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Anti-Science by anecdote vs evidence-based scientific method

December 8th, 2013 · 2 Comments

Katie Couric took on the journalistic challenge of hosting a show on the HPV vaccine. And, with this show, Couric demonstrated a serious case of anti-science syndrome. Truthfully put, Couric almost certainly put people’s health, safety, and lives at risk.

Very briefly, as explained by Michale Hiltzik of the LA Times,

The anti-vaccination movement has long been a public menace. It’s responsible for the resurgence of numerous serious diseases that were on the decline, including measlesmumps and whooping cough.

Now the movement has been given a big booster shot by Katie Couric, who devoted a large portion of her daily talk show Wednesday to some highly emotional and scientifically dubious claims by critics of Gardasil, a leading vaccine for human papillomavirus, or HPV.

The segment focused on a mother convinced that her 20-year-old daughter died after a cycle of Gardasil immunization, and a second family whose 14-year-old daughter fell ill after the shots. Neither presented any medical evidence to support their claims.

Around the country, an increasing number of people are refusing vaccines — in no small part due to media reporting like Couric’s.  And, this is putting them at risk.  Consider measles.  According to the director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), amid a surge in US cases, about 90 percent of US cases this year are people who did not get the vaccine. As a commentator put it,

The measles vaccine is one of the triumphs of public health; Katz and his co-creators are believed to have saved the lives of 30 million children. Over 50 years, measles has been chased entirely out of the Western Hemisphere. Yet keeping it from becoming re-established, and eliminating it from the rest of the world, requires increasing vaccination at a time when so many are turning away.

In his thoughtful examination, Couric’s anti-vaccination segment a symptom of wider scientific illiteracy, Hunter tied this to a larger challenge:

Oh, but we were just raising questions is the well-worn excuse of sensationalists everywhere, but if you are raising questions where there are, in fact, no serious questions, you are doing harm.

The problem here is, once again, scientific illiteracy.

Hunter discussed the challenge of complex science, in the popular discussion, confronted by the “anecdote”.  How does mathematics, statistical analysis, long-trend surveying, and otherwise stand up to the “anecdote” of Aunt Martha’s certainty that the common cold is cured by hopping on one foot while chewing on garlic?

In the scientific realm, vaccinations and climate change are regularly “debunked” by assertions that “someone somewhere died in the same month that they were given a vaccine for something” or “it is cold today, therefore the climate is not changing.” Because the anecdotes are easy to understand and broad statistical measurements are, for many people, not, the anecdotes are given more credibility.

And. let’s be clear, the “anecdote” might be true. After all, for example, people do die during heart surgery and get injured by car air bags even if the surgeries and air bags — in general and in balance — save people’s lives.

Hunter continued in a rather ‘unscientific’ appeal to a greater deity.

God help us if a single anecdote actually prove true, in the single instance provided, as that shifts the question from scientific illiteracy to statistical innumeracy.

Yes, it might snow in Washington, DC, today.  Putting aside the minor issue of it being December, with all due respect to Jim Inhofe (R-Exxon), that white stuff won’t disprove climate science and suddenly stopped global warming.

While I recommend Hunter’s thoughtful and passionate discussion, my key take-away was this post’s title: that our society (U.S. and global) faces a serious challenge in our public discussion of a wide range of issues.  Whether in the media, popular discussion, or political debate,

we are all too often (faced by)

anti-science by anecdote

when we should be (discussing options and making decisions on the basis of the)

evidence-based scientific method.

The first will kill people, is causing damage, and undermines our prospect(s) for the future.

The second strengthens society.

The choice should be clear.

NOTE 1:

For readers of this blog, a reminder that Katie Couric merits credit for one of the best questioning re climate in American political reporting when she asked 10 questions of the 10 leading Presidential campaigns in 2007 and included this: Is the Global Warming threat overblown? While not the question I would have asked, it did make differences quite clear.  In any event, my reaction at that time:

To be honest, I simply do not know what to write or say in the face of that question. The real value, as someone said to me, is that it did offer the opportunity to respond: “No. Actually, it is being far understated.”

Sadly, none of the candidates answered that way.

NOTE 2:

Amid the many excellent discussions of challenges to science in the United States, I would highly recommend Shawn Lawrence Otto’s Fool Me Twice and Chris Mooney’s Unscientific America. You cannot go wrong with either (actually recommend both) of these.

One key element (in both) is how anti-science syndrome suffering skews across the political spectrum and its impacts in political discussion/policy making differ across the political spectrum.

According to work done by Stephen Lewandowsky, et al, the climate denial skews very strongly with the “right” and the Republican party while they were unable to make a strong linkage to the “left” with anti-vaccine and anti-GMO attitudes.

Among American Conservatives, but not Liberals, trust in science has been declining since the 1970’s. Climate science has become particularly polarized, with Conservatives being more likely than Liberals to reject the notion that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the globe. Conversely, opposition to genetically-modified (GM) foods and vaccinations is often ascribed to the political Left although reliable data are lacking.

Lewandowsky, in a note to this author, commented that

there is Libertarian opposition to mandatory vaccinations (e.g. HPV) that’s allied with the political right. In my study, that effect was stronger than the slight left-wing bias (although the latter shouldn’t be dismissed outright).

Note 4:  For some additional sources re Couric, see Tara Haelle’s two interesting/complementary pieces:

When it comes to certain issues–such as the risk-benefit analysis of vaccination and the existence of climate change–there are not actually two sides to the issue. There is only the scientific evidence and the consensus about what it means. The “other side” consists of the denialists who simply refuse to accept the science–or to accept the consensus that there is no evidence of serious side effects.

To present “both sides” is to commit the sin of false balance, or false equivalence. Emily Willingham defined  that in Forbes as “giving equal weight to arguments that don’t carry equal weight of evidence.” (The Tracker previously covered an excellent CJR piece by Curtis Brainard about the media’s irresponsible reporting with false balance on vaccines.)

I also wanted to gather some of the best links I found about the show to post here. Ironically, I have been gathering research for an extensive myth-busting post about the HPV vaccine, but that’s a ways off still. I have my work cut out for me with formerly credible journalists like Couric helping to tear down any progress that’s been made in getting accurate information out about the HPV vaccine. ….

Honestly, about the only heartening thing about this whole disaster of a show was that when I googled “Katie Couric HPV vaccine” to see if there were any good articles I missed, every single results on the first two pages was a critical take on just how many ways Couric screwed over science yesterday.

Note 4:  Skepticism vs (science) Denial

→ 2 CommentsTags: anti-science syndrome · science

Toe-tapping “one bottle at a time”

December 5th, 2013 · No Comments

Twitter has many uses and value streams. For me, the primary value is to learn about things that I should or want to know about. Most often, this is studies and articles in the energy, climate, environmental domains. Sometimes, well, this is something different.

Okay, don’t know about you, but that got my interest. The USFWS tweet sent me to this rap video about how salamanders evolved into the Smoky Mountains. This is part of a rather cool series of next generation science rap songs coordinated by eighth-grade science teacher Tom McFadden.

Okay, with a child in seventh-grade rather unenthused about his science studies, Tom McFadden certainly looks to be the sort of teacher that any (sensible) parent would want educating their children.

Exploring the songs, something that I recommend, I fell upon one closer to my (and this site’s readers) core passions and concerns.

Thus, with that, I present “One bottle at a time” (with transcript after the fold).

[Read more →]

→ No CommentsTags: Energy

Gov-Elect McAuliffe’s opportunity to turn dirty money to good

December 5th, 2013 · 2 Comments

The fundraising for the inaugural party for the incoming Virginia Governor, Democratic Terry McAuliffe, is seeing a serious lift due to donations from fossil-fuel dependent Corporations. Most notably,

McAuliffe’s Inaugural Committee Dominion: Global Warming Starts Herehas received $25,000 from Alpha Natural Resources, an $8 billion coal company that gave $92,500 to Cuccinelli’s campaign. Dominion Resources, a Virginia-based coal, gas, and nuclear conglomerate that gave Cuccinelli $75,000, has given McAuliffe’s committee $50,000.

Yes, of the $325,000 from large contributors through 2 December, just under 25 percent comes from two firms closely associated with seeking to undermine climate science, hamper Virginia’s moves to greater energy efficiency and a cleaner electricity system, and who strongly supported the campaign of fossil-foolish climate-science denier Ken Cuccinelli.

Differences on climate science and clean energy were stark during the election campaign.  And, those differences played a significant role in McAuliffe’s election, as Virginians want to move forward to a clean-energy 21st century rather than double-down on polluting 19th century energy concepts.

As a Virginian concerned about creating a prosperous clean-energy future for my children and my fellow Virginians, that these fossil-foolish interests can (seemingly) buy a seat at the table for such relatively paltry — for them — amounts is disconcerting and raises concerns of that ‘business as usual’ New Energyprocesses of buying access and influence in Richmond will continue on their merry way.

The Governor-Elect has an opportunity before him to send a signal that my concerns are misplaced and that he will seek all reasonable paths to create the clean energy future that he has spoken about.  That opportunity is — in this case — countable to the tune of $75,000.

When it comes to questionable contributions — whether to politicians or to political activities such as the inauguration — many call for the money to be returned to the donor.  Honestly, this has always seemed counter-productive to me. While there might be some bad associated press, that donor gets (implicit) credit for having made the donation for free as they get their cash back (okay, without interest).

To me, the far more sensible question in any such circumstance is to say:  how can that dirty money be made clean?

  • If questionable comes from a drug dealer, why not donate money to drug counseling services?
  • If the dirty money is from people exploiting child labor, why not use it for building schools in economically deprived areas?
  • If the money comes from anti-science climate denying fossil fuel interests, why not invest in science education and/or clean energy programs?

In this case, Governor-Elect McAuliffe has a very interesting opportunity.

An opportunity to make truth from what he spoke about during his campaign

Candidate Terry McAuliffe, for example,

Wind is clean, wind is safe, solar is clean, solar is safe. So let’s get everything moving forward, studying all these other things, but let’s not be waiting, let’s be moving forward on the things we know work today.

Now, so as not to ‘hide’ things, candidate McAuliffe said this too about solar: “Much more difficult for solar here, obviously, because we don’t have the sun.” That “obviously” isn’t, however, so obvious when one looks at actual facts. While there are many other examples, this Virginian household gets about 80% of our electricity from rooftop solar panels.

How might Governor-Elect McAuliffe “be moving forward” both symbolically and substantively with clean and safe solar power with $75,000 of dirty money?

Why not dedicate that money to putting solar panels up — using a Virginia solar contractor — at the Governor’s mansion in Richmond?

The roughly 20 kilowatts of capacity that $75,000 might get installed would generate in the range of 25 megawatt hours of electricity per year. That would be a bit more than twice the average electricity bill for a Virginia homeowner.  Clearly, this is substance that is primarily symbolic.

With this symbolic move, the in-coming Governor would make a clear statement that he will seek reasonable opportunities to promote a clean energy future for all Virginians by “moving forward on the things we know work today.”

ACTION:

If you agree that Governor-Elect McAuliffe should turn dirty money into good, join the call.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Solar Energy · dominion virginia power · solar

Dispelling Electric-Vehicle Myths, #2: Other Environmental Issues

December 3rd, 2013 · 1 Comment

In a series of guest posts, Assaf addresses — from the perspective both of an EV owner and an analyst — myths about electric vehicles. The first post addressed the life-cycle CO2 Footprint of various types of cars … and … the simple truth (in line with Debunking Handbook guidelines):

Electric Vehicles have lower
(LOWER!)
carbon dioxide implications
through their life cycle

This post follows up with addressing a series of issues such as the importance of reducing oil demand and other greenhouse gas emissions.

[Read more →]

→ 1 CommentTags: automobiles · electric vehicles · electricity · transportation

“Humanity is altering Earth’s life support system …”

December 3rd, 2013 · No Comments

This video — transcript after the fold — calmly reviews with both data visualization and a rather disconcerting calm narration how “humanity is altering Earth’s life support system”.

The clock is ticking …

Note:  For an interesting approach to visualization, see the Carbon Atlas.

[Read more →]

→ No CommentsTags: Global Warming · Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change · catastrophic climate change · climate change · environmental · video

Two degrees as limit … climate scientists saying this means disaster

December 2nd, 2013 · 3 Comments

In a very broad way, climate specialists have laid down a target for climate mitigation: keep global warming below two degrees centigrade and we have a decent chance at avoiding catastrophic climate change.

This target has always troubled me.  Problems include speaking “centigrade” to metrically-challenged Americans; the esoteric nature of “2 degrees” toessentially every thinking person; and the serious uncertainty as to how much risk actually exists.

One particularly troubling element: How do we define “catastrophic”?

  • How many species going extinct is acceptable “cost” before it is “catastrophic”?
  • How much disrupted agriculture acceptable?
  • How much sea rise?
  • How much damage before we say it is “catastrophic”?

When it comes to ‘catastrophic’, it seems plausible that reasonable people — if presented with data about climate-change influenced events like Hurricane Sandy and 2012’s drought/heat wave in the United States (with a cost of $30 billion or so) and other climate implications — might see what is occurring as already “catastrophic” with that ‘catastrophic’ getting worse with each passing hour with continued/increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

For decades, scientists have suggested that limiting warming to 2C above pre industrial figures would (likely) be ‘acceptable’, enabling humanity to avoid the worst damages while providing breathing space to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.  While the global economy is not on track to meet this target (actually, on track to blow through it), that 2C target is one for which global politicians, global institutions, and most nations have made some form of commitment to supporting and achieving.

Now, however, as research knowledge advances and we gain a greater understanding of what is happening around the world, an increasing share of the relevant scientific community is rethinking that esoteric and confusing 2C target.  Sadly, for humanity’s future prospects, the scientists don’t seem to be concluding ‘hey, things aren’t so bad and we can acceptably take a lot more pollution and a lot more warming’.  Instead, a group of 18 scientists will publish a paper tomorrow in PLOS One in which they conclude that the 2C target

“would have consequences that can be described as disastrous”

With a 2°C increase,

sea level rise of several meters could be expected …

Increased climate extremes, already apparent at 0.8°C warming, would be more severe. Coral reefs and associated species, already stressed with current conditions, would be decimated by increased acidification, temperature and sea level rise.

The argument is pretty straightforward — and no surprise to readers of this blog:

  • humanity has evolved in the Holocene climate …
  • a 1C warming keeps us close to the Holocene range and thus not majorly disruptive …
  • A 2Ce warming, however, would cause “major dislocations for civilization.”

The title of this paper is far from what one would expect to see in a scientific journal:

Assessing ‘dangerous climate change’: required reduction of carbon emissions to protect young people, future generations and nature

Not too surprising, the climate denial world will almost certainly scream that there aren’t the typical caveats, disclaimers, and otherwise that pepper virtually all scientific literature. These scientists have clearly come to the basic understanding that the uncertainties, which exist, are at the margins of the core issue:  if the worst outcomes (which are plausible and possible) turn out to be true, humanity will face catastrophic implications.

These scientists are — in a sense — changing the climate mitigation scenario in a serious way.  Rather than 1000 gigatons of total emissions (another truly difficult number for the average person/most people to process), we have ‘only’ 500 gigatons.  In essence, we have already burned through the limit and most be quite serious about carbon emissions reductions rather than opening more climate pollution sources with virtually ever passing day.

“Although there is merit in simply chronicling what is happening, there is still opportunity for humanity to exercise free will.”
James Hansen

→ 3 CommentsTags: catastrophic climate change

Clean Energy Bottlenecks … ready solutions exist … New York offshore wind example

November 20th, 2013 · 1 Comment

While there are many bottlenecks that constrain the deployment of renewable energy, two fundamental challenges that inhibit significant deployments seem eminently solvable even within realistic understanding of political, cultural, and financial constraints.

When it comes to renewable energy, Offshore wind turbinesa simple reality:

High-cost money + High-Cost/Risk Technology = Exorbitant Pricing = Minimal / Slow Deployment = Marginal Impact

And, therefore, the clear corollary:

Low-cost money + Low-Cost/Low-Risk Technology = Affordable Prices = Market Penetration = Real-world impact

Renewable energy electricity options (with the general exception of biomass) are capital intensive and low-cost maintenance/operational cost.  Pay upfront and reap the benefits for a long time to come. A hydroelectric dam is far from cheap but — assuming reasonable maintenance and upgrading investment — will provide electricity for a century or more to come with nearly zero marginal cost for each additional generated electron.  If we look at the major hydroelectric dams around the nation, they were developed with low-cost government money and leveraging existing technologies (even as they were, such as Hoover Dam, significant engineering challenges).  America’s hydro-electricity was therefore developed with the model of low-cost public money (with public ownership) + low-cost technology to deliver affordable electricity for generations.

For a variety of reasons — good, bad, indifferent — decisions occur that drive projects toward the “high” rather than “low” cost option.

Offshore wind for New York State provides an excellent example of this issue.
Offshore Wind Turbines Gt Yarmouth
[Read more →]

→ 1 CommentTags: Energy · wind power

What does serious climate change look like?

November 13th, 2013 · 3 Comments

Erratic, with this guest post, made me think … Perhaps you will find it interesting as well.  And, well, perhaps you agree with me in hoping that “people” do / that humanity does “survive this bottleneck”.

In Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, the father describes a persistent delusion where his family is surrounded by a cloud of poison gas, but he’s the only one that can see it, and if he tells the others, they’ll become aware and be poisoned by it. It’s a tragic and remarkable image for a man whose toxic alcoholism has seriously compromised his ability to be a good father to his family. Sometimes, I feel similarly about climate change, that there’s a gathering poisonous cloud that we’re really not taking seriously.

When I do env ed programs with students on stormwater runoff and habitat, part of me feels they’d be better served if we were teaching wilderness survival skills - how to build shelter and stay warm. When I plant native plants and create habitat, I wonder how likely they are to survive the coming climate instability which is apparently locked in.

[Read more →]

→ 3 CommentsTags: Global Warming · catastrophic climate change · climate change · environmental

Dispelling Electric-Vehicle Myths, #1: About that CO2 Footprint…

October 28th, 2013 · 2 Comments

In a series of guest posts, Assaf addresses — from the perspective both of an EV owner and an analyst — myths about electric vehicles. This post, as per title, addresses the life-cycle CO2 Footprint of various types of cars … and … the simple truth (in line with Debunking Handbook guidelines):

Electric Vehicles have lower
(LOWER!)
carbon dioxide implications
through their life cycle

A few days ago we celebrated our own first anniversary as EV drivers. Ironically, it fell exactly as we were on a camping trip with our non-electric car. This coincidence is a great reminder that life consists of compromises and shades of grey. Indeed, the series will steer clear of ideological purity, and instead discuss the real-world properties and impact of EVs as a real-world, imperfect solution to real-world problems.

Arguably, 2013 might be remembered as the year of the modern EV’s breakthrough.Across most of America, EVs have now entered mainstream consciousness - not only as a consumer choice for ordinary people planning to get a car, but also as a discussion topic. 2013 is also when the United States has established itself as the #1 place the EV story is being played out. US EV sales have mushroomed, leaving other regions in the dust (currently we’re on pace to a 80%-100% increase over 2012). And the US is also - rather impressively and surprisingly considering the state of US auto industries over the past generation - the place where the unquestioned technology and mass-market leaders of the two branches of the EV market (all-electric, and plug-in-hybrid/extended-range) have been designed and are being made: namely, the Tesla Model S and the Chevy Volt.

Such dramatic changes, and their even greater disruptive potential, rarely come without controversy. The flamboyant and media-monster persona of Tesla’s founder Elon Musk adds some spice to the media EV mix, but this goes far beyond Musk himself. Everyone and his brother (yes, automotive journalism still seems to be a nearly exclusive male territory) now feels the need to opine or “analyze” some aspect of EVs every other week. As a whole, the mainstream media vibe is still predominantly anti-EV. If you disbelieve me, take some time to fish out EV “analysis” articles from 2011, 2012 and this year. According to mainstream analyst consensus, the EV segment should have withered and died in shame by now multiple times over. I might deal with media coverage on a later post. But first things first, and more important than anything else is dispelling myths about EVs’ environmental impact.

Nissan Leaf, with a question

[Read more →]

→ 2 CommentsTags: Energy · PHEV · analysis · electric vehicles · guest post

If there is a “War on Coal”, would the Export-Import Bank be tried as traitors?

October 17th, 2013 · No Comments

The fossil fuel industry — with predictable political allies — has repeatedly sought to convince Americans (via an all-too often gullible media) that the Obama Administration is engaged on a “War on Coal” (.  While reasonable analysis would suggest that one can say that it is actually ‘coal industrial interests’ that is engaged in warfare on humanity, the Administration’s on-again, off-again actions to address health and environmental (including global warming) implications from the mining, transport, and burning of coal is hard to describe honestly as a “war”.  With an “all of the above” strategy that includes investing in coal-fired electricity carbon capture and storage along with rather slow development of regulation that Supreme Court decisions have said should occur, the Obama Administration has — if anything — been engaged in a Phony War on coal’s threat to Americans (both living and unborn).

If there were an actual, serious ‘war on coal’, one would expect that the Administration — in face of a global warming denying majority in the House — would be going with all guns blazing, using every possible tool for leverage to demolish the coal industry.  This, however, does not seem to be the case. Let’s use one case to illuminate this: the Export-Import Bank’s continued subsidy of coal exports.

In his climate speech at Georgetown University, President Obama had this this to say:

Today, I’m calling for an end of public financing for new coal plants overseas — (applause) — unless they deploy carbon-capture technologies, or there’s no other viable way for the poorest countries to generate electricity.  And I urge other countries to join this effort.

“An end of public financing for new coal plants overseas …”

That is a rather clear statement.

There is a part of the Administration that is directly involved in the “public financing” of international projects and activities: the Export-Import Bank.

If the Administration has been engaged in a “war on coal”, the Export-Import Bank clearly doesn’t seem to have received the notice of a declaration of war.  Export-Import Bank funding for fossil fuel projects has shot up from just under $3 million in fiscal year 2009 to $9.6 billion in 2012.

In fiscal year 2011, Ex-Im Bank financed the 3,960 megawatt Sasan coal power project in India and 4,800 megawatt Kusile coal power project in South Africa. Sasan and Kusile will rank among the world’s largest coal power projects with combined 56.9 million tons of annual CO2 emissions, plus extensive pollution to local water and air, causing community displacement and health problems that potentially include increased rates of cardiopulmonary diseases and cancer deaths.

In the same time period, under the Obama Administration, the Export-Import Bank has essentially remain unchanged in its support for one of the fastest growing sectors in international business activity: clean-energy projects and technologies.

As an example of a troubling ExIm Bank project, we need look no further than the hills of Appalachia. As the mountains of West Virginia disappear via mountain-top removal and the environmental/health impacts mount, The Ex-Im Bank is subsidizing XCoal Energy and Resources export of Appalachian coal to India.  In this case, not only is American territory getting devastated but we– the taxpayers — are subsidizing another nation’s costs to move coal half-way around the world to burn it in dirty plants. This subsidy therefore helps undercut efforts to foster a cleaner energy future in India.  When it comes to this situation, the ExIm Bank is being sued for not sufficiently reviewing the effects on health and the environment when making the loan.

The Export Import Bank continues to assist the dirtiest energy solutions secure business around the globe while giving clean energy solutions short shrift.  This not only helps foster continued environmental damage (from local impacts from mountain top removal in Appalachia to global impacts like increased mercury in the food stream and increased climate change risks), but undercuts the ability of American clean energy firms to secure a stronger place in this 21st economic powerhouse arena.

It’s clear from these projects that the administration needs to take a closer look at the Ex-Im Bank’s activities. Their subsidies aren’t just harming foreign nations and natural habitats; they’re also doing damage to our businesses and natural resources here at home.

→ No CommentsTags: Energy · Obama Administration