Archive for April 9th, 2010

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Philosophers, Not Clergy

April 9, 2010

Unlike the previous prez, Obama has made the fine decision to include a few secular philosophers on the bioethics panel. Bravo.

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The Big Bang Treaty

April 9, 2010

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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We Are All Skeptics Now

April 9, 2010

I don’t generally read the Washington Times, but for some reason, I ventured over to their editorial page yesterday. Turns out, they have an editorial on Ross McKitrick. And that’s basically all it is… an editorial. The logic is appalling, and the supporting evidence is, well, unsupportive. Take this opening salvo:

The prophets of global warming continue to lament as their carefully crafted yarn unravels before their eyes. Ross McKitrick, an intrepid economics professor from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, has tugged apart the thin mathematical threads that once held together the story of climate change.

This is an editorial from the editorial staff of a newspaper, mind you, not from the univocal pen of Ann Crackpot or Glenny-Penny. (The sky is falling. The sky is falling. Oh noes!)

To begin with language about prophets, laments, “crafted yarns,” and then support it with claims of intrepid professors… it just boggles the mind. Colorful to be sure. Loaded? You bet.

The editorial continues that McKitrick has been trying to publish a “nail in the coffin” style document that has been bullied out of the peer reviewed literature by protective opportunists in the climate community. That would be a fine charge, as opportunism and protectionism clearly happen, but the editorial fails to present, or even to link to, any clear evidence that supports either the claim that this article is so damning or the claim that it has been bullied out of the peer reviewed literature for non-scientific reasons. Here’s the best they can do:

Scientific journals evaluate arguments of this sort using a peer-review process by which purportedly impartial experts in the relevant field verify the paper’s accuracy and suitability for publication. By addressing issues raised by reviewers, researchers are able to present an improved and refined final product. In Mr. McKitrick’s case, the process appears to have been abused to stifle dissent.

The leading journals Science and Nature both rejected the paper as too specialized and lacking in novelty. The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society did not respond. Reasons given for refusing the paper in other outlets frequently contradicted one another.

One of the famous leaked e-mails from the former head of the Climatic Research Unit at Britain’s University of East Anglia sheds light on what really happens behind the scenes. “I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report,” professor Phil Jones wrote in reference to a 2004 journal article by Mr. McKitrick. “Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!”

Again, those infernal CRU e-mails keep coming up…and it’s always the same damn one, thereby unravelling this finely crafted tapestry of a tale that the climate community has woven, all in a single sentence. Of course, offhand comments of this sort do not a case make, nor does the fact that this paper wasn’t published in Science or Nature suggest or imply that somehow it was bullied out of those journals. But never mind, inferences be damned.

Plainly, my expectations are pretty low for the characteristically yellow journalism at the Washington Times, but this exceeds even those expectations. Well done boys.

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Blank National Park

April 9, 2010

Hey, check it out, two down in Glacier National Park:

Glacier National Park has lost two more of its namesake moving icefields to climate change, which is shrinking the rivers of ice until they grind to a halt, a government researcher said Wednesday.

Warmer temperatures have reduced the number of named glaciers in the northwestern Montana park to 25, said Dan Fagre, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He warned that the remaining glaciers might be gone by the end of the decade.

“When we’re measuring glacier margins, by the time we go home, the glacier is already smaller than what we’ve measured,” Fagre said.

From the Himalayas to Alaska, glacier melting has accelerated in recent decades as global temperatures have increased. The melt shows the climate is changing but does not show exactly what is causing temperatures to go up, Fagre said.

The park’s glaciers have been slowly melting since about 1850, when the centuries-long Little Ice Age ended. They once numbered as many as 150, and 37 of those glaciers eventually were named.

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No Suspenders

April 9, 2010

Following in Revkin’s fingersteps, I’ll comment a bit on the comments that he’s cribbed and clipped for his column today. As he rightly notes, his commentators have made some really fantastic points. What’s interesting about these points is the evident balance, but also the deficiency, in the arc of reasoning. That deficiency is really only evident when all three comments are taken together — one is left without much support for any given course of action.

Namely, all three comments seem to emphasize the apparent virtues or vices of energy. So, for instance, we get Hugh Whalan’s nice comment on energy poverty, Mike Barrett’s important observation about energy gluttony, and Rohit Parikh’s refreshing anecdote about the irrelevance of energy to the flourishing life. It all fits neatly in a tidy Aristotelian package.

All three of these comments don’t actually contradict one another, even though it may appear that they do. Instead they point out how difficult it is to guide our actions according to strikes for or against a given set of actions or things in the world. It can obviously be the case that energy is essential in some instances, but that use of it in others is manifestly unjustified. Plainly, the fact that there are people in dire need of heat in one part of the world doesn’t authorize me to festoon my house with 100 gigawatt lightbulbs simply because I am afraid of the dark or because I like the blistering feel of sunbeams on my skin.

From the Aristotelian vantage, we ought to cut a middle path, avoiding mama bear’s and papa bear’s beds in favor of baby bear’s bed. That’s not the view I favor, frankly, precisely because I don’t know what any of those beds are like until I’ve napped in them. Also, beds are too “lumpy.” What’s good for a little girl isn’t good for a grown man. Far better to deliberate and justify our individual decisions and policies by way of appeals to the reasons for their deployment — in terms of the things we need and can use, as well as things we don’t need and can’t use.

To be sure, there’s some room for such deliberation even in the Aristotelian bedroom — baby bear’s bed was “just right” for Goldilocks — but it can get mighty confusing if one thinks that one is well advised to set policy according to whether something is too hard, too soft, or just right. Better, instead, to emphasize what the beds will be used for and to focus on the reasons, on the purposes. Sometimes a hard bed is required. Sometimes a soft bed. Sometimes no bed.

To decryptify my silly Goldilocks example, the use of energy is neither a virtue nor a vice, and it’s not clear that it helps to think of it in terms of gluttony, deprivation, or the good life. Rather, we need to have a serious discussion about how to direct and steer our resources — resources with uses that can sometimes be justified and sometimes cannot. All of this will depend on the purposes to which the resources are put. Yes, it is reasonable to steer our resources toward the impoverished and needy, and at the same time, we can do some of this steering by finding methods within our own lives to cut back on inefficiencies and the satisfaction of ridiculous desires. Moreover, it is not clear that in order to enrich the lives of the needy, we need to create the conditions that make possible their future purchase of a new iPad.