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.

26 May 2006

Skeptical television -- at last

The three-minute preview of USA Network's new dramatic comedy series "Pysch" doesn't offer enough evidence to pass judgment on its merits as entertainment. But I, for one, am looking forward to television that offers a skeptical view of the supernatural.

Pysch premieres on July 7, and a week earlier on the network's new broadband channel (the sure-to-be-renamed Character Clique). It features a young amateur detective with unusually well developed observational skills that he decides to pass off a pyschic powers. Sounds like fun. Here's the description of what I expect to be the primary comic relief:
Retired cop Henry Spencer makes no bones about his contempt for Shawn's new business venture. After years spent training his son to observe and analyze like a detective, Henry can't believe that Shawn would squander his enormous talent only to take his place at the bottom of the law enforcement food chain ... as a psychic. To Henry, it just completes the long spiral of disappointment that has left his relationship with his son strained to say the least.
It's been a long time since TV drama has embraced skepticism. Instead, almost every depiction of the supernatural in recent has been far too open-minded. "Medium," for example, claims to be based on the true story of woman who can communicate with the dead, even though the "real life" inspiration has been unmasked as a fraud. Then there's "Supernatural," "Ghost Whisperer," and "Ghost Hunters," among other intellectually insulting offerings now on the tube. "Lost" offers hints of skepticism, but the intelligent smoke a few episodes back suggests the writers haven't quite embraced the field.

So the advent of a series that makes fun of psychics rather that glorifying them has to be good news. I am cautiously optimistic. The actors are a pretty-but-not-too-pretty, experienced-but-not-overexposed group, including a bald Corbin Bernsen as the cynical dad and Dule Hill, late of the West Wing, as the sidekick.

Finally, something other than the Discovery Channel's hit-and-miss "Myth Busters" for those us who have little patience for quackery. Plus, it's filmed in Vancouver, so my wife and I can once again play Spot the Cleverly Disguised Vancouver Landmark.

25 May 2006

Right-wing rock 'n' roll. Really?

John J. Miller of the National Review has comes up with a list of the top 50 conservative rock songs expressing a conservative political outlook. An interesting exercise, to be sure and one guaranteed to generate debate. Let me be among the first to oblige by asking: what is Miller smoking?

The magazine is taking its time releasing the complete list, but the New York Times has the complete thing here. The No. 1 choice, The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," isn't too controversial. The lyrical allusion to disaffected dissent is pretty straightforward, and I'm not going to waste time trying to argue. There are also some other easy examples, like the anti-abortion anthem "Bodies," by The Sex Pistols.

But some of the entries are just plain bizarre, suggesting a confused political sensibility. I don't care how much Rush Limbaugh likes the bass line, but "My City Was Gone" by the Pretenders doesn't make me want to vote Republican. Since when does evoking "Jane Jacobs' sensibility against central planning" constitute conservativism? (I just finished reading Ms. Jacob's last book, Dark Age Ahead, which is a litany of complaints against conservative politics.)

Miller frequently confuses libertarianism --"I Can't Drive 55" by Sammy Hagar and a couple of entries from Ayn Rand aficionados Rush) -- with conservativism. Worse, he sees politics where none exists by employing the journalistic trick of selectively quoting lyrics that suit his thesis.

For example, Joe Jackson does sing "There was a man in the jungle / Trying to make ends meet / Found himself one day with an axe in his hand / When a voice said 'Buddy can you spare that tree / We gotta save the world /— starting with your land' /a rock 'n' roll millionaire from the USA / Doing three to the gallon in a big white car / And he sang and he sang 'til he polluted the air / And he blew a lot of smoke from a Cuban cigar" in a catchy little number called "Obvious Song." But what would Miller make of what follows a few stanzas later: "So we starve all the teachers /And recruit more Marines /How come we don't even know what that means?"

I first thought Miller was championing true, old-fashioned, conservatism, and not what passes for it today. But in the NY Times interview, he shows his true colors:
"Any claim that rock is fundamentally revolutionary is just kind of silly," he said. "It's so mainstream that it puts them liberals in the position of saying that at no time has there ever been a rock song that expressed a sentiment that conservatives can appreciate. And that's just silly. In fact here are 50 of them."
All in all, a pointless exercise. Despite what we'd all like to think, rock musicians aren't particularly political animals.

I have a better suggestion: can we come up with a list of contributions to the popular music cannon that champion reason, science or any other product of the Enlightenment? I shall think about it. Email me or post any suggestions. Fifty examples is expecting a lot. Perhaps 10 is more realistic?

In about a week, this blog is moving to scienceblogs.com, a site hosted by SEED magazine, and I'd like to be able to make my first entry there at least a partial list.

24 May 2006

Arctic Monkeys: Fact or fiction?

The opportunity to discuss "arctic monkeys" -- and attract hits from fans seeking information on the latest Britpop export -- is one I could not pass up. For this I extend my sincere appreciation to Molly Tayara, a member of the Kativik School Board, which oversees elementary and secondary education in Salluit and other Inuit communities in the far northern reaches of Quebec.

The occasion is the continuing controversy over the board's decision to order one of its employees to stop teaching evolution. According to the latest CBC report, more than just the validity of descent through natural selection is under fire:
While saying the board wouldn't censor teachers, a member of the community's school committee told CBC that teachers would be told if they deal in matters sensitive to the community.

"If the town complains and says no, the committee can ask the principal or the director of teachers to approach the teacher and say, 'Look, this is not the subject to be taught here in this town, or in this place, because we know we have been humans from the beginning,'" said Molly Tayara.

"I don't personally accept my children being taught that they came from some species from Africa somewhere.

"Here in the North there is no such thing as monkeys."
As someone who spent five years living in the North, I know Ms. Tayara's views on primate phylogeography are not widely shared. But I'm still waiting for someone in a position of authority up there to denounce the silliness in Salluit.

So far, all we've got is a press release from the board noting that "the Inuit of Nunavik should also have the right to have their views and way-of-life respected by our teachers."
We encourage our students to have an open mind and to think for themselves. We expect our students to develop a respect for other cultures, and to recognize the cultural diversity and the values of other people. Surely we have the right to expect the same of our teachers.
Well, yes, you do.

But how that translates to omitting the central organizing principle of biology from Grade 7 and 8 science classes escapes me. And you might want to check to see what else your school board doesn't believe in.

Tangled Bank LXIV

A mess o' the best in science blogging -- enough to take you through the Memorial Day weekend -- is up at the 54th edition of the Tangled Bank.

Host Bora Zivkovic introduces it thusly:
Long gone are the days when science blogging was a Dog-And-One-Trick-Pony-Show (mixing metaphors is my hobby, as are parentheses): 5 posts debunking Creationists, 5 posts debunking global warming deniers and 5 posts discussing the latest "hot" study as reported in the New York Times. Science Blogging has diversified and matured - there are many more bloggers, each writing what they know, what they like and how they like it, which makes me very happy even if I have to resort to a traditional non-creative format for today's carnival.

23 May 2006

Getting off the fence

Michael ShermerThe news that professional doubter Michael Shermer (that's him on the right) has finally decided to get off the fence and accept the scientific consensus on climate change serves as an excellent entry point for a look at the philosophical justification for skepticism.

In his latest Scientific American column, the editor of Skeptic magazine admits to being a "skeptical environmentalist" for quite a while, thanks to what he calls "failed" predictions of ecological "doom and gloom" in the 1970s. I would argue that those predictions -- overpopulation, resource depletion, starvation -- are merely unfulfilled or exaggerated rather then failed, but his point is well taken. He accepted those dire warnings and felt betrayed when they didn't come to pass. Fair enough.

"Nevertheless," he writes:
...data trump politics, and a convergence of evidence from numerous sources has led me to make a cognitive switch on the subject of anthropogenic global warming.
Four books eventually brought me to the flipping point. Archaeologist Brian Fagan's The Long Summer (Basic, 2004).... Jared Diamond's Collapse (Penguin Group, 2005).... Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes from a Catastrophe (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006).... And biologist Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006).
Because of the complexity of the problem, environmental skepticism was once tenable. No longer. It is time to flip from skepticism to activism.
Yes it is. Just today, for example, one of the more troubling reports I've seen in months caught my eye: "A team of European scientists reports that climate change estimates for the next century may have substantially underestimated the potential magnitude of global warming." In a paper to appear May 26 in Geophysical Research Letters, the team concludes that
Although there are still significant uncertainties, our simple data-based approach is consistent with the latest climate-carbon cycle models, which suggest that global warming will be accelerated by the effects of climate change on the rate of carbon dioxide increase. In view of our findings, estimates of future warming that ignore these effects may have to be raised by about 50 percent.
We could debate about just when it was that environmental skepticism lost its tenable status, of course. It's a subjective thing. Everyone's got their own threshold or, to use a hip phrase, "tipping point." I'm not sure why it took Shermer so long, when so many climatologists had made that shift ages ago. But the important thing is one of the world's premier skeptics no longer finds it necessary to doubt the evidence.

Shermer is one of those scientists who prefers to describe himself primarily as a skeptic (although he won't object to being called a "humanist, secular humanist, agnostic, nonbeliever, nontheist, freethinker, heretic, or even bright"). Aside from being remarkably smart, he also seems to be a fairly decent fellow, one who agreed to publish an essay I wrote a while back. So I like the guy. But even I have found myself occasionally frustrated with his hard-core skepticism, and his prior approach to environmentalism was a prime example. At the end of the day, it seemed he doubted mostly because he liked doubting. Doubting was what he did best. Doubt as an end in of itself.

But can doubt be its own end? Shouldn't skepticism merely be a tool for understanding the universe? I think so. After all, it's important to keep the eye on the prize: making sure our models approximate reality to the greatest degree possible. It's easy to stand back and dismiss an activist's argument as unfounded, unwarranted or precipitous, and I think too many of us take a fair bit of pleasure in playing the skeptical holdout, whose standards are just that much higher than the gullible masses.

The climate change debate is rife with self-proclaimed skeptics who get a little too used to those boots. It takes a bit more courage to admit that maybe the activists are right after all.

I'm relieved that Shermer has joined those of us who have concluded that "the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate," as the fine folks at the IPCC said 11 years ago. My characterization of his obsession with doubt may have been unfair. But it's even better to be reminded that skepticism has its limits. At some point, the call for "more research" begins to sound like the theme song of those with their heads in the sand.

Skepticism about skepticism. A little meta-skepticism, if you will, can be a good thing, even on the Island of Doubt.

19 May 2006

Evolution in the cold

Today's Montreal Gazette brings some chilling news from Canada's subarctic:
A high-school science teacher vowed Friday to continue telling his Inuit students about Darwin's theory of evolution, despite complaints from parents in the northern Quebec community of Salluit.

Education officials from the Kativik School Board said the principal of Ikusik High School cannot ban the teaching of evolution, since it is part of the provincial physical-science curriculum.

Alexandre April, who teaches French and physical science to students in Grades 7 and 8, said he was told repeatedly by the principal to stop teaching evolution, for fear of hurting their students' religious beliefs.

The Pentecostal Church is active in Salluit, a community of just more than 1,100 people located beside Ungava Bay...
Consider that most Inuit have only been exposed to Christianity for less than a century. The CBC's version of the story tries to account for the rapid spread of this particular meme:
In traditional Inuit belief, a shaman is possessed by his "helping spirit," which is not dissimilar to Pentecostal beliefs, according to Louis Rousseau, professor in the department of science and religion at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

"That can be translated quite easily with the Pentecostal insistence on the experience of being taken over by the holy spirit," Rousseau said.

Rousseau said Pentecostal Christianity is the fastest-spreading Christian denomination in the world, and that with what he's seeing among the Inuit, it is likely to spread across the North just as quickly.
The story also notes that the teacher, a biologist by training, has handed in his resignation, effective at the end of the year.

[UPDATE, May 20: In a followup story, The Gazette reports that the principal of Ikusik High School gave April a written reprimand last month -- which explains the resignation -- and suggests that Canada might have its own Bible Belt in the North.
Molly Tayara, a member of the Salluit school's volunteer education committee, said she'd tell her four school-age children to walk out of a lesson on Darwin.

"The minister (of education) may have come from apes, but we're Inuit and we've always been human," she told The Gazette in a phone interview.

"Most of us rely on God's word. ... God made Adam and Eve and they weren't animals."

Well, technically, we're all animals. I wonder what happens when the Inuit of Salluit read about the recent discovery that humans and chimps interbred for quite a while before going their separate ways?]

17 May 2006

Twisting climate science

The Competition Enterprise Institute today unveiled a pair of pro-carbon dioxide television ads designed to assuage fears about climate change. Which is to be expected from a think-tank funded by ExxonMobil.

But the CEI isn't playing fair and though the ads are so far only scheduled to play in limited markets, anyone who cares about the accurate representation of science should be up in arms.

You can watch the ads here. One recasts CO2 as our friend. Plants breathe it in, after all. No mention of natural atmospheric levels. Fair enough. Again, misleading propaganda is to be expected from the likes of the CEI. (By the way, where are all the non-competitive entrepreneurs?)

But the second ad dares suggest that science actually casts serious doubt on the idea that climate change is behind melting glaciers. Now, I know that there are many uncertainties in this field. But anyone who bothers to read the two studies singled out in the CEI ad might be surprised at what the researchers actually said.

First, there's "Recent Ice-Sheet Growth in the Interior of Greenland" (Science, Nov. 11, 2005). While the title does encapsulate the central finding of the study, the study in no way undermines the climate change consensus that the world is warming. The authors conclude:
A modeling study of the Greenland Ice Sheet mass balance under greenhouse global warming has shown that temperature increases up to 2.7°C lead to positive mass-balance changes at high elevations (due to accumulation) and negative at low elevations (due to runoff exceeding accumulation), consistent with our findings, which implies that perhaps a quarter of the growth may be caused by global warming in Greenland in our observation period.
Just as with the first study, the camera zooms in on the title of the second, "Snowfall-Driven Growth in East Antarctic Ice Sheet Mitigates Recent Sea-Level Rise" (Science, June 24, 2005). At first glance -- because that's all the viewer gets -- it would indeed suggest that things aren't as bad the nefarious environmentalists would have us believe. But again, reading the actual paper, one finds this observation:
...the East Antarctic ice-sheet interior increased in overall thickness within the ROC from 1992 to 2003 and that this increase is probably the result of increased snowfall. Both of these observations are consistent with the latest IPCC prediction for Antarctica's likely response to a warming global climate.
This is why many a climatologist prefers to talk about "climate change" rather than "global warming." More to the point, the warming won't be global in the early days. For another, in some regions, the increased precipitation anticipated in the coming decades will cause ice buildup at higher altitudes.

I suppose that level of complexity is just too much for the good people at the CEI to grasp. I mean, they must be confused. Otherwise, they'd be trying to pull a fast one. And I wouldn't want to cast aspersions on such fine examples of American citizenry.

[Update, May 21: Curt Davis, the lead author of the Science paper on snowfall-driven ice-sheet growth in Antarctica, has denounced the CEI for mispresenting his work. From a press release issued this weekend by his employer, the University of Missouri-Columbia:
"These television ads are a deliberate effort to confuse and mislead the public about the global warming debate," Davis said. "They are selectively using only parts of my previous research to support their claims. They are not telling the entire story to the public."
"It has been predicted that global warming might increase the growth of the interior ice sheet due to increased precipitation," Davis said. "All three of these points were noted in our study and ignored by CEI in a deliberate effort to confuse and mislead the public."
So there.]

Unclear on the principle

The poor reputation with which the social sciences are saddled by practitioners of the harder variety may or may not be completely deserved. (See the Sokal hoax.) But sometimes they just make it so easy.

A few weeks back, you may recall, Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council denied a Montreal researcher's request for $40,000 to study the effects of the intelligent design movement on Canadian students. He had already looked at the understanding of biological evolution in Islamic societies (see Nature, April 4, if you have access) with $175,000 of Canadian tax-payers' money funneled through SSHRC, and the recent controversy over the Kitzmiller decision in Dover, Penn., had made the subject timely. So why not?

But the SSHRC board turned him down, in part because there was inadequate "justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent-design theory, was correct." Much gnashing of biologists' teeth resulted. Obviously, the social scientists aren't hip to the status of evolution as the linchpin of the field.

I, for one, had hoped the incident would have shamed the whole field of social sciences into backing off. But no. This week's Nature contains a letter (freely accessible for all) from a former member of the SSHRC board, complaining that it's the biologists who just don't get it. By "it," Yves Gingras, a historian at Université du Québec à Montréal, means scientific objectivity, it would appear:
...this excerpt can be interpreted in a less dramatic manner: the committee simply thought the study was not impartial enough in its approach. After all, social-science research should study phenomena and not promote a particular view; many scholars legitimately demand a symmetric approach.
Here we go again. A demand for balance. What we in the journalism business call "false equivalency."

Memo to all post-modern, deconstructionist social "scientists": Treating evolution and intelligent design as equally worthy scientific explanations for the diversity of life is like saying the stork is an acceptable explanation for human reproduction. Please see the quote by Michael Shermer that adorns the right column of this blog: "As for evolution, it happened. Deal with it."

15 May 2006

Jon Stewart: Enemy of Democracy?

Ordinarily, I would recommend all visitors to the Island watch last night's episode of The Simpsons, which parodies the Scopes Monkey Trial. In end, Homer saves the day, shores up the theory of evolution, and puts the final nail in creationism's coffin by demonstrating that he's the missing link. But after reading a new study that suggests political parody could actually be bad for us, I'm afraid Matt Groening might be doing more harm than good.

I'm joking, of course. But let's consider that study, anyway. "The Daily Show Effect: Candidate Evaluations, Efficacy, and American Youth," was produced by Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan S. Morris of East Carolina University. (That's in Greenville, N.C.) Instead of the Simpsons, the researchers brought their PhDs in political science to bear on the sociological effects of Jon Stewart's late-night skewering of current events. After studying what happens when young adults watched coverage of the 2004 presidential election, the concluded that
exposure to The Daily Show'’s brand of political humor influenced young Americans by lowering support for both presidential candidates and increasing cynicism.
The study, which appears in this month's edition of the journal American Politics Research (Volume 34, Number 3), compared what happens to the general outlook of college students after watching an eight-minute clip of Daily Show fake-news coverage of the 2004 election, or a comparable series of items from CBS News. A third group watched nothing. Then everyone was surveyed for their attitudes on things like faith in the electoral system and trust in the media.

Some notable findings:
Participants were asked to agree or disagree with the statement "“I have faith in the U.S. electoral system"” ... participants exposed to The Daily Show condition were significantly less likely to agree with the statement. When holding all other variables in the model constant, exposure to The Daily Show caused a 23% increase in the probability that a participant would disagree that he or she has faith in the electoral system.
No such significant relationship existed for those who watched election coverage on CBS Evening News.
Exposure to The Daily Show does indeed seem to generate increased cynicism toward the news media. Again, this relationship did not exist among participants exposed to CBS Evening News.
The more youths watch Jon Stewart, then, the less they think of politicians. And this, say the researchers, is important because "young people are more impressionable ... and thus more prone to any adverse effects The Daily Show might have." Watching Leno or Letterman, or other late-night talk shows doesn't produce similar results. Indeed, "no other news source drives cynicism toward the candidates and the political system more than The Daily Show" and "negative perceptions of candidates could have participation implications by keeping more youth from the polls."

I don't have too much problem with the study's methodology or the idea that too much cynicism isn't good for democracy. But I wonder how important the Daily Show really is. According to the good people at Nielsen's, a typical episode draws about 1.3 million viewers. The audience for the CBS News is an order of magnitude larger. Collectively, the three old-fashioned networks nightly newscasts have about 30 million viewers.

Combine those numbers with the unfortunately reality that college students don't show up in large numbers at the polls in the first place and it's hard to see why we should care all that much about one satirical program on the Comedy Channel. I wish more people were watching, but they aren't.

Baumgartner and Morris also offer some observations that seem to undermine their thesis. For example, consider the discussion about something they call "internal efficacy," which they define as the ability to make sense of things. Among the questions put to the participants in the post-viewing survey was:
"Sometimes politics and government seems so complicated that a person like me can'’t really understand what's going on"” (1 = strongly agree, 3 = neither agree nor disagree, 5 = strongly disagree; higher values indicate higher internal efficacy). The results indicate that the effect on internal efficacy is positive for The Daily Show and suggests that even though The Daily Show generates cynicism toward the media and the electoral process, it simultaneously makes young viewers more confident about their own ability to understand politics.
The authors explain away this interpretation by alleging that
the Daily Show'’s coverage simplifies politics for its audience in a humorous manner. The complexities of politics are exposed as a function of incompetent leaders, not an incompetent public. Political humor also simplifies political reality because confusing counterarguments on issues and events are largely ignored.
The National Annenberg Election Survey of 2004, however, shows that Daily Show "viewers are, on the whole, more interested and educated than their counterparts." To be fair to Baumgartner and Morris, they acknowledge that fact. But I find it hard to reconcile the idea that viewers only think they understand politics better because the material they're watching is overly simplified with the fact that those same viewers are better educated than non-Daily Show fans in their slice of the demographic pie.

Furthermore, who says the CBS News doesn't overly simply its coverage, confuse political arguments or ignore significant events? I think I could make a solid case that my favorite regular Daily Show segment, This Week in God, offers a more nuanced and objective rendering of religious current events than does any of the big networks.

(Plus, This Week in God is very, very funny.)

Finally, the authors make what seems to me a convincing argument in support of Jon Stewart's positive impact on American democracy. (First, a definition: "external efficacy" is defined as "beliefs about the responsiveness of governmental authorities and institutions to citizen demands"”):
Citizens who understand politics are more likely to participate than those who do not. Moreover, the increased cynicism associated with decreased external efficacy may contribute to an actively critical orientation toward politics. This may translate into better citizenship, because a little skepticism toward the political system could be considered healthy for democracy.
And with that I whole-heartedly agree. A little skepticism is always a good thing. So what if Daily Show fans had negative opinions of both Kerry and Bush? I'd be worried about anyone who wasn't at least somewhat disappointed in the options available in 2004. If anything, we need more, not less, of the Daily Show's brand of skepticism of the political status quo.

11 May 2006

Windbags on the Cape

If anyone should understand the value of a willingness to compromise, it should be a member of Congress. And yet, an all-or-nothing attitude seems to have taken hold of a growing number of Massachusetts congressmen who can't bring themselves to admit that finding a way out of our reliance on fossil fuels will require some kind of environmental trade-off.

How else to explain their opposition to the first serious attempt to bring wind power to the East Coast of the United States? Even politicians should know that the laws of thermodynamics dictate that there is no free lunch. Wind power is no exception. I don't mean the infinitesimal loss of heat energy that wind turbines extract from atmospheric circulation, but the more tangible physical and aesthetic tolls that comes with any industrial installation.

The people behind Cape Wind want to build the country's first offshore wind farm, and they want to due it on Horseshoe Shoal in the middle of Nantucket Sound, which is between the former whaling capital of Nantucket Island and sandy shores of Cape Cod. The environmental concerns raised by the project are minimal. If anything, the 130 support pylons will serve as a sort of vertical reef habitat for scores of species of invertebrates and the fish that dine on them. But that's not what the opponents are worried about.

What Sen. Ted Kennedy and the other opponents, now including Reps. William Delahunt, Barney Frank, Edward Markey and Richard Neal, object to is the damage the turbines will do to the view from shore, much of which is dominated by multimillion-dollar summer homes of captains of industry and other members of the demographic stratum to which the Kennedy clan belong.

Sen. John Kerry, it seems, is undecided. Surprise. According to the Associated Press, "Rep. Michael Capuano, is a probable 'yes' vote. The rest of the 10-member House delegation [from Massachusetts) was either undecided or refused comment."

When you consider that the turbines will be little more than a tiny spec on the horizon, as seen from the decks of the well-to-do back on the Cape, the visual-blot argument is a little hard to swallow. I've lived on the Cape and can personally attest to the minimal impact those windmills would have, even if they were half again as close to shore as the current plan calls for. Most days in the summer, sea mist makes anything more a mile or two from shore invisible.

There's talk that Kennedy managed to get Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens to side with him in some sort of back-room deal over national energy policy, but we'll probably never know the score on that level.

What we do know is that even wind turbines come with an environmental price. But it's not a very high price, relative to just about every other option. The most recent scientific study I could find on the subject is "The effects of wind turbines on antipredator behavior in California ground squirrels (Spermophilus beecheyi)" (Biological Conservation, DOI:10.1016/j.biocon.2006.02.016). The researchers found a higher incidence of cautionary antipredator tactics, such as returning to the area near their burrows, among squirrels close to turbines. They conclude that:
Though population level impacts of these behavioral differences remain to be explored, our results indicate that behavioral impacts of turbines on wildlife should be considered during future turbine development.
Not exactly the most revolutionary, or worrying finding. New Scientist has a short item on the study here for those without journal access.

Other studies have show more consequential effects on birds, which have been known to be dissected as they fly through the turning radius of smaller turbine blades. But bigger turbines pose less of a threat and the emerging consensus is that wind farms don't cause significantly more bird deaths that other large industrial installations. For example,
...design innovations such as slower-moving blades and fewer perching spots have made collisions less likely, said Janet Larsen, director of research at the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington nonprofit group dedicated to building an environmentally sustainable economy. Birders were jumping to conclusions about future projects because of old history, she said. Bird death "is not as valid a concern as it once was. It's a knee-jerk reaction."
The knee-jerk opposition to windfarms is not restricted to Congress, of course. Just about everywhere someone wants to build windmills, the NIMBY forces rear their ugly heads. I even came across a disparaging remark recently on the blog of the usually ultra-reasonable Chet Raymo, who calls wind power "unsightly."

But getting back to the laws of nature, rather than the United States, what the NIMBY types don't seem to understand is that only the very fortunate are able to take advantage of energy-generating opportunities that have no negative repercussions for the natural world. Nuclear power doesn't warm the planet, but leaves all that nasty radioactive waste behind. Biomass may be carbon-neutral, but it gobbles up precious farmland we're going to need as the world's population tops out (if we're lucky) at 9 billion. Photovoltaics are nice in theory, but still much too expensive to generate the gigawatts that modern society demands. Run-of-river and micro-hydro turbines are similarly attractive and insufficient.

Wind power, while suffering from intermittency, remains the single most economical alternative to fossil fuels. It's already competitive with every fossil fuel but coal. And once the cost of hydrogen fuel cells comes down, wind energy can be stored and used to power just about anything, including cars. Yes they will spoil a few vistas, kill the odd cormorant, and maybe scare a few squirrels. but I'd say that it's fair exchange.

Wind power opponents must be reminded that neither economics nor environmental politics allow for perfect solutions. Wind may not be perfect, but the alternatives are worse. in this case, it's a little ironic that while the need for sacrifice and compromise are readily accepted by scientists, the same cannot be said for politicians.

09 May 2006

Mad scientist redux

Christopher Frayling, rector of London's Royal College of Art, has an eight-part slide show up at Slate on the depiction of mad scientists in cinema. He concludes by noting that such films:
are usually about science as a source of anxiety, scientists as outsiders and oddballs, research as very likely to get into the wrong hands, and scientific institutions as dangerous places to be.
Maybe that's why Bush hates science so much -- he's been watching too many movies. (We know he doesn't read the papers.) It all makes sense now...

08 May 2006

Dowsing for the dead

File this one under the "“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" category, even in Casper, Wyoming, where, according to an AP report:
some prognosticators practitioners say it's time to repeal an old law that prohibits fortune tellers, palm readers and card readers from charging for their services.... The consumer protection portion of Casper's municipal code prohibits fortune tellers, card readers, palm readers and others from gaining anything of value for their work.
The law hasn't exactly been sitting at the top of the local police force's priority list of violations to worry about. Various examples of New Age quackery-for-hire have gone unpunished at the Casper Holistic Fair for the last six years. "Nonetheless, many say it's time for repeal."

The most interesting part of the story for me is the final paragraph:
Similar laws across the country have been repealed in recent years. A demonstration in Waynesville, North Carolina, led to the state repealing its law against fortune telling in 1999.
That particular law, N.C. General Statute 14-401.5, stated that
It shall be unlawful for any person to practice the arts of phrenology, palmistry, clairvoyance, fortune-telling and other crafts of a similar kind in the counties named herein. Any person violating any provision of this section shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.
Curiously, I was treated just yesterday to a demonstration that would almost certainly be included in that list of proscribed activities -- gravesite dowsing -- as part of a story I'm working for Science & Spirit magazine. It took place in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, not far from Waynesville. Dowsing for the dead, it would seem, operates in a similar fashion to conventional dowsing, in which a pair of metal wands are held in the hands and "allowed" to reorient themselves in the presence of water.

The now-overturned NC law made exemptions for amateurs operating "in connection with school or church socials, provided such socials are held in school or church buildings" but I don't think non-sectarian, off-site practice at remote cemeteries would qualify for the exemption. So, not seven years ago, the dowser would have been breaking state law. How about that?

Even more surprising, a few miles to the northwest, the same activity was subject to some harsh restrictions only two years ago. But a federal judge struck down a Dickson, Tennessee, ordinance that made it illegal for "any person to conduct the business of, solicit for, or ply the trade of fortune teller, clairvoyant, hypnotist, spiritualist, palmist, phrenologist, or other mystic endowed with supernatural powers."

Like the N.C. statute, that particular law was thrown out thanks to the persuasive powers of an American Civil Liberties Union attorney.
"The protections of the First Amendment ensure that our government may not decide which ideas are right or wrong," said Barbara Moss, a cooperating attorney with the ACLU of Tennessee. "A person is free to write or sell books saying that the earth is flat or the moon is made of green cheese. Our client should be free to make predictions, for fun or profit, without government interference." (ACLU, June 7, 2004)
Of course, had I known yesterday about recently departed N.C. General Statute 14-401.5, I might have asked the National Park Service ranger in attendance about his powers to enforce state law. Just out of curiosity.

05 May 2006

Actions speak louder

The marquee that caught my eye as I drove home this morning from my weekly shopping expedition doesn't usually inspire me. But there's a first time for everything. I didn't have a digital camera handy, so I've recreated the message with the help of Church Sign Generator.

It was the last line that got me to thinking. Indeed, anyone can honk. It proves nothing. Saying you're a good Christian doesn't make you one. As John Prine sang too many years ago, "Your flag decal won't get you into heaven anymore."

Likewise, anyone can slap a 99-cent "Support our Troops" magnet on their car. That doesn't mean you support the troops. One could argue that the best way to support the troops is not to hang tough with the Commander in Chief, but to vote instead for politicians who claim to want to bring the boys and girls back home before they make things any worse than they already are.

The problem is magnified in the blogosphere, of course. Anyone can write a screed demanding this, that or the other thing, excoriating the latest political target that has offended your sense of propriety, or exposing the hypocrisy of last night's talk-TV buffoonery. And a good many do just that without even the courage to take responsibility for their words, choosing to post anonymously.

Actions speak louder.

All this brought to mind the neverending sparring matches among various members of science blogging set, myself included, over how respectful one should be when debating the faithful. Some of the more hard-core atheist types express disappointment with their scientific colleagues who continue to hold some degree of religiosity. Some of the toughest criticism is leveled at Christians who admit they don't really believe Christ died on the cross for our sins -- which is the core believe of the religion -- but continue to go through the motions anyway.

For my part, I have written that I don't think it's possible to be a good scientist and a good person of faith. You either restrict your beliefs to the natural world or you don't. Those who don't run the risk of letting their weakness for the supernatural contaminate their scientific reputation, if not their technique.

But on this, the first anniversary of the Island of Doubt, I thought it would be a good time to expand on that subject. For those who don't claim to be part of the scientific community, straddling the rational and irrational doesn't necessarily invoke a conflict of interest. Honking for Jesus doesn't make you a good Christian, and neither does it make you a fool.

Voting only for politicians who share your particular brand of religion even while he or she champions policies that undermine your ability to feed your family makes you a fool.

Demanding your local school teach creationism alongside evolution in biology class because your church leaders tell you the world is only 6,000 years old makes you a fool.

Not worrying about the environmental impact of your lifestyle decisions because you anticipate a speedy and imminent Apocalypse that will render any degree of pollution moot makes you a fool.

Refusing to vaccinate your children because you believe Jesus will take care of them makes you a fool, and a danger to society.

Actions (and inaction when reason dictates action) do speak louder.

One more thing, and I'll try not to be insulting about this: a lot of people say they believe in a god, but few have ever had a personal, spiritually revealing experience to justify that belief. Instead, they simply espouse the faith of the family that raised them. As a result, their belief isn't quite as profound as experientially derived belief. Most of the decent, intelligent, but religious people I know fall into the family-faith category, and they don't let their religion dominate their lives to the exclusion of reason and a healthy, skeptical approach to the things that really matter. They just find a certain degree of comfort in the sense of belonging -- both to a congregation and to the greater universe -- that makes an at-times cruel world easier to bear.

That sort of belief doesn't threaten the fabric of society nearly as much as fundamentalism. I would encourage the atheist/agnostic community to stop worrying about what people say, and concentrate instead on what they do. Likewise, I hope that people of faith could one day stop getting offended by the failure of some of us to share their beliefs, and reserve their distaste for those who actually cause suffering.

I still suspect that religion no longer serves a positive influence on society, and we could even debate its net historical value. But so long as people act rationally, it matters less what they say. I'm not going to complain (much) if you want honk for Jesus (or Allah, Yahweh, Buddha or Zoroaster). Just don't do it with National Science Foundation money, or while driving through my neighborhood at 2 a.m.

02 May 2006

Ranks of the unbelievers swell

One of five Canadians has dispensed with religion, according to a new poll, which concludes that the secular slice of society there is between half again and twice as large as the American rate, depending on which survey you're using for comparison. (One of the more reputable, a 2004 Pew survey, pegs the atheist slice of the US population at 9 percent.)

The encouraging part of the Statistics Canada report this week is that the number of Canadians aged 15 and over who don't consider themselves part of a religious community has risen from 12 percent in 1985 to 19 percent in 2004. Plus, the older you are, the more likely you are to consider religion an important part of your life. A quarter of those on the low side of 30 have no religious affiliation, but the figure fall to 9 percent for the over-60 set.

Should we interpret that to mean that the ranks of the faithful will decline with generational overturning? Or is it simply that people tend to find God as they reach their golden years?

The best way to find out is to wait a few decades. But for impatient among us, there are some interesting hints of what's to come. For starters, religiosity is highest in the Atlantic provinces at 92 percent, and lowest in British Columbia, with just 64 percent reporting belief in a higher power.

B.C. is where one finds the highest concentration of recent immigrants, both from other countries and other regions of Canada. The population of the Pacific Northwest is growing fast. Atlantic Canada not so much. Consider also that atheists tend to be found in urban areas - like Vancouver. If these trends persist, it would seem inevitable that religiosity will continue to decline in Canada.

From what I can glean from the American surveys, there is no trend of similar magnitude evident down here. Why is that, I wonder?

01 May 2006

The thrill is gone

"It's funny because it's true," said Homer Simpson. But just how far can you take the adage that all humor is rooted in truth? Saturday night's White House Correspondents Dinner suggests there is a limit.

This year's event featured comedian du jour Stephen Colbert playing his right-wing blowhard alter ego, also named Stephen Colbert, celebrating President George W. Bush, who sat, mostly unamused, just a few feet away at the head table for all 25 excruciating minutes of the satirical roast. Colbert's material revolved around the same themes that dominate his nightly parody on Comedy Central: the superiority of emotion over intellect, the power of acting from the gut rather than the brain, the irrelevancy of reality, of dogma over doubt.

On television, before a live, like-minded, studio audience, this stuff can be devastatingly funny. On C-SPAN, with Bush seated just off-camera, it was something else. What was hilarious in one context was awkward, uncomfortable and unsettling in another.

This took me completely by surprise. To my ears, there are few hours of television that generate more laughs than the one-two punch of Jon Stewart's Daily Show followed by Colbert's Colbert Report. It's fine to draw attention to Bush's anti-intellectualism and the disastrous consequences for the world around us, on a comedy channel. But when the guy is sitting right there, it's much harder to forget about those consequences.

You may not share my discomfort. Many of the invitees at the dinner did chuckle along with Colbert, though not as heartily as I suspect the organizers would have hoped. (The entire thing can be seen here. and read here.) But consider a few excerpts:
The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday, that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change, this man's beliefs never will.
That's funny, until you remember that Bush's refusal to accept the findings of the world's best epidemiologists -- and fund family-planning programs that include the distribution of condoms -- has condemned countless thousands of Africans to an existence cursed by AIDS.

That's funny until you remember that his dismissal of the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community is wasting precious time as we struggle to put the brakes on climate change.

That's funny until you remember that this is a guy who would undermine the education of our children with creationist nonsense instead of sticking to evolution.
Now, I know there's some polls out there saying this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in "reality." And reality has a well-known liberal bias.
That's funny, until you remember that the Bush administration exposed the identity of a covert CIA operative for purely political purposes. Or until you remember that reality really does seem to have a liberal bias, at least it does relative to the neo-conservatism of those in charge at the moment.
I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.
That's funny, until you remember that there are thousands of families who are missing a father or mother or son or daughter thanks to a war waged on false pretences, and that, eight months after Katrina, thousands more still have almost nothing to their name thanks to the worse disaster response in American history.

And then it's not so funny anymore. Not when the president is sitting right there.