesn't cause) physical sex. 

I don't know the answer.   Though few would describe me as a puritan, I certainly won't let some of that crappy music in the house (I do check what the kids are downloading on iTunes).  On the other hand, "Don't Fear the Reaper" was one of my favorite songs for years and I never felt the slightest urge to kill myself. 

What I do know is that you absolutely have to beware of the media when they report studies and statistics, and correlation=causation is their absolute favorite mistake to make.

* the article makes a second mistake, in that the study authors found a difference between the correlation of teen sex with sexually degrading music vs. just music with sexual content.  The media also misses this distinction.

Postscript:  This article about professional wrestling leading to teenage violence seems to make the same mistakes

Posted on August 25, 2006 at 09:43 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Are Fossil Fuels really Fossil?

I just finished reading the Deep Hot Biosphere by Thomas Gold.  I thought it was a really interesting read, though be forewarned that this book is treated like the moral equivalent of 9/11 conspiracies by much of the petroleum engineering profession.  Mr. Gold's hypothesis is that our oil and natural gas is not a result of dinosaurs and ferns getting mashed under the earth into oil  He posits that methane is naturally occurring in the earth in huge quantities, and the oil and gas we are exploiting are actually this naturally occurring methane either coming up as-is or converted through chemical and biologic processes underground into heavier oils.  We now know that many of the planets in our solar system have large amounts of naturally occurring methane - why not the Earth?

I found his hypotheses very well reasoned and compelling.  I had a few questions I would have like to ask of him, but he died in 2004.

Posted on August 21, 2006 at 07:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Answer: Wealth

From the NY Times:

People of Valentin Keller’s era [mid 19th century], like those before and after them, expected to develop chronic diseases by their 40’s or 50’s. Keller’s descendants had lung problems, they had heart problems, they had liver problems. They died in their 50’s or 60’s.

Now, though, life has changed. The family’s baby boomers are reaching middle age and beyond and are doing fine.

“I feel good,” says Keller’s great-great-great-grandson Craig Keller. At 45, Mr. Keller says he has no health problems, nor does his 45-year-old wife, Sandy.

The Keller family illustrates what may prove to be one of the most striking shifts in human existence — a change from small, relatively weak and sickly people to humans who are so big and robust that their ancestors seem almost unrecognizable.

Scientists are looking for the explanation of a generation of humans so much stronger and healthier than those who preceded them.  Hypotheses seem to center on pre-natal maternal health and early life nutrition.  But I can give the bigger picture answer:  wealth.  Not Bill Gates wealth, but the generally enormous increase in wealth, even among the poorest Americans.  I discussed this issue along with other related ones in this article on wealth creation.  And this cartoon seems relevant.  Also makes you wonder about whether the obsession with obesity nowadays makes much sense.

The biggest surprise emerging from the new studies is that many chronic ailments like heart disease, lung disease and arthritis are occurring an average of 10 to 25 years later than they used to. There is also less disability among older people today, according to a federal study that directly measures it. And that is not just because medical treatments like cataract surgery keep people functioning. Human bodies are simply not breaking down the way they did before.

Even the human mind seems improved. The average I.Q. has been increasing for decades, and at least one study found that a person’s chances of having dementia in old age appeared to have fallen in recent years....

People even look different today. American men, for example, are nearly three inches taller than they were 100 years ago and about 50 pounds heavier.

A nice perspective to maintain during modern media-fed health panics.

Update:  Brian Doherty makes a similar observation.

Posted on July 31, 2006 at 02:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Ethanol Lameness

I can't speak to the "future technology" that Bush alluded to in his SOTU address, but the history of ethanol gives me no confidence that there is anything here.  Ethanol is all about rent-seeking, not energy Independence.  Quality studies have consistently shown that the whole life-cycle energy use of ethanol is far higher than what it provides.  In other words, at least with current technologies, every gallon of ethanol used actually INCREASES total petroleum use.  Its hard to find any scientist outside of the ADM boardroom or the state of Iowa that takes ethanol seriously.  If we took the small step of moving the Iowa caucuses out of the first primary position in the presidential race, ethanol might go away.

Right now, I am running out the Phoenix Mardi Gras, where a golf tournament often breaks out mid-party, so I don't have a lot of time.  However, trust me that this USA Today article has bent over backwards to cherry pick scientific studies in favor of ethanol.  The figures mentioned for ethanol providing 26% more energy than it consumes are the absolute most optimistic study, not the consensus average, of scientific studies.  Also, the Berkley study is on "potential" technologies, and even it admits that using current technologies actually deployed ethanol consumes more energy than it provides. But even at 26%, note that this means that more than 4 gallons of ethanol substitute net out only 1 gallon of gasoline, which is pretty pathetic.  Anyway, more later.  I am sure others in the blogosphere will be hacking away at this mess today, and I will try to link some of them tonight.

Update: I am in sports heaven today, at the golf tournament all day and watching the Superbowl tonight, so I still have not gotten back to this topic in depth, but our commenters have taken over for me on this one anyway, so I may just kick back with another beer let y'all do the work for a while.  No one would be happier than me to find that we could grow things cheaply to net increase our supply of clean fuels.  Unfortunately, I am not optimistic about the interaction of the government with any market for things that grow.

For some time, I have secretly harbored the theory, without any scientific knowledge to back it up, that somehow bioengineering might long term lead to the most efficient solar conversion technology.  And in a sense, this is what we are talking about here -- finding a biological solution to converting sunlight into energy in a usable form.  I suspect we are on the cusp of an exponential growth curve in biology like we experienced with thermodynamics, electromagnetics, and semiconductors over the last two centuries.  But if we are at such an inflection point, it just highlights how hopeless it is for government in general and George Bush in particular to pick winners at this point.  What combustion technology might the government have locked us into in 1800?  What computing technology might we have been locked into in 1950?

More at the Knowlege Problem.

 

Posted on February 2, 2006 at 10:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (22)

Can't Anyone Reality Check Numbers?

I am constantly frustrated with the media's inability to reality check the numbers they publish.  In many cases, just a few seconds thought would tell them that the numbers make no sense.

Today's example actually comes from a "meth-is-death" web site which is run by the Tennessee state attorneys-general association and is linked prominently from the Federal Government's anti-drug web site  (Hat tip to Reason).  Here are their numbers, copied right from the site:

  • 1 in 7 high school students will try meth.
  • 99 percent of first-time meth users are hooked after just the first try.
  • Only 5 percent of meth addicts are able to kick it and stay away.
  • From the first hit to the last breath, the life expectancy of a habitual meth user is only 5 years.

So 14.3% (1 in 7) try meth, 99% of those who try are hooked, and 95% of those hooked stay hooked, and all of those hooked die in five years.  So .143 x .99 x .95  or 13.45% of all kids are dying on average by the age of 23.  Wow.  There must be a really huge conspiracy out there to cover up all these deaths. Given that there are about 17,000,000 high school age kids, that means that in the next 5 years or so nearly 2.3 million of them are going to die.   And adults who run anti-drug programs wonder why kids don't take their warnings seriously. 

Posted on August 31, 2005 at 09:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Severe Hurricane Frequency in New Orleans

OK, I warned you, editorials are already blaming the damage in New Orleans on Global Warming in general and George Bush in specific.  Here is what you need to know about this meme:

  • Katrina is the 5th category four or five hurricane to hit within 100 miles of New Orleans since 1899.  This includes the hurricanes in 1948, 1965, and Camille in 1969.  Camille was the real whopper up to this point, one of only 3 class 5 hurricanes to ever hit the US before Katrina.  Note however, after three major (class 4 or 5) hurricanes in 21 years in the area from 1948-1969, there has not been another one to hit this area for 36 years.   It is difficult to figure out how you get an increasing frequency argument from this data.

A more detailed study of hurricane frequency is here and nice graphs here.  It turns out that increasing $ damages from hurricanes have more to do with expensive houses near the coast than increasing hurricane severity.  More on cycles of hurricane activity here

If there is a government failing here, it has more to do with local infrastructure than CO2This blog blames the lack of infrastructure on Bush (of course).  I have no particular problem bash Bush for anything, but my question is,if the locals knew this, as the blog implies, why didn't the locals spend their own damn money on their own infrastructure to protect their own selves.  If New Orleans chooses to build their city below sea level, why should the rest of us bear the cost of their higher-than-average infrastructure costs?

Posted on August 30, 2005 at 02:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Pre-Columbian Genetic Engineering

This is pretty cool, from Charles C. Mann's new book, and quoted by Marginal Revolution:

...the modern species [of maize] had to have been consciously developed by a small group of breeders who hunted through teosinte strands for plants with desired traits.  Geneticists from Rutgers University...estimated in 1998 that determined, aggressive, plan breeders -- which Indians certainly were -- might have been able to breed maize in as little as a decade...modern maize was the outcome of a bold act of conscious biological manipulation -- "arguably man's first, and perhaps his greatest, feat of genetic engineering," [Nina Federoff]..."To get corn out of teosinte is so -- you couldn't get a grant to do that now, because it would sound so crazy...Somebody who did that today would get a Nobel Prize!  If their lab didn't get shut down by Greenpeace, I mean."

Posted on August 30, 2005 at 08:42 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Be Prepared

Now that Hurricane Katrina has moved inland, it's time for the next stage of preparation - preparing for the onslaught of global warming activists ready to use New Orleans' devastation to justify government intervention in the economy.  Heck, some global warming activists tried to blame the earthquake induced SE Asian Tsunami on global warming.

For the last couple of years, the meme has circulated that hurricanes are getting worse, and that this is a predictable result of global warming.  More destructive hurricanes may or may not be a result of global warming -- I don't know, and I challenge any climatologist who thinks they can make a definitive prediction on hurricane forces based on a half degree change in global temperatures. 

What is fairly clear is that hurricanes are not actually getting worse.  Damage from them is getting worse, but that is more of a function of building a lot of expensive structures close to the water over the last 30 years.  And it is particularly true in New Orleans, which relies on massive pumps operating 24 hours a day to keep the city above water on a good day.  Patrick Michaels has more on the hurricane meme here, including a disturbing tale of the religion of global warming trumping good science.  Where I am on global warming here.  More on global warming activism overcoming the scientific method here.  I will never forget this quote from Steve Schneider of the NOAA:

We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

Posted on August 30, 2005 at 08:18 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Strange Quark Nuggets

Once in a while you read something so new and unexpected about the universe that you don't even know how to react.  That is where I am with this article on strange quark nuggets, smaller than the width of a human hair but weighing tons, burrowing through the earth at 900,000 miles an hour.  Via Instapundit.  Coming soon:  Bad Hollywood movie using the concept.

Posted on August 15, 2005 at 12:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Pilot's Union Strangely Silent

Actually, there is no pilots union in the military, perhaps fortunately, because they likely would have opposed the creation of un-manned drone aircraft such as the Predator, which has been wildly successful in Middle East operations.  Current aircraft have both reconnaissance and air-to-ground attack capabilities.  These aircraft are piloted from the ground by ex-fighter pilots, but the next generation will be able to take off and land themselves, obviating the need for even a ground pilot.  Wired has a longer article on these cool drones.  Beyond the obvious reduction in risk to humans, the drones also have the advantage of being substantially less expensive than human piloted fighter craft -- as little as $15 million apiece, even for the next generation tricked up models.

Posted on August 12, 2005 at 08:34 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Ad Hominem Science

I thought this quote, via Reason, from anti-smoking advocate Michael Siegel is representative of how many pseudo-scientific advocacy groups work today:

In the 20 years that I was a member of the tobacco control movement, I was led to believe that there were only two sides to any anti-smoking issue: our side and the tobacco industry side. Therefore, anyone who disagreed with our position had to be, in some way, affiliated with the tobacco industry. I was also taught to respond to their arguments not on any scientific grounds or on the merit of their arguments, but by simply discrediting the person by attacking their affiliation with the tobacco companies.

As I have found out over the past two decades, there are a lot of individuals who disagree with a number of positions that the anti-smoking movement has taken (interestingly, now I find myself to be one of them). And not all of these individuals are affiliated with, or working for the tobacco industry. As individuals who are not part of a tobacco industry campaign, these people are entitled to express their opinions and their arguments really deserve to be addressed on their merits. At very least, anti-smoking organizations and advocates should not attack these individuals. Attacking their arguments is legitimate, but attacking the individuals, in these cases, is not.

Take this statement, substitute global warming for anti-smoking and oil industry for tobacco industry and the statement still works just as well.

Update:  For another example, see the debate over child seat efficacy at the Freakonomics Blog.  A couple of researchers studied data on injury rates of kids in car seats vs. kids in seat belts, and found little incremental benefits of seat belts.  Note their desire to find the truth under the numbers:

What is more puzzling to me is why my results and Heaton's both suggest very little injury benefit of car seats, but the medical literature often finds 70% (!!) reductions of injuries with car seats relative to seat belts. We find reductions that are an order of magnitude smaller. They use very different methods -- surveying people in the weeks after crashes for instance -- but still it is really a puzzle. Which is why, when you read my paper, I am extremely cautious in interpreting the injury findings.

I hope that the medical researchers, Heaton, and I can all work together to try to make some sense of the conflicting results being generated by these different methodologies to resolve this important question.

Seems like a reasonable scientific attitude.  Now (via Marginal Revolution) here is the response of a child seat "activist" to their findings:

Their [Levitt and Dubner] conclusions stand in stark contrast to the existing body of scientific data that support current child restraint recommendations, and are, in our opinion, irresponsible and dangerous....We hope that this misleading article does not cost a child his life.

In other words:  Open scientific debat = killing children.  Levitt and Dubner must work for Haliburton.  Levitt has an update to the whole debate here.

Posted on July 25, 2005 at 01:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

More Evidence of the Ethanol Folly

Previously, I asked "why won't ethanol just go away", lamenting what a stupid program ethanol is and how much subsidy money is poured down that drain, not to mention the effect it seems to have on the Iowa primary every 4 years.  Yet another study has shown that ethanol consumes more energy to make than it actually produces. 

Turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates, according to a new Cornell University and University of California-Berkeley study.

"There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel," says David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell. "These strategies are not sustainable."

Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley, conducted a detailed analysis of the energy input-yield ratios of producing ethanol from corn, switch grass and wood biomass as well as for producing biodiesel from soybean and sunflower plants. Their report is published in Natural Resources Research (Vol. 14:1, 65-76).

In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:

  • corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
  • switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
  • wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:

  • soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and
  • sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In assessing inputs, the researchers considered such factors as the energy used in producing the crop (including production of pesticides and fertilizer, running farm machinery and irrigating, grinding and transporting the crop) and in fermenting/distilling the ethanol from the water mix. Although additional costs are incurred, such as federal and state subsidies that are passed on to consumers and the costs associated with environmental pollution or degradation, these figures were not included in the analysis.

Posted on July 11, 2005 at 02:37 PM | Permalink | Comments (15)

Food Nazis Get Fact-Checked

Apparently, the mortality rates from obesity that the media has been breathlessly lecturing us with were overestimated by at least 1500%:

But in a study released this week by the CDC and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association ("Excess Deaths Associated with Underweight, Overweight, and Obesity"), the public health community has finally owned up to their massive fib by acknowledging that the number of deaths due to obesity in the US is closer to 26,000 not 400,000 as previously reported.

The part of the earlier study that really got people's attention was the fact that even those slightly overweight but well short of obese had a significantly increased risk of death.  Now, the CDC channels Emily Littella in saying "never mind":

for the merely overweight with BMI's from 25-30 there is no excess mortality. In fact, being overweight was "associated with a slight reduction in mortality relative to the normal weight category." Being overweight not only does not lead to premature death, something that dozens of other studies from around the world have been saying for the last 30 years, but it also carries less risk from premature death than being "normal" weight. In other words the overweight=early death "fact" proclaimed by the public health community is simply not true.

In fact, the study argues, the risks from being underweight are greater than overweight, something that resonates with me having known two women who died due to complications from anorexia.

Other studies will have to replicate these findings, but this study does seem to have taken a more careful approach than previous approaches.  One thing you can be sure about, is that this will not stop lawsuits against fast food companies, since overwhelming medical evidence of the safety of breast implants has not stopped litigation in that arena.  Heck, the fact that most people who are suing asbestos companies admits they are not even sick has not stopped litigation in that arena.

 

Posted on April 22, 2005 at 08:36 AM | Permalink | Comments (3)

9/11 Conspiracies

Popular Mechanics has a very readable debunking of many of the most prevalent 9/11 conspiracies.  I am sure conspiracy theorists will generally respond to most of the scientists quoted with the all-encompassing "they're in on it!"  Once you get so many people giving evidence that the conspiracies are incorrect, you drive the conspiracy into the realm of Meyer's Law:

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, ignorance and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity.

In this case, the word stupidity is unfair.  The 9/11 attacks fall into the category of the "unimagined".  Frank Borman (as portrayed in the awesome mini-series "From the Earth to the Moon", I have not been able to find out if they used his actual words) is speaking to a committee hearing on the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts.  Under intense scrutiny for a set of conditions that in retrospect seemed ridiculously unsafe, Borman described the problem as "a failure of imagination". 

In this case, for example, conspiracy theorists ask why no military plane intercepted the aircraft.  First, I would argue that without any prior precedent, no military commander or politician would have the cajones to shoot down a planeload of innocents on a commercial airliner (now THAT would be conspiracy fodder, had it happened).  Second, though, the article quotes a number of military commanders to say that the US didn't really have the radar coverage or aircraft patrols in place to intercept an airplane attacking from within the country - everyone previously imagined the threat to come from outside our borders, and that is how our defenses were arrayed.

Anyway, read the who article - it is an entertaining roundup of conspiracy theories (people do have good imaginations) and a well-argued debunking of them.  (via Instapundit)

Posted on February 14, 2005 at 11:21 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

More Fun with Statistics

I didn't really pay much attention to the typical 24-hour partisan finger-pointing flurry accompanying the stats showing an uptick in US infant mortality rates.  However, looking back on it, it is a good lesson about how statistics are routinely misused in this country (via Captain's Quarters).  Critics of the administration and the health care system used the statistics to try to show something is wrong with the US. 

Two weeks ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column on the first increase in the American infant-mortality rate in decades, taking the opportunity to excoriate Americans and the Bush administration as uncaring and unresponsive to the deaths of children. He compared the US unfavorably with Cuba and China

Unfortunately, this conclusion was flawed:

babies that would die in the womb or at stillbirth elsewhere are born alive in the US. Many of these survive completely, but because of their precarious state, they tend to die at higher percentages than normal births. That's why the numbers rose slightly for 2002. The CDC doesn't expect to see another increase like it.

The solution might be to look at the survival rate at year one as a percentage of total pregnancies, not just births (though you would have to exclude abortions).

Posted on January 24, 2005 at 10:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Zooms from Space

I find these NASA animated zooms from space down to a single building or landmark to be totally addictive.

Posted on January 17, 2005 at 10:22 PM | Permalink | Comments (3)

Iceberg Collision

Courtesy of Nature Noted, comes this article on two enormous blocks of ice set to collide in the next week in Antarctica.

104274main_iceberg_story_pic

As the Nasa site linked above puts it:

It is an event so large that the best seat in the house is in space: a massive iceberg is on a collision course with a floating glacier near the McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica. NASA satellites have witnessed the 100-mile-long B-15A iceberg moving steadily towards the Drygalski Ice Tongue. Though the iceberg's pace has slowed in recent days, NASA scientists expect a collision to occur no later than January 15, 2005.

Posted on January 11, 2005 at 12:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tsunami Before and After Part 2

Best laid plans.... I try to run a small business and economics blog and 90% of the hits I have gotten over the last 2 days have been on Tsunami before and after pictures.  OK, well, I have have been updating the original before and after post with links to people who really are blogging the tsunami and its aftermath.  Nature has some amazing before-after satellite shots, including these, which are wider angle views of the original shots I posted:

Beforeafter1a_1 Tsunamibeforeafter1b_1

These shots are chilling, and help explain the death toll better than any single photos I have seen:

Tsunamibeforeafter2a Tsunamibeforeafter2b

Makes me think of Atlantis.  Hat tip to the Nature site to Marginal Revolution.

For more before and after images, look here and  here and here (in this last link see the powerpoint download in the lower left).  This site has a ton of tsunami blog links, including pictures and video.  Here is a link-filled roundup (new 1/4) and an older one here, and another here.  And here is a dedicated blogHere is a 1/5 roundup of Indian blog posts about the tsunami and its aftermath.  And here is a local blog with news.  And here is the Amazon Red Cross donation page.

Update:  A more recent roundup as of 1/11 here.

Posted on January 9, 2005 at 08:49 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bad Journalism about Science

I have mentioned on a number of occasions that journalists seldom get science stories right.  Most journalists have no science background (if they were good at math and science, they would not have been journalism majors) and they and their employers have huge biases towards spinning every science story as an end-of-the-world disaster.  I remember when I lived in St. Louis we used to say that the local TV stations accurately forecasted 12 of the last 4 blizzards.

Here is a good story and analysis from Satblog analyzing one of the news stories popping us saying that we in the US are all at risk from 100 foot tsunamis or whatever.  The blog calls a recent Dallas Morning News front page story about a tsunami that could wipe out all of Florida

a great example of the crap that passes for science reporting these days, and demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific process.

Posted on January 3, 2005 at 08:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Story Behind the Clear Skies Initiative

Via the Commons, the story of how the Clear Skies initiative came off the rails, despite the fact it was initially seen as a win-win for both environmentalists and industry.  I don't know all the issues on the table, but I like the cap-and-trade concept for pollution control. 

Many folks, by the way, automatically assume that as a libertarian, I am automatically against pollution laws.  This is not the case.  In fact, this issue is a good example of how a thoughtful understanding of individual rights and property rights differs from just being blindly "pro-business".  In fact, pollution laws are nearly essential to strong property rights.  As I wrote then:

In fact, environmental laws are as critical to a nation with strong property rights as is contract law. Why? Imagine a world without any environmental legislation but with strong property rights. What happens when the first molecule of smoke from my iron furnace or from my farm tractor crosses over on to your land. I have violated your property rights, have I not, by sending unwanted substances onto your land, into your water, or into your airspace. To stop me, you might sue me. And so might the next guy downwind, etc. We would end up in an economic gridlock with everyone slapping injunctions on each other. Since economic activity is almost impossible without impacting surrounding property owners, at least in small ways, we need a framework for setting out maximums for this impact - e.g., environmental legislation.

Cap and trade strike me as the best, most free market way to limit pollution - this system shifts the burden of pollution control to the people and industries and technologies that can do it the cheapest.  Unfortunately, many environmentalists are command and control technocrats and/or socialists who greatly prefer having government micro-manage technology choices and industry by industry requirements.  Which is exactly what led to the problems referred to in the article around "new source review".

New source review is long and complicated, but basically says that existing power plants don't have to upgrade to new technologies, but new ones have to go through a very extensive environmental review and permitting process and have a suite of government mandated pollution control technologies installed.  OK, that has all been clear for 3+ decades.  The rub comes when a company considers upgrading or replacing a portion of a power plant.  For most of the life of the Clean Air Act, the government allowed utilities to upgrade and modernize plants without having to install the expensive suite of new controls.  The Clinton administration clamped down on this, making it harder to upgrade existing plants.  All the recent hullabaloo has occurred as GWB proposed to go back to the pre-Clinton rules.

This issue is a great test for environmentalists, because it separates them into those who really understand the issues and the science and legitimately want improvement, and those who care more about symbolism and politics.  Those who like symbolism have cast this move as a roll-back, and are fighting it tooth and nail.  Those who care about results know the following:

Experience under the Clinton rules has shown that most old plants will never be upgraded if they have to go through the planning process and install the new scrubbing and other technologies.  So, they will just keep running inefficiently, as-is, until they are finally shut down.  However, if allowed to be upgraded without review and new scrubbers, etc., they will become much more efficient.  No, they won't have the most modern scrubbing technology, but because they are more efficient, they burn less fuel (coal) to make the same amount of electricity and therefore will pollute less.  In some cases these rules even prevent switching to cleaner fuels like natural gas. 

In other words, most scientists, including scientific-oriented environmentalists, agree that GWB's proposal will result in less pollution, but environmentalists still oppose it because they don't like the symbolism of any pollution regulation appearing to be rolled back.  You can read a lot more about New Source Review and how it actually increases pollution in practice here.

Posted on January 2, 2005 at 10:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tsunami Before and After

A whole peninsula, wiped clean.  Ugly.  Thanks to LGF for the link.

Beforeafter

Update:  The wider angle view of these photos are even more dramatic - note the new bay where there used to be farms:

Beforeafter1a  Tsunamibeforeafter1b

More of these side-by-side tsunami before-after photo pairs are here.

Update #2:  We are getting a lot of Google hits on this.  For more before and after images, look here and  here and here (in this last link see the powerpoint download in the lower left).  This site has a ton of tsunami blog links, including pictures and video.  Here is a link-filled roundup (new 1/4) and an older one here, and another here.  And here is a dedicated blogHere is a 1/5 roundup of Indian blog posts about the tsunami and its aftermath.  And here is a local blog with news.  And here is the Amazon Red Cross donation page.

Posted on December 30, 2004 at 10:21 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Global Warming and Poverty

Several days ago in this post I made the point that the only connection between the recent tsunami deaths and global warming I could find was that 3rd world poverty, which global warming treaties will likely help lock in place, made people more vulnerable to the disaster.  Kendra Okonski makes a similar point in the Asian Wall Street Journal.  Note:

Appropriate infrastructure, including warning systems that can save lives, communications systems, transportation infrastructure, medical facilities, and sophisticated construction methods are the tangible benefits of economic development. Just look at the much lower death tolls when tsunamis strike Japan, where the average citizen is 43 times wealthier than his counterparts in countries such as Indonesia, and so much better placed to afford the infrastructure needed to minimize loss of life.

He goes on to point out how focus on the focus on global warming, combined with growth destroying treaties like Kyoto as well as a hodge-podge of other statist policies will conspire to keep many people locked in poverty:

This week's tragedy illustrates why environmentalists' proposals are preposterous and counterproductive. Policies such as the Kyoto Protocol -- a global treaty to limit emissions in industrialized countries -- would in fact harm the poor the most, by slowing economic growth and distracting attention from real and present problems.

So, in conclusion

The real problem for most of the people affected by the disaster is poverty. Whatever the earth, or its climate, may have in store in the next few decades, the best strategy to minimize human deaths and suffering is to tackle poverty through economic development and technological progress.

UPDATE:  More here at Cafe Hayek

Posted on December 30, 2004 at 09:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

This Was Inevitable - Environmentalists Try To Blame Tsunami on Global Warming

Global warming advocates are already trying to make hay from the recent tsunami disaster (via Reuters, who else)

"Global Warming, Pollution Add to Coastal Threats"

Creeping rise in sea levels tied to global warming, pollution and damage to coral reefs may make coastlines even more vulnerable to disasters like tsunamis or storms in future, experts said on Monday.

Of course it says "may...in the future", but advocates want you to believe that the death toll is due in part to global warming.  Forget of course that the world has yet to see any rises in ocean level (presumably due to melting ice somewhere) or that the basic disaster mechanism of earthquake causing tidal wave has nothing, zero, nada to do with climate.

The argument that clearing mangrove swamps may make a tsunami worse may or may not be true to some extent, but this is only a secondary effect.  The primary, by far, human activity that affected the death toll is the desire by humans to live on the coast.  Unless you want to change this (and I would bet that a disproportionate number of the world's environmentalists make this same personal choice to live on the coast) it does not really matter if there are mangroves or not.

Ironically, the primary way to avoid such disasters is not by reversing human technology (as global warming activists want to do), but by increasing it, in the form of warning systems and evacuation routes.  Global warming advocates actually want to keep everyone poor - they blame wealth and progress for global warming, but note that wealthy countries like the US (the global warming great Satan) has had the technology and the wealth to afford to put systems in place that would have prevented such a huge death toll.  Wealth, prosperity and technology are what would have averted this disaster, and it is just these things that global warming advocates oppose for Southeast Asia.  So here is my alternate headline and first paragraph:

"Poverty, Lack of Technology add to Coastal Threats"

The creeping influence of global warming advocates and treaties that are limiting 3rd world growth and prosperity may make coastlines even more vulnerable to disasters like tsunamis or storms in future, experts said on Monday.

Posted on December 28, 2004 at 10:28 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Is Global Warming Advocacy Killing Science?

I worry that global warming advocacy has crossed the line from science to religion, such that data counter to the basic mantra is considered heresy rather than scientific discourse. 

In my review of Michael Crichton's new book, I said I was sympathetic to his global warming skepticism but that I thought his characters and plot were over the top and he was too heavy handed with the polemic, which hurts any action novel.  Maybe I was wrong:

We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

- National Center for Atmospheric Research (NOAA) researcher and global warming action promoter, Steven Schneider

More here from Arizona Watch.  I do disagree a bit with using the Nature Conservancy as a proxy for all environmental groups.  Though they advocate things I don't agree with, the vast majority of their funds go to actual preservation rather than political advocacy (unlike Sierra Club or others).  They are actually one of the better examples of trying to use private voluntary action rather than the government to reach some environmental goals.

I have written more on Kyoto here.  A good recent article in TCS by George Taylor talking about the panic around arctic temperatures is here.

Posted on December 22, 2004 at 09:46 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Bjorn Lomborg on Global Warming

OK, I am not trying to make this the global warming blog, so hopefully this will be it on the climate posts for a while, but Bjorn Lomborg, perhaps the most disliked scientist in the world for his critiques of many environmental arguments, makes the argument that global warming is a fact, but stopping it may be more expensive than it is worth.

Posted on December 16, 2004 at 11:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Junk Science's "10 Most Embarrassing Moments of 2004"

If you have never checked out JunkScience.com, you should.  They do a nice job of providing balance and fact-based analysis for many science "stories" in the media, particularly those where the science is driven by political correctness or a litigation and/or political agenda.  The spend a lot of time on global warming, mainly because there is just so much bad science there to criticize, but they range all over, from the latest food Nazi threats to the latest chemical contamination panic.

Last week, they release their 10 most embarrassing moments of 2004.  One example:

10. University of Arkansas researchers attacked the Atkins Diet in January with a report linking a high-carbohydrate diet with weight loss, saying it was possible to lose weight without cutting calories and without exercising. What they didn’t reveal, however, was that the study subjects who lost weight actually ate 400-600 calories per day less than those who didn’t lose weight.

Never, ever, ever trust a science story in the press.  The press has no idea how to use or manipulate data (if they had been able to do math, they would not have been journalism majors in the first place).  The press generally publishes science stories by cribbing 95% of the story from activists press releases.  Even when there is data in the story, rather than just bald unsupported declarations, it is either seriously flawed, or more humorously, contradicts the text of the story.

I can't resist supporting this statement with a couple of examples from JunkScience.com.

This is a temperature chart for Central Park, NY.  It gets a lot of play in the press as a "common sense" proof of global warming, and comes right off the NASA climate site:

Cenpark_com

Now, lets ignore the fact that urbanization could be causing a local temperature increase that does not reflect a general climate trend.  Lets, however, select our time frame a little differently.  Lets take the whole data set, which goes back further, rather than this set chosen by activists to make their point.  The same data over a longer trend looks like this:

Cent_park_3_1

OOPS!  Gee, I am not sure Central Park looks much warmer.  In fact, you could argue it is cooler.  Hmmmm.  Ask yourself if you really think it was an accident that the year with the single lowest temperature in the middle of the second graph was used as the starting point for the first.

OK, one other, because I can't resist.  There is some debate (though perhaps not enough) about what temperature data set to use - ground level readings, satellite data, balloons, etc.  It might not stun you to learn that out of 3-5 alternative temperature data sets, global warming activists choose not the middle or the average but the single set (ground temperatures) that show by far the most warming to date.  By coincidence, this data set is perhaps the least reliable, since it never has had anything like 100% area coverage, it is subject to the most human error, and it is influenced by urban warming effects. 

However, if you want to use ground data, certainly the most reliable is data for the United States, where data has been taken over a larger coverage area for more time with more consistent standards than any other location.  Global Warming activists will love to show this chart of US temperatures since about 1978:

Ustemp2

Wow, that looks bad - looks like a nearly one degree Celsius rise in less than 25 years.  This is the "hockey stick" climatologists refer to.  Let's leave aside that this same rise is not visible in satellite data or other measurement approaches.  Like the NYC data, lets take a longer time span.  Can you guess why this chart begins in 1978? 

Ustemp

So we are not even at the high's for the last 100 years - those occured in the 1930's  (you remember - drought, dust bowl, etc?)

OK, that's just a taste - check out their web site for more.  In addition, you can read my post on the Kyoto treaty to find other skeptics of global warming, as well as some specific information about how Kyoto is more an anti-American treaty than an environmental treaty.

UPDATE

Based on some responses I have gotten, its probably best that I point out that the reason for posting the charts above was not to "disprove" global warming.  It was to just make the point that you need to be careful with any science you see in the media.  If you look here or here, you will see where I am on global warming, which basically that manmade warming probably exists but is being overstated for a variety of reasons.  In fact, my whole point here is really that you CAN'T prove or disprove something as complex, chaotic, and poorly understood as climate change with 2 or 3 charts.

Posted on December 15, 2004 at 10:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)