Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Jury Duty

Today, I concluded service as a juror for a civil case in U.S. District Court. I wish that I had purchased a lottery ticket on the day the computer spit out my name as a prospective juror. The court district encompasses the 26 counties of the Texas Panhandle. Eight of us were chosen from the pool of 24 that responded to the summons. There were 2 no-shows for the summons. I'm curious as to their fate.

The case revolved around a wage dispute in which the plantiff claimed they had worked time "off-the-clock" for which they were not compensated. The suit was brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The defendant was a regional corporation in the business of convenience stores. They employ approximately 2500 people to work their 300+ stores on any given day.

The reason that I post about my service is this: Upon adjournment to the jury chambers to deliberate, it was immediately obvious after the initial polling of the jurors that 1) corporations are bad and immediately assumed guilty despite the lack of evidence and 2) the employee is obviously in the right just because he's the little guy.

Why do we have that perception? Is it an inherent human tendency to leap to the side of the underdog? Is it envy of success -- i.e. large corporations are successful, I'm not, they must be cheating the system? Is it public perception based on negative portrayals in movies, literature, etc.? Your thoughts please.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Stationarity: Challenging Science with Science

A friend of mine sent me an interesting paper from a February issue of Science titled, "Stationarity Is Dead: Whither Water Management?" by Milly, P. et. al (2008) (subscription-only). It deals with the assumption of stationarity, or the "idea that natural systems fluctuate within an unchanging envelope of variability." In other words, natural occurrences, like stream flow or flood peaks, change within static extremes that can be estimated using some probability density gleaned from observation records.

Policy decisions regarding water management (i.e. water infrastructure, channel modification, and drainage works) have been impeded by this assumption because anthropogenic forces, such as land-use changes and climate change have added additional variability to the dynamics of the water cycle. Modeling efforts have historically assumed that these variability are small enough to assume stationarity, leading to ever less accurate results.

To address this issue, the paper states that stationarity must be replaced by non-probabilistic models that incorporate operations research and welfare economics. Yet, while this is a normal "scientific" response to a problem, is it enough?

It is assumed that better models produce better results, but it ultimately comes down to how those results are used. The paper hints at this by stating, "a stable institutional platform for climate-information delivery may help." It can be argued that many of the issues facing the US could be better modeled - and they can and it will help - but what of what happens after? If stationarity is a baseline assumption that is impeding researchers and water management experts, what is impeding emergency managers and policy makers?

What other complimentary efforts should be implemented along with better models? Are scientists suited to expand outside of producing results, into utilizing (policy making, for instance) those results? Does science have other avenues to create more sound, rational policy decisions?

Image: 2008 Iowa floods, picture taken from BBC website.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

another wonderful TEDS talk to share

Louise Leakey made a wonderful presentation on our common history and common future. I'm particularly struck by the fact that although she is cautious and cautionary, ultimately she is optomistic.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

the process of science

A few years back, Michael Crichton published State of Fear, which was far less a novel than an inept position paper. Possessed of a tortured and unbelievable plot, wooden characters, and many pages of highly selective scientific data (replete with charts and footnotes) and pseudo-scientific exposition, the book was only worth reading for insight into the minds of climate contrarians (or deniers depending on your preferred terminology). The book had two essential premises: 1) those who support the idea of anthropogenic global warming do so for reasons of personal, professional and organizational economic gain and aggrandizement, and that these people are therefore willing to go to any lengths, including the wholesale murder of entire populations through manufactured environmental catastrophes, to protect their interests and promote acceptance of anthropogenic global warming by the public and politicians; and 2) governments (that is the "state" in the title) require the maintenance of fear in order to exert control in the population, and in the absence of old enemies (communism), government has turned to an environmental bogeyman to exert control.

Let's deal with premise number two first. Governments have used fear as a mechanism of control, especially when bent on limiting civil liberties and political opposition, and expanding the power of office holders. This describes the Bush administration. However, the Bush administration spent seven of its eight years denying global warming, and doing its best to silence scientists in NASA, NOAA, the EPA and CDC and stifle data supportive of the anthropogenic global warming. The Bush administration favorite bogeyman is "Islamic terrorism" not global warming. Which leads us to premise number one. Certainly millions of dollars of research money, from both government and industry is at stake for scientists, their departments and their institutions. But under the Bush administration, large-scale government monies were not flowing to scientists studying climate change, and the industries (coal, electricity generation, oil, etc.) with the most money to spend on climate research are largely those whose stake is in undermining the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis.

Why spend so much time talking about a bad novel? Because those two key premises are widely believed by many people. Over and over, in blogs, in on-line discussions, on talk shows, cable news, and many other media outlets, the belief is expressed that those who support the idea of anthropogenic global warming are motivated by the exact same things -- greed and power -- that motivate those who oppose the idea.

Americans have become disenchanted with politics (many sociologists would call it alienation). Quite accurately, Americans are aware of the role of money in politics. They know that the pharmaceutical corporations spend millions in lobbying money and campaign contributions and public relations ads to insure that they will continue to make billions and billions in profits on drugs. They know that corporations like Halliburton and its subsidiaries have made millions in profits on no-bid contracts in Iraq while American soldiers and Iraqi civilians die -- sometimes as a direct result of the shoddy work done on those contracts, like the soldiers electrocuted by poor wiring jobs done by a Halliburton subsidiary. Americans also know that things that their government identifies as threats often turn out not to be supported by fact. Many Americans believe that Bush and Cheney knowingly lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, whipping-up fear to support a war that had far more to do with shoring up the dollar and protecting access to oil supplies, than it ever had to do with terrorism and military threat. So it is not surprising that many Americans also look at claims about the dangers of global warming with distrust.

They have come to expect people to act politically only out of self-interest in amassing wealth and power, and to expect that fear-mongering will play a major role in promoting that self-interest. The idea that scientists might operate on different, more disinterested principles, requiring rigorous testing, verification and review is beyond the comprehension of most people. This is not to say that scientists are not human and that they care nothing at all for career advancement, salaries, or grants; of course they are and they do.

Individual scientists fake data and lie about their results. However, they are usually caught at it and disgraced, because the scientific endeavor as a whole has built into it many mechanisms for feedback, review, oversight, and correction based on empirical evidence.

Most Americans do not understand that science is a process and a social process at that. Our educational system is at fault in this. The only exposure of most people to science is reading a few dry textbooks that present a list of terms, facts and numbers to be memorized and accepted by fiat. The social process of science in which the results of each individual scientists study are reviewed by many others, and tested repeatedly by others in other settings, has built into it corrections that tend to weed out that which is cannot be replicated and supported.

Science is not infallible. Scientists do sometimes go down the wrong alley, but this is always corrected by other scientists. Climate change science has been around a lot longer than the general public has been aware of it - and contrary to some media claims has been focused on global warming not cooling. Long before it became climate change became a political issue, the scientific process of review pruned away most of the false leads and blind alleys. There is still a great deal of uncertainty on specific mechanisms, specific consequences, and the specific patterns and timetables through which the general trend of anthropogenic global warming will play out.

Politicians and the political process may "squelch dissent," but science uses a process of peer review to sort between that which has the greatest empirical support and that which fails the tests of reviews and replication. This means that some people don't get their papers and their research published. This is not sinister, its how the scientific process works. Sometimes this means that good ideas and groundbreaking research doesn't get published. But if there's validity in it, other people will pick it up and work on it, providing more data, more corroboration, until ultimately it will get recognized.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A slow-motion public relations Chernobyl

I’ve written before about doing away with silly slogans like “Save the Planet” and fanciful phrases like “dying planet”. The planet isn’t “dying”, nor are humans “destroying” it. It’s not in any immediate danger of becoming as lifeless as our moon, nor being obliterated into tiny bits, as if devoured by The Nothing from the Neverending Story. Of course, that’s not what most people mean when they use this sort of hyperbole. They're speaking or writing about real problems, but their message is getting lost or twisted in the telling.
Alas, a tiny minority of fringies actually believe this science fiction or something like it. And being fringies (thus, generally lacking time-constraints like steady employment, friends, and family), they have a great deal of time in which to make themselves heard. Other well-meaning folks hear these dramatic words and repeat them, not giving much thought to what they’re saying. Many feel that emphasizing the gravity of some environmental problems will sway others. After all, education and reasoned arguments so often go ignored. Those with better understanding of the issues and cooler heads don’t speak as loudly and aren’t as appealing to those trying to sell ad time. So the message gets distorted and real problems are dismissed as foolish alarmism.
Environmentalists (lumped here into an outlandishly broad group comprising policy groups, volunteer groups, conservationists, deep-ecologists, pro-nuclear folks, anti-nuclear folks, and the many, many others too numerous to list) have done a poor job of connecting the dots for people who don’t understand that improving environmental quality provides benefits to people. For example, cleaning-up the Potomac River and preventing further pollution of its waters means a cleaner drinking-water source for most residents of the DC area, more productive fisheries for those who earn a living on the Chesapeake Bay, increased revenues for guides and outfitters, and a safer place to take our children to swim and play. Perhaps for brevity’s sake or maybe because such connections become increasingly clear as we learn about and work in nature, we are likely to describe a local event that helps to realize these human benefits as a “Tree-planting for Clean Water”. Many will read a gently-misguided pastime or flaming-liberal neopaganism in this name. We wrongly assume that others understand the implicit though real connection between clean water and people. We wrongly think that because we have come to understand these connections, indeed to feel that they are obvious, that everyone has this understanding.
So what do we do? For starters, we stop getting angry at people who don’t understand. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a person because he or she hasn’t read the same books you have or hasn't spent much time outside. These gaps in understanding do, however, make connections between environmental quality and peoples’ quality of life less clear. Be patient, educate, ask questions, keep an open mind.
State the obvious: Improving environmental quality benefits people directly or indirectly. This fundamental fact is lost on an astonishingly large number. Emphasize that people need the machine called Nature to keep making the things we use to live our lives, and that interfering with that machine costs us. Restoring or preventing further damage to this machine called Nature is a matter of helping people. Repeat it: Helping people, helping people, helping people.
Stop using intimidating or contentious words. “Ecosystem services” doesn’t say much to a person with limited knowledge of science and economics, and who gets mad at you because you used a word that starts with “eco-”. Instead, explain what natural resources, environmental problems and solutions actually mean to the average person. Use terms and phrases that have an implicitly human component, like “drinking water” or “community service”. Emphasize parks. Emphasize health, safety, and economy.
Be honest and know the facts. If you say that you know something, know why you know it. If there’s disagreement over a point, understand why people disagree and be willing to talk about the disagreement. Don’t pretend that there are no costs associated with an environmental investment (except when there aren’t).
Understand dissenting opinions. Sometimes people have different values, sometimes they refuse to let go of tired old stereotypes, sometimes they’re flat-out wrong, and sometimes they raise valid points. Ask people why they believe what they believe. Study their primary sources of information. Don’t be afraid to learn, to adjust your position, or ferret-out flaws in your own argument. Also don’t be afraid to educate people when they misquote their own sources or refer to a source that makes factual or logical errors.
Finally, remember that in most major environmental issues, there are few genuinely bad guys, fewer genuinely good guys, and hordes of people learning and trying to make an honest living in between. If you brand someone “an enemy”, they have no reason to talk to you or work with you. Don’t presume that someone is foolish or morally deficient for adopting a position other than your own.
And when you get frustrated and need a reminder of why dialog and an open mind are important, just think about the last time someone got mad, told you what you believe, and got it dead-wrong, just because you said “I’m an environmentalist.”

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Sixty-three years ago today, the US tested the first atomic weapon. The device was a plutonium bomb, very much like the one that would be dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9 of the same year. This isn't one of those round-number anniversaries that usually prompts people to think about where we've come from and what this means for us now, but it does raise for me a few questions about nuclear technologies. Does their pedigree, having begun as weapons of mass destruction, make them ethically unsuitable for practical or peaceful purposes? Does the danger of their potential use or misuse outweigh their benefits? Who should get to decide who uses nuclear material for what purposes?
I've posted here the admittedly dry account of the Trinity explosion by physicist Luiz Alvarez, who was observing the test from a B-29. While not hugely interesting in and of itself, it illustrates how easy it can be to get information directly from the original source. A good source also allows us to understand its own bias.
Politics is perennially guilty of putting human-made "truths" ahead of objective facts. Likewise, many people and groups seem to work to recast history in their own image, selectively highlighting and suppressing events, memories, and outcomes in an attempt to legitimize their present situation and aims. People repeat these half-truths, these convenient omissions, Convincing Numerical Factoids, glimmering generalities, and the flat-out lies until they become their own truth. In most cases, we don't know where they came from and we don't care, because they support the conclusion that we started with. Instead of wandering like so many sheep, shouldn't we get as much information as possible directly from the source? Shouldn't we question the objectivity and authority our sources?

Image source: National Archives and Records Administration; ARC Identifier 594933

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Pickens Plan

T. Boone Pickens has some interesting ideas. You may not agree with all of them (I don't), but you have to admit that he's taking some ideas into the media mainstream that might not get there otherwise, and he just might generate some valuable discussion on energy alternatives.

coal-to-liquids, or forests to fuel?

The Lexington Herald-Leader today reported that a site has been chosen in Pike County, Kentucky, for a $4 billion coal-to-liquid plant. The announcement came as the result of a $850,000 study by Pikeville-based Summit Engineering, paid for by the Kentucky Department of Energy and the Appalachian Regional Commission (tax money).

The proposed facility is slated to produce 50,000 barrels of liquid coal a day. The county would use federal and state grant money (tax money) to put the basic infrastructure in place, including water and sewer, and the company chosen to operate the facility would pay for the rest. Pike County officials have already received several proposals from interested companies.

Coal-to-liquid conversion uses a process that heats coal to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and mixes it with water to produce a gas, and then converts the gas into diesel fuel. Roger Ford, director of energy and technology for Pike County, estimates that the direct operating costs (raw materials, labor, energy, ordinary overhead) of transforming coal to liquid at the Pike County facility would be about $61 a barrel.

The article goes on to say that those who oppose the project are concerned:

"that liquid coal could contribute to global warming, citing researchers who say the process produces nearly twice the greenhouse gases that gasoline does, pumping carbon dioxide into the air — both when coal is turned into liquid, and when that liquid is burned in vehicles.

They also fear coal-to-liquid plants would result in more strip mining and mountaintop removal, devastating surrounding environments. If liquid coal were to account for a 10 percent displacement of current oil use, coal mining would have to increase by 43 percent, some researchers have predicted."
As someone who sees, every single day, the devastating effects of current strip-mining in the region, I also have concerns about how increasing demand for coal would affect not only this region, but all urban areas down stream (in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia), that depend upon rivers for their urban water supply.

Strip-mining is not accomplished without the removal of forests. Not just the removal of trees, but the removal of complex, interconnected, dynamic ecosystems called forests; forests that serve a whole host of essential functions, both locally, regionally, and through the entire biosphere. Locally there is the loss of habitat for everything from insects to elk and black bear. Community leaders in eastern Kentucky keep talking about making the region a recreation and tourist destination, and have participated in expensive programs to re-introduce elk to the region, and promote hunting, only to turn around and encourage economic activities that destroy the regions scenic, hunting and recreational resources.

Locally there is the increasing threat of flash flooding. Locally and regionally there is the loss of forest sink properties that help clear the air of particulate pollution (not to mention absorb CO2): forests also contribute to atmospheric moisture through plant aspiration, thus maintaining normal rainfall patterns and avoiding both drought and cloudburst. Regionally forest help regulate the flow of water in streams and rivers, allowing for longer, higher sustained flows necessary for a reliable urban water source.

I also have to wonder about how knowledgeable Pike County's decision-makers really are when it comes to issues that could affect the atmospheric chemistry, given the ignorance evidenced in a statement by Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford. Rutherford said "Our goal is to not put anything out in the ozone."

Photo: Mountaintop removal strip mine in Letcher County, KY; Copyright by Sue Greer-Pitt, June 2008

Monday, July 14, 2008

Take that, St. Louis!

And so, it came to pass. The Belgian firm InBev purchased the American Anheuser-Busch for $52 billion, the third largest foreign takeover of a US firm in history. With this consolidation, an iconic American brand becomes an asset of a nominally European (though in most respects, a transnational) company. While the newly dubbed Anheuser-Busch InBev plans to hawk Bud the world over, production and marketing decisions are ultimately made overseas. Likewise, profits will also filter toward the other side of the pond.
So I put it to the reader: Does this make any difference? Will the movement of profits overseas affect the US economy? Does the purchase of other foreign-sourced goods and commodities, like cars and petroleum, have a negative impact on the economy? In light of the buyout, do you plan to serve steamed mussels and pommes frites at your next Super Bowl party?

Image source: Wikipedia

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Anthropocentric and Proud of It

One of our regular readers, Pat J. has raised some interesting questions in the comments. I would like to respond to those questions by reproducing (unedited) an essay I wrote in 1998:

When it comes to environmental issues such as the destruction of wilderness, the preservation of species and climate change, my values are highly anthropocentric. I also consider myself an environmentalist. I contribute to environmental causes and belong to environmental organizations. I attend meetings, sign petitions, and write letters for environmental issues. A candidate’s record on environmental concerns influences my vote. I recycle and reuse, and reduce. As a sociologist, I do research on issues related to the environment, and I teach college students environmental awareness in sociology courses.

Environmentalists have warned us against the dangers of anthropocentricism for decades. Recently some environmentalists even coined a new term, “homocentricism,” to represent the set of values that they felt endangered our environment. Anthropocentricism or homocentricism is presented as the opposite of a biocentric ethic. This biocentric view point advocated by many environmentalists is one in which humans are viewed as but one species in many, with no privileged position or point of view. The biocentric individual believes that humans have no right to destroy the capacity of the earth’s ecosystems to support other species in the pursuit of human interests. Many environmentalists consider the development of a biocentric ethic as essential for the preservation of the planet.

Until recently, I too advocated a shift from anthropocentrism to biocentricism as essential to an environmentally sound society. But, I have come to see the error of my ways. Like most of my colleagues in the social sciences my education in the natural sciences was quite limited. This past summer I decided to rectify some of my deficiencies. This was timely, as I planned to teach a sociology course on environmental issues during the fall term. It was my first “free” summer in sixteen years of college teaching, and I set myself a reading program in evolution, paleontology, population dynamics and ecology.

From that summer course of study, I learned what a truly biocentric perspective implies. To be biocentric means that the human species has no special right to existence and survival. No more so, nor less so than other species with which we share the earth. Moreover, it also means that no species that exists on earth today has any greater (or lesser) claim to existence than any species that ever existed on earth. Whales have no greater claim on existence than the dinosaurs did. The snow leopard has no greater right to survival than the saber tooth tiger. True biocentricism would accord the AIDS or polio viruses the same rights to existence as the great snowy owl.

Extinction and replacement are the way in which the natural world functions. Species have always completed with each other for survival, some succeed, others do not, some evolve, some become extinct. Some would say that what humans are doing today is different, our actions are resulting in mass extinctions. However, mass extinctions are also part of the way in which the natural world functions. Indeed, mass extinctions may be a crucial element in increasing complexity of life on earth.

Mass extinctions have occurred five times that we know of in the 3.85 billion years of life on earth. Some 240 million years ago, nearly all species both on land and in the seas perished. It is only after this mass extinction that mammals appeared on the earth. The mass extinction of 65 million years ago spelled the demise of the dinosaurs. This may have cleared the field for the development of human kind. If we thoroughly embrace the biocentric view of life, we would have to admit that the current human instigated species extinction, though different in its mechanisms, is no better, nor worse for life on earth than any previous mass extinction. Many species will disappear from the earth’s surface, and, over time, they will be replaced with new species. Humans as we are today will probably be one of those that disappear. Humans are not an end product of evolution. We are a tiny blip in a multi-billion year process. From a truly biocentric perspective, no more deserving of survival than Australopithecus robustus or Neandertal.

Regardless of what we do, Homo Sapiens will someday either evolve into something different or become extinct, as will all the other species, plant and animal that we count as traveling companions in this life. If we take a biocentric perspective, what should it matter if it this occurs in a hundred years or two million years?

But I am anthropocentric. I care about the fate of humans as a species, and for the fate of the species I know and love: the wild cats, the eagles, the turtles and salamanders, the butterflies, the whales and many other species that have thrilled me with their beauty, grace and wildness. I do not believe that anything we humans do can halt the ultimate movement of evolution. However, I wish to ensure that human action does not result in too many more losses in my life time. I want the next several generations of humans to flourish and enjoy the beauty of the earth that I have cherished.

This summer as I learned more about the natural sciences, and about how the earth’s ecosystems and biosphere function, I realized that all environmental values spring from anthropocentricism. We wish to protect the environment because it is our environment; the environment that gave birth to and nurtured human beings, and our companion species.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Less is more: The local scale

My city is currently developing plans for a green buildings program to encourage homes and commercial buildings to make efficient and effective use of energy, water, and natural systems. As we approach some early recommendations and a public comment period, I’ve made myself a guinea pig by contacting our permitting office to ask whether or not I need a permit to install a drain-heat recovery system. A friend of mine who works for a different part of the city government posited, “They’ll tell you need a mechanical permit. They won’t know why, but they’ll tell you that you need it.” So far, I haven’t heard from the office.
This all brings to the fore the critically important issue of sustainability at the local scale. It’s common to hear people talk about environmental policy at the national scale and beyond. It’s sometimes hard to avoid reading rants about Kyoto, pollutant trading, EPA’s statutory responsibility to manage carbon, and CAFE standards. But, many people are completely unaware of the environmental policy closest to home.
Most people live in areas where building is influenced or directly governed by a county or municipal government. Local governments execute planning, zoning, and building codes. All of these have a substantial effect on how much gasoline, water, electricity, natural gas, and other resources we use. They have a similarly large effect on the impact our lives have on our surroundings.
Small changes to building codes, such as incentives for the use of better insulation, rain barrels, pervious paving, or solar energy systems can improve local property values and provide a little boost to local businesses by helping residents save money, while reducing the burden on aging infrastructure. Even something as minor as simply allowing new energy-saving technologies like drain-heat recovery systems can have a positive impact. Better still, the local government could consider evaluating a handful of new technologies every year or two to potentially add them to the building codes.
Local governments can also begin to consider their impacts on surrounding communities. An ISO14001 compliant environmental management system can help the community identify what its specific impacts are and manage those impacts more effectively.
Local government is more accessible to the individual than state, regional, and national governments are. In many cases, an individual is free to directly address his or her local elected officials in certain forums. Likewise, many local governments are supported by the work of concerned citizens who volunteer their time, opinions, and expertise. For readers who genuinely want to improve their lives and make the world a better place to live, their local government can be one of the most effective ways to do this.

Image source: Wikimedia

Thursday, July 3, 2008

a song about God and love of country


by James Weldon Johnson

Lift ev'ry voice and sing,

Till earth and heaven ring.

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise,

High as the list'ning skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chast'ning rod,

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

Yet with a steady beat,

Have not our weary feet,

Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,

We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,

Out from the gloomy past,

Till now we stand at last

Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,

God of our silent tears,

Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;

Thou who has by Thy might,

Led us into the light,

Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,

Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee,

Shadowed beneath thy hand,

May we forever stand,

True to our God,

True to our native land.

There's a huge stir in the media over a woman singing this song at the start of government meeting. Read the words over carefully. Do you like them? Do you agree with them? Why is everyone so upset -- are they a bunch of liberals who don't want to hear God at a government meeting? Isn't it interesting how the labels placed on things affect how people perceive them. Suppose that instead of labeling this "the black national anthem" it had been labeled an Christian hymn (which of course is what it is). How would a simple change in labeling affect who got upset and why they got upset. Does every meeting of your city council begin with the national anthem?