Archive for the ‘Scientific Method’ Category

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and American Innumeracy

29 April 2014

When asked what he thought his odds were on winning a big lottery, one ticket buyer said, “Oh, fifty-fifty. I either win or I don’t.” Unfortunately for him, this poor guy is without a clue the actual odds were millions to one against him.

Unfortunately, this Mother Jones article argues that typical Americans are “unlikely” to be much more sophisticated than this lottery ticket buyer. In fact, it’s “very likely” they do not know the specifics of how scientists working on IPCC reports use these terms:

“Study: It Is “Very Likely” That Scientists Are Confusing Us about Global Warming”

Here’s a handy chart of what they mean when they use certain words:


So, after reading that, where do you fall on the scale of numeracy and comfort with statistics? Here’s a bit from the Mother Jones article. Read it and answer one question:

According to Budescu’s research, while the IPCC intends for “very likely” to mean a greater than 90 percent likelihood, that’s not necessarily the message the average person hears. Instead, when Budesco and his colleagues asked members of the public to assign a probability to the term “very likely,” the mean estimate people gave was just 62 percent.

OK, here’s the question. What does “mean” mean in the next to last line of this quotation?

If you don’t know, it’s “very likely” you ain’t that all that good with basic statistics and also “likely” you ain’t good with math at all.

Yeah, I know. It’s “virtually certain” I’m pedantic.



Climate Change and the Art of Science

14 January 2014

Having an article published in a peer-reviewed journal doesn’t mean the author or authors are right, but while far from perfect academic journals sift out much totally shoddy research. Better yet, journals provide starting points for other researchers who may or may not agree with the conclusions of the original researchers.

Right now, for example, I’m reading Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation: Resolving the Controversy by Cameron and Pierce, a work shredding studies done mostly in the 1970s. That’s the way science works. Someone concludes something, and, typically, others jump in sometimes agreeing and often disagreeing in glorious detail.

So where are the studies, the peer-reviewed articles contesting climate change?

Here’s a good article on that topic: “The Very, Very Thin Wedge of Denial”


Battle Cognitive Dissonance–Practice the Scientific Method

20 March 2013

These few, succinct sentences appeared on Upworthy.

Scientists resist change too, of course. Conventional wisdom looks sooooo correct until that moment when it becomes completely indefensible.


Positive Is Negative

21 January 2013

Each day brings new bad news about the climate. This news from a German research center–hey, skeptics, nice to know the hoax is global, huh?–announces a positive feedback loop in the Arctic ice: “Melt Ponds Cause Artic Sea Ice to Melt More Rapidly”

Positive feedback loops like this scare the bejeebers out of me since they indicate climate change is speeding up and will likely speed up more. Yippee.

See also the Summit County News version of the German article: Climate: Arctic Ice Melting from ‘the Inside-Out’


Handbasket Report: Come Hell or High Water

20 November 2012

Has anyone else noticed an escalating shift in both coverage of and positions on climate change over the last few months?

When  UC Berkeley physicist Richard Muller “came out,” he was pretty much alone although he was certainly willing to discuss his findings: “The Conversion of a Climate-Change Skeptic”

As a professional scientist, he remains, of course, admirably skeptical. He says,

It’s a scientist’s duty to be properly skeptical. I still find that much, if not most, of what is attributed to climate change is speculative, exaggerated or just plain wrong. I’ve analyzed some of the most alarmist claims, and my skepticism about them hasn’t changed.

I have no problem with that skepticism. It is–or should be–part of the scientific method. Scientists should be wary of stating anything before they are beyond a reasonable doubt. When Sandy hit, for example, most scientists were quite wary about connecting it to climate change because they have no way of linking any specific storm to global climate change.

However, there’s a major difference between being skeptical about claims and being skeptical about verifiable data. And the verifiable data continues to pile up, and, of late, more and more mainstream media have begun to mention at least some of this data and even comments by actual climate scientists.

Some sites are having too much fun with the shifting positions of professional deniers: “Patrick Michaels’ 1992 Claims Versus the 2012 Reality.” Some deniers, trying to dig in, end up sounding, well, like skeptical scientists rather than outright scoffers: “Sandy Leads to Surge in Unscientific Hurricane Profiteers.”

Most likely, denial or spin will become even harder if stories such as these continue to appear.

“In All Probability: Climate Change and the Risk of More Storms Like Sandy”

That one’s from Atlantic, nothing too unusual about that. However, probability is not a typical American interest, except for poker players and such. Probability, however, is big among scientists, and that’s why the news is getting harder to ignore.

“Iowa Scientists: Drought a Sign of Climate Change”

This one’s an ABC News article, mainstream, but hardly typical of MSM coverage of the last few years.

“Global Warming a Factor in Severe Weather, Says NOAA Report.”

Washington Post. NOAA.

“200 Investment Firms Issue a Warning on Climate Change”

This one was originally from the UK Telegraph, but Business Insider picked it up. Business Insider!

“Greenhouse Gases Hit a Record High in 2011, UN Agency Says”

This article relates some worrisome facts:

The World Meteorological Organization says the planet averaged 390 parts per million of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, up 40 percent from before the Industrial Age when levels were about 275 parts per million.

WMO officials said Tuesday there was a 30 percent increase in the warming effect on the global climate between 1990 and 2011, mainly due to carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning.

And this one’s from Fox News.

There can’t be two Fox News organizations can there?


Science: The Facts

29 October 2012

Tania Lobrozo’s NPR blog article “Should Scientists Promote Results over Process?” tackles a good question.

Distrust and/or outright hostility to science is close to being a doctrine of faith in America, the post-fact country.  Evolution.  Climate Change. Of course facts don’t go away. They are merely discovered, examined, evaluated, then reexamined, reevaluated, and revised. Alas, this  process is not the way most people want to spend their lives.

As one of the few who does, I worry about any society that rates faith and stalwart belief — and I’m not just talking about religious belief — over observation, experimentation, and the scientific process in all its manifestations. First of all, being absolutely sure of something often bumps up against facts.  For example, blind faith in a certain method of baking bread can be as bad as anything else.  I still remember the yelling from a fine French chef who was visiting a relative here in the high mountains.  Cooking his first meal here, he failed to adjust his recipes to allow for the high altitude, a scientific mistake.  One he never made again.

Unfortunately, too many Americans cling to their mistakes.  For some it’s laziness or politics or plain stupidity.  For a good many though it’s simple ignorance. Ignorance is forgivable and fixable, but too few make an effort to fix their thinking patterns. Too few even realize that thinking is hard work.

Teaching is hard work too, and some educational programs try, but I have strong doubts that many will succeed.  Inequality in schools, inadequate or worn down teachers can’t light intellectual fires.  Plus, since its earliest days, resistance to scientific thinking has been endemic in America — read Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-intellectualism in American Life — and now, in its waning days, good teachers are rarer and rarer.

Hence, here we are with a nation taught to believe in simple answers, and even though the scientific method is actually quite straightforward, it’s not good at providing simple, absolute  answers.  So we are a nation where too few people understand what the scientific process is, how it works, and what its results mean and fewer yet have any tolerance for the glorious ambiguity inherent in the scientific method.  All black or all white. That’s what too many of us want.  Faith is soooo much more attractive with its absolutes.

Absolutes however are the fundamental problem. Philosopher Theodor Adrorno (1903-1969) was correct when he said, “Intolerance of ambiguity is the mark of an authoritarian personality.”

To me, this line of his explains a lot about what’s going on in the United States today.


Do Your Research!

16 October 2012

I just ran across this headline:  “Did Global Warming Really Stop in 1997?

The answer, as anyone who reads widely knows, is NO.  At least that’s what NASA, NOAA, the US military, and any number of climate scientists say.  But does that stop the Daily Mail from running such a story?

The answer, as anyone who reads widely knows, is NO.

Why?  Because they don’t care?  Because they don’t do their research–to use the great line from the BBC’s Sherlock?  Because they just want to stir up a few more temperatures–among their readers?

The Internet’s a great resource for information.  I googled these words:  British newspapers political orientation and found a website called Paperboy.  Here’s what this site says about The Daily Mail:

The Daily Mail is a British, daily middle market tabloid newspaper. First published in 1896 by Lord Northcliffe, it is the United Kingdom’s second biggest-selling daily newspaper after The Sun. It is currently owned by the Dail Mail and General Trust plc. The Daily Mail was Britain’s first daily newspaper aimed at the newly-literate “lower-middle class market resulting from mass education, combining a low retail price with plenty of competitions, prizes and promotional gimmicks”. It was the first British paper to sell a million copies a day. It was, from the outset, a newspaper pitched at women and is still the only British newspaper whose readership is more than 50% female. Politically the Daily Mail has a conservative slant. Its frequently sensationalist, conservatively biased headlines often provoke a strong reaction amongst the liberal leaning blogosphere who sarcastically label it the “Daily Fail”. As of May 2011 its online version is the most popular newspaper web site in the UK with around 64 million unique visitors for the month.

So, does The Daily Mail sound like a first rate source for information on climate change?  If you read widely–and critically, you know the answer.

Why do I suspect that in a world with greater knowledge, nearly instant communication, and myriad easily cross-referenced facts widely available, the percentage of magical thinkers is rising instead of falling?


Climate Change: Wry Polar Disorder

27 March 2012

One of the first things I do every morning is to click up Google News and check my favorite topics.  One of them is climate change.  Today’s listings provide a neat visual summary of the dichotomous reporting I’m dubbing Wry Polar Disorder.

Here are the listings as I just looked at them:


Climate Change »

Daily Mail
Wall Street Journal – ‎15 hours ago‎
The lack of any statistically significant warming for over a decade has made it more difficult for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its supporters to demonize the atmospheric gas CO2 which is released when fossil 
Straits Times
Reuters – ‎21 hours ago‎
By Nina Chestney | LONDON (Reuters) – The world is close to reaching tipping points that will make it irreversibly hotter, making this decade critical in efforts to contain global warming, scientists warned on Monday. Scientific estimates differ but 

It doesn’t take a climate scientist to suss out the split here, does it?   According to the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and NewsMax stories, everything is fine–cool even.  Then below those articles is an article distributed by Reuters and links to that story distributed by some environmental groups. Things look not so fine in these versions of the world.

Now admittedly, Reuters, a major news agency, covers business news, but it’s unlike WSJ, Forbes,  and Newsmax in that Reuters is headquartered in London.  I’m not sure how their stories like this one fare in Britain, but in America they aren’t as prominent in business publications as stories and op-ed pieces regaling the glories and/or irrelevance of a rising carbon dioxide level. Although I do see the occasional exception, American business publications tend to toss out alarming climate change information in favor of stories–rationalizations?  fictions?  fables?–indicating things are fine.

Is it surprising that the typical business and corporate types are likely to doubt or even sneer at those who say climate change is not only real but dangerous?  Where do you think the people who run businesses are likely to get their information?  Environmental websites?  Peer-reviewed climate journals?  I think not.  I suspect they are far more likely to read WSJ, Forbes, and Newsmax.  Those are Merkin, true-believing sources.  Would they mislead?  No!  That’s what those environmental sites do.  They’re run by lefties, and we all know lefties are into world domination–unlike major American corporations.

Living in a facts-optional, fantasy-lauding country like the current incarnation of the United States alarms me even more than the supported, documented news I read.  And that’s saying something.


Doomsday Questions

19 May 2011

How many believe that the world will end on Saturday? This Saturday. Hands up, please.

Somehow, I expect few hands in the air, which leads to my next question.

Does anyone else wonder what the few folks whose hands are in the air are doing with their worldly belongings right now? Does anyone else wonder if some people are asking these folks to donate everything?

The thought is tempting, isn’t it?

Good article on this particular Doomsday calculation in Scientific American here.

Did I mention that I have a copy of The End of the World signed by editor-author Lewis Lapham?

Did I ever mention that some high school friends and I held an End of the World Party way, way back when some Tibetan monks did their calculations? Care to guess if we showed up at school the next day?

Happy Saturday, folks.


We Are So Fracked

11 April 2011

Fracking, the hydraulic fracking of rock to release oil and natural gas, is, to say the least, a controversial environmental issue. While groundwater pollution has been the main focus, an article in today’s The Hill “Study: Gas from ‘Fracking’ Worse Than Coal on Climate” adds another aspect to the controversy.

Here are the first few paragraphs:

Cornell University professors will soon publish research that concludes natural gas produced with a drilling method called “hydraulic fracturing” contributes to global warming as much as coal, or even more.

The conclusion is explosive because natural gas enjoys broad political support – including White House backing – due to its domestic abundance and lower carbon dioxide emissions when burned than other fossil fuels.

Cornell Prof. Robert Howarth, however, argues that development of gas from shale rock formations produced through hydraulic fracturing – dubbed “fracking” – brings far more methane emissions than conventional gas production.

Enough, he argues, to negate the carbon advantage that gas has over coal and oil when they’re burned for energy, because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas.

Like any serious scientists, the researchers explain the tentative nature of their study and warn that they do not consider it “definitive.” The article also presents counter-arguments from the industry’s experts.

So are the comments posted for this article also “fair and balanced”? Read and and find out.

In case you are unfamiliar with fracking, you might also want to read about the underground concerns already raised by environmentalists and ranchers in natural gas areas such as Wyoming. Keywords fracking wyoming are a good start.