09 June 2006

Moving on up, to the East Side...

The Island of Doubt has moved. Please direct yourself to:


which is a collection of blogs overseen by SEED magazine.

08 June 2006

Tangled Bank 54

The latest and greatest science blogging is available at Tangled Bank 54, hosted this fortnight by Get Busy Livin', or Get Busy Bloggin'.

This is will be my final post at islandofdoubt.blogspot.com. I know I've promised that before, but it looks like the webheads at my new home, Scienceblogs.com, are finally ready to launch their new collection of science bloggers. Beginning noon EDT, Friday, June 2, 2006, The Island of Doubt moves to scienceblogs.com/islandofdoubt.

I will also switch the autoforwarding for islandofdoubt.net to the new page.

06 June 2006

Ann Coulter: Court Jester

Via the J-Walk Blog and John Lynch's Stranger Fruit, comes the latest eruption from Ann Coulter, who's got yet another book out today. I've always considered Coulter one of the wackier examples of right-wing winnuttery, but worth paying attention to because so many other people do just that.

I don't know what to think of her latest comments on evolution, as told to her ideological compatriots at the Cybercast New Service. If they came from anyone else, I'd dismiss them as parody. So convoluted are her answers that we'd best take them one a time.
Cybercast News Service: Most people consider evolution to be a branch of science, or at least a scientific theory, yet in "Godless," you refer to it as a "cult" and a "fetish." What is your basis for calling it that?

Ann Coulter: There is no evidence that it is true. The fossil record contradicts it, and it is a theory that cannot be disproved. Whatever happens is said to "prove" evolution. This is the very definition of a pseudoscience, like astrology. (Of course, I would say that. I'm just a Capricorn, aren't I?
Rarely has there been just a sweeping dismissal of an entire field of knowledge. No evidence at all. Usually we're just told that the evidence is weak. We don't have enough fossils, the missing links are still missing, that sort thing. But not Ann. There is no evidence. Period.

Then we're told it's not disprovable. We all know that's not true. But I must at least acknowledge that Ann may be familiar with the Popperian notion of falsifiability. She doesn't understand it, but she must have read it somewhere, and that puts her ahead of most of the creationists.

Part two, now:
Cybercast News Service: Creationism is not considered a science because it can't be observed or empirically tested. You assert in your book that the theory of evolution has the same problems. Why then has the U.S. public school system been willing to accept the theory of evolution, but snubbed creationism?

Ann Coulter: Because evolution is the official state religion. Although it is possible to believe in God and evolution, it is not possible to not believe in God without believing in evolution -- otherwise, atheists have no explanation for why we are here. Thus, it's very important for the liberal clergy to force small school children to believe in a discredited mystery religion from the 19th century -- evolution -- in order to prepare them to believe in the nonexistence of God, one of the main goals of the American public education system.
Hmmm. First, it would appear that evolution has a lock on the public education because, well, it has a lock on public education. A tautology at least is easy to analyze. But then we learn that it is not possible to not believe in god without believing in evolution. So everyone who doesn't believe in god must believe in evolution. So if you are too young or too poor or too ignorant to know about evolution, you have to believe in God? Wow. That's amazing. What a great way to get rid of atheists: just stop teaching them anything.

Or maybe I just don't understand Ann's diabolical logic. Maybe I'll have to buy her book and parse her arguments. Right.

I'd rather stick needles in my eyes.

02 June 2006

Wind power vs. the War Machine

In a sure sign of desperation, the NIMBY forces aligned against wind power -- wherever it might be -- have enlisted the support of the Department of Defense. According to the Chicago Tribune's Michael Hawthorne, "The federal government has stopped work on more than a dozen wind farms planned across the Midwest, saying research is needed on whether the giant turbines could interfere with military radar."

Hawthorne's story quotes wind power advocates who allege the radar argument is really a smoke screen for "a group of wealthy vacationers who think a proposed wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts would spoil the view at their summer homes." There's no solid evidence for that, but it's as good a guess as anything else, given the weakeness of the radar claim.

Big nasty wind turbines, so the argument goes, casts a "radar shadow"that could make it impossible for nearby military -- and civilian -- airport radar systems to detect aircraft. If that strikes you as a little dodgy, give yourself a gold star. The same complaints were raised in the U.K. a while back, and so the eggheads at the people's R&D corporation, Qinetiq, were asked to look into it.

This they did. And what did they find? You can read a summary of their report here. The short answer is, not much. While there is a theoretical threat of interference with conventional radar arrays, careful design, orientation and siting should be able to take care of any problem:
Single wind turbines do not create a significant ‘radar shadow’. Any shadow region is only dark to a distance of a few hundred metres behind the turbine. Beyond this there is some reduction of the radar power, and a time-variation, but these will not prevent detection except possibly for very small targets.
Of course, the radar shadow presented by any wind farm is proportional to the number of turbines. And some of the proposals on the drawing board, including the Nantucket project that so enrages Ted Kennedy et al., involve large numbers of turbines. But to freeze development of a dozen different projects is overreacting.

A little consultation with the local military brass, a few computer simulations and Bob's your uncle-- potential conflicts resolved. Instead, everything's ground to a halt, thanks in large part to U.S. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), a Cape Wind opponent who happens to chair the Senate Armed Services Committee. According to the Trib, he recently added a one-sentence amendment to a congressional order that directs the DoD to study "whether wind towers could mask the radar signals of small aircraft."

I have to agree with Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, a non-profit group that promotes renewable power."This is a big, ugly political maneuver by a handful of people who are undermining America's energy security," he said.

Wind power isn't the answer to all our energy woes. But it could play a significant role in a medley of alternatives that are just waiting for the chance to compete fairly with heavily-subsidized fossil fuels. In any event, don't you think the military has more important things to do these days?

Science 'Toons

The Union of Concerned Scientists is running a contest for editorial cartoonists:
Science Idol: the Scientific Integrity Editorial Cartoon Contest

The subject of the cartoons must relate to political interference in science in the federal government. UCS defines political interference in science as action by elected officials or political appointees to manipulate, alter, or suppress independent government science or inappropriately restrict or censor government scientists. This definition is distinct from the ethics of scientists themselves; direct corporate influence over science; or more ethical debates on issues like stem cell research.

Cartoons may address many aspects of scientific integrity, including:

* Freedom of scientific speech
* Suppression, distortion, and manipulation of scientific information
* Examples of how science has been misused
* The tension between politics and science
* The importance of science to our health, safety, and environment
* The effect of political interference on our nation's scientific capacity
* The impact of the abuse of science on our everyday lives
* The idea of scientific openness
* Any other related issue

Cartoons may address political interference in science in general; specific misuses of science on environmental, public health, safety and security, or other topics; the treatment and rights of federal government scientists; or other related issues.
The visual arts aren't really my strength. Quite the opposite. But I'm sure there's more than a few candidates hip to the science culture wars.

01 June 2006

What's the point of arguing?

The 1997 recipient of the Royal Society's Michael Faraday prize for communicating science to the public isn't going to take it any more:
A leading British scientist said yesterday that he had given up trying to persuade creationists that Darwin's theory is correct after repeatedly being misrepresented and, he said, branded a liar.

Speaking at the Guardian Hay festival at Hay-on-Wye, the evolutionary biologist Steve Jones spoke of his frustrations when trying to debate with religious opponents.

"I don't engage with creationists directly," he said, saying that, when he had, they had frequently quoted him out of context or accused him of lying. "If somebody has decided to believe something - whatever the evidence - then there is nothing you can do about it."

That from the Guardian of May 30. So where does that leave British biologists hoping to stem the rising tide of silliness?

31 May 2006

Poison ivy is sexy

Research linking climate change with poison ivy isn't the only newsworthy story to be found in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it's easy to understand why it's the only one to attract heaps of media attention this past week.

What editor could resist running a story that says global warming will make poison ivy grow faster and nastier? Everybody understands the evils of poison ivy. I've got a bad case of Toxicodendron dermatitis, as it's technically known, right now. Probably picked it from the dog. It's such an easy sell that you could be excused for dismissing the whole thing as just a cynical attempt to attract attention. Kind of like the way environmentalists exploit the plight of polar bears, pandas, and other charismatic megafauna to galvanize support for their latest campaigns. (Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, although it is dishonest to imply that big cute animals are more worthy of saving than worms and other attractive, but ecologically important species.)

Anyway, the good news the poison ivy story is worth your time. I asked the study's lead author, Jacqueline Mohan of Harvard University and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, why she chose poison ivy, and not another plant. Kudzu, perhaps? She replied that poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is "a fascinating species ecologically, chemically, and, unfortunately for us, medically."

Most of the media coverage dealt exclusively with the medical implications: more of us are going to run into the stuff, because it grows better in atmospheres with higher carbon dioxide levels, Fair enough. But I did find one story, a HealthDay News item in Forbes.com of all places, that managed to get at the larger significance of the research.
This is kind of sad news, not only for humans but for forests," Mohan said. "Increased vine abundance inhibits tree regeneration by killing young trees," she added.

One ecological expert thinks the findings are the first to link increased growth and toxicity with rising levels of C02.

"This is a very interesting paper," said Kevin L. Griffin, an associate professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. "The increase in the growth rate with elevated CO2 is very large. Similar rates have been reported for potted plants in short-term experiments, but for these to be maintained in the field with natural environmental variation is really quite surprising."

I say Mohan and her colleagues are making an important contribution to our understanding of the just how unpredictable the ecological effects of a warming planet are going to be. They are not alone. The current edition of SEED magazine includes a frightening feature on researchers in Costa Rica who are finding the opposite effect of more CO2. Down there it could actually slow the growth of trees in the rainforest, and eventually cause them to emit more CO2 as they decay.

This sort of positive feedback in the carbon cycle is exactly what we don't want to happen. CO2 is now 380 parts per million -- 35 percent higher than it was 150 years ago -- and it will almost certainly reach 500 ppm this century. Trying to figure out the impact of doubled CO2 is vital. The story so far is anything but clear, however.

We could see more of examples of positive feedback in addition to whatever happens to tropical rainforests. For one thing, melting permafrost could release vast quantities of methane, which is 20 times as effective at trapping heat as CO2. One of the overlooked PNAS papers just published concludes that oceanic coral reefs "may be more susceptible to climate change" than their continental counterparts -- a distinction that may surprise more than a few marine ecologists. On the other hand, there could be some negative feedback from cloud cover, and even a few good-news developments in the form of lengthened growing seasons here and there.

Anyway, it now looks like woody vines could invade new territory. Noting that other species in the Anacardiaceae family, including mango, cashew, and pistachio, also can be allergenic, Mohan's paper suggests it is "possible that these plants, too, may become more problematic in the future."

Great. Who thought more mangos could be bad thing?

The point is reliable big-picture, ecosystem-level predictions are a long way off. The poison ivy story just reminds us how little we know. And why what lies ahead could just as easily be worse than we expect as anything else. The last word comes the Health Day News story:
"The most worrisome message here is less about this particular plant and more about the whole forest," said Dr. David L. Katz, an associate professor of public health and director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "We are upsetting a balance in ecosystems and that will have far-reaching effects, many of which we are first now beginning to guess," Katz said.

27 May 2006

"Clouds are hard"

Bill Gray is not a young man. But he does sound like an angry young man. One who can't abide the foolish ways of his elders peers. He is, according to the Washington Post's Joel Achenbach "the World's Most Famous Hurricane Expert" and one of the more reputable, if stubborn, climate change skeptics.

This coming Sunday's Washington Post Magazine includes almost 7,500 words on Gray and his arguments. It's not a quick read, but it's worth it. What begins with a subhead that hints at sympathy for the skeptic's case -- warning of some "serious blowblack" -- plays out very differently in the end. Achenbach covers just about every familiar argument against climate-change consensus, respectfully, and then quite neatly demolishes them.

My favorite line from the story comes from a section "in praise of uncertainty." Isaac Held, a NOAA climate modeler, has this to say about the imperfection of computer simulations: "Clouds are hard." Love that one.

More importantly, Achenbach provides context. Lots and lots of context:
LET US BE HONEST about the intellectual culture of America in general: It has become almost impossible to have an intelligent discussion about anything.

Everything is a war now. This is the age of lethal verbal combat, where even scientific issues involving measurements and molecules are somehow supernaturally polarizing. The controversy about global warming resides all too perfectly at the collision point of environmentalism and free market capitalism. It's bound to be not only politicized but twisted, mangled and beaten senseless in the process. The divisive nature of global warming isn't helped by the fact that the most powerful global-warming skeptic (at least by reputation) is President Bush, and the loudest warnings come from Al Gore.

And that, as they is say, is the real problem. Tip of the hat to Roger Pielke Jr. for finding what should be required reading this weekend and alerting us to its early web publication.

That picture at the top? An iceberg melts in Kulusuk, Greenland, near the Arctic Circle. An AP Photo that accompanies the feature.