science


It’s been a scant few weeks since the story about unintended acceleration in various Toyota models reached its apogee. Already it’s gone through a furious, though predictable, media arc – shocking revelations, public fear, congressional hearings, expressions of outrage, abject apologies from the company CEO, debates about damage to the Toyota brand, and even an alarming – though unresolved and possibly faked – acceleration incident while all this was happening.

My question is, WTF just happened? Because the statistics tell us that, essentially, nothing did.

Six million cars have been recalled, and the reports of Toyotas experiencing sudden, uncontrolled acceleration number in the dozens. Robert Wright, who drives a Toyota Highlander, did the math and concluded that there isn’t that much to worry about. You’re much more likely to die in a car accident than have an acceleration incident:

My back-of-the-envelope calculations (explained in a footnote below) suggest that if you drive one of the Toyotas recalled for acceleration problems and don’t bother to comply with the recall, your chances of being involved in a fatal accident over the next two years because of the unfixed problem are a bit worse than one in a million — 2.8 in a million, to be more exact. Meanwhile, your chances of being killed in a car accident during the next two years just by virtue of being an American are one in 5,244.

This doesn’t mean nothing is wrong. (more…)

Every natural disaster affects the human “footprint” on the planet differently. So it’s not exactly apples-to-apples to compare this past weekend’s Chile earthquake with the Haiti quake. The latter hit closer to a sprawling urban area, and so the death toll is naturally going to be much higher. But on the face of it, the numbers are striking: more than 200,000 Haitiians died, mostly due to collapsing buildings and infrastructure. The Chilean death toll is still below 1,000 and likely to remain much lower than Haiti’s.

Besides the relative luck of geography, there’s a manmade reason for that: Chileans realized they had built their cities on major earthquake faults and their government took steps to prepare for the worst.

Haiti’s earthquake was shallower and closer to a major city, Port-au-Prince, than was the Chilean quake, which accounted for much of the devastation in Haiti. Stricter building codes and better enforcement of them played a major role in reducing the loss of life in Chile, says Andres García, manager of AGR Analysis, a construction and building management company in Viña del Mar, Chile.

“Chile has been building according to the best standards in the world for at least 20 years,” García says. “As the technology and techniques have gotten better, the rules have gotten stricter. And that’s what has minimized the loss of life this time around.”

All this seems pretty obvious from a civics lesson standpoint. Yet if you look at the United States, we’re in considerably worse shape prepping for earthquakes and other disasters. Our infrastructure is falling apart, as the American Society of Civil Engineers has repeatedly noted, which of course means a lot of important stuff is more likely to collapse or implode in the event of disaster. The West Coast has earthquake-resistant building codes, this report from the Institute for Business and Home Safety notes, but not so the Midwest, which is overdue for a quake from the New Madrid fault.

Why such a patchwork? Because disaster planning is not a national priority. In some ways, this makes sense: the United States covers a vast and varied landscape. Conditions and risks vary widely. In Chile with earthquakes, or with the Netherlands and floods, there’s a clear top-down rationale. Not so here.

The problem is, though, that the footprint of potential natural disasters is getting larger, in the U.S. and abroad. And as that expands, so does the onus on the federal government. There’s more sprawl and development covering a wider area than before. Much of it is in disaster-prone areas, close to coastlines, fire-prone forests and fault lines. In America, people like to live close to nature, and nature isn’t shy about biting back. Around the world, the advent of the mega-city has put more people and buildings over fault lines than ever before in human history.

Add into this the potential effects of global warming on sea level, storms, and fire regimes, and the risks grow even more. That is, beyond capacity of U.S. states and localities, or developing world nations, to absorb.

In an age of austerity, a few more mega-disasters on the scale of Hurricane Katrina – which cost more than $100 billion in federal aid – will really put the hurt on the federal budget. Modest up-front improvements in building codes and other forms of “disaster mitigation” can save billions on the back-end.

But there are all kinds of obstacles. Our government and politics are famously dysfunctional, and there’s a powerful and renewed strain of sentiment that holds any government action in contempt. The Chile situation should be a reminder that governments are, occasionally, quite useful.

WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 05:  Rep. Michele Bachma...

Rep. Bachmann poses with her recent research into unified field theory (via Daylife/Getty)

“WaPost Publishes Palin OpEd on Climate Science, Michele Bachmann Piece on Quantum Mechanics to Follow” – Firedoglake headline.

(With apologies to Sarah Palin and her ghostwriter.)

No Solace in the Quantum

By Michele Bachmann

When a piece of bread dropped by a swallow can stop the universe from being destroyed, the radical so-called “nuclear physicists” who tell us that nothing really exists appear to have hit a tipping point. The revelation that the Large Hadron Collider was shut down last month allows the American public to finally understand the concerns so many of us have articulated on this issue.

“Quantum-gate,” as this incident has become known, exposes a highly-politicized scientific circle at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) – the same circle whose work underlies efforts to foist a bizarre worldview on the public that reflects a socialistic view of the behavior of subatomic particles and cats and threatens lead us down a slippery slope toward fascism. The agenda-driven policies now showing up even in high school textbooks and popular movies won’t change the Newtonian conception of matter and energy, but they would change our society and our children’s minds for the worse.

The work of these “quantum mechanics” reveals that they have employed something called an “uncertainty principle” to manipulate data and since the 1930s have tried to silence their critics, including the great Albert Einstein, with their blasphemous assertion that God plays dice. What’s more, their work shows that there was no real consensus on the fundamental nature of reality even within the CERN crowd and in other organizations that make up the United Nations’ Ministry of Science, Regulation, Propaganda and Bureaucracy. Some scientists had strong doubts about the accuracy of estimates about wave-particle duality going back to an unspeakable ritual called the “double slit experiment.”

This scandal calls into question the U.S. government’s energy, environment, and health-related policies. If we supposedly cannot know with precision where something is or its momentum, it is a license for our government to do anything it wants. Quantum theory says that an observer can literally change reality. What is to stop the Obama White House from sending out teams of ACORN-trained “observers” to “change” our communities into whatever they want? We are now a fraction of a quantum away from tyranny.

I’ve alway believed that policy should be based on sound science, not politics. We must recognize that subatomic physics is still an unreliable and, frankly, somewhat creepy field not in keeping with our American traditions. Scientists are using money taken from the hard work of taxpayers for research into very tiny particles including quarks, muons and gluinos. Those names may be some kind of European-derived code for organizing a fifth column, but never mind that. These crypto-particles allegedly exist for just a few nanoseconds at very high energy states. How do we know they were ever there at all? To put it another way: you will never be able to convince me or my constituents that my cat is alive and dead at the same time. She looks pretty alive to me. Well, asleep. But definitely breathing. Trust me!

Perhaps these flaws can one day be addressed with bigger microscopes and better slide technologies. But for the moment, let me just say, we in Minnesota are sensible, bottom-line folk. Seeing is believing. If we can’t say with assurance what happens on scales smaller than the width of a hair, President Obama, we owe it to the American people to base our policies accordingly.

Sarah Palin

Image via Wikipedia

Sarah Palin showed up at Saturday’s Gridiron Club meeting in Washington, regaling the media elite with a series of one-liners (example: “If the election had turned out differently, I could be the one overseeing the signing of bailout checks, and Vice President Biden could be on the road selling his book, ‘Going Rogaine.’”) In other words, it was awful. In fact, a harmonic convergence of awfulness. Why?

The Gridiron Club is an exclusive coterie of a few dozen Washington uber-elites, mostly newspaper and TV bureau chiefs. Every spring they put on a white-tie banquet in which they mock Washington in sketches and song. And the president, usually in attendance, takes a few humorous potshots at the press. Maybe this was all once harmless good fun – a way to blow off steam, a custom that showed that the poobahs of the press and government could laugh with as well as at each other, and also that, on a deeper level, the system worked – politicians from both parties and media leaders could break bread and set aside their differences, because those differences really weren’t all that great.

OK, sorry. That was never really true – when the media who cover Washington are sipping champagne and cracking inside jokes with politicians in grand, hot-ticket off-the-record parties, something must by definition be amiss. (more…)

I’ve been avoiding the great climate email hack story because, on one level, there’s not much to say about it. Obviously the global scientific community is not nefariously conspiring to foist man-made global warming on an innocent world. The notion that there might be such a conspiracy is preposterous on its face: there are simply too many scientists, scientific institutions, and credible, time-tested scientific practices and traditions, dating back to the Enlightenment and beyond, to make such a mass conspiracy possible, especially on the most important scientific issue of our time (or at least the one with the most real-world implications). So, Jim Inhofe, George Will, et al, enjoy this controversy while you can. You’re ultimately going to have to keep looking if you want to discredit global warming science.

That, of course, doesn’t make this whole controversy meaningless. It is, sadly, significant. There’s a huge fight underway for public opinion and over government action, and it’s not going particularly well. While it’s abundantly clear humans are having a significant impact on climate, and bold action is needed soon to head off a lot of disastrous effects, according to the latest Pew survey only 44% of people in the United States (and the same percentage in Russia, and just 30% in China) say global warming is a serious problem.

And the scandal, in which internal emails apparently showed that scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit massaged data and discussed how to foil freedom of information requests has handed a cudgel to opponents of action on climate change.

It’s amazing to watch. Climategate allows the political opponents of action on global warming to perform a brilliant bit of misdirection. For the moment, anyway, they don’t have to argue that anthropogenic climate change can’t be real (an increasingly difficult argument to make). Instead they can now argue – credibly – that scientists behaving badly must be investigated. (more…)

Sorry for the long interregnum between postings. I got caught up in, you know, actual paying work for a while. And as others have discovered, Twitter tends to supplant blogging. Even before the recent interruption, I found I was blogging less, and my posts were typically longer. That is, they required me to actually make an argument, something you can’t really do effectively on Twitter. I hope there’s a felicitous balance in there somewhere.

Here are a couple of pointers. This week I’m participating in a TPM Cafe Book Club discussion of Cheryl Wagner’s post-Katrina memoir, Plenty of Suck to Go Around. It’s a very good read of the absolutely crazy aftermath of the storm from the street level of house-gutting, subletting, jobless craziness that so many in New Orleans endured and survived. As always, the question for me is, how is New Orleans going to survive a century of global warming without serious hurricane protection, and why can’t the U.S. government actually make that happen? All the valiant struggles of the past four years are at risk.

Last week I had a second piece up on Yale Environment 360 about mountaintop removal coal mining, this one focusing on what science tells us about the ecological effects of blowing up mountains. It may seem obvious that the effects would be devastating, but there are a number of regulatory fig leaves here. Mining operations are supposed to restore mined-out sites to the “approximate original contour” and revegetate them. Under optimal circumstances, they rebuild the mountain and plant trees. But even this responsible approach, which is rare, can’t undo the damage to hydrology and riverine ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years.

The science puts Obama, who has staked his repuation on following science, not politics, in an awkward spot. The EPA and White House want to broker compromises with mining companies to ease the impacts of mountaintop removal – the politically pragmatic approach. But the science is telling them that won’t do much good.

The science of global warming is improving all the time, but it still isn’t exact. How could it be? The atmosphere is an exceedingly complex system. Add in the oceans, ecosystems and human society, and predicting the course of likely outcomes with any precision becomes close to impossible. Still, we know what’s going on in general terms. The problem is, that usually isn’t good enough for the news media, which likes everything wrapped up in a neat package, preferably with a light and a siren on top.

That’s the basic argument that Vicky Pope, a top British climate scientist, makes in the Guardian:

News headlines vie for attention and it is easy for scientists to grab this attention by linking climate change to the latest extreme weather event or apocalyptic prediction. But in doing so, the public perception of climate change can be distorted. The reality is that extreme events arise when natural variations in the weather and climate combine with long-term climate change. This message is more difficult to get heard. Scientists and journalists need to find ways to help to make this clear without the wider audience switching off.

Recent headlines have proclaimed that Arctic summer sea ice has decreased so much in the past few years that it has reached a tipping point and will disappear very quickly. The truth is that there is little evidence to support this. Indeed, the record-breaking losses in the past couple of years could easily be due to natural fluctuations in the weather, with summer sea ice increasing again over the next few years. This diverts attention from the real, longer-term issues. For example, recent results from the Met Office do show that there is a detectable human impact in the long-term decline in sea ice over the past 30 years, and all the evidence points to a complete loss of summer sea ice much later this century.

But such misimpressions shape media coverage, political debates and policy, Pope goes on to say, and that means scientists spend an awful lot of time and energy correcting them. This is, of course, a chronic problem in science journalism, a fault line in the public’s shaky understanding of science. But I’m not sure, Fred Barnes notwithstanding, how big a problem it is on global warming. To put things in perspective: over the past few years, thanks in part to Al Gore, the media has more or less adopted the consensus view that manmade global warming is real, and dangerous, and demands action. Sometimes the alarms get loud, and get out of kilter with the scientific realities. But that’s far better than the “two sides disagree” approach we saw so often, in which the opinions of relatively small numbers of global warming skeptics were given weight equal to vastly larger numbers of those taking the threat seriously. That scientists now have to correct journalists for being too alarmist isn’t great, but it’s an obvious improvement. It’s also part of the job of science communication. Journalists should get a better grasp of the facts. But scientists should accept that the job of correcting errors or conveying nuances is ongoing, and ultimately helps public understanding.

After eight years of political interference, it appears that science is poised to make a comeback in the executive branch. Barack Obama”s appointments to most top energy and environmental posts – Steven Chu at Energy, John Holdren as White House science advisor, Jane Lubchenco at NOAA – are all recognized experts on climate change and articulate advocates for sensible policies.

It’s hard to underestimate the damage done over the past eight years as Bush political appointees mounted a bureaucratic trench war on government scientists, doing all they could to stifle any meaningful policy debate on climate change and a variety of other issues including endangered species and pollution. Much of this was done for the crassest of reasons – to placate various interest groups that would have taken a hit had the government acted.

This quote from Bush’s science advisor, John H. Marburger III, sums up the strange psychology of denial in the White House:

“There are stupid and foolish things that have been perpetrated by employees of the federal government in the executive branch, but it doesn’t mean that the president is anti-science,” he said. “The president is getting blamed for every little thing that happens that people don’t like in the administration.”

The statement is almost beautifully ambiguous. Is he saying that Bush appointees did “stupid and foolish things” for which Bush should not be held responsible (which doesn’t make sense – obviously Bush is responsible for what his appointees do). Or is he saying the opposite: it was stupid and foolish for civil service professionals to resist the interference of the Bush appointees?

The delay on climate change will likely be seen, in historical terms, as one of Bush’s biggest mistakes. But another striking thing about this is how the Bush administration – taking the Republican Party with it for the ride – abdicated its responsibility to seriously engage these issues. The Republican Party was once able to mount credible critiques of environmental regulations and other fixes – which are, after all, no panacea, and should be vigorously debated across party lines. Instead, the Bush administration routinely shut out scientific findings it didn’t like. Meanwhile, many Republicans in Congress and the Republican policy establishment more or less took a holiday from thinking seriously about how to approach environmental and scientific problems. Of course there were exceptions. But the GOP will have do some work to be taken seriously on the climate debate and other scientific issues of our time.

James G. Rickards has an interesting op-ed in today’s Washington Post on the role of financial risk modeling in the banking crisis. This is an important topic on its own, but also has sweeping implications for environmental policy, disaster preparation, and other issues. As he explains it, Wall Street’s financial risk models (known as “value at risk”) aggregate the day-to-day risks of various securities:

What’s left is “net” risk that is then considered in light of historical patterns. The model predicts with 99 percent probability that institutions cannot lose more than a certain amount of money. Institutions compare this “worst case” with their actual capital and, if the amount of capital is greater, sleep soundly at night. Regulators, knowing that the institutions used these models, also slept soundly. As long as capital was greater than the value at risk, institutions were considered sound — and there was no need for hands-on regulation.

But there’s a forest-for-the-trees problem here. Aggregating individual risks is fine in a relatively stable system. But what if the system itself becomes unstable? The risk model will not anticipate it. It’s a familiar problem from complexity science:

Think of a mountainside full of snow. A snowflake falls, an avalanche begins and a village is buried. What caused the catastrophe? The value-at-risk crowd focuses on each snowflake and resulting cause and effect. The complexity theorist studies the mountain. The arrangement of snow is a good example of a highly complex set of interdependent relationships; so complex it is impossible to model. If one snowflake did not set off the avalanche, the next one could, or the one after that. But it’s not about the snowflakes; it’s about the instability of the system. This is why ski patrols throw dynamite down the slopes each day before skiers arrive. They are “regulating” the system so that it does not become unstable.

The more enlightened among the value-at-risk practitioners understand that extreme events occur more frequently than their models predict. So they embellish their models with “fat tails” (upward bends on the wings of the bell curve) and model these tails on historical extremes such as the post-Sept. 11 market reaction. But complex systems are not confined to historical experience. Events of any size are possible, and limited only by the scale of the system itself. Since we have scaled the system to unprecedented size, we should expect catastrophes of unprecedented size as well. We’re in the middle of one such catastrophe, and complexity theory says it will get much worse.

This problem – a reliance on computer modeling that cannot accurately anticipate catastrophe – isn’t restricted to finance. Our society bases all of its policy and financial decisions on such “hard” forecasting numbers. Insurance companies employ risk models to gauge likely hurricane losses. Less sophisticated, but still highly trusted, models were used to construct the pre-Katrina New Orleans levees. They rendered the likelihood of a Katrina-sized storm surge relatively small. Often, models are built on datasets with short histories, put together in times of relative stability. But the capacity for a bigger, systemic event to sweep in and take place is always there – the fact that it is very hard to quantify doesn’t mean it’s not real.

The problem now is that the world – its financial, energy, and food systems and the physical environment itself – are changing rapidly. That means more unexpected events will occur – floods, droughts, shortages, gluts, crashes. Government and private institutions need to recognize that the future won’t be like the past, recognize the limits of their current numbers, and prepare accordingly.

Also: Here’s Nassim Taleb’s take on the same topic.

Carl Zimmer has an interesting piece in today’s New York Times arguing that the danger of invasive species may be exaggerated. A study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (note to NYT: why don’t you link to the study itself?) examined the profusion of invasives in New Zealand and concluded that, rather than a zero-sum competition in which invaders win and native species lose, the reality is more complex:

Dr. [Dov] Sax, Dr. [Steven] Gaines and several other researchers argue that attitudes about exotic species are too simplistic. While some invasions are indeed devastating, they often do not set off extinctions. They can even spur the evolution of new diversity.

“I hate the ‘exotics are evil’ bit, because it’s so unscientific,” Dr. Sax said.

Dr. Sax and Dr. Gaines argue that competition from exotic species shows little sign of causing extinctions. This finding is at odds with traditional concepts of ecology, Dr. Sax said. Ecosystems have often been seen as having a certain number of niches that species can occupy. Once an ecosystem’s niches are full, new species can take them over only if old species become extinct.

But as real ecosystems take on exotic species, they do not show any sign of being saturated, Dr. Sax said. In their paper, Dr. Sax and Dr. Gaines analyze the rise of exotic species on six islands and island chains. Invasive plants have become naturalized at a steady pace over the last two centuries, with no sign of slowing down. In fact, the total diversity of these islands has doubled.

As the piece notes, this is sharply at odds with the conventional wisdom on invasive species – that by dint of their superior hardiness and fecundity they will almost always supplant the native competition. But the iconoclasm here is overstated.

It’s not shocking to find that this is only true some of the time. There are a lot of invasive species. But it’s only a subset of really bad ones that do the greatest amount of damage. Some of those cause actual property damage, such as zebra mussels or Formosan termites. In general, invasives pose the most problems where there is already a human footprint, which itself is a form of biological invasion (think grass, flowers, dogs and cats) that destroys local biodiversity. This is particular problem in parks, where the “natural” world comes in contact with the manmade one all the time.

It’s nice to find that in natural settings invasives can increase biodiversity. And it raises a long-smoldering question: what’s the value of the distinction between native and non-native? Is “native” biodiversity (which as the piece notes, is itself an artificial construct – over the centuries all species move around and interact with new neighbors) worth protecting for its own sake? In some cases, obviously. In others – especially where diversity is actually expanding – maybe not so much.

But let’s take the warnings near the end of the NYT piece seriously: Globalization is creating so many invasions we don’t really know where all this is going. In some places, invasions may create new and ever-richer biodiversity. In others – especially in the “disturbed” areas close to cities, suburbs and farms – the odds of getting nasty, biodiversity-killing pest species will likely continue to grow.

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