Facts Matter..?

December 12, 2017


I like to flatter myself that I am an independent thinker, i.e, I think for myself.  One of the problems with that tendency is that I sometimes find myself in disagreement with people with whom I agree most of the time.  This slogan, in the button above, is one of those instances.  I dislike it intensely.

The first reason I dislike it is that everyone knows that facts matter – even Trumpy and Roy Moore.  Even Kelly Anne Conway, she of “alternative facts” fame.  The disagreement is over what is, and what is not a fact, and how important some facts are compared to others.  Science and history have their methods for resolving these questions, techniques in which our present administration is uninterested because they pose inconvenient questions, but the importance of facts is not really at issue.

One of the unpleasant aspects of being a dissenter is that you are opened up to condemnation when you disagree with the prevailing view, what Flaubert called “received wisdom.”  I may agree with my friends 95% of the time, but when that 5% comes up, out comes the “Facts Matter” buttons!

The other reason I don’t like this slogan is that it presumes that the speaker has all the facts, i.e. THE FACTS.  Much of the time, these days, the slogan is deployed regarding Trumpy’s lying and misstatements about politics,  history, economics…well just about anything, and the newspapers, e.g. the NYTimes, are held up as proof that he is wrong.  Well, I like the NYTimes and read it daily, but memory is short.  About fifteen years ago, it was telling us breathless stories about the vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction hidden in Iraq by Saddam Hussein, remember him?  There were no WMDs.  I knew it then, and so did lots of other people.  The paper did apologize, years later, but why assume that they have the facts simply because they happen to be in the right all the time about Trumpy?

It’s a lot of work to cross check sources, read up on issues, track the positions of people to see if they lie about their past statements, and so on, but hey, you want a democracy, that’s what you have to do.  You want knowledge, you have to work for it. Relying on Breitbart or the NYTimes as the oracle of The Truth is the lazy way to ignorance, though of the two, naturally you’ll do better, most of the time, with the NYTimes.  That’s based on my personal research.  🙂

And just FYI, the NYTimes still maintains the same low standards of journalism they displayed in their coverage of the WMDs in Iraq when they “report” on climate science.  Facts matter, but you’ll look long and hard for them in their coverage.  Just sayin’.  🙂




Annals of Environmental Lawsuits

April 24, 2015


I have commented before on some strange lawsuits generated by environmental concerns, so this one, centered on the “Overseas Highway” that linked Key West, Florida to the mainland, came as an amusing surprise:

1926 – Monroe County citizens overwhelmingly approve a $2.5 million bond issue to launch construction of an “Overseas Highway.”

1927 – A severe winter, followed by a cool summer in northern Europe, causes charges that dredging and filling for the Over-Sea Railroad bed had caused a change in the path of the Gulf Stream. Europeans charge Flagler with displacing their climate control, but the U.S. Hydrographic Bureau and the Weather Bureau find no reason to believe the Key West Extension has shifted the Gulf Stream in any way.

I found out about this while reading Water to the Angelsa history of William Mullholland and the aqueduct he built.  The Times gives it a tepid review, but as a civil engineer who was inspired to enter the profession by men like Mullholland, I found it a good read.  And then there’s that bit about the film Chinatown…  No surprise, but the historical facts are a bit different.  “Forget it Jake, it’s Hollywood.”  Still a great film though…

Global Warming Sinks Island Republic

July 19, 2011

The NYTimes had an OpEd piece today telling the sad tale of a tiny island republic, Nauru, that is doomed to obliteration, because of global warming, it would seem.  Reading the entire article closely, however, the cause is not so clear-cut.  The article is typical of many that appear in the news and advocacy press, so I am going through it point by point, my comments in bold.  The plain text of the original piece can be read here.

I FORGIVE you if you have never heard of my country…

But make no mistake; we are a sovereign nation, with our own language, customs and history dating back 3,000 years….an indispensible cautionary tale about life in a place with hard ecological limits...  Yes, cultures that take root in locations with such limits are fragile.  Consider the vanished Easter Island societies. 

Phosphate mining, first by foreign companies and later our own, cleared the lush tropical rainforest that once covered our island’s interior, scarring the land and leaving only a thin strip of coastline for us to live on…  This is certainly the most serious ecological disturbance that was visited on the island.  If not for that, the people could live elsewhere on the island, and the state of the coastal zone would not be so critical for them.  Nothing to do with climate.

I am not looking for sympathy, but rather warning you what can happen when a country runs out of options. The world is headed down a similar path with the relentless burning of coal and oil, which is altering the planet’s climate…  Not clear why the rest of the world is taking the same path by burning fossil fuels.  Clearly, the industrial world has many things it can do better, but the problems of Nauru are not the problems of most of the world.

Climate change also threatens the very existence of many countries in the Pacific, where the sea level is projected to rise three feet or more by the end of the century. Already, Nauru’s coast, the only habitable area, is steadily eroding  The sea level rise that is claimed so far, if it is accurate, is quite small.  Why would it be responsible for such damage to Nauru already?   More likely, the destruction of the natural land cover has led to a drainage situation in which the land is steadily and rapidly eroded.  The island is being washed away.  As for the three-foot sea level rise, that is a worst-case scenario that should be taken with many grains of salt.

…and communities in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have been forced to flee their homes to escape record tides. The low-lying nations of Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands may vanish entirely within our grandchildren’s lifetimes.   They may vanish, and they may not…  Hasn’t happened yet.  People are running from flooding, not ‘record tides.’  One reason they flee is that most urban development has been taking place in flood-prone areas, despite the advice of engineers and geographers.   In many of these places, the land is sinking, which makes things worse.

Similar climate stories are playing out on nearly every continent, where a steady onslaught of droughts, floods and heat waves, which are expected to become even more frequent and intense with climate change, have displaced millions of people and led to widespread food shortages.   The usual litany, recited without any support.  Droughts, floods, and heat waves are always with us.  More people, more urbanization in the wrong place, better reporting – more disaster.  “Expected to become more frequent…” is simply a crystal ball prediction, not a proven fact.  Just pile on the horror stories…

The changes have already heightened competition over scarce resources, and could foreshadow life in a world where conflicts are increasingly driven by environmental catastrophes….    There is always competition for scarce resources: which ones are at issue here?  Water?  That’s been a concern for decades, rightly so, and has nothing to do with climate change.  Food costs?  The subsidies for ethanol have more to do with global food riots than does climate change since they resulted in a reduction in food grain exports.

The stakes are too high to implement these measures only after a disaster is already upon us...   Unfortunately for Nauru, if the global warming predictions are correct, it’s already too late to help the island escape the effects of climate change.

Nauru has begun an intensive program to restore the damage done by mining, and my administration has put environmental sustainability at the center of our policymaking.   Good show!  For such a small and vulnerable environment, that’s what is needed, especially forest restoration.

I wish the people of Nauru all the best with their efforts.

Science in action

December 7, 2009


From the New York Times today, reporting on the Climate Summit in Copenhagen:

Still, speakers at the opening plenary which began with a slickly-produced video appeal from children across the world to save them from what looked like an apocalyptic future of deserts and rising seas aimed to spur negotiators forward.

Well, the apocalypse is always nigh.  Sample this, if you will:

…in the probing monograph, “Towards an Interpretation of the Drainage,” in which the author, Hilton Korngold, describes with disturbing calm the widespread deterioration of urban drainage systems in the Western World. In this work, Korngold writes:

We must arm ourselves with all the material and spiritual forces at our disposal to ensure that this crucial epoch is one of the transcendence into unity of Drainage and Drained or else our culture is doomed to destruction. Extrapolation from our present condition along the lines of Revelation yields a vision of Busting sewer mains and all waters of the world made as wormwood, unfit to drink. Mankind would be reduced to a primitive state of disunity, neighbor isolated from neighbor by vast surging cataracts of fluid, while the monument of our era’s accomplishments would gradually be submerged beneath festering pools of stagnant runoff. In this hell on earth all laws of sense will be overturned, men will go mad for lack of water to drink, sinks and cisterns will back up onto your floor instead of efficiently disposing of your wastes, and the Power of the Plumber will be null. Men in their frenzy of despair and disbelief will turn the evil upon themselves, building houses at the bottom of hills, in marshes, and along oozing gullys, while the Few Who Know will be the object of arrogant derision. And it is the folly of human inaction which will bring down on us this recapitulation of the Flood.*

More here and here.

Average Global Temperature?

February 8, 2009


In the debate over global warming (anthropogenic global warming – AGW – being the type people think is caused by burning fossil fuels) there is often discussion about the global temperature, or the mean global temperature, or the average global temperature.  We all know what that means, right?  If you don’t know what an average is, go here, where I cribbed this nifty graphic.

Anyway, the argument is that the average temperature of the globe is rising, and that the cause is our use of carbon-based energy, which releases CO2, a green house gas, into the atmosphere. For a long time now, I’ve been mulling over this idea of average global temperature.  I put a query to Watts Up With That, thinking I might get some critical info on it [my comment at (06:24:57) ] but the response only partly satisfied me.

Simply put, if you have a large flat area with sensors evenly spaced, it is obvious how to derive an average value.  But what if the area is very large, sensors are not at all evenly spaced, vast areas (oceans) have no surface sensors, sensors are at different elevations, placed in totally different surroundings, and may not even be completely consistent as to instrumentation and method, how do you derive a single number that represents the global average temperature? And, is this a meaningful number? (A good example of a meaningless average is the one you get by finding the mean of all the telephone numbers in your town.  It’s correct, but what is it..?)

Well, I am not alone in asking this fundamental, I think, question.  Better mathematical minds than mine have examined it, and I came across this fascinating paper, Does a Global Temperature Exist? The extended introduction is quite accessible to non-mathematicians, and does an excellent job of explaining the crux of the issue.  I quote the rather brief conclusion to the paper in full below, with my emphasis:

There is no global temperature. The reasons lie in the properties of the equation of state governing local thermodynamic equilibrium, and the implications cannot be avoided by substituting statistics for physics.

Since temperature is an intensive variable, the total temperature is meaningless in terms of the system being measured, and hence any one simple average has no necessary meaning.  Neither does temperature have a constant proportional relationship with energy or other extensive thermodynamic properties.

Averages of the Earth’s temperature field are thus devoid of a physical context which would indicate how they are to be interpreted, or what meaning can be attached to changes in their levels, up or down. Statistics cannot stand in as a replacement for the missing physics because data alone are context-free. Assuming a context only leads to paradoxes such as simultaneous warming and cooling in the same system based on arbitrary choice in some free parameter.  Considering even a restrictive class of admissible coordinate transformations yields families of averaging rules that likewise generate opposite trends in the same data, and by implication indicating contradictory rankings of years in terms of warmth.

The physics provides no guidance as to which interpretation of the data is warranted. Since arbitrary indexes are being used to measure a physically non-existent quantity, it is not surprising that different formulae yield different results with no apparent way to select among them.

The purpose of this paper was to explain the fundamental meaninglessness of so-called global temperature data. The problem can be (and has been) happily ignored in the name of the empirical study of climate. But nature is not obliged to respect our statistical conventions and conceptual shortcuts. Debates over the levels and trends in so-called global temperatures will continue interminably, as will disputes over the significance of these things for the human experience of climate, until some physical basis is established for the meaningful measurement of climate variables, if indeed that is even possible.

It may happen that one particular average will one day prove to stand out with some special physical significance. However, that is not so today. The burden rests with those who calculate these statistics to prove their logic and value in terms of the governing dynamical equations, let alone the wider, less technical, contexts in which they are commonly encountered.

Hey, man! That’s cool.

January 15, 2009


Things aren’t looking too hot here in the USA for 2008.

Read more here at the excellent post on climate science, Watt’s Up with That?