Marching for Science #7

Interesting summary of the Science March from STAT:

  • Yes, it was a partisan anti-Trump event – “critics of the march who worried that it could turn scientists into an interest group to be isolated and ignored will likely feel their concerns validated after the event.”
  • It was mostly white – “There were [speakers] who were immigrants, trans, gay, Native American, black, Latino, young, and old. … But that audience itself was largely white.”
  • Industry science wasn’t there – “companies that are now marketing their ‘bold’ work in scientific discovery and developing new treatments largely lacked an official presence at the marches.”
  • People had fun – “lots of kids, dogs, and people dressed as dinosaurs. … and plenty of off-rhythm dancing to funk bands.”
  • What comes next is uncertain – “Will the march make a difference? Or will it end up as a historical footnote?”

March for Science, Washington, DC (photo: Becker1999)


Misquotes for Science

It’s a tough call, but the award for silliest statement at the March for Science has to go to the line “Dante said that the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crisis.” Dante never said anything of the sort, of course – the line is derived from something JFK said (“The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality”), derived in turn from a chain of misquotes going back to Theodore Roosevelt. I’ve written before about Dante and Science, but suffice to say that in Dante’s Inferno, the worst regions are actually icy cold, and “neutrals” are not found there:

Please, let’s not have any “alternative facts” about Dante. The climate of the Inferno is important too.


Marching for Science #5

Further to my previous comments on the Science March, the graph below shows the (somewhat dubious) attendance estimates from Wikipedia for various cities (excluding vague counts like “thousands”), compared to the power-law predictor 0.47 D1.49 P0.78, where D is the fraction of the relevant state voting for Clinton last year (from Wikipedia), and P is the city population (also from Wikipedia).

The population P predicts 56% of the variance in turnout (not surprisingly), and D an additional 7%. Both factors were significant (p = 0.000000055 and p = 0.014 respectively). Prediction could probably be improved by using metro area population numbers for the cities, by using metro area election results (rather that state results), and by adding factors indicating the number of other marches in the relevant state (Colorado Springs, for example, was rather overshadowed by Denver) and the presence of universities (Ann Arbor, for example, is a university town). But the basic messages seem to be: Democrat voters do not like Donald Trump and Large cities attract large crowds. It would be interesting to compare the numbers here against other recent political marches which focused on different issues.


Marching for Science #4

Well, we’ve had the long-awaited Science March. It was, as expected, very much an anti-Trump event. Topics on people’s minds included threatened budget cuts, climate change, pesticides, intersectionality, immigration policy, defence policy, and the claim that climate change science had been removed from the EPA web site (it hadn’t).


March for Science, Washington, DC (photo: Becker1999)

Trump’s response to the march was “My administration is committed to advancing scientific research that leads to a better understanding of our environment and of environmental risks. … As we do so, we should remember that rigorous science depends not on ideology, but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate.” I’m not sure if the marchers expected any outcome other than that.


March for Science, Washington, DC (photo: Becker1999)

There was the usual set of signs suggesting that peer-reviewed science is “true.” Which is odd, because cold fusion claims passed peer review, along with much other dubious work. Indeed, peer review has known problems. Perhaps, in public debate, we scientists should put more emphasis on replication.


Marching for Science #3

The March for Science continues to be controversial. Some scientists will attend the march, and others will sit it out. Above is the wordcloud for the march website, as at April 18. The top six words are “science,” “march,” “community,” “scientific,” “policy,” and “diversity.” Combining those results with recent news, I think this indicates that the focus of the march has finally stabilised, and that intersectionality and diversity within science is now the key topic. I wonder how the audience of the march will react?


Marching for Science #2

The March for Science is coming up soon. Above is a recent wordcloud for the @ScienceMarchDC Twitter feed. The focus of the march does not yet seem to have stabilised, and controversies continue to rage.

Some scientists have pulled out of the event and, as far as I can tell, there has been a shift to criticism of science itself, particularly with regard to intersectionality and diversity issues (“inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility are central to the mission and principles of the March for Science”). However, climate change is also a topic of concern, as are genetic engineering, and Donald Trump’s immigration policies. The march will be held on Lenin’s birthday.


A fable about science and climate change

This post will tell a simple fable. The characters are fictional, although the scenario is based on reality. At the end of the fable are some questions that puzzle me.


The smelter at Davy before it closed (photo: Jmchugh)

Billy-Bob Smith lives in the small town of Davy in the US South. He worked in the aluminium smelter there, until pressure from environmentalists closed it down. He is now unemployed (and rather bitter).

Aluminium production is very energy-intensive (the metal has been called “crystallised electricity”), and the smelter at Davy was fed by coal-fired power. Its demise is part of the general decline in US aluminium smelting (see the chart below, produced from this data).

Of course, demand for aluminium doesn’t just go away – world aluminium production is actually increasing. The plant at Davy was replaced within the year by a new plant in China, which was also fed by coal-fired power. In fact, in 2015 about two-thirds of Chinese electricity production (900 GW) was coal-fired. Chinese coal-fired power generation is projected to increase by 20% to 1100 GW in 2020 (making up about 55% of overall Chinese electricity production in that year, given the non-coal power plants that will also be coming on line). For comparison, the new coal-fired capacity being added in China each year is roughly equal to the entire generation capacity of Australia.

Billy-Bob Smith is very cynical about the environmentalists who effectively outsourced his job to China, with (as he correctly points out) no net benefit to the planet, and no net reduction in carbon emissions. In fact, Billy-Bob believes that the environmental activists in his state were funded by the Chinese government to destroy American jobs. Needless to say, he voted for Donald Trump in the recent US election.


Coal-fired power plant in Shuozhou, China (photo: Kleineolive)

Alicia Jones is a professor of atmospheric physics at a university not far from Davy. She has made significant advances in climate modelling, improving the way that radiative forcing is handled in computer models. There is even talk of nominating her for a Nobel Prize one day. Outside of her university work, she regularly gives talks to schoolchildren on the threat of climate change and the need to address the problem before it’s too late. She also frequently appears on local television. She was part of the group which lobbied to close down the smelter at Davy, in the recent US election she voted for Jill Stein, and she has marched several times in Washington, DC.


US Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein (photo: Tar Sands Blockade)

My questions are these:

  1. What makes an intelligent person like Alicia Jones believe that simply moving carbon emissions to China actually addresses climate change?
  2. Being fully aware of the usefulness of computer modelling, why did Alicia Jones not do any economic modelling on the expected follow-on effects of closing the Davy plant?
  3. Is virtue ethics, deontological ethics, or consequentialism the best ethical framework for handling questions of this kind?
  4. In general, does the expertise of scientists lend any credibility to their economic, political, or philosophical pronouncements? Should it do so?
  5. What does it say about Alicia Jones’ ability to communicate scientific issues that over 50% of people in her state (people like Billy-Bob) do not believe in anthropogenic climate change at all? What does it say about scientific communication in general?
  6. Do problems with peer review affect the public perception of science?
  7. What does it say about the education system in the USA that Billy-Bob does not even believe that the earth is warming? After all, many US cities have temperature records going back over a century. Mean temperatures for Newport, RI, for example, show a 1.7°C rise between 1893 and 2016 (see chart below – the blue line is a cubic interpolation, while the red line is the result of loess smoothing).
  8. What can be done to improve this particular debate?