Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Overwhelming Scientific Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming? Beyond a Doubt.

I just returned to my hotel after attending my first day at this year's American Geophysical Union Fall Conference in San Francisco.  The meeting started on Monday and runs through the entire week.  It is the largest meeting by far for the Earth and Planetary Sciences with well over 12,000 scientists in attendance.

After listening in on this morning's session on Venus, and prior to the Venus poster session, I found myself with a couple of hours of unscheduled time.  It didn't make sense to walk back to the hotel, as I would have to turn around an hour later and walk back the Moscone Conference Center.  Instead, motivated by some recent discussions on internet fora, I decided to attend a few talks and browse a few poster presentations related to global and regional climate change.
It was a bit like coming home.  My education is firmly grounded in the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.  All my graduate research was related to the Earth's atmosphere.  It's only in the last decade that I transitioned to planetary work.  Not surprisingly, I ran into a few old friends and grad school buddies that remained in the terrestrial scientific community.  I was able to catch up on a few topics that I hadn't thought about for quite some time.  I even took note of a few terrestrial studies that might have some application to the work I'm currently doing on Mars and Titan.

A picture paints a thousand words, but unfortunately the camera in phone decided to go kaput, so let me describe what I saw at the poster sessions, hopefully in less than a thousand words.  Imagine a room the size of a football stadium.  Now double it.  This is roughly the size of the room allocated to display posters.  Within this room are dozens of aisles of bulletin boards, numbered from one to approximately 2,000.  Each day, the posters change, resulting in the display of roughly 10,000 scientific presentations over the conference period.  [Edit:  Turns out there are gaps in the numbering, so that actual number of posters is actually close to several thousand.]  The aisles of posters are categorized into broad topics like "Planetary Science", "Atmospheric Science", "Seismology", etc.  Within these broad categories there is further categorization into subfields such as "Climate Change", "Climate Observations", "Regional Modeling", "Stratospheric Dynamics", etc.  In order to avoid mass congestion, poster presentations are scheduled on a staggered system; only about one-half of the room has active presentations at any given time, although all the posters are up for perusal.  The scientific content in the room is massive.

A good fraction of the posters are related to climate and climate change.  Some directly target the issue of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), some are tangentially related to AGW and investigate, for example, global and regional climate model accuracies. Other posters look at various observational records, while still others focus on the intersection of science and policy.  Just about every angle on the AGW issue is covered in some manner.

Clearly, given what I've just described, it was not possible to read every poster in detail.  Likewise, there are so many lectures on climate science, that they are often scheduled on top of one another; it's not possible to attend every talk.  Still, most posters have a summary section or conclusion section that can be read in just a couple of minutes.  Based on the talks I did attend, on reading some posters in detail, on reading most of the poster conclusions, and on talking with a variety of the presenters, there is only one possible conclusion that can be reached regarding the consensus of experts on AGW:

There is overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue of Anthropogenic Global Warming.  That consensus is that humans are producing a warming of the climate due to the emission of CO2 and the positive climate feedbacks that result from that emission.

To deny this overwhelming consensus is to deny gravitation, the heliocentric model of the solar system, or the spheroidal nature of the Earth.  Let me make it perfectly clear, however, that this is no way means that the consensus is correct.  Neither is this consensus unanimous.  There were clearly speakers and poster presentations that were contrary to the consensus, but they were in the minority by far.  Really far.

I don't expect that the random qualitative sampling I did today would be much different than any other days, but I'll pop in on the climate presentations over the next few days just to confirm.  If anything changes, I'll post an update.

The next time you hear someone forward the argument about a lack of consensus on AGW, tell them to go to the AGU meeting and collect some data.  There is only one conclusion that can be reached after such an exercise.  The conclusion is inescapable and irrefutable.  The overwhelming consensus is that AGW is here. There may be other arguments against AGW, but the "lack of consensus" argument is dead on arrival.

Monday, December 7, 2009

My Position on Anthropogenic Global Warming

I am often asked by friends and relatives about my take on Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), because I am an atmospheric scientist presumably with more knowledge and expertise on the subject than the lay person. I am also often hesitant to respond, because my current position on AGW is complex, full of caveats, and a careful explanation of such typically requires more time and patience than is available to me or the inquisitor. Below, I lay out my thoughts on AGW with as full an explanation as I can, complete with all the caveats. It is lengthy, but the written word allows for perusal at the reader’s leisure. I hope you will bear with me.
My overall position is that I accept the consensus view of AGW: there is a preponderance of the evidence that humans are causing an increase in global tropospheric temperature instigated by the combustion of CO2-producing fossil fuels. Now, don’t stop reading. Here come the first couple of caveats that some mischievous AGW opponent may be inclined to leave off in favor of selective quote mining.

Caveat #1: While I have the background to understand the complex science behind the AGW argument, I have neither the time nor the interest in poring through the immense and growing mountain of literature required to personally evaluate both sides of the argument. Doing so would require me to dedicate most of my waking hours to the subject, and I’ve got better things to do, including science that I personally find more interesting, albeit perhaps not as pivotal to our future on this planet. I have complete confidence in the brilliant scientists on both sides of the AGW issue that do dedicate their life to the subject; I’ll let them hash it out. Likewise, I have complete confidence in the scientific process; that is, the better scientific argument will prevail. The main point is this: I accept the veracity of AGW not because I have personally weighed both sides of the argument in any rigorous way, but because I accept the scientific method. I treat AGW no different than any other scientific area in which I possess insufficient knowledge to make a determination of veracity even though I may have the expertise or capacity to fully understand the area given a sufficient investment of time. For those that do not have the expertise or capacity to understand AGW, taking a position other than consensus is certainly illogical, as it would be for any other scientific question.

Caveat #2: I reserve the right to change my position on AGW as additional data and information become available. AGW is not a theory in the sense of the Law of Thermodynamics or Newtonian Gravitation. From the peer-reviewed literature that I have read on AGW, there are good arguments to be made on both sides of the issue. I personally know several very well respected scientists on both sides of the issue. For example, Dr. Roger Pielke, Sr. was on the faculty in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Colorado State University while I was in graduate school (he’s now at the University of Colorado) and I maintain a professional relationship with him to this day. He is a brilliant scientist and my interactions with him indicate that his ethics are second to none. He is also a vocal anti-AGW advocate (see his website for more info: http://pielkeclimatesci.wordpress.com/) in that while he accepts human-induced warming, he believes there are other significant forcings besides CO2. All is not resolved. Unlike evolution by natural selection, where religious creationists attempt to create a controversy where there is none within the scientific community, there is a real scientific controversy about AGW. There are two scientifically valid but opposing views on AGW and each deserves to be considered. Importantly, the weighing of this evidence must be done by experts via the scientific method, and specifically not by the lay person or the expert in the public arena. At present, the overwhelming consensus is that AGW is real.

I want to be very clear how scientific consensus is established. First, it is not established by petitions. Ever. Neither is it established by vote.  I was never asked, for example, as a member of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) whether I supported the AGU position on global warming.  Voting has its issues and does not allow for scientific argument.    How about the IPCC consensus?  Just because the IPCC has voted and come to a consensus does not make it a scientific consensus. Anyone who has ever been on scientific panels knows the politics behind them. I can easily put together a panel to give me the answer I want simply by excluding those opposed in favor of those that support my ideas. NASA does this all the time. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a NASA panel to be dissolved and then later reestablished (with different members) until such time as the chosen answer is delivered by the panel. There are also inherently conflicts of interest with many panels. Is it appropriate for the panel chair to oversee a panel that has a direct impact on their research? NASA mission science definition teams strongly influence the language that goes into solicitations for future missions. Is it any surprise that the solicitations have language that emphasizes the panels’ expertise in instrumentation often at the expense of others? Is it any surprise that many of the scientists involved in active missions just so happen to also be the very same scientists that helped produce the mission announcement of opportunity? Consensus is established over time in a slow motion duel of ideas as presented in peer reviewed literature supplemented by gray literature (i.e., conference papers). There is no quantitative measure or yardstick by which one can declare that scientific consensus has been met; it simply emerges, reaching the point where it becomes self evident. I am familiar enough with the literature and those involved in climate research to state that there is an overwhelming consensus. It is not unanimous! There are dissenters—honest to goodness dissenters with real issues and questions that have yet to be resolved. At this time, I have to go with the majority of experts. I have no qualms about changing my position if the consensus view, based on evidence, changes. I presently accept the veracity of AGW but with the knowledge that this could be a false position.

I would now like to throw in a little bit of commentary that is not directed toward establishing the truth about AGW. The first bit concerns the climate signal and the second concerns policy.

There is much debate in the literature and especially in the public arena as to whether the global temperature is increasing. The incessant debate over whether the temperature is going up, down or sideways misses the mark completely. The question should be whether there is an anthropogenic signal on top of the natural climate signal. If we were naturally heading into an ice age, it would be good to know whether humans might be slowing the progression. If we are naturally heading into a very warm interglacial period, it would be good to know if humans are accelerating the process. AGW, if true, operates regardless of whether the natural climate is warming, cooling, or staying the same. Antagonists of AGW sometimes suggest that the atmosphere has actually cooled over the last decade or two, or that it has periodically cooled and warmed over the last couple of centuries. This is irrelevant. What they need to do is show that cooling or warming can be entirely explained by natural variations. In other words, if the climate has indeed cooled in the last decade or sometime over the last decade, that is not sufficient to dismiss AGW. AGW opponents need to show that anthropogenic forcing did not offset the cooling. Doing this places them in exactly the same pickle that the AGW supporters currently find themselves; having to demonstrate complete mastery and understanding of the natural climate cycle. Likewise, it is not sufficient for AGW supporters to simply show the “hockey stick” temperature graph indicating a rapid rise in temperatures coincident with the onset of the industrial revolution. What this camp needs to show is that the temperatures are higher than they otherwise would have been. In other words they need to demonstrate that the natural climate would not have produced such a trend.

So, it seems that both sides need to establish what the natural climate signal is in order to determine whether AGW is true or false. Or maybe not. While some employ various complex signal processing techniques in attempt to tease out the different climate signals, would it not also be sufficient to determine the impact of rising CO2 under a range of reasonable natural climate scenarios? If the AGW supports could show that the temperature forcing is positive regardless of what the natural climate is doing, that should be sufficient. Likewise, if the anti-AGW camp can show that the forcing from CO2 is unimportant under a range of natural climate scenarios, that would also be sufficient. This is where models can help.
Although I do not consider myself informed enough to make a personal determination of AGW, there are some aspects of the subject in which I am generally able to make an expert assessment. One such area is that related to climate models, subject to the caveat below:

Caveat #3: Although I am familiar with climate models, I have never applied these models to the study of Earth’s climate. I have used these models for the purposes of terrestrial weather prediction (note: weather, not climate) and in application to the climates of planets other than Earth. I can provide no expert opinion on the specific application of the models to Earth’s climate, but I do have sufficient knowledge to understand the numerics and general principles of modeling, which are more or less universal constants for application to any planetary atmosphere, including Earth.

Much has been made that the climate models have difficulty reproducing past climate trends. Whether this is true is arguable; models do very well in some areas and less well in others. Still, it may be mostly irrelevant. Consider, for example, the climate of Mars.
We know that the climate of Mars has changed, and is likely currently changing. More so than Earth, Mars undergoes large orbital excursions due to the lack of a large moon to stabilize the orbit. These excursions produce variations in the magnitude and distribution of solar irradiance over timescales of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years—the so-called Milankovitch climate cycles. At times, the Milankovitch cycles likely result in water ice becoming stable in the tropical latitudes, as opposed to the poles where it is currently found. Changes in global temperature may also vary with the changes in solar insolation and the accompanying perturbations in atmospheric mass (most of which is CO2). Beyond these climate cycles, we basically have almost no idea of what produces other climate cycles on Mars, nor do we have much detail on what previous climates were like. For Mars then, we have a trio of problems. Not only do we not know the previous climate states in any detail, we cannot possibly test the Mars climate models (essentially Earth climate models with physical constants and processes appropriately modified for Mars) to determine whether they accurately reproduce the climate variations, nor can we be confident that the models have the necessary physics to reproduce the natural, long-term climate signal, whatever that may be.

Despite what sometimes seems like overwhelming and insurmountable ignorance about the Mars climate, substantial progress has and continues to be made. We are very confident that global temperatures rise when the atmospheric dust load is increased. This is a robust finding, and is independent of the trajectory of the Mars climate. It matters not whether Mars is warming, cooling, or holding steady. Dust produces a net warming of the atmosphere. We know this not only from observations, but also from models. Even though the Mars climate models are completely incapable of reproducing the long-term climate variations of Mars (and since we do not have any meaningful detailed information on these previous climate states, we would have no way of knowing the accuracy of the models even if they could produce such variations), we can use the models to assess how the climate responds to dust loading. The models do not need to reproduce the climate trend to establish the magnitude of forcing. Instead, the models must simply reasonably reproduce the current climate state. The difference here is in reproducing the climate state rather than time derivative of the climate state. The phrase “reasonably reproduce” is actually a fairly loose requirement. In fact, a simple time-independent, 1-dimensional model of the atmosphere--one with no atmospheric motion or variation in time whatsoever—is all that is needed to understand the basic climate forcing of dust. Going to a full 3-D time dependent climate model simply provides more fidelity but does not change the underlying physics or outcome.

So it goes for Earth. The natural climate may be heading off on some trajectory: up, down, sideways. Even though the models may not be able to reproduce this trajectory, it is still possible to use the models to understand how processes will perturb the trajectory. To me, this is the real crux of the AGW issue. It is not whether the Earth will warm, cool, or stay the same. It is weather humans are producing a perturbation on the natural climate. Consensus findings indicate that there is a human perturbation.

Now I turn to policy. Policy decision is, unfortunately, often entangled in the science of AGW. Whatever policy is enacted (or not) to deal with AGW has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the veracity of AGW. If the consensus view of AGW is correct, than it is theoretically possible that policy could remediate (although not eliminate) the impact. If the consensus view is incorrect, than any implemented policy might theoretically be a costly folly. Enough of the theoretical, how about reality?

I have yet to see a credible proposal that will reduce CO2 emissions to inconsequential levels. Simply curbing the growth of CO2 emissions is not sufficient. The majority of the world has yet to industrialize, and it does, it will likely do so on fossil fuels. Reducing emissions from the industrialized countries may temporarily reduce the problem, but it will not solve it. There are billions of people in the rest of the world ready to take our place as oil, gas and coal consumers.

Further, is the increase of CO2 emissions sustainable? Can we continue on our pace toward doubling CO2 levels? Those who subscribe to the concept of peak oil may have something to say about this. Eventually, they say, the world supply of fossil fuels will run out, perhaps within the century. This will necessarily result in a reduction of emissions.
Associated with policy to counter AGW is the inherent assumption that a warmer climate is bad. There are obvious impacts if AGW is true: rising sea levels or perhaps the increase in prevalence and coverage of tropical disease, for example. On the other hand, large regions of frozen, agriculturally poor land might become arable. The opening of an arctic Northwest Passage could speed commerce and reduce the cost of products that advance the human condition. It is not my intention to argue one way or the other on this, but simply to point it out. If we were naturally going into an ice age, would AGW be bad? Or more fundamentally, is it bad to perturb the natural climate in any way, up or down?

The tragedy is that with the focus on AGW and the connection to fossil fuels the issues that ought to be front and center with respect to policy is lost. First, even without AGW, fossil fuels are dirty. Combustion of these fuels results in pollution that has been definitively linked to respiratory illnesses, acid rain, heavy metal poisoning of waterways, and the production of carcinogenic compounds. The drilling, extraction, transport and refining of oil is a dirty business with noticeable first order impacts that should be avoided. We should be reducing our reliance on carbon, and in doing so our emissions would automatically fall.
Another issue related to fossil fuels is that the money finances some of the most vile dictatorial and dangerous regimes around the world. It is in the best interest of those who believe in basic human rights to reduce and eventually eliminate world dependence on oil. Instead of spending trillions of dollars on wars in the Middle East, that money could have been put to better use funding alternative energy. Without petrodollars, terrorists would be hurling rocks from donkeys instead of training and coordinating overseas attacks on civilians. Iraq was funded by oil. Iran is funded by oil. The Saudis are funded by oil. Indonesia is funded by oil. Without oil, these nations are nothing but impotent.

In short, regardless of the veracity of AGW, we should be limiting our CO2 emissions. If AGW is false it is not a reason to continue our destructive ways. The AGW argument is not needed, yet it has become the focus on whether or not to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. That is a shame.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Grand Science Conspiracy

Here's a multiple choice question.


Which of the following is most closely associated with the view that science is just a big conspiracy driven by money and profit, and scientists and scientific journals actively suppress dissenting but valid alternative viewpoints?


a) Anthropogenic Global Warming Deniars
b) The Creationist/Intelligent Design Movement
c) The Anti-Western Medicine/Anti-vaccine Movement
d) All of the Above


If you chose "d) All of the Above", you are correct. Perhaps this result isn't a surprise to many of you, but it's only recently become obvious to me. Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) deniers argue that there is big money in global warming research and politics, so much so that the scientific and political establishment is more interested in self preservation than in the truth. The creationists argue that there are mounds of evidence against evolution and in favor of an intelligent designer (a.k.a. God), but the science conspiracy will not allow the evidence to see the light of day. Those opposed to western medicine believe that drug companies are in the business of keeping you sick so that they can continue to profit from their products, and that the scientists and doctors are in cahoots with these companies. It's all the same argument, only the names have been changed.


What is even more interesting than the common thread tying these seemingly different groups together is trying to understand why such an argument--essentially an ad hominem attack against science itself--seems to be gaining popularity. The simple answer is that the argument works. At least some buy into this. But, why is that? What makes this argument work?


Based on my experience, I'd like to suggest that the anti-science argument works for one simple reason, which may seem a tautology. Those that are ignorant of science and ignorant of the scientific process are highly susceptible to arguments that prey upon their ignorance. Ignorance breeds, sustains, and reinforces ignorance. First off, let me be clear that I use the word ignorance to mean lack of knowledge and not as a pejorative term. Having dispensed with that definition, let me also be clear that ignorance of science and ignorance of the scientific process are two distinct concepts. By ignorance of science, I mean ignorance of the facts and theories that have resulted from the application of science. Ignorance of the scientific process means a lack of knowledge or understanding of how science is applied in order to determine those facts and theories.


Those who are ignorant of science are susceptible to the science conspiracy argument, because to such individuals, alternative but bogus explanations of the natural world can appear as reasonable or even more reasonable than the scientific explanation. Those peddling the science conspiracy story are appealing to the common sense of the ignorant. If you didn't know that the Earth was spherical, it may seem quite logical that it is indeed flat. However, armed with data from space or data taken from a ship or airplane that circumnavigate the world, commons sense clearly dictates that the Earth is not planer but rather spheroidal. Common sense is based upon our preexisting knowledge. If you lack knowledge in a particular area, your common sense is apt to steer you wrong.


Turning specifically to global warming for a moment, the position that Carbon Dioxide is just a very small volume fraction of the atmosphere, and that changes in concentration of such a minor gas couldn't possibly have global impacts, may be intuitively appealing to those ignorant of radiative transfer through gases and ignorant of climate dynamics and feedback. Since the majority of the public falls into the category of scientific ignorance about the physics behind anthropogenic global warming, it only takes a small fraction of the public to buy into this before there are substantial numbers of ignoramuses (ignorami?) holding beliefs supported only by faulty intuition. Science, by the way, has the specific property that it can override intuition and common sense in favor of evidence.


To make matters worse, intuitive fallacy spreads as a meme. It is entirely one thing to have a belief (true or not) based solely on intuition or common sense. It is another thing entirely to spread that belief from a false position of authority or expertise. With the exception of a few scientists, all of the active AGW deniers fall into this category. Indeed, with few exceptions, all of the active AGW proponents also maintain their position without actually understanding the physics behind the question. For example, Al Gore, well known for his position in support of limiting CO2 emissions, almost certainly does not understand the physics behind his position. He is simply a messenger, parroting the scientific consensus, but acting as if he is an expert. Mr. Gore's position may very well be correct, but his behavior is as egregious as those with no expertise arguing that AGW does not exist. The important difference between the two camps is that one side is at least consistent with the overwhelming scientific consensus that has been established by those that do actually understand the physics.


The upshot of all this is that the public (and I lump politicians and all other non-expert groups into this) has no business debating the veracity of AGW. Similar to a court case, the plaintiffs simply have no standing. Armchair AGW deniers will argue about the temperature record, about satellite-derived data, about the variability of paleoclimates, about the influence of the solar cycle, and on and on, but not a single one is familiar with scientific literature on the subject, let alone capable of understanding the literature should it be delivered to their doorstep. Likewise, the armchair AGW supporters will defend their position with an equal level of ignorance.


The odd thing is that there seems to only be a few areas in which the ignorant feel capable and comfortable with projecting their false authority and expertise. For example, it's probably not common for the passerby to argue with the engineering architect about how to design a sky scraper. It's not common for the mechanically inept to assert a diagnosis and repair protocol for their automobile engine. It's perhaps even less common to see a public argument break out over the finer points of quantum mechanics, string theory, or the progress on a grand unified field theory. On the other hand, when it comes to weather and climate, or medical science, or evolution, a surprising number of the completely ignorant that have never read a single scientific paper on the subjects suddenly become self-professed experts. What drives this? Why are these few areas subject to the onslaught of the ignorant masses while the rest remain unscathed? The reason, I suspect, is because the ignorant either have a horse in the race, which is to say the outcome has a direct bearing on their life or livelihood in some manner, or because they have developed a rationalization to compensate for their ignorance in an area that permeates their life.


Weather permeates our life. We are immersed in it from the day we are born until the day we die. It impacts what we do and when we do it. Occasionally, the weather can be destroy and kill. As humans, it is on our nature to try and make order out of the disorder. Not too long ago, gods were invoked to rationalize weather. Most (but not all) humans have moved beyond that. Still, unless your a meteorologist, the scientific underpinnings of weather and climate are as opaque as they were to the ancient Greeks. Yet, because of it's daily impact, there is a necessity for the ignorant to develop their own internal coping mechanism--something by which they can use to deal with the reality of the weather. In their own minds, the ignorant have developed a model of how the atmosphere works, based on their own experience, faulty intuition and the memes acquired from the other ignorant. In their own mind, the ignorant are experts.


Adding to this false sense of expertise is the occasional spectacular failure of a weather forecast. To some, this would indicate that the underlying science is faulty (it's not), rather than the forecasting method (human or computer). The next illogical leap, which is common to AGW deniers, creationists, and anti-medical science is that because the current science paradigmappears to fail (it doesn't in reality) their hypothesis must be correct. This is essentially the false dilemma logical fallacy. Creationists attempt to disprove evolution thinking that it therefore means their position, that God did it, is therefore proven. Wrong. The anti-western medicine establishment tries to discredit medical science thinking that it somehow implies quackery is valid. Wrong again.


Like weather, illness and disease are part of our daily lives. Not too long ago, maladies were thought to be the result of demons or a mysterious ether. Science now understands the origin of most disease, but the biological underpinnings are once again opaque to the majority of the public unfamiliar with the fields of biology, microbiology, immunology, and biochemistry. Homeopathy or a Claude Bernard-ish biological terrain idea at the expense of L. Pasteur is intuitively appealing.


I'll go even further in the situation of the anti-medical establishment in saying that science is, oddly enough, what has allowed the anti-science meme to multiply. Memes, like pathogens must not be so lethal that their hosts die before transmission. By itself, the anti-medicine faction is lethal. Without vaccination (such as small pox or polio or diptheria or countless other diseases) many of us would die before we were old enough to reproduce. The same holds true in the absence of antibiotics. Residents of the developed world rarely suffer from food-borne illnesses, because of pasteurization and the understanding that refrigeration greatly reduces the growth rate of bacteria. It is western medicine, by mitigating diseases overall, that allows anti-western medicine ignorance to flourish. In a world without vaccines, the anti-vaccination crowd wouldn't have a leg to stand on. The consequences of going without vaccination, antibiotics, and drugs would be obvious and the meme would die out, in some cases quite literally as the anti-vaxers drop dead from any number of preventable diseases.


When faced with a question that requires expertise to answer, there are really only two reasonable and rational options. The first is to personally acquire the knowledge needed to answer the question. This is not always practical, and in some cases, individuals are simply not capable of acquiring such knowledge, because of for example, extensive and complex mathematics. The other option is to defer to the consensus of those that are experts. Notably, arguing for or against something as a non-expert is not a reasonable or rational option. In many cases, this means deferring to the scientist. This is hard to do if you also have a distrust of the scientific process due to ignorance.


The distrust of the scientific process can run deep, and is often based on ignorance about how the process works. To wit, I reproduce an entry from an acquaintance on Facebook:

The data that you are pointing to was determined by organizations that get their funding from those who don't want people to understand how the body functions and heals. The kind of scientific research that would show the lies and false trail of vaccinations will never be financed because those who have that kind of money don't want the data made available. Your 'The whole point of science' is a didactic that ignores the nature of the scientific community which is totally at the direction of those who fund it, people who rarely know or care about anything beyond their own limited field which has consciously been separated from the larger picture so that one hand never knows what the other is doing.
He later goes on to say...


I find you very naive and that naivete supports the agendas that allow science to be governed by money and power rather than pure research. If people with your intelligence would really question the pablum that we are fed by even scientific journals, there would be a much accelerated evolution towards discovering what we are really about on this planet in this incarnation.

It's very clear that this individual is completely unfamiliar with how science works and the scientific process that he has created in his mind is one that should be distrusted. Never mind that he apparently has no distrust of the very same scientific process that led to the production of the inventions that allow him to type on his computer and post entries on Facebook!


Let me dissect these quotes starting from the top. While the origin of data is sometimes interesting in determining whether it might in fact be genuine or fabricated in some way, or in determining what the error bars may be (all measurements are subject to error), the origin of the data is otherwise unimportant. Likewise, the origin of the funding that supported the production of the data is unimportant. Valid data cares not from whence it came or who paid for it. If the data is valid, it should be reproducible. So, you can't just throw out data just because it was produced by your opponent. If you suspect the data is faulty or has been tampered with in some way, you should repeat the experiment. In fact, even if you believe the data is valid, the experiment should be independently conducted to test for reproducibility. These are fundamental tenets of modern science, and studies that attempt to verify previous findings are funded and conducted on a routine basis.


Beyond the origin of data, the individual in question believes that there exists other data, yet to be discovered or obtained, that would "show the lies and falsehoods". Now, this statement in itself is illogical. If the data has not yet been obtained, then how could he possibly know what it would show? Let's accept for the moment the fallacious idea that such studies are being intentionally suppressed by the scientific conspirators. Is it not possible that the results from such studies, should they ever be conducted, might actually support vaccinations? Or might they be unequivocal? Are not these outcomes also possible? In the true scientific process, such possibilities are allowed. Apparently not for this individual though. In his mind, the scientific process is suppressing information that he already knows will support his position, despite there being a complete lack of such information available.


Now let me address the issue of the suppression of science. There is no doubt that throughout the ages scientific progress has been hindered by politics (and I lump religion into politics here), sometimes even internal conflict between individuals within the scientific community. That we even know that such hindrances have taken place points to the power of the scientific process. Science will eventually win out over attempts to suppress information or discredit valid hypotheses. If this were not the case, we would not be aware of the history of such attempts, but would instead be mired in a tangle of unworkable and inconsistent information leading to nowhere. If indeed such a grand science conspiracy is taking place (it is not) then it will eventually self correct. That is again, a fundamental tenet of science. Ultimately, the truth, as determined by evidence, will prevail.


Is the science community "at the direction of those that fund it"? In some ways, yes, but not as implied by the comment above. Most of my funding comes from NASA. When I write a research proposal, I am obligated to propose research that is relevant to the funding agency. My research proposals are focused on planetary science, and not on the reproductive behavior of tropical amphibians. The former is relevant to NASA and the latter is not. Other agencies fund the latter. However, within the confines of planetary research, I can propose a virtually unlimited number of ideas for study. Further, it is not NASA that decides whether these proposals are funded, but my peers. NASA has little control over what specific research topics are funded. Rather, it is the scientific community that decides.


Now, our anti-vaxer might declare, "Aha! You see! The science community will never select research proposals that would turn their careers on their head!" I often sit on the other side of the proposal table; that is, I review potential proposals. From this vantage I see a broad range of proposals. Some seek to further research along an accepted line of inquiry. Otherwise explore new uncharted waters. And, others specifically seek to test or challenge existing thinking. In every case, these proposals are evaluated on their scientific merit and their impact potential. Are the scientific questions valid? Is the methodology of answering the questions appropriate? Are the results likely to make a substantial contribution in advancing knowledge? It should go without saying that a proposal that seeks to undermine a well established line of thought often has a battle ahead. However, the outcome of such proposals is not predetermined. One need only scan the daily scientific press releases to find studies that have produced surprising results or that have dramatically changed or upset the status quo. So, there are countless, almost daily examples of research proposals that do, in fact, turn people's careers on their heads. I've seen some of these proposals and I've recommended them for funding. I currently have a proposal under review that, if selected, will change the way we think about Saturn's moon Titan. I hope it gets selected, but if it doesn't, it won't be because of some conspiracy that just doesn't want the truth to get out.


Let me further state that scientists, once they digest a bit of crow, relish in being proven wrong. There is nothing more exciting than finding a new, fresh, and wide-open avenue for scientific inquiry. If there were quality proposals for studies that had the potential to upset the medical world, they would be funded. And the data from such studies would be openly welcomed. This is what scientists do and it is what drives them to do what they do. To suggest otherwise shows a deep ignorance of the scientific process.


Has science become increasingly specialized? Without a doubt. There was a time, perhaps just a couple of hundred years ago, when a single mind could hold every bit of scientific knowledge accumulated throughout history. But knowledge feeds upon itself and grows at an exponential rate. The body of scientific knowledge is now so great that it is impossible for a single mind to contain. To some extent, information technology has helped with this. I need not fill my mind with science that is irrelevant to my topic of study, but the data can be stored for retrieval, if needed. Furthermore, I can now quickly find virtually any published study on a topic of interest through a search of electronic databases, and such a search allows me to identify work across a broad set of disciplines that are potentially relevant to mine. Are there connections between disparate or even related scientific fields that have yet to be identified. Of course! Any credible scientist is constantly scanning the literature to try and put the pieces of the scientific puzzle together. In some cases, entire research programs are established specifically to bring together two or more different fields to attack a problem.


Let's explore the second half of the quote. The first sentence is just pure bullocks (and setting aside the ad hominem attack--a sure sign of an otherwise weak argument). Again, I base this on evidence to the contrary. I do pure research. It is not governed by money or power. Period. Even so, what is so inherently wrong with the concept of research for profit? Would we be where we are today without such motivation? Again, the origin or motivation behind scientific data is irrelevant. Data is data. Data obtained for profit is just as good as data obtained for free.


As a working scientist, I was not aware that I was being "fed" information from journals. Our anti-vaxer apparently view scientific journals, as he does science, as a sort of intelligent organism carefully plotting and scheming to release only selected data that supports a particular viewpoint. He fails to recognize that there is no such entity as "the journal". Journals are simply the mouthpiece of the individual scientists. This is not to say that journals are not big business. They most certainly are, much to the dismay of the scientists that produce the information. But the money being made is on the publication side, not on the science side. Journals are for scientists and are run by scientists. The articles that appear in journals are subjected to the peer review process. Scientists are not "fed" by the journals. It's quite the opposite. The journals are "fed" by the scientists. So, once again, we have complete ignorance about how the process works.


I won't go much into the "incarnation" mentioned at the end of the quote, other than to say that he clearly seems to know why we are here, and if only science would conduct his experiments, and collect his data, it would all become clear. This is in direct opposition to the scientific process that claims to know nothing in advance of the experiment. What our anti-vaxer is ultimately proposing is that we do science his way. Unfortunately, that would require not doing science at all.


I asked repeatedly for positive evidence to support his position. I stated that he must have some facts or evidence available to him from which he has based his opinion. To believe so strongly, he must surely have a foundation for his belief. Each time, in response, I got nothing but attacks on my person or on the scientific process. I can only conclude that his position is based not on positive evidence, but on the notion that science is wrong and the scientific process is corrupt.


Beyond the ignorance of the scientific process demonstrated in the above quote, it is ironic that a non-scientist, fearful and ignorant of science, and totally and utterly clueless about the scientific process has the hubris to tell a working scientist about science, how science works, how science has it all wrong, how the scientist has it all wrong, and how he knows the answer. In doing so, he aptly demonstrates why he should be completely ignored as the result of his brilliant display of ignorance on the subject. I wouldn't trust a mechanic that claims the internal combustion engine is powered by gremlins, and I give no more thought to criticisms of science from someone that demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of how the scientific process works. I'm perfectly willing to listen to opposing arguments, but they must come from a position of knowledge.


Such hubris is exhibited across the board by those opposed to western medicine, to AGW, and to evolution. They, the non-experts, are the experts. They know! Science has it all wrong! They can't provide any evidence though, because of the science conspiracy.


When you are both ignorant of science and ignorant of the scientific process, you become ultra-susceptible to the anti-science memes. It is no coincidence that those who publicly reject AGW, western medicine, or evolution posses an ignorance of both science and the scientific process. And, rather than provide positive evidence for their position, they instead blame the opposition and criticize the process. If the scientific process is so bad, perhaps they have another method for determining the truth? How can you find faults with the process and then at the same time try to claim it is a valid method of exploration for your view, if only the proper experiments would be conducted? The creationists have a convenient way around this: they already now the truth, as given in the bible. It seems those opposed to western medicine and AGW already know the answer, ableit without a holy text, but just as dogmatically. In the meantime, the science community has an open mind and is willing to change their opinion, based on evidence, as demonstrated countless times in the past.




Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why I Will Not Support the United Way

It's that time of year. The air is cool and crisp, the wind picks up, sometimes creating a bit of a chill, the leaves are changing, and the annual United Way campaign kicks in at work. The United Way is an organizational clearing-house that collects donations on behalf of designated charities and then distributes those funds appropriately.

There are at least three fundamental problems with the United Way, and it is for these reasons that I have not, and will not support the organization. The first problem is that the United Way skims money off the top of every donation. The second problem is that, although you can direct your donations to specific charities, the United Way actually utilizes an accounting trick to funnel money in the proportions that they see fit, and finally, and most egregiously, the United Way provides donated funds to organizations that discriminate. I'll address each of these problems in greater detail.

When giving to a charity, it would seem logical that the donated funds be directed to maximizing the mission of that charity. Administrative costs obviously cannot be avoided, but these should be minimized to the greatest possible extent so that the money can be put to work actually making a difference. There is a lot of information out there about how efficient charities are at putting donated money to work (e.g., www.charitynavigator.org). Yet, United Way isn't a charity in of itself, it's just a distributor of funds. So, money given to the United doesn't actually do anything until it is sent to the designated organizations. The actual charities then use the money from the United Way to operate their organization, including providing for their own administrative costs. So then, United Way is a middle man, skimming money off the top. The money that stays in the United Way's pocket does nothing for a given charity. Every charitable organization that I can think of accepts donations directly. So, why not give money directly to the charity? Why give it to the United Way so that they can just pass it along while skimming money off the top? It just doesn't make sense.

If you are willing to swallow the commission charged by the United Way, there is still the problem of their donation accounting tricks. When giving to the United Way, you can specify that your dollars go to a specific charity on their designated list. Here's the rub though. As best as I can tell, the local United Way Board of Directors decides in advance what fraction of the total annual take will be allocated to various charitable organizations. As long as the total amount of dollars specifically directed to an organization by donors is under the amount allocated by the Board, your donated dollars are considered to be part of the Board's allocation percentage. For example, suppose the United Way has, after taking their cut, $100 to distribute. The Board decides that $20 (20%) will be given to organization A, $40 (40%) to B, and $40 (40%) to C. Of the $100 dollars, individual donors requested that $15 go to A, 10$ to B, and $1 to C. Since these request fall under the amounts allocated by the Board, the Board allocations are unaltered. In other words, the amount of donor-directed dollars has zero impact on the allocation. Your "vote" has been thrown away. The ethical way to divide donations is for the Board to allocate a percentage of undirected dollars and to send the directed dollars as a separate disbursement. In the case I gave, that would result in a total undirected amount of $100-$15-$10-$1=$74. The amount of undirected dollars going to A, B, and C would be $14.8, $29.6 and $29.6, respectively. When directed dollars are added in, that would result in $29.8 to A, $39.6 to B, and $30.6 to C. That's quite a bit different than what the Board allocated, but it is reflective of the donors' wishes.

The biggest problem of all, however, is that the local United Way chapters decide to which charities they will distribute funds, and they are free to choose charities that discriminate. Even if one accepts the two other fundamental flaws, this one is unforgivable. Why anyone would give or support an organization that permits this is beyond me.

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is an organization that openly (and legally!) discriminates . Members may not be GLBT and they must profess in the belief of a god. The SCOTUS has ruled that because the Boy Scouts are a private organization, they are free to determine who is eligible for membership. While I find discrimination deplorable, I also strongly support the rights of private groups to do so. It turns out that a substantial fraction of funding for the Boy Scouts is provided through donations distributed through the United Way.

My local chapter (Foothills United Way in Boulder), it turns out, will not support the local Boy Scouts, because of their policies. However, the chapter of our corporate headquarters (San Antonio) does support the Boy Scouts. Some will argue that because the local chapter will not distribute to the BSA that donations to the local United Way chapter or morally allowable. I beg to differ.

Although, thankfully, the local United Way will not support discriminatory organizations, the fact remains that the national organization under which they are chartered allows this to continue. Supporting the United Way locally or nationally provides legitimacy for an action that is indefensible. The solution is for the national United Way to make it clear in no uncertain terms that they will not support organizations the discriminate. Period. That the local chapter will not support discriminatory organizations is nice, but it is no more meaningful than knowing that some local chapter of the KKK does not support segregation of blacks.

Above are the three fundamental problems with the United Way. In addition, there are various other issues, including strong-arm tactics--bordering on coercion--that are still rampant. Maybe I'll write some more about that while prospective United Way campaign contributers are enjoying a pizza party courtesy of the company.