Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bad Weather for Good Science

Getting a little weary of all the armchair science-phobes using recent heavy weather as an excuse to try to whack sound climate science. Erm, kiddies, this unusual weather is a *feature* of global climate change (the net effect of which is "global warming") not counter-evidence. Many casual observers seem to have a spot of trouble distinguishing between weather and climate. This is just fine, provided that these "observers" are responsible enough to withhold their opinions until they've done their homework. But sounding off from a place of benighted misconception only serves to advertise the cluelessness.

What has been happening with the weather, of late, is that unusual deviations in the jet stream are producing uncommon local weather events; this is precisely what the models predict as well. The topography of the changing temperature gradients is shifting and bending these currents in new ways, and instances of unseasonable, unprecedented or extreme weather are the inevitable and expected result.

The planet really is heating up--and in a hurry. Indeed, the science behind global climate change has never been more robust. A recently released World Meteorological Organization report shows that 2010 will likely be among the three warmest years on record--and the period between 2001 and 2010 the warmest decade on record--for our planet.

All of the GCC models emphatically *predict* erratic and extreme weather in the process of climate change. An enormous and diverse majority of the scientists who think carefully about such things for a living consider the evidence overwhelmingly compelling. And make no mistake, if somebody could supply a piece of counter-evidence that could take the whole edifice of theory down around our ears, it would be a career-making move for them. Trouble is, there isn’t any one assumption in the climate change argument which one might conceivably undermine or disprove to make the whole game collapse. There’s a whole matrix of relevant perspectives, observations, and analysis--a shocking number of which point clearly in the direction of human-caused warming.

But even more frightening than the implications of the science is this simplistic campaign of disinformation that conflates weather and climate, and thumbs its nose at the stunning body of research and careful analysis that both measures and models this unsettling trend toward (decisively) increased warming. The fact that so many are unable to make even simple distinctions between the basic terms of the argument (e.g. between climate and weather, or between single data points and broad trends) should be a source of considerable embarrassment. It well may be emotionally satisfying to congregate with like-mindedly un-, ill-, or misinformed friends to take potshots at the overwhelming scientific consensus, but when this jeering pointedly misunderstands its subject at such a fundamental level, one has to marvel uneasily at the ease with which fallacy displaces reason in such a high-stakes debate.

If our crackpot lay opinion-makers weren’t so enamored of their role in telling hardworking scientists how silly they are, perhaps they would be less inclined to mistake ignorance for perspective. The "negative team" seems to pose, in some sense, as the repository of reasonable counterargument, but they simply don't possess even the most elementary tools that might be required to deliver it. For example, that tired chestnut about "ruining the economy" over climate change is a perversely misleading sack of badger bollocks. Research into alternative sources of fuel--as well as new modes of energy acquisition and deployment, increased efficiency, etc.--could quite conceivably pump our national economy like nothing ever has before (even the Internet boom) if we promote it right. Strict environmental regulations trigger innovation and motivate upgrading. The countries that take the lead in patenting and exporting more efficient means of producing and consuming energy will carry the day economically. But it's going to be "get in front or get in line." We'll need to push pretty hard to position ourselves at the bleeding edge, as we did with the World-Wide Web, or it could blow right by us. (China already has an early advantage here, and they're playing a shrewd game.) In any event, a positive impact on the economy seems every bit as likely as a negative one, on balance, as a result of taking action to reduce the destructiveness of our tenancy on this pretty rock.

As the rug is increasingly tugged out from under the climate change scoffers, I expect them to become more and more shrill. This is what often happens when people commit themselves to an increasingly untenable position or belief in a public way as these folks have done. (see "Sociology of Belief" by Borhek and Curtis.) As the evidence against their position continues to mount, so will the volume and acerbity of their disparagement of the science. Their rhetoric will become more vague, simplistic and ambiguous, but more emotional. They will increasingly insulate themselves from sources of substantive dissent in their daily lives, choosing instead to surround themselves with true-believers. They will hone their rhetoric until any anomaly can be marshaled in support of their vague, contrarian cant (Unusually cold winter in region X? "Al Gore is a fool!" Snow in Florida? "Those goofy Climate Change sheeple!"). They will attempt to replace rigor and cogency with volume and authoritativeness on the assumptiuon that nobody will notice--and often nobody will. And they will rehearse the rhetoric of indignation and beleaguered rectitude endlessly and emphatically within their reference group, as this is what insulates them against evidence. Even normally rational people can shoe-horn all kind of nonsense into their heads if it's packaged, lubricated and reinforced just right from a psychological standpoint. It's hard to see your own fallacies--and especially so when you're pre-committed to a belief that requires them for its sustenance.

But our climate scientists are not arguing from the occasional anomaly; they are making careful predictions, from very detailed (and often conservative) models based on vast vaults of constantly accruing data. *All* of these theories actually predict increased volatility, wild local swings and anomalous behavior. It's a complex system fer Chrisakes. That's how they behave when they're pushed away from equilibrium.

Here's a short list of other "issues" that are often raised out of ignorance, where the answers reveal simple misunderstandings that could have been cleared up with five minutes of due diligence:

Not all of the glaciers are melting--and besides, glaciers are always growing and receding!

Of course "not all the glaciers are melting," but that's not even the question, is it? The smart kids ask what is happening to glacier mass globally. On balance, the pervasive and accelerating trend is in the direction of increasing loss. The global glacier mass balance is decreasing every day. The annual loss from Greenland's massive ice sheet alone is passing the 100 gigaton range.

The temperature record relies on readings from differing equipment, technology, locations, altitudes, etc. How can you rely on that?

We don't. That's just one angle--one that's constantly being tweaked and corrected as new sources of potential error are identified. But the globally averaged trend is clear. It's the same trend as the one identified using (for example) sea level rise, declining arctic sea ice, analysis of boreholes, increasing ocean temperature, data on glacier mass, satellite measurements in the troposphere, weather balloon data and proxy reconstructions. Pick one or pick them all, the implication is the same.

There's no consensus!

Yuh-huh. And it's not just the IPCC either. The conclusions of their most recent assessment was endorsed by these lightweights too:
National Academy of Sciences (United States)
Royal Society (United Kingdom)
Academia Brasiliera de Ciências (Brazil)
Royal Society of Canada,
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Academié des Sciences (France)
Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina (Germany)

Indian National Science Academy,
Accademia dei Lincei (Italy)
Science Council of Japan,
Russian Academy of Sciences,
Australian Academy of Sciences
Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts
Caribbean Academy of Sciences
Indonesian Academy of Sciences
Royal Irish Academy
Academy of Sciences Malaysia
Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences....

How much censensus is required before one feels obliged to wake up and take action? Of course, the deniers don't care if there is consensus or not. As soon as you demonstrate that there is, in fact, such a surprising degree of consensus, they flip the script and suggest that consensus = collusion. In the pathological denier narrative, the rules are whatever they say they are--and they're free to change them whenever it's convenient to do so. The constraints of reasoned debate find no traction in this fluid discursive environment. Best to restrict our efforts at persuasion to those who find data and careful analysis persuasive. Those who are unconvinced because they've not yet seen the light are within reach; those who have kitted themselves out with heavy blindfolds (apparently as some sort of contrarian fashion statement) are not.

Gore's "Hockey Stick" didn't hold up on the ice.

There were issues with the original hockey stick showing sharp increases in recent warming: it was a prototype and it had some bugs. But with the ever-increasing barrage of data and proxy reconstructions rolling in from the trenches, we now have enough hockey sticks for the entire league. They aren't as straight or uniform as the first one (that's exactly what made it seem a little dodgy), but they have precisely the same general shape. Read 'em and puck off:

The list could go on for some time.

Are we really so thoroughly science-illiterate, as a country, that a thoughtful and intellectually-legitimate conversation on the most urgent topic of our time is completely outside the realm of possibility? Oh, I think we are. I dare you to prove me wrong. In fact, I'd love you for it...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Legion: Stream of Subconsciousness

I own few things in my life like I own my demons. I think it's mutual. We're made for each other. I'm sure yours are endlessly fascinating, and sometimes I may even envy you them--they're probably much more interesting than mine--though they'll seldom have much use for me. Perhaps you call them by many of the same names I use for my own, but they are distinct. Even the demons we share are no more alike than are you and I. Their identities are defined by our own. Some are as protean and labile as quicksilver; some are as stolid and immutable as stone. But they all have voices. They all tell us who we are. Just not all that we are. Surely, I'll allow, they are too much at times; but they are not as enough as all that--all this. Me. Me and whose army? Mine, alas, all mine.

Sometimes, when I feel like clocking myself in the eye, I wish I had somebody else's demons. But I know: they'd never fit. Mine are made or grown, wrecked or spoiled locally. Yet sown or reaped, sewn or ripped, these dark little bastards are my own bespoke bastards and are, in my way, quite legitimate. So why deem them demons? Oh, make no mistake: their dual citizenship in hell is amply attested by the many trips they've made there with me. There was never the slightest fuss at the border. They are known. They vouch for me and I am welcomed with unsettling alacrity. I am never charged for passage or for lodging; they know that I always will pay in full measure. They will never starve. Their hunger is my own.

Of course it is not that simple. Of course it is simpler than that. That's the problem with communication: there is always another distinction to be made. There's always another layer of viscous descriptive membrane over the mirror. At each successive level, former opposites pair bond and marry ecstatically. Push through it and they repulse like magnets confronting like poles. Difficult, to be sure. Sure to be difficult. Sure difficult to be. Intermittently, I am assured that faith is necessary in order to locate my own meaning--as if it were a fixed point in a static landscape. I am admonished not to think, but to know. Don't I know? I don't know. Know I don't. But that's neither here nor wrong. Distracting abstraction. Clamora obscura, lensing the grave dance of the quotidian pinhead. What was my point? Only that what happens is always part accident; a failure or triumph of will; a firm resolution that never completely resolves. Forgive me, I was too flexible; I untied myself in nots. Not you too?

No, thank you, I will wait in my own cocoon. These demons are changing. This is so laborious--yes, I am in labor. I am being born. It is the only birth that matters: the birth from sleep. I grow in slow spirals into the ground, into the air,whether in resonance, resplendence or remorse. Temporary. By turns, I am an argument, then a song. I sing, I am sung; I wring, I am wrung. I am at home in this tangle, roiled and coiled and fastened and sprung. This is the only honest lie I know, the lying in wait for some patent, insoluble truth. Each withering ambush is beaten back by friendly fire. There is dissension in the ranks, insurrection by competing episteme. Capture, sequester and then: cell division. A virulent case of me-osis. Divide and conquest; re-parse and re-posit. I am A and not-A. Permute me to introduce myselves. System failure, then careful diagnosis. By nightfall, I am only a flag, indicating the momentary direction of capricious winds above a citadel besieged. I will look the same tomorrow. The song will be new.

But I will retrench for revanche. I will try this again.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Have You Slugged Your Teacher Today?

Okay, honestly, WTF is this about?

This is the third scare-piece I've read on this topic, but, look as I might (and have), there's no there there.

I just don't understand what these people are talking about. There's not one mention in this piece of a single instance of union activity that is putting the unsavory squeeze on one employer in the current (or any specific) context. Let me say that again: Greenhouse gives not one solitary example of a threatening gesture on the part of labor. (Whatever happened to supporting assertions with examples? Has journalism finally gone so hopelessly fuckwit that mere assertions now suffice to anchor an opinion or a point of view in the New York Times?) Rather, he simply plays scribe while the GOP paints "YOUUU-NYUNS!" in those big wiggly letters that signify "spooky" on the side of the kids' haunted house each October--presumably to the accompaniment of some gleeful, Tea-Partying theremin player just off-stage. Even the title, "Strained States Turning to Laws to Curb Labor Unions!" just seems carefully calculated to simply shriek "BOO!" to a distracted audience. Curb them from doing what? Exactly? Making you shudder at the swoon-inducing prospect of their doing something remotely curb-worthy at some alarming point in the near or distant future? The only evidence on offer here is that of fear-mongering about the idea of even the most anemic labor representation.

    “They’re throwing the kitchen sink at us,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “We’re seeing people use the budget crisis to make every attempt to roll back workers’ voices and any ability of workers to join collectively in any way whatsoever.”
There's talk of Republicans being miffed about Unions wielding undue influence in elections, but shutthefuckup!--that's idiotically absurd. While unions are pretty savvy about where their political dollars go, they've been outgunned in that domain for decades: business and corporate political organizations were outspending Labor more than five to one late in the Carter administration, and Labor is now just a speck on the landscape--financially and organizationally. There were 224 labor PACs in '76; a decade later there were 261. Looking at the other side, we saw an increase in corporate and trade PACs from 922 to 2182 over that same interval. And it only got worse from there. The tax-cut-and-spendthrift Reagan made sure of that. The GOP just wants to put the final nail in the coffin of the American worker right now, the second they get hold of the fucking hammer--no waiting!--and silence forever the traditional voice of our working middle class. But please, for the sake of appearances, couldn't they at least have waited for some cheeky, strapped worker somewhere to pipe up and ask for a living wage?

And what's this--what fresh hell is this?!:

    “We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots,” Mr. Walker, a Republican, said in a speech.
Oh dear. Seriously, those insufferable, no-tax-paying elementary school math tycoons and their bling-encrusted Bentleys--don't they just make your righteous fucking blood boil? This is a pathetic example of the proverbial (rumored) tempest in a (hypothetical) teacup, and it's pissing me further off than I've been pissed in some time. It's like the privileged bully in the schoolyard kicking the malnourished kid in the teeth after stealing his lunch money for an entire year--just to make absolutely sure he keeps his mouth shut about the whole affair for the foreseeable future. Rich.