Archive for December 2010
From xkcd: http://www.xkcd.com/164/
Science is about facts and evidence. There is a lot of evidence that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. You can explore with our models how carbon dioxide impacts the global temperature.
Politics is about what to do about those facts. But politics too often turns into a blame game, in which people take sides without really listening to the evidence.
Do we ban the burning of fossil fuels because it increases carbon dioxide emissions? Do we look for ways to capture all carbon dioxide emissions from human activities? Do we impose a “carbon tax” on all goods? What would be the economic impacts of these policies? Is the electronics-centric lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed even compatible with low carbon dioxide emissions?
In the end, it all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis of the risks and rewards for each course of action. What risks do we undertake by doing nothing? What risks do we undertake by completely changing the ways by which people travel around the world? What benefits do we gain from each action?
But to do a cost-benefit analysis, we have to understand the facts; we have to understand our “known knowns”–what we know we know–and our “known unknowns”–what we know we don’t know. We have to remember that there are always “unknown unknowns”–those things that we don’t even know that we don’t know.
That’s why it’s up to each of us, as individuals, to learn about the science–about the facts and the real evidence and what’s still not fully understood–and then choose our actions based on our own understandings of the facts and preponderance of the evidence, not on someone else’s views. We have to think for ourselves and act accordingly.
But we also have to remember that our actions impact those around us. We’re all on this planet together.
From xkcd: http://www.xkcd.com/402/
The permafrost line is shifting. It may be slow by tornado-chasing standards, but it’s shifting.
A study earlier this year from Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada showed that the permafrost line has moved northward by 130 kilometers in the last 50 years. While climate change is the most probable explanation for the melting permafrost, there is not enough long-term data for scientists to confirm this.
And so the research goes on to study and better understand our ever-changing world.
Learn more about climate change in our “What will Earth’s climate be in the future?” investigation.
Global temperatures in the year 2010 are on course to be the highest ever in 130-year record. This is the consensus of recent three different analyses by NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center and a joint record kept by Britain’s Met Office and the University of East Anglia. While these results do not prove that the long-term trend will continue, the conclusions add to a growing mountain of data and models that do predict catastrophic global temperature rise over the next half-century. Scientists who specialize in climate have carefully weighed all the evidence and an overwhelming number agree.
There is a rising chorus of “deniers,” people who deny the data and projections. These are not skeptics who look at the data and draw serious opinions. Serious skepticism is an important part of science. The deniers are “contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks, and industry [spokesmen, who have] created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change.” The deniers claim, without proof, that the scientific case has not been made, that certain scientists are lying, even though investigations have cleared them, assert that climate change is benign, and even claim that the covenant God made with Noah will protect us. This is not science, it is propaganda.
The public is confused about these public debates and is increasingly convinced that they reflect true scientific uncertainty. Gallup polls show the percent of the population that thinks that the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated has grown from 30%in 2006 to 41% in 2009.
It is important to go to the root of the problem: a poorly educated nation that is unequipped to tell the difference between science and propaganda. An example of what is needed is an engaging activity we created on climate that is designed to help students understand the possible causes of climate change and appreciate the issues involved. Our key innovation is an interactive model that incorporates many of the important factors that influence climate such as clouds, CO2, water vapor, ice sheets, ocean absorption of greenhouse gasses. Students can learn for themselves about the interactions of these factors by experimenting with the model. The model is not intended to be predictive—that requires the most powerful computers that exist—but it does illustrate many of the dynamic features in the scientist’s models.
Materials based on this model should help students understand the science, but science educators need to go one step farther and help students understand the difference between science and propaganda. We need to engage students in thoughtful debate about the issue so they can form their own opinion. We should care less about what those opinions are than that they are backed by an understanding of the science and the process of science. This is why every student needs a better understanding of science.
Today yet another international comparison reaffirmed that the United States is failing to prepare its students to compete successfully in the new flat world. PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, was administered to 15-year-old students last year by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). This is a highly respected group whose conclusions are sound and reliable.
The results of the PISA assessments showed the U.S. performance in math, science, and reading is mediocre compared to stellar performance by most Asian and European countries. In the first time participating in this exam, Shanghai students stunned the world by taking first place; in math they scored 600 on a scale for which the average was 497 and the U.S. scored 487.
Unless dramatic measures are started now, in one decade America will be unable to turn to its talented workers, inventors, scientists, and financial wizards to rescue the country from debt, pollution, and soaring energy costs. This is a national security issue as important as any.
We know how to fix the problem. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recently issued a comprehensive plan for addressing the problems in mathematics and science precollege education. They provide a detailed blueprint for tightening standards, improving teacher preparation, and exploiting technology for new, research-based curricula, assessment and professional development.
The cost of the PCAST recommendations would be at most $0.3B per year. This is a trivial expense compared to the total Federal budget of $3,550B (0.008%) or even the National Science Foundation budget of $7.4B (4%). The Sustainable Defense task force has shown how we could save $100B/yr from the Defense budget with no reduction in military security, 300 times what PCAST needs.
One may wonder why the $100B already spent annually on education at the federal level is insufficient to fund the PCAST agenda. The quick answer is that there is an inbred fear of a national curriculum that would impinge on State’s rights and local control. Thus, the Department of Education is not allowed to create curricula. PCAST addressed this concern by advocating that any curricula created be available in three versions and be freely available online so that it could be modified. PCAST also recommends that a mission-oriented organization be created to implement its recommendations—not the Department of Education, which is not allowed to, or the NSF which is research oriented.
Is it impossible to imagine that Congress would fund any new initiative given the tax and budget cutting frenzy in Washington? One group looking at the rather terrifying future is the Administration’s bipartisan Deficit Reduction Panel, which just released a report “Moment of Truth” that shows how to balance the budget while still supporting educational initiatives like PCAST. It says, “At the same time, we must invest in education, infrastructure, and high-value research and development…”
Perhaps this latest PISA results will push lawmakers to finally focus on meaningful improvements in our educational system. It would be good politics, inexpensive, and absolutely essential to our national security.
From xkcd: http://xkcd.com/263/
Question: How can we trust ourselves (or scientists) to know the truth about anything?
Answer: We look at the evidence.
Scientists back up their claims with evidence. If the evidence doesn’t fit the claim, then the claim is rejected and revised. New evidence can result in changes to long-held understandings about how the world works–it is the evidence that rules in the scientific process!
Through experiments and models, scientists test their hypotheses to learn more about how the world works.
Will we ever be totally certain about how the world works? Nope. But that just means that there will always be something to discover!
Pollution has its benefits.
With fewer particulates being released by smokestacks and cars, there are fewer aerosols in the atmosphere. Fewer aerosols means that more solar radiation hits the ground. With more sunlight hitting the Earth, the Earth warms up–faster than many scientists had initially predicted.
Calculations by Jan Magnus, Bertrand Melenberg, and Chris Muris, econometricians at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, suggest that carbon dioxide emissions will have to be reduced by an additional 50 million tons to compensate for the additional solar radiation reaching the surface. That’s just to keep the temperature rise to 2 degrees Centigrade!
The Clean Air Act of 1970 gave us clear blue skies and pure white snows, but they weren’t counting on enhanced carbon dioxide emissions to accelerate the warming process.
Read the summary at http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2010/03/100309083700.htm.
Learn how albedo affects global temperature with our models in the “What will Earth’s climate be in the future?” investigation.