Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fuzzy Science

It's a good rule of thumb, I think, always to be skeptical of scientific studies or discoveries which have political or metaphysical implications.

When, for example, fossilized single-celled organisms are claimed to have been found in meteorites, a discovery which would lend credence to the dogma that evolution of life is inevitable and will occur anywhere that conditions are right, it's wise to wait for further examination by experts to see if they concur that these really are fossilized organisms and not just inorganic artifacts. Likewise with any alleged discovery of remains of a putative link between homo sapiens and ape-like evolutionary ancestors.

Similarly, reports of alarming developments caused by climate change should be taken with a grain of salt until the reports have been subjected to the peer-review process. Often it'll be found that the assertions are either overblown or simply wrong. The case of the Himalayan melting glaciers last year is an example.

Another may be found in a story at
Erroneous data about how much ice is vanishing due to climate change are once more at the heart of an explosive controversy. This time, it's not the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but the venerable Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World that is in the line of fire.

Journalists across the UK received glossy press packs last week for the launch of a new edition. It included a press release declaring that: "For the first time, the new edition […] has had to erase 15 per cent of Greenland's once permanent ice cover – turning an area the size of the UK and Ireland 'green' and ice-free. This is concrete evidence of how climate change is altering the face of the planet forever."

Today glaciologists have been crying foul, saying that the 15 per cent figure is wildly inaccurate.

When New Scientist contacted the Times Atlas team last week to find out where they had obtained the number, they cited the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado, but were unable to be more precise.

Ted Scambos, the NSIDC's expert on the Greenland ice sheet, says neither he nor his colleagues were consulted in person. "Graduate students would not have made a mistake like this," he told New Scientist. "If what The Times has said were true, something like a meter of sea level rise would have occurred in the past decade."

That is nowhere near what measurements show. "Currently, Greenland is losing mass at about a rate of 150 billion tonnes per year, or about one-third of a millimetre of sea level rise per year," says Scambos. That means in the 12-year period from 1999 to 2011 that the Times Atlas analysed, meltwater from the Greenland ice sheet has contributed roughly 3 mm to global sea level rise – not 1 metre.

In total, the Greenland ice sheet holds enough ice to raise global sea level by about 7 metres, so the loss since 1999 has been less than 0.05 per cent.
Of course, a 3 mm rise in sea level in 12 years is not the same as zero rise, but it's hardly alarming. If the ice continues to melt at that rate then by the end of the century the oceans will be about an inch higher than they were at the beginning of the century. That doesn't seem all that alarming.

Carbon Vacuum Cleaner

If atmospheric carbon is indeed an environmental threat and a problem to be solved there are basically two approaches: One is to limit carbon dioxide emissions, a measure which would have severe economic consequences. The other is to suck the carbon from the air once it's there. A story at NPR discusses the work of a physics professor by the name of David Keith who is working on the latter approach.
Keith is on a patch of blacktop on the campus of the University of Calgary, in Alberta, Canada, where until very recently he has been a professor. Now his academic hat is Harvard, where he is both a professor of public policy and a professor of applied physics. His hard hat is a little start-up company, called Carbon Engineering, housed on the Calgary campus. And that company is building a machine that can actually suck carbon dioxide from the air.

The technology at the core of the device is not new. "People have done this for a long time," he says. "There were commercial processes that took CO2 out of the air, in fact, in the 1950s, so there's no mystery that we can do it."

But those companies were just extracting small quantities of carbon dioxide for industrial purposes. Keith is after a much more important question, one that is universal for anyone trying to develop a technology: Can it be done affordably on a grand scale?

"So our interest is in building full-scale commercial systems that would take tens of thousands of tons — or more — of CO2 out of the air," he says.
You can read about Keith's work at the link. If his ideas work it would have enormous implications for public policy, at least those policies designed to curtail carbon emissions.

I wonder if Keith got any of the stimulus money of the sort that was showered on Solyndra. Probably not unless he was a big donor to the Obama campaign.

The Sap

David Brooks has been a loyal booster for the Obama administration since 2008, using his perch at the New York Times to regularly express his hopes and admiration for the president. Now he confesses that he's had an epiphany. He realizes that he's been setting himself up for chronic disappointment. He's been duped by the man he thought would be a new kind of politician. He is, in his words, a sap:
I’m a sap, a specific kind of sap. I’m an Obama Sap.

When the president said the unemployed couldn’t wait 14 more months for help and we had to do something right away, I believed him. When administration officials called around saying that the possibility of a double-dip recession was horrifyingly real and that it would be irresponsible not to come up with a package that could pass right away, I believed them.

I liked Obama’s payroll tax cut ideas and urged Republicans to play along. But of course I’m a sap. When the president unveiled the second half of his stimulus it became clear that this package has nothing to do with helping people right away or averting a double dip. This is a campaign marker, not a jobs bill.

It recycles ideas that couldn’t get passed even when Democrats controlled Congress. In his remarks Monday the president didn’t try to win Republicans to even some parts of his measures. He repeated the populist cries that fire up liberals but are designed to enrage moderates and conservatives.

He claimed we can afford future Medicare costs if we raise taxes on the rich. He repeated the old half-truth about millionaires not paying as much in taxes as their secretaries. (In reality, the top 10 percent of earners pay nearly 70 percent of all income taxes, according to the I.R.S. People in the richest 1 percent pay 31 percent of their income to the federal government while the average worker pays less than 14 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.)

This wasn’t a speech to get something done. This was the sort of speech that sounded better when Ted Kennedy was delivering it. The result is that we will get neither short-term stimulus nor long-term debt reduction anytime soon, and I’m a sap for thinking it was possible.

Yes, I’m a sap. I believed Obama when he said he wanted to move beyond the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country. I always believe that Obama is on the verge of breaking out of the conventional categories and embracing one of the many bipartisan reform packages that are floating around.
Brooks' contrition continues on for several more paragraphs, but reading it is a bit like watching those poor people in medieval Europe walking through a village flagellating themselves in hopes that their penance will somehow atone for their sins and earn them God's favor.

Brooks' disillusionment with Mr. Obama is touching in its pathos, but it raises a question: What reason did he have for thinking that Mr. Obama would turn out otherwise than he has? Where was the evidence in his past experience to think that he was anything but a far-left community organizer?

He sounds a bit like the naive teenage girl who gives her heart to the handsome lothario who promises her his undying love and a lifetime of happiness until he beds her and then moves on leaving her brokenhearted and mystified as to how she could have ever thought he was such a wonderful guy in the first place. It's sad.