Monday, March 31, 2008

blog rating

Last time I checked my blog on this site, it told me reading my blog requires post-graduate education.

blog readability test

TV Reviews

Guess kids do make you smarter :)


So, I had an agreement with a guy at the Utah Division of Wildlife resources to get a set of new natural samples. You know, those funny things I need to get data? And graduate? Then, bureaucratic nonsense started. First, I couldn't reach the guy I'd made arrangements with. So I found his boss and asked what was going on. Now I have to talk to some new guy who evidently has to make sure my sample request is "legal" and a "good use of department resources" before he'll agree to help me. I've spent the last week working on a proposal for him rather than working on my thesis proposal I'm supposed to hand out to my committee in, oh, a week. Argh.

I think for stress relief I'm going to stare for a few minutes at the face of my beautiful unborn daughter.

Ah, that's much better.

For those who don't know, she's due July 23rd-ish.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Recommended reading

I don't know a good way to argue with anti-global warming claptrap. Those who opine on the subject from the standpoint of "climate change is a hoax" or "CO2 is a good thing" are trying to pass of their opinions as science and many people are very willing to accept opinions like these because they fit in so nicely with pre-conceived notions. If it's a liberal plot to keep us from enjoying the lifestyle they've worked so hard to have, it's easier to dismiss than if it's a real threat. The fact is, climate change, like most environmental change, is incremental, meaning it's not obvious unless you look over a long time. We have looked long enough, and have reconstructed far enough back to have a great deal of confidence that global warming is happening as a result of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. That's not an opinion, and it's not a condemnation of our lifestyles specifically; it is a fact.

Outdated research is one of the surest signs someone is an anti-global warming climate skeptic, though since global warming is a "liberal academic plot" I'm not sure you'd make much headway citing updated research. It's unfortunate that the IPCC used the Mann, et. al, reconstruction in that first (?) report since it really is fatally flawed (though it's conclusions are correct--in fact, better reconstructions show more warming, not less). Even so, more recent reconstructions using better methods still show the current warming as unusual given the forcings we can measure, and show it occurring rather fast. A good, true multiproxy reconstruction that's more recent than the Mann, et. al, 1999 used by the IPCC that actually shows the climate variability over the last couple of thousand years is the Moberg, 2005 reconstruction.

If you (intrepid readers) are interested in reasons why global warming, and our response to it, is important to consider RIGHT NOW, a book you might think about reading is "Collapse" by Jared Diamond. Some of his examples are questionable (Rwanda being an obvious one), but he does talk about the Vikings living in Greenland, which is frequently cited by climate skeptics as a reason why global warming is a good thing--we could go back to Greenland! He makes a pretty convincing argument that Viking farming practices, in combination with the cooling at the end of the Medieval warm period are really what did the Vikings in. Even without climate change it's pretty evident Greenland is a very marginal environment for a western civilization. The whole point of the book is that it's not so much environmental change that dooms civilizations to collapse, but what societies decide to do in response to environmental limits and difficulties. I personally think one of the hardest things we have to deal with is the human tendency to think that the good times will go on forever (the grasshopper mentality). Every civilization, every population, has the drive to expand to the furthest possible limit. If climate and the water and food supplies that are so critical to living, were constant that wouldn't be a bad thing. Unfortunately, there's a lot of variability to climate that impacts water and food supplies the world over. Additionally, we are pretty sure at this point from both climate reconstruction and from modeling that warming the climate is going to impact water supplies and other environmental variables that impact our ability to produce food. We here in the US I think have largely forgotten that famines can happen. The 1930's are remote, and we've built enough dams and tapped enough aquifers we feel, I think, a tad invulnerable to the impact of our environment. People live by the millions in Phoenix and Tuscon and Los Angeles year-round, isolated from the blistering heat by air conditioning; from lack of water by dams and water projects that pump water from hundreds of miles away to a tap in every home; and from the hunger that most populations face in bad crop years by shipments of food from artificially well-watered central California, Florida, and the Midwest.

Monday, March 10, 2008

More misunderstood science

Having just sat through a Sunday school lesson where science was the bad guy because scientist "know everything" and "change their minds about things all the time," this particular discussion comes at a perfect time to annoy me. I'm going to frame my discussion in terms of models, where models are the mental images we have of the world around us. In science it is understood, first of all, that ultimately our explanations are just models, and second of all, that our models are in many ways incomplete and wrong. We expand and correct our models using hypotheses, which are tested by experiment, observation, and measurement. It is also understood that there exist multiple working hypotheses--multiple, equally probable explanations that we should take into account and, in a well-conceived experiment, distinguish between. Scientific models, because of their connection to experiments and observations, must be directly tied to the physical world around us (except for physicists--they're special. J/K, Clark). Does that connection make us conceited about our knowledge? Maybe. I'm sure it looks that way from the outside. We really do have a lot of confidence in a lot of our models, including evolution, and that probably comes off as conceit. Evolution has withstood an awful lot of testing, so we're really rather confident it's correct. As confident as we are in many models, every scientist acknowledges that there are likely to be refinements, or even occasionally replacements of widely believed models when a new theory comes along that has better explanatory power. I'd say evolution is unlikely to be overturned completely by a new theory simply because it does do such a good job explaining what we see in the natural world. That said, if sufficiently convincing evidence were to come forward that something else were behind the diversity of life we observe, scientists would eventually accept the new model.

Religion is also a model, but unlike a scientific model, it need not be verifiable by independent experiments. In fact, the nature of faith precludes the possibility of independent verification of most beliefs. Whatever evidence underlies your faith (and physical evidence is certainly a valid part of faith for many!) your model is not one that can be verified or invalidated by someone else. Just isn't possible. Religious belief is still a model, though, and there are certainly aspects of your model, my model, everyone's models, that are incomplete or incorrect. Our culture seeps into our religious models, staining those models with baggage that has no eternal significance, and yet seems terribly important to us standing at this time and in this place. Because we are not privy to the thoughts of Deity, we have no concrete, independently verifiable way of removing those unnecessary bits for ourselves and for everyone else. It's also more or less impossible to get everyone to agree on a religious model--even within a religion! If you doubt that, just try getting a bunch of people to agree on what the true nature of God is.

Unfortunately, a lot of non-scientists seem to think it's appropriate to apply a religious model to a scientific model. It's not. In fact, it's incredibly conceited to think that it's appropriate. Because scientists are aware that our models are incomplete and incorrect, we are willing to modify, and even throw out models when they fail to accurately reflect reality as measured by experiment and observation. I find such mental flexibility much more often lacking in those of a more religious persuasion, particularly when it comes to a religious model.