Designing Savants: Paley, Volta, and Galvani

May 29, 2014

watch

A few days ago, there was a good piece in the Science Times on the influence of William Paley on Charles Darwin that got me reading Paley’s refutation of the “blind watchmaker” idea.  Paley wrote the best-selling book,  Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802) in which he supported his arguments for what is now called “Intelligent Design” by using the analogy of a walker stumbling upon a watch in an open field: Would he not assume that the watch had an “artificer?”  The marvelous forms of the natural world are similarly ‘designed’ by the divine artificer.  The argument was not original with Paley, but he made it more eloquently than ever before.  It even impressed the young Darwin, who was initially destined for a career as a parson.

The author of the column, George Johnson, also has a book out called The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments which is a nice read.  I was very pleased with the chapter on Galvani’s experiments with electricity and frog’s legs, and his subsequent disputes with Volta.  Volta was wrong in his objections, but he was also right.  Galvani was mostly right, but a little bit wrong.  After the dust settled, science was advanced, but they got a bit nasty about it.  It’s a great example to explode the crude myth that science advances with regular and logical steps all in the “right” direction.

Here are two shots of Volta’s residence in Belaggio – I can’t imagine any other reason to go there! 🙂 – and an illustration from Galvani’s published experiment.

8749763673_2cf9d6c095_z8749764387_45f05a0cb4_zgalvani2

Here are some excerpts from the beginning of Paley’s work in which he almost seems to state Darwin’s thesis.  (My emphasis and comments added.)

There is another answer which has the same effect as the resolving of things into chance which answer would persuade us to believe that the eye the animal to which it belongs every other animal every plant indeed every organized body which we see are only so many out of the possible varieties and combinations of being which the lapse of infinite ages has brought into existence that the present world is the relict of that variety millions of other bodily forms and other species having perished being by the defect of their constitution incapable ot preservation or of continuance by generation. Now there is no foundation whatever for this conjecture in any thing which we observe in the works of nature no such experiments are going on at present no such energy operates as that which is here supposed and which should be constantly pushing into existence new varieties of beings Nor are there any appearances to support an opinion that every possible combination of vegetable or animal structure has formerly been tried. [Not a bad argument here.  It isn’t easy to catch natural selection at work!] Multitudes of conformations both of vegetables and animals may be conceived capable of existence and succession which yet do not exist. Perhaps almost as many forms of plants might have been found in the fields as figures of plants can be delineated upon paper A countless variety of animals might have existed which do not exist. Upon the supposition here stated we should see unicorns and mermaids sylphs and centaurs the fancies of painters and the fables of poets realized by examples Or if it be alleged that these may transgress the limits of possible life and propagation we might at least have nations of human beings without nails upon their fingers with more or fewer fingers and toes than ten some with one eye others with one ear with one nostril or without the sense of smelling at all.  All these and a thousand other imaginable varieties might live and propagate We may modify any one species many different ways all consistent with life and with the actions necessary to preservation although affording different degrees of conveniency and enjoyment to the animal And if we carry these modifications through the different species which are known to subsist their number would be incalculable No reason can be given why if these deperdits ever existed they have now disappeared Vet if all possible existences have been tried they must have formed part of the catalogue

 …

But moreover the division of organized substances into animals and vegetables and the distribution and sub distribution of each into genera and species which distribution is not an arbitrary act of the mind but founded in the order which prevails in external nature appear to me to contradict the supposition of the present world being the remains of an indefinite variety of existences of a variety which rejects all plan. The hypothesis teaches that every possible variety of being hath at one time or other found its way into existence by what cause or in what manner is not said and that those which were badly formed perished but how or why those which survived should be cast as we see that plants and animals are cast into regular classes the hypothesis does not explain or rather the hypothesis is inconsistent with this phenomenon.  [Here he makes the argument that monkeys typing in a room for eons and producing Shakespeare is absurd, but he adds the part that is usually left out of the jibe.  He acknowledges that an “editor” exists, i.e. the ones that are badly formed die.]

Furthermore a principle of order acting and without choice is negatived by observation that order is not universal it would be if it issued from a constant and necessary principle nor indiscriminate which it would be if it issued from unintelligent principle. Where order is there we find it where order is not i e where if it prevailed it would useless there we do not find it. In the of the eye for we adhere to our in the figure and position of its parts the most exact order is maintained. In the forms of rocks and mountains the lines which bound the coasts of continents and islands in the shape of bays and no order whatever is perceived it would have been superfluous. [At that time, geology was quite popular, so I wonder if this argument went over well.] No purpose would have arisen from rocks and mountains into regular bounding the channel of the ocean by curves or from the map of the resembling a table of diagrams in Euclid’s Elements or Simpson’s Conic Sections.

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Alas, woolly mammoths are no more!

May 21, 2014

muir

I don’t quite recall where that phrase comes from:  perhaps a tag line from my surrealist days in school.  But speaking of the Ice Age, there was an article in the NYTimes Science Section headlined The Big Melt Accelerates.  It provides more grist for my mill on the topic of the Times’ incredible bias and sloppiness in its supposedly “for the record” coverage of climate science.

The article covers the topic of glacial recession worldwide, i.e., the shrinking of glaciers.  Not the “melting” of glaciers:  glaciers are always melting.  Whether they grow or shrink depends on how much ice and snow are being dumped on their upland regions.  Mass-balance, that sort of thing.

Of course, the point of the article is that glaciers are shrinking everywhere (although they do note that some are not, and some are even growing.)  The two images shown above are featured prominently at the headline, and the message is clear.  In 1941, plenty of glacial ice; 2004, the glacier is visible only in the distance. Global warming, dumbbell!  Clear evidence to confound those anti-science deniers!

The images show the Muir Glacier in Alaska, and it has indeed been receding for many years.  In fact, it has been receding since it reached its maximum extent in…1780.  It’s quite well documented.  In the map below, you can see that in the late 18th century, long before the industrial revolution got going bigtime, it reached the end Glacier Bay (see the red circle at the bottom of the map.)  After 160 years, it retreated to where the red circle near the top of the map is.  And in the intervening sixty years, it has continued its retreat.  Clearly, the bulk of the recession was not caused by the industrial revolution and its discharge of C02 into the atmosphere – it was hardly a major force then.  It doesn’t seem to have accelerated its backward movement in the 20th century either.

Why did this glacier retreat?  The Little Ice Age, which saw glaciers growing all over the northern hemisphere – to the point that there are engravings showing European villages being engulfed and destroyed by ice! – ended in the very late 18th century.  Things started to get warmer after that…

New-1

This bit of scientific context doesn’t prove or disprove anything much other than that the NYTimes is extremely sloppy in its reporting.  The governing attitude seems to be, “We know the issue is settled.  Let’s get the message out.”  Fellow bloggers, e.g. Troutsky, who otherwise are sympathetic to my views expressed in this blog, seem to think my doubts are the result of clever indoctrination by the radical right-wing. But this sort of graphic legerdemain and purposeful misdirection is, to me, reminiscent of the GWB years, and the WMD buildup to the Iraq invasion, which the NYTimes swallowed whole.  Not nearly so serious and destructive, but structurally, the same sort of trash.

I wrote to the author of this piece, asking him if it wasn’t “a tad bit misleading” to use those photos.  His reply was, “Short unsatisfying answer:  I don’t choose the photos.”  I guess that’s life as a journalist.  But then he went on, “That being said…,” it’s part of a widespread and well documented trend over the “last several decades.”  Last several decades?  I know he understood my point, so is he just evading the entire question?


Apocalypse Redux

May 13, 2014

ameri

Ho hum, another headline story in the NYTimes about the coming End of Days…  I think that the paper’s elevation of Justin Gillis to a front-pager is a low point in their journalism not seen since they swallowed the WMD line of the Bush years, hook, line, and sinker.

So, what do we have?  Some scientists feel that the ice sheet covering the Antarctic land mass is moving towards irreversible “collapse” into the sea, and that this could raise the oceans by several feet.  When will it happen?  Maybe in a few centuries, and maybe in 1,000 years.  And why is it happening?  Not clear, but it has something to do with wind patterns in the Antarctic, and nothing to do with global warming…which isn’t happening at the south pole anyway.  BTW, the amount of ice at the south pole has been steadily increasing each year and is at an all-time high right now.

Reading the article in the Times, you might think if we all stopped burning oil and coal right now, today, everywhere! this could be avoided, but of course, the two issues have nothing to do with one another.  [Of course, if AGW comes about, it will make the situation at the south pole worse.  So let’s be worried!]

I like this comment on the article from a scientist-reader:

Mary Portland, Or 20 hours ago

We could use a little ice melt. Antarctica ice mass is at an all time high…at least since we’ve been able to measure it via satellite.

So, this ice “could” break off and it “could” take centuries and there is no clear link to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and right now, Antarctica is very near record ice mass (actual real data.)

So, relax. Climate change is real but just not nearly as scary as these headlines make it out to be. Amazing how there is no mention in the article about the complete lack of warming in Antarctica and the record ice levels.

But what do I know. I’m just an atmospheric scientist.

And this one too:

Paul Greensboro, NC 23 hours ago

As usual, the article identifies that the warming is coming from multiple sources, but fails to break down how much is from man-made causes. This is probably because they really don’t know. They are, at best, guesses. Remember that these models have been wildly inaccurate in the past. (I’m not being critical. This climate modeling stuff is extremely difficult, and some inputs into the models cannot be empirically determined.) So, given that we don’t know whether stopping all CO2 emissions 100% will make a difference, how much industry would you like to export to China and India?

At least some people have some sense.  Even Andy Revkin has had to weigh in and try to cool down the climate vigilantes:

Some headlines are completely overwrought — as with this NBC offering: “West Antarctic Ice Sheet’s Collapse Triggers Sea Level Warning.” This kind of coverage could be interpreted to mean there’s an imminent crisis. It’s hard to justify that conclusion given the core findings in the studies. (Am I trying to maintain a hold on reality or am I a “scold”?)

But stuff like this is more typical:

James Jordan  Falls Church 32 minutes ago

The evidence mounts. The planet Earth is warming. The consequences can seriously disrupt the human food supply and perhaps affect the ability of our species to reproduce. Can the plants and animals adapt with sufficient speed to survive? Can the wise ones (homo sapiens) adapt its complex carbon combustion lifestyle in time to save our own, or shall we go the way of the Dodo bird?

The End Times have taken a deep hold on the imagination of the most secular among us…or are they secularists after all?  Let’s just sign off with this from one NYTimes reader:

Bill Appledorf  British Columbia 16 hours ago

Chaos and war will sweep the planet when famine, disease, and economic collapse result from global warming.

apokalypse


Done Deal?

August 27, 2013

I have not been posting to this blog lately, and I am not sure why. Part of it is that I am taking to heart Nietzsche’s line:

And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.

That is, much of the time my comments are critical attacks on things I notice day-to-day.  As for the positive stuff, appreciations of literature and movies, etc, I dunno:  who reads it anyway?

But I just have to set all this aside and comment on a story that has been featured in the NYTimes several times in the past few days, always with the picture shown above.

Environment: Climate Warming Confirmed

A new United Nations climate report — the fifth since 1988 — has concluded that the basic facts about global warming are beyond question: it is caused by human activity and if it continues it will lead to melting of land ice, extreme heat waves, difficulty in growing food, and dramatic changes in plant and animal life, including large numbers of extinctions. The new document is not final, but experts expect the essential findings will survive review.

(Empahsis added)

It’s all in, science is settled, and the heat is on!  The picture is clear…or is it?  I suspect that that ominous plume is actually steam, that is, water vapor, and not smoke or other effluent filled with heat-trapping gas.  Except that water vapor is, after all, the most efficient and common greenhouse gas that you never hear about.

The thing about this news snippet is that it is so great a distortion of what the IPCC 5th Assessment actually says (or will say, when it’s released).   Aside from the fact that the report is not much different in its statement of alarm from the previous, fourth, report, it does not make the statement that is highlighted in bold.  It does say that most of the warming that has been observed over the last fifty years has been caused by human activity.  What is the significance of this, and what does the statement leave out?

  • “Most” means more than half, 51% or more.  Not all.  Therefore, we can say that the warming has other causes as well.  (It does not say that the human causes are all the result of burning fossil fuels either.)
  • It speaks only of the warming that has been observed.  (It does not mention that there is much controversy over precisely how much warming has actually been observed.  Nor does it mention that the observed warming that is claimed by the IPCC is on the order of one degree C, and is, in itself, not alarming to anyone.)
  • The statement does not note the fact that there has been no observed atmospheric warming for the last fifteen years or so, an observation that the IPCC accepts.
  • The statement refers to dire consequences if the warming continues, but actually those consequences will come about only if certain extreme projections of the warming trend continue.  The IPCC documents a wide variety of possible outcomes for the climate, even at current levels of fuel consumption.
  • This statement implies a direct cause and effect relationship between conditions rife with uncertainty and projected conditions, when in fact, the confidence that scientists have in any single one of these projections is very limited.

Basically, the statement, as with all statements from the IPCC, is an interpretation of current scientific work – a policy statement based on negotiation, that reflects the dominant forces at work within the organization.  (The IPCC is not and does not claim to be a scientific organization.  It is a policy guidance group, a think-tank if you will, that reviews current scientific work.)  There is no more reason to accept the conclusions of the IPCC regarding the future of the climate than there is to accept the pronouncements of the Brookings Institution (liberal) or the Cato Institute (conservative) on questions of social or economic policy.  Those organizations both look a the data, or the parts they care to notice, and make their interpretation.  The IPCC is no different.

Finally, must one point out that much of the world has “difficulty growing food” now, and that human settlement and land-use patterns over the last century or so have introduced dramatic changes to plant and animal life, including an increased rate of extinctions, without benefit of global warming?  This is not a good thing, but how much worse will the anticipated warming make this situation?  If it only makes it worse than we have made it already, might we not ask if it is the most important element in these problems?


Yet another effort, Citizens, if you would truly become [climate change] apocalyptic!

June 19, 2013


Thanks are due to President Obama for articulating the current End of Days scenario so clearly:

“The grim alternative… more severe storms, more famine and floods, new waves of refugees, coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise,” 

He said it is our “job,” our “task” to avert it.  Duty, I guess.  For the children…of our children.  Sounds suspiciously like another prediction of which I am very fond:

We must arm ourselves with all the material and spiritual forces at our disposal … or else our culture is doomed to destruction. Extrapolation from our present condition … yields a vision of busting sewer mains and all waters of the world made as wormwood, unfit to drink. Mankind will 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 will gradually be submerged beneath festering pools of stagnant runoff. . . 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 gulleys, 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.*

*Hilton S. Korngold, “Toward an Interpretation of the Drainage,” Journal of Historicist Philosophy, 98 (October, 1972): 302 – 398.
Let’s see:

More severe storms… Not much evidence of that.  Climate scientists are very hesitant to say that a storm or set of storms can be attributed to climate changes, such as they are.  We might have more severe storms – that’s what many predict – but that remains to be seen.  Of course, it assumes that all their predictions are correct.

More famine…  We seem to have our hands full with famine today, and have for some years now.  Any scholar of famine will tell you that their causes have much more to do with politics and infrastructure than with weather.  Our record dealing with those two issues is rather poor.

More floods…   Another speculation.  It’s not as though we haven’t had a hard time with floods for a long time, and done precious little about it.  Are we supposed to think it’s a “real” problem because climate change supposedly is involved?  We report more floods now – everything is reported more – and there is more property loss because humans continue to build heavily in areas that have been and will continue to be flooded.  It could get worse, yes, but it’s bad now!

New waves of refugees…  You guessed it, the same response as above.  If we are not moved by the plight of refugees now, why is the notion of “climate refugees” more compelling?  Shouldn’t we address the problems we have now?  We might foreclose the possibility of worse ones later on.  For instance, if people had enough land to grow their own food on, they might actually plan for the inevitable bad years…  Just a thought.

Coastlines that vanish, oceans that rise…  Coastlines vanish, then reappear.  They just follow you inland if the sea rises.  It will be a different coastline, but that happens now, much to the dismay of the Army Corps of Engineers which spends billions of dollars trying to hold back the seas so that municipalities can make money on beach tourism and property taxes.  And just how much are those seas going to rise?  And how fast?  Must we take as gospel the most extreme projection, that assumes a “rapid ice-melt” of the Greenland ice sheet?  How likely is that?  Not very, given the recent data, but then, that’s just a bump on the road on the way to Armageddon.

RSS_mwSST_2002_thru_Feb_2013

Look, maybe the predictions are true, but if we are going to examine them rationally, they become less likely with each year.  Would you invest your life savings on the basis of a projection for 2050 that had been shown wrong for the period 2002 – 2013?


Nice Chart of Climate Change

December 7, 2012

gt

This is a plot of the global mean temperature anomaly over the last 14 years.  That is the metric that is usually bandied about in reports and the news when people say the Earth is warming.  As you can see, over the last 14 years or so, the trend has been pretty much flat. 

Nobody disputes the trend:  the people who believe that the planet is heating up say it is a temporary halt in the inevitable rise of temperature;  people who are unconvinced by the IPCC and all the models say it is not what is predicted by the first group, so why should their claims about the ‘mechanisms’ of climate change be deemed credible?  I mean, if you  make a prediction, and you’re wrong… that’s not a good thing for your hypothesis.

Nothing here is definitive, but it does make one wonder about the confidence some people have in their computer models.  It is also worth considering why this chart, and again, it is not disputed by anyone, isn’t talked about more widely.  Unless you are convinced that you already know what’s going on, this would be a significant piece of evidence.


Rising Tides – Festival of Doom

November 25, 2012

There is a festival of doom in the Sunday New York Times today, with multiple articles on the threat to coastal cities in the USA posed by rising sea levels.  It includes a mournful, fatalistic essay by James Atlas, and a suite of interactive graphics that allow users to see just “what could disappear.”

This quote from one article pretty much sums up the message:

According to Dr. Schaeffer’s study, immediate and extreme pollution cuts — measures well beyond any discussion now under way — could limit sea level rise to five feet over 300 years. If we stay on our current path, the oceans could rise five feet by the first half of next century, then continue rising even faster. If instead we make moderate shifts in energy and industry — using the kinds of targets that nations have contemplated in international talks but have failed to pursue — sea level could still climb past 12 feet just after 2300. It is hard to imagine what measures might allow many of our great coastal cities to survive a 12-foot increase.

A few things to note here:

  • This paragraph assumes that the predictions based on models are all correct, and that the AGW (anthropogenic global warming) hypothesis is proven, “settled science.”  It’s not really that certain.  Or rather, the models themselves display tremendous uncertainty.
  • Also taken pretty much for granted is the fact that humans are not going to give their economy a thoroughgoing overhaul into the world of Green, so we might as well get ready!
  • Unmentioned is the fact that in many places, e.g. NYC, sea level has been rising steadily for centuries.  In NYC, it has been at a rate of about 1-foot per 100 years.
  • The word ‘could’  is used many times:  this paragraph is a worst-case scenario.

I had a professor of Ancient Art once who liked to say, “Civilizations come: Civilizations go…”  In archaeology, ‘civilization’ is synonymous with ‘city’.  Many cities have seen their harbors silt up, their water supplies disappear, their precincts inundated with lava or sea water.  It’s part of history.  Many other cities have survived for millenia by adjusting and changing.  When the writer says “It is hard to imagine what measures might allow many of our great coastal cities to survive a 12-foot increase,”  he is displaying a lack of insight and imagination.  Yes, it would be hard to imagine how our cities could survive direct hits by meteorites either, but that’s not likely to happen.

I would suggest the following scenario as likely:  The climate will change, but most likely not in the drastic way some scientists predict.  Seas will continue to rise where they are rising now, and perhaps in other places as well, perhaps a bit faster, but slowly, over centuries.  Unlike Holland, where inundation brings national catastrophe approaching eradication, most places can adapt slowly, and they will adapt.  People will make decisions, slowly, haltingly, stupidly or with foresight, about when and where it is worth rebuilding.  Change happens even in NYC – most skyscrapers are not built for the ages. Lower floors can be abandoned or ‘repurposed.’  It all takes time, and we have time, plenty of it.  Things will change.  The only impossibility is keeping them just as they are now.

There is a bright side to all of this.  Think of the economic stimulus potential of a huge program to raise local airports and critical infrastructure above the flood level – the greatest ‘shovel-ready‘ public works program in history!