The unbearable heaviness of buildings: Another episode in the series “Useless units”

Apparently, Manhattan is sinking by 1-2mm per year, due to the weight of its skyscrapers. The Guardian reports on the research led by Tom Parsons, of the US Geological Survey, saying that New York City’s buildings “weigh a total of 1.68tn lbs”.

What’s that, you say? You don’t have any intuition for how much 1.68 tn lbs is? The Guardian feels you. They’ve helpfully translated it into easy-to-grasp terms. This, they go on to say, “is roughly equivalent to the weight of 140 million elephants”.

CDC works toward the president

Dem Führer entgegenarbeiten — Working toward the Leader — was one of the most important neologisms of the early Third Reich. No one really knew what Hitler wanted to do — not even Hitler himself — and the organs of state were in turmoil, certainly incapable of providing rapid guidance at the local level to the government’s plans. So everyone’s obligation was to surmise what the Führer’s ultimate objectives were, and work toward accomplishing it, without needing specific instructions.

Compare that to these recent decisions of the completely apolitical Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

CDC abruptly cancels long-planned conference on climate change and health

The Climate and Health Summit, which had been in the works for months, was intended as a chance for public health officials around the country to learn more about the mounting evidence of the risks to human health posed by the changing climate. But CDC officials abruptly canceled the conference before President Trump’s inauguration, sending a terse email on Jan. 9 to those who had been scheduled to speak at the event. The message did not explain the reason behind the decision.

CDC Indefinitely Postponed LGBT Youth Health Summit After Election

To be fair, the reason seems to be that they needed the resources to focus on their conference on disease transmission by refugees and illegal immigrants.


Early greenhouse

I read a novel that I’d known about for a long time, but had never gotten around to: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. I was startled to discover that an essentially background point of the plot of this novel, published in 1971, was the destruction of the Earth’s environment by the greenhouse effect. This has already taken place before the events of the novel, set in the early twenty-first century.

Rain was an old Portland tradition, but the warmth — 70ºF on the second of March — was modern, a result of air pollution. Urban and industrial effluvia had not been controlled soon enough to reverse the cumulative trends already at work in the mid-twentieth century; it would take several centuries for the CO2 to clear out of the air, if it ever did. New York was going to be one of the larger casualties of the Greenhouse Effect, as the polar ice kept melting and the sea kept rising.

This is only incidental to the themes of the novel, which grapples with the structure of reality and the nature of dreams. But it amazed me to see global warming being confidently projected into our future, at a time when — as the climate-change skeptics never tire of pointing out — discussions of climate change tended to refer to the danger of a new Ice Age.

At least, that is my memory. According to the Google Books NGram viewer, though, the “greenhouse effect” was as mentioned in books around 1970 as frequently as it is today; and, oddly, it has declined substantially from a peak three times as high in the early 1990s.Screenshot 2015-12-16 14.22.01

For example, a 1966 book titled Living on Less begins its section on “The Environment” by discussing global warming, and launches right into a description of the greenhouse effect that sounds very similar to what you might read today.

The reign in New Spain

There’s nothing funny about the never-ending drought in California, but I couldn’t help being amused by the misspelling of the word “rain” — sorry, “rein” — in this Slate article about the lack of rain:

These moves are small potatoes compared to what’s needed to reign in statewide water use, of which agriculture forms the vast majority.

I think what strikes me here is that “reign” is such an oddly spelled word in English, with its vestigial silent ‘g’. Why would you want to put it in when you don’t need it?

The “small potatoes” cliché in a sentence about big agriculture is the icing on the cake. Or the manure on the strawberries. Or something…

The tyranny of the 95%

The president of the National Academy of Science is being quoted spouting dangerous nonsense. Well, maybe not so dangerous, but really nonsense.

I found this by way of Jonathan Chait, a generally insightful and well-informed political journalist, who weighed in recently on the political response to the IPCC report on climate change. US Republican Party big shot Paul Ryan, asked whether he believes that human activity has contributed to global warming, replied recently “I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t think science does, either.” Chait rightly takes him to task for this ridiculous dodge (though he ignores the fact that Ryan was asked about his beliefs, so that his skepticism may reflect a commendable awareness of the cognitive theories of Stephen Stich, and his need to reflect upon the impossibility of speaking scientifically, or introspecting coherently, about the contents of beliefs), but the form of his criticism left me troubled:

In fact, science does know the answer. Climate scientists believe with a 95 percent level of certainty (the same level of certainty as their belief in the dangers of cigarette smoking) that human activity is contributing to climate change.

Tracking through his links, I found that he’d copied this comparison between climate change and the hazards of smoking pretty much verbatim from another blog, and that it ultimately derived from this “explanation” from the AP:

Some climate-change deniers have looked at 95 percent and scoffed. After all, most people wouldn’t get on a plane that had only a 95 percent certainty of landing safely, risk experts say.

But in science, 95 percent certainty is often considered the gold standard for certainty.


The president of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, Ralph Cicerone, and more than a dozen other scientists contacted by the AP said the 95 percent certainty regarding climate change is most similar to the confidence scientists have in the decades’ worth of evidence that cigarettes are deadly.

Far be it from me to challenge the president of the National Academy of Sciences, particularly if it’s the “prestigious” National Academy of Sciences, or more than a dozen other scientists, but the technical term for this is “bollocks”. Continue reading “The tyranny of the 95%”

More Hockey Statisticks

I wrote last week about my surprising response to two books about the public conflicts over palaeoclimatology. Whereas I expected to find myself sympathising with the respected scientist Michael Mann, I found both authors equally repellant — both are smug and self-absorbed, both write crudely — and had most sympathy with Steven McIntyre, the former mining engineer who stars in Andrew Montford’s book. Fundamentally, I found that Mann’s own account made him seem like just the sort of arrogant senior scientist I have occasionally had to deal with as a statistician, one who is outraged that anyone outside his close circle would want to challenge his methodology.

A pair of long comments on the post underlined my impression of the cultish behaviour of people who have gotten enmeshed in the struggle over climate change, on both sides. The commenter writes:

I would suggest that McIntyre’s work went out of its way to try to cast doubt on Mann’s research, and in that process created as many errors of its own. Montford’s book takes that dubious effort and magnifies it for the purposes of attacking climate change science in general by vilifying a single piece of research by a single researcher.

I have to say, Montford’s effort has been highly effective. In one lecture I saw, given by Dr Richard Alley, he recounted being in Washington speaking to a science committee where one high level member stated, “Well, we know all this climate change stuff is based on a fraudulent Hockey Stick graph.”

I’m sure [Andrew] Montford appreciates your piece here perpetuating that position.

I don’t know exactly what Montford’s “effort” is. Certainly, in his book he has little to say about the rest of climate science, but what he does have to say can hardly give any impression other than that the “hockey stick” is a small part of palaeoclimatology, and that palaeoclimatology is a small part of climate research. He never accuses Mann or anyone else of fraud in his book, although he is unyielding and close to hysterical in imputing incompetence to Mann and some of his closest collaborators.

As for McIntyre’s work going “out of its way to try to cast doubt”, this hardly seems different to me than the usual way scientists are motivated. It’s no different than the comments about “getting rid of the Mediaeval Warm Period”, that Montford is obsessed with, as evidence of scientific corruption. I was never bothered by that comment, or any of the comments that came out of the disgraceful email hack of the Climatic Research Unit, because I understand that scientists rarely launch an investigation without any preconceptions. It’s perfectly plausible — even likely — that climate researchers would have had a strong gut feeling that this warm period was much less substantial than it had seemed, but were casting about for a way to prove the point. The trick here is to have a rigorous methodology that won’t bend to your preconceptions. The same way, McIntyre had a gut feeling that the climate was much more variable in the past than the mainstream researchers wanted to believe, and he set about proving his point by trying to find the flaws in their methodology.

The fact that later studies ended up confirming the broad outlines of Mann’s picture, and disproving McIntyre’s intuition does not make his critique any the less serious or important. And it doesn’t make Mann’s efforts to portray all of his opponents as villains any less unsavoury. And his efforts to present scientific defensiveness as high principle do a disservice to science in general, and to climate science more specifically.

The commenter describes Mann’s self-righteous refusal to provide essential materials for McIntyre’s attempts to re-evaluate his work as a natural response to ” the levels to which “skeptics” are willing to go. It may seem absurd, but I think that is only because the levels they go to are so outrageous.” Except that it looks to me as though Mann’s stonewalling came first. Maybe that’s wrong, but again, if so, he doesn’t seem to think anyone has a right to expect evidence of the fact.

Mann comes across in his own book as a manipulator who would like to tar all of his opponents with the outrageous actions that some have committed. He accuses McIntyre of “intimidation” without considering it necessary to provide any shred of evidence. The portion of their correspondence quoted by Montford obviously doesn’t show anything beyond occasional exasperation at Mann’s stonewalling. Obviously there could be more to it, but Mann seems so persuaded of his own saintliness that his bare assertion of his own pure motives — and of the correctness of his methodology — ought to persuade every reader. And so convinced of the objectivity of his friends and colleagues that merely quoting their statements in his defence should suffice.

Science is science, but many climate scientists have (quite rightly) decided that the implications of what they have learned demand political action. They can’t then express horror when others blend their scientific inquiry with a political agenda.

Of hockey sticks and statistics

[Updated at bottom] I recently read two books on climate science — or rather, two books on the controversies around climate science. One book was Michael Mann’s book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars; the other The Hockey Stick Illusion by Andrew Montford.

Now, I am, by inclination and tribal allegiance, of the party of Michael Mann, one of the world’s leading climate scientists. He and his colleagues have been subject to beastly treatment by political opponents, some of which is detailed in his book. And I only picked up the Montford book out of a sense of obligation to see what the opposing side was saying. And yet…

Montford’s book makes a pretty persuasive case. Not that climate science is bunk, or a conspiracy, or that anthropogenic global warming is a fiction — there is far too much converging evidence from different fields to plausibly make that claim (and indeed, Montford never makes such a claim) — but that a combination of egotism and back-scratching has seriously slowed down the process of evaluation and correction of sometimes sloppy statistical procedures, and tarnished the reputation of the scientific community generally.

I admit to a certain bias here: The attacks on Mann’s work that Montford describes are statistical in nature, and Mann’s response reminds me of the tone that is all too common when statisticians raise questions about published scientific work. Montford has a remarkable amount of technical detail — so much that I found myself wondering who his intended audience is — and the critiques he describes (mainly due to the Canadian mining engineer Steve McIntyre) seem eminently sensible. In the end, I don’t think they panned out, put they were genuine shortcomings in the early work, and McIntyre seems to have done the right things in demonstrating the failure of a statistical method, at least in principle, and to have earned for his trouble only incomprehension and abuse from Mann and his colleagues.

Continue reading “Of hockey sticks and statistics”

Evolution turns political

… followed by arithmetic

There are two general attitudes that a scientifically-minded educated person could take to the resurgence of anti-Darwinian politics in the US over the past few decades. 1) Children deserve to know the truth, as best as careful thinkers have been able to determine it. Parents have no right to withhold the truth. We need to break the cycle of ignorance. Disrespect for standards of science and objective truth in one area will undermine science universally, making it more difficult for our society to benefit, materially and intellectually, from scientific progress. 2) Evolution is a story. It is abstract. It is a belief system that lends itself at least as much to social and political abuse as an fundamentalist sect, so maybe we shouldn’t be pushing it too hard — particularly not when there’s a conflict with parental beliefs and values. There’s plenty of science to learn — even biology — that won’t run up against conflict with home values. Where it’s a problem, let’s leave these abstract matters for when they are older and more qualified to make their own value judgements. (Given the difficulty of US schools recruiting competent science teachers, we might also add the very real harm that is likely to be done by teachers who genuinely don’t understand evolution, teaching corrupted or incomprehensible versions of the key ideas.) Continue reading “Evolution turns political”