The Weathermen

March 30, 2010

Maybe you do need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.

Today’s NYTimes:   Among Weathercasters, Doubt on Warming

 Also, see this earlier post by Super Mom:   “You don’t need a climatologist to know which way the wind is blowing.”

Not Even Half-Baked…

July 30, 2006

Today, the NY Times ran an opinion piece that was a superlative piece of pap. I was apalled that a major newspaper would allow such rubbish to grace its pages, even the opinion page. The article was about global warming, and it was by a woman whose claim to fame is writing a book called “The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter.” Maybe she needs to have more children, because her article was amazing for its lack of intellectual coherence.She begins by describing the recent heatwave in the Bay Area of California where she lives. All of it sounds very unpleasant, indeed. She couldn’t even see Gore’s new film because the theatre was closed – power outages brought on by hectic demand to run air conditioners, etc.

So far, so good. Then the intellectual heavyweight kicks in with her analysis of the situation. The local paper ran an article saying that some scientists partly blamed global warming for the extraordinary heatwave, while others felt there was not enough evidence to draw that conclusion.

No problem for Super Mom! “You don’t need a climatologist to know which way the wind is blowing.” Cute, eh? Simultaneously makes a feeble witticism and establishes her Boomer bona fides by quoting Dylan. But maybe you do need a climatologist. She says she sees a pattern emerging, but does she knew anything at all about analyzing weather statistics? Not an easy thing to do. Let me state again the history of another obvious pattern: in the late 19th and early 20th century, farmers moved onto the plains and plowed the land to plant corn. For years they prospered…until the ‘normal’ weather returned, their crops withered, and we got the dust bowl. Seems the obvious weather patterns weren’t all the obvious or permanent. Of course, Super Mom kows how to discern long-range climatic trends at a glance.

She then goes on to say that a “consensus of scientists suggests that the world has a chance of stalling climate change” if we adopt radical measures regarding our use of fossil fuel. (Here I go on record as being all for radically reducing our consumption of oil – there are so many good reasons to do it!) Unfortunately, what the consensus – whatever that is? – really says is that if we adopt radical measures, we will slow the rate of change and reduce the magnitude of it, and maybe, in the most optimistic scenarios, reverse it a bit.

[And what is all this drivel about scientific consensus? Science does not proceed by consensus - it is not democratic. Just because a lot of Ph.D.s think something is so doesn't make it so. Science has fads, fashions, and frauds like any other part of the human endeavour, but the good thing is, they don't usually last very long in the scientific world. The facts out them! I'm not saying the warming crowd are frauds, but they might be devotees of a global fad, and if they are, they will be found out eventually. Or...they might be right. The fact that there are enough of them on editorial boards of journals to have statements issued stating that a "consensus exists" on warming does not make them correct.]

Finally, the kicker, so typical of the NY Times with its frequent toadying to its middle-class readership: Adopting these measures will take leadership, but Super Mom would “put her kids into daycare” and work full time for someone with the vision to push for it. Shame on all of you working moms out there who have your kids in daycare because you have to work to feed them. You aren’t nearly so virtuous as Super Mom.


Scientific Researches?

April 9, 2005

Capture

It can get pretty grim today, examining the rampant run of pseudo-science. There are a lot of intellectuals out there, and a lot of pseudo-intellectuals (that’s SWAY-do, if you’re not in the know) and even more pseudo-scientists. The image by Gillray lifts my spirits a bit, with its hilarious shafting of savants, intent on the investigation of the pneumatic power of farts.

Yes, there’s cold fusion – when will the cold water thrown on it finally wash it away? – and there’s Intelligent Design – a “theory” without content – and there are the worthy epigones of that Victorian blockhead, John Galton, the contemporary running-dog-lackeys of vulgar empiricism. Right now, I’m thinking of Charles Murray, Adam Bellow, and the latecomer to the club, John Gartner. Not household names? – read on!

When I think of pseudo-science, I think of Murray, who made his splash with The Bell Curve, a statistical mishmash that manages to avoid the important question of just what he purports to be measuring. Race, intelligence? Does anyone have a clear definition of what these are? No? Then it’s off to the races, no pun intended – develop your own theory of anything. Murray hit the stores with another book in which assessed human “achievement” of civilizations with a quantitative method. Surprise, the west is on top! You pays your money, make your assumptions, and…

(Those who want a more intelligent assessment of why some cultures have won out while others disappeared should check out Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. His critics often tar him as a simple “environmental determinist”, but his arguments are quite rational, and far more subtle and profound than his critics appreciate.)

Murray’s first book was published by Adam Bellow, who has since weighed in with his cogent analysis of nepotism, a deliciously self-serving tome by someone who’s principal claim to fame – no fault of his own – seems to be his (recently deceased) father. Yes, it’s all genetic, ants do it, fish do it, nepotism is natural. Even Edward Wilson, the father of sociobiology, who stumbles badly when he tries to advance his ideas to the human cultural realm (He is a big-time subscriber to the naturalistic fallacy, i.e., that you can get an ought from an is.), might cavil. The crude socio-biologists always warp the same way: animals have evolved behavior A; humans have behavior B; A and B appear to be similar types of behavior; therefore, human behavior B is nothing but animal behavior A, and it is the same in all respects, origins, and purposes. Quite a few leaps there, and nature doesn’t make big jumps, does she? Back on the purely human level, Bellow said in a NYTimes Opinion piece,

“…a name, nepotism can serve to get your foot in the door, but after that, you’re on your own”.

Of course, legions of struggling actors, artists, and other professional aspirants well tell you deadpan, straight off, getting your foot in the door is THE crucial step! They’re all smart! So, pseudo-science serves, once again, to dress up some propositions that are most gratifying to one’s self-esteem.

I happen to know that the next member of my anti-pantheon, John Gartner was Bellow’s school chum. Is this a co-inky-dink? Or…is it in the genes!? [And why am I talking about them? Simple: Saul Bellow died this week, and Gartner’s book was just reviewed in the NYTimes today. And there are other connections, too dark and nefarious to mention here… ] Now he has written a book which posthumously analyzes several American high achievers and concludes that they were all hypomanic, i.e., just this side of clinically manic. Pity they aren’t around to suggest otherwise. Of course, this just proves that the USA itself is one great big self-selecting gene pool of hypomanics, which is why the USA is so successful, and presumably always will be. This is science? Yes it is, by jingo!

Finally, I must refer to Nicholas Kristoff’s column today, in which he asserts that Nukes are Green. NK doesn’t pretend to be a scientist, but he does claim to be factual and rational. Still he comes out with this statement:

Radioactive wastes are a challenge. But burdening future generations with nuclear wastes in deep shafts is probably more reasonable than burdening them with a warmer world in which Manhattan is submerged under 20 feet of water.

Okay, nuclear plants are pretty safe, I agree. Okay, they don’t contribute to greenhouse gases, but why does he assume that we should be more worried about submerging Manhattan than burying waste? Is he certain that they are equally probable. Nukes do produce waste – Manhattan under 20 feet – that’s a stretch for even the worst warming scenarios. Is it because the French do it? Hey, pass the Freedom Fries! “Probably more reasonable?” Better be sure before you bury!

Environmentalists often state that human civilization is conducting a giant, uncontrolled experiment with the climate, and if it turns out badly, we’re in bad shape. Doesn’t burying tons of intensely radioactive waste and assuming that our progeny will properly take care of it for the next 100,000 years or so amount to a rather daring experiment? A little radioactive waste in the groundwater could be a big problem, not to mention the fact that the USA can’t even seem to find a place to accept burial of even part of its waste. You can’t just dream away political problems such as NIMBY, although if we had a French Revolution here, that would be a solution, We could simply quell parochial resistance by forking over money to those affected the way the French government does. Bravo, bon idee!

Why does Kristoff pose the energy issue as one of “how do we maintain our current level of consumption in our current distribution system?” Green energy options are most feasible when the Grid is gone, replaced by more local sources. Utopian in the short run, perhaps, but the short run is quite malleable in this case by public policy. The long run, in which we are all dead, as Keynes famously remarked, is bad in any case. The facts, and imagination, are both part of science.


Jeepers, creepers, where’d you get those peepers?

December 13, 2004

Today I read in the newspaper that conservative groups throughout the nation, emboldened by their success in the presidential election, are pushing their initiatives at the state level. In Kansas, they have one the majority of the State Board of Education, and they will once again try to have the “Theory of Intelligent Design” inserted into school textbooks on biology. Let’s put this one to rest.

The so-called theory of Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory at all – it is a religious creed. And notice the subtle word-play…”Intelligent Design” as opposed to dumb-ass haphazard natural selection. Sort of like being pro-life instead of anti-abortion, despite a readiness to fry people in the electric chair. The notion, let’s call it that, is an old one, most memorably discussed by William Paley, a theologian, who asked, if we came upon a pocket watch in a meadow, would we not assume it was designed by an intelligent maker rather than having come about by chance and happenstance?

Well, if you are an educated urbanite with experience of machines, yes, I guess so, but so what. What if you are a 2oth century scientist and you come upon a glittering hard-edged thing that emits radio signals? Animal, vegetable, or mineral? Evolved organism, or designed machine? These Intelligent Design people love to try and prove everything in their religious system with a science they do not understand. They assume that the reasoning that they apply to things they see in our world apply to the natural world, but they have no reason to think that other than that this is how they are used to thinking. And when the 20th century scientist encounters the glittering thing, he cannot fall back on that happy way of viewing the world because he doesn’t even know if what he is looking at is alive! Our Mr. Paley in the meadow knows a machine when he sees one – why does he assume that nature is the same as a machine? Aha, he’s a closet Newtonian!! It’s easy to ennunciate a ‘theory’ built on an absurdly simple example chosen to appeal to unthinking ‘common sense.’

No, Intelligent Design explains nothing. Leaving aside the origin of the Intelligent Designer, it tells us nothing about how species change and arise. Most important, it is NOT a scientific theory. It cannot be tested, there are no experiments that verify it or refute it, and it cannot even be formulated except as a piece of wishful thinking built on predjudice, i.e., that our machine oriented view of things is the only way to think about them. The fact is, the natural world was NOT designed, and that is the wonder and beauty of it.

Of course, chance plays a big role here, and this is probably the most widely disseminated piece of mis-information about evolution that there is, i.e., that it is a random process. Nope – mutations are random, natural selection is not. If a mouse gives birth to a two-headed mouse, that mutation will fail, and die. If it gives birth to a mouse with super-eyesight, that mouse might survive, pass on the trait, and those mice might survive better, at a greater rate, and pass on the trait, and so on. It is not a chance process at all. In fact, computer simulations have re-enacted the evolution of the eye, and it doesn’t take as long as you might think – just a couple of tens of millions of years is all.

People seem to think, or want to believe, that a theory is the same as an opinion. It’s not. Darwin’s theory is an established fact. We only call it a theory to make clear that it is a proposition that was developed, tested, and proven by the scientific method. It is not a theory in the sense of speculative thinking. It is not a hypothesis – it has been proven too many times. Ordinary people use the word theory in a much looser way, but that is not what Darwin’s theory is. It’s rock solid – get over it, creationists! Yes, it is still tested, and sometimes challenged, but only regarding specific details of how it works out in the natural world.

If these people want the Theory of Intelligent Design included in the biology textbooks, then we must be more open minded. I want the theory of Satanic origins included, and the Native American creation theories there too. And what about the great Hindu theories of creation, eh? No end to it….


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