Aug 26, 2009

Did IQs Drop Sharply?

There's a scene in Aliens, James Cameron's masterpiece, in which the protagonist loses her temper and asks a roomful of people: "Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?"

There are days when I feel similarly exasperated. It's as though a broad swath of otherwise sensible people have taken leave of their senses. According to this week's New Yorker: "humanity is in the process of bringing about an ecological catastrophe of unparalleled scope and significance." Meanwhile, Time magazine declares that: "the science is clear...we're boiling the planet."

Pardon me? When leading publications in countries blessed with free speech can't be counted on to approach important issues with reasonable doubt, they risk losing the trust of their readers.

We're talking here about that highly unreliable pastime known as "predicting the future." The gypsy with her beads and crooked fingers can't foresee the future - and neither can a roomful of computer-assisted climate scientists. Rather than living the obscure life associated with most research, these guys have convinced themselves they're superheroes saving the planet. Evidently they've gone a long way to convincing the rest of us of that, too.

But we all know there aren't any crystal balls. It doesn't matter how impressive their computer is - no one can predict the future. Science can't reliably tell us what the weather will be like next week. Yet these guys claim to know, within a few degrees, how hot it's going to be 100 years from now?

A lot of things can happen between now and then. Fifteen years ago Google didn't exist. Ten years ago no one had ever heard of an iPod. Lots of unexpected things occur in our fast-paced universe. And human ingenuity has always been about pulling rabbits out of hats.

In the early 1970s, temperatures were cooler than normal and scientists warned of an impending ice age. The minor warming trend that followed during the 80s and 90s appears to have halted several years ago. For anyone - never mind Nobel-prize-winning US Energy Secretary Steven Chu - to have anything to do with a magazine article that claims we're currently boiling the planet is a disgrace.

As a counterpoint to Chu, let me introduce you to Burt Rutan. This gentleman's place in the history books is secure. He's been inducted into six Halls of Fame, set world records, and been honored at home and abroad. He's an aerospace engineer who has accomplished things no one else on Earth has [more here]. In his world, he has to be very certain of his data - because when his math is wrong, things explode and people die.

Rutan knows how to analyze data. He's spent decades honing his skills, learning all the ways to differentiate reliable numbers from dodgy ones. Now he's turned his attention to the theory of global warming. He's looked at the graphs and charts, he's assessed the claims of the small army of scientists whose jobs and reputations have become entwined with ringing the alarm bell about global warming.

And he has rejected their analysis. He thinks their data is cow dung and alleges deception, presentation fraud, and manipulation of the numbers. He's invited NASA's activist scientist, James Hansen, to sue him so that the truth of these matters might be explored in a court of law - a context in which concepts like a fair trial and equal time still have meaning.

Rutan has delivered 40-minutes worth of this sort of commentary twice, publicly, in front of audiences at the end of July. And here it is, the end of August, yet publications like Time magazine and the New Yorker seem to think it isn't worth mentioning.

There aren't any guarantees that Rutan is right. Since no one is infallible, it's possible he's wrong. But since he's one of our brightest lights, shouldn't we at least listen to what he has to say? If he's telling us that global warming is a bunch of hooey and that our only real extinction threat involves asteroids shouldn't we consider this possibility?

Since the mainstream media have decided, en masse, that his views aren't newsorthy, here's a link to his 33-slide PowerPoint presentation. It's also available as a PDF, with each slide followed by a page of speaking notes. (For a quick hit, see my earlier blog post here.)

A video was reportedly made of his talk. As soon as it becomes available, I'll post it here.


Aug 21, 2009

How Much Is a Bird's Life Worth? (Part 1)

ExxonMobil, long considered an uber villain by environmentalists, recently agreed to pay $600,000 in fines. Its crime? Over a five-year period, 85 migratory birds (17 per year) died after landing in Exxon wastewater facilities across five US states.

CNN says the birds died after they ingested or became coated with hydrocarbons. These included a hawk, ducks, owls and other species. None are considered endangered but at least some are classified as "protected."

Exxon's fine works out to $7,059 per bird. In an effort to save the lives of less than two dozen such birds a year the company has apparently already spent $2.5 million covering and draining the bodies of wastewater and "will spend quite a bit more to implement the environmental compliance plan."

Acting Assistant Attorney General John Cruden says this case represents "a great win for the environment." Members of the public who left comments on CNN's website appear to agree. Observed one: "Seems like such a small amount of money for loss of animal life. Exxon always seems to get away with careless destruction of wildlife."

A person named Clayton concurred that the fine was too small. Another implied that additional prosecutions were necessary "to stave off the decline in numbers of much of our wildlife."

One wonders then, how Mr. Cruden and his employer, the US Department of Justice, feel about the worldwide push to increase the use of wind power? Because if 17 bird deaths annually are worthy of legal prosecution and multi-million-dollar remediation, it's difficult to imagine how windmill companies are going to stave off bankruptcy.

Bats, after all, aren't mere birds - they're warm-blooded mammals. And it turns out that windmills alter air pressure in a way that causes the lungs of bats to explode. Researchers studying the issue apparently had little difficulty locating 188 dead bats from wind farms located solely in one part of one Canadian province.

According to a press release from the university with which the researchers are associated:

"The majority of bats killed at wind turbines are the migratory bats that roost in trees, including hoary bats, eastern red bats, and silver-haired bats. While little is known about their population sizes...their deaths could have far-reaching consequences. Bats typically live for many years, in some cases reaching ages of 30 or more. Most also have just one or two pups at a time, and not necessarily every year...All three species of migratory bats killed by wind turbines fly at night, eating thousands of insects—including many crop pests—per day as they go. Therefore, bat losses in one area could have very real effects on ecosystems miles away, along the bats' migration routes."
A summary of the bat research paper begins with the observation that the danger windmills pose to birds has been known for decades. A different study suggests that for every three bats that lose their lives due to wind turbines, an additional two birds are killed.

A 2004 California Energy Commission study estimated that as many as 4,720 birds from 40 different species - "including as many as 1,300 protected raptors" - are killed each year by a single wind farm. The Audubon Society says that more than 100 of those birds are golden eagles.

In fairness, this particular California wind farm is said to be unusually deadly, but 4,700 birds a year!

So tell me again why Exxon has been put through the wringer for causing the deaths of 17 birds at the exact same time that wind turbines are massacring them by the thousands?

Either every bird killed by the energy industry should result in a $7k fine - or none should.


Aug 19, 2009

Aerospace Pioneer Dismisses Global Warming

In some circles, aerospace engineer Burt Rutan is a demi-god. In 2005, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He has been inducted into six different halls of fame - including the International Aerospace Hall of Fame and the US National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Rutan has received the Heinlein Award for Lifetime Achievement in Aerospace, a Presidential Citizens Medal, and has been honored by British and French aeronautical bodies.

In 2004, SpaceShipOne, designed by Rutan, was the first privately-funded craft to enter space and return (twice within a 2-week period). In 1986, his Voyager craft became the first airplane to fly around the globe without stopping or refueling.

Recently Rutan delivered a talk to Experimental Aircraft Association audiences in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in which he dismissed climate change as a serious concern. (His 33-slide PowerPoint deck from that talk is also available as a PDF.)

Rutan isn't a climate scientist. But he has spent decades honing his ability to analyze and interpret disparate kinds of data. His rule of thumb: "The more complex or uncertain the data, the more judgment is needed...and the more susceptible the conclusions are to bias."

After examining the alleged evidence supporting global warming theory - much of it associated with NASA's James Hansen - Rutan declares it bunk. Below is slide #8 (p. 15 in the PDF) from his talk:

The words appearing on some of Rutan's slides are harsh: deception, presentation fraud, data manipulation. He accuses the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of weighting one group of data 390 times more than another in order to transform "falling temperatures" into "rising temperatures" in the graphs it has presented to world leaders and the public.

Rutan's assessment of journalists is equally uncomplimentary: "The media does not investigate. They just listen to the alarmists and then report that global warming is 'worse than the UN predictions.'"

Rutan points out that periods of slight warming - of the sort that occurred between 1975 and 1998 - aren't unusual. The years 1860-1880 and 1910-1940 experienced similar warming, he says. He devotes four slides (26-29) to the theme of "show me the data" - in which he concludes that numerous claims of impending climate-related disasters aren't supported by the evidence.

Because the climate has always changed and will always continue to do so, he calls climate change "the world's safest bet" and declares it "silly" to consider it a crisis. He's also adamant that "consensus has nothing to do with science and science has nothing to do with consensus."

It's hardly surprising, therefore, that Rutan rejects the US cap-and-trade legislation currently under consideration. In his view, these measures are "naive, non-scientific, irrelevant, hopeless and oxymoronic."

If the US government "really wants to protect citizens from a possible planet catastrophe," he concludes, it should fund research into systems that can defend against asteroid strikes. This is, he says "the only real extinction threat the planet has ever had and the only one in which Man can indeed use his intelligence and sweat to successfully defeat."

[read another account here] [another appears here]

George Carlin on Saving the Planet

In addition to making us laugh, comedians serve a useful social purpose. They often say things we feel we aren't able to. In our professional (and social) lives, we frequently avoid topics that are politically sensitive or emotionally charged, since few of us enjoy confrontation. But difficult topics often benefit from a fresh, fearless perspective.

In this 7-minute clip, the late great Carlin is unkind to environmentalists, but his larger point is impressively well-informed. When he discusses the various forces with which planet Earth has contended over its 4.5-billion lifespan he isn't making any of this up. It's all true.
"The planet has been through a lot worse than us; been through all kinds of things worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate techtonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles, hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages - and we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference?"
We humans have a nasty habit of believing that everything is about us. Not only are we the reason everything bad happens, but we actually imagine we're in a position to influence natural forces that were set into motion long before we arrived. One day the entire theory of human-caused global warming may be viewed as a textbook case of this navel-gazing, human-centric approach to the universe.

Carlin is right. As a species, we're capable of supreme arrogance. That we're obsessing about saving the planet when so much of humanity still lacks clean drinking water and enough food may qualify as "the greatest arrogance of all."


Aug 6, 2009

This Is Not Fair Play has posted the first of a planned series of 2-minute global warming videos. This one is titled: This Is Not Fair Play:

The full text of the film is as follows:

Most of us believe in ideas like "fair play" and "equal time". We know it would be unjust to convict someone of a crime without first giving them a chance to explain their side of the story.

But where global warming is concerned, many of us have forgotten fair play. We watched the Al Gore film, An Inconvenient Truth, and allowed ourselves to be persuaded that this politician-on-a-crusade was telling us nothing but the unvarnished truth.

Mr. Gore told us that human-produced carbon dioxide is harmful. He told us carbon dioxide causes dangerous global warming. His arguments seemed convincing and so did his graphics.

But the discussion was cut short. Because we couldn't return to the movie theatre the next day to hear the other side of the story, many of us don't realize that the entire theory of global warming may be nothing more than a tempest in a teacup.

Because we've listened only to the Al Gore side of this debate, we don't know that farmers add C02 to their greenhouses - because an increase in carbon dioxide means larger, stronger crops. Nor have we paid attention to the dissenting scientists who say there's no evidence that the tiny amount of C02 in our atmosphere is harmful to humans, animals, or the environment.

In other words, we haven't bothered with a fair trial. We listened only to prosecutor Al Gore and then made up our minds. We didn't give the defense lawyer a chance to speak. We offered her no opportunity to cross-examine Al Gore's arguments, or to point out their weaknesses.

This is not "fair play."


See video number two, On Saying the Debate is Over

Aug 4, 2009

Global Warming and "My Cousin Vinny"

Recently the American Bar Association Journal ranked the 1992 comedy My Cousin Vinny third among the 25 greatest legal movies ever made. According to the journal, the film contains cinema's "best-ever introduction to the rules of criminal procedure."

I've long admired the movie for a different reason. It does a stellar job of demonstrating the danger of listening to only one point-of-view.

Early on, at the probable cause hearing, the unprepared and inexperienced defense lawyer Vincent Gambini (played by Joe Pesci) fails to challenge the prosecution's version of events. He cross-examines no witnesses. He offers no alternative explanation.

As a result, the case against the two accused appears damning. They are young, male, and from out of state. Moreover, three eye-witnesses who have no reason to lie insist they murdered a convenience store clerk.

At the trial, however, a different picture emerges. With a little probing, the defense lawyer establishes that one of the witnesses is profoundly mistaken about the timing of events. The second witness, as it happens, had his view obstructed by trees and a dirty window. The third suffers from impaired vision.

Before long, the apparently open-and-shut case against the young men evaporates. Arguments that first appear convincing to the jury are soon discredited.

Which brings me to global warming. Millions of people who watched Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth are stuck back at the probable cause hearing. They've heard that human-generated carbon dioxide causes global warming. They've heard that global warming will lead to all sorts of disasters. But they haven't moved beyond that stage.

Prosecutor Gore presented only one side of the issue. Audiences who watched An Inconvenient Truth didn't return to the movie theatre the next day for Part Two – in which someone else played the role of a defense lawyer by probing, questioning, and cross-examining Mr. Gore's case. Viewers weren't invited to consider alternative explanations – such as the belief that normal, natural climate cycles are associated with temperature variations in both directions.

Much of the mainstream media, not to mention the Nobel prize committee, apparently stopped paying attention after the probable cause hearing, as well. Ditto for the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That body has never examined competing theories with equal amounts of attention, energy, or rigor. Rather, it has pursued one idea relentlessly – that human-generated carbon dioxide causes global warming.

All in all, this is a distressing state of affairs. Even when a prosecutor and a defense lawyer are given equal time to present alternative theories, the justice system sometimes fails. Innocent people are wrongly convicted.

In the case of global warming, we haven't even bothered with a fair trial. We've just taken the one-sided version of events supplied by folks like Al Gore and declared it to be gospel.

Vincent Gambini to his nephew, who's accused of murder:

"The DA's gotta build a case. Building a case is like building a house. Each piece of evidence is just another building block. He wants to make a brick bunker of a building. He wants to use serious, olid-looking bricks like these. Right? Let me show you something...[taking out a deck of cards]

His whole case is an illusion, a magic trick sound bite My Cousin Vinny sound bites
His whole case is an illusion, a magic trick sound bite
He's gonna show you the bricks. He'll show you they've got straight sides. He'll show you how they've got the right shape. He'll show them to you in a very special way so that they appear to have everything a brick should have. But there's one thing he's not gonna show you. When you look at the bricks at the right angle, they're as thin as this playing card. His whole case is an illusion, a magic trick."

>> This is not fair play
>> On saying the debate is over