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The partial return of the ozone hole

July 20, 2018

Four decades back, the rapidly increasing ozone hole was an environmental threat. And a looming health threat. Scientists knew the cause: increasing CFCs in the atmosphere, mostly used as refrigerants. In the Montreal Protocol, the governments of the world agreed to limit the use of CFCs. (And yes, you can go back and read right-wing pundits arguing against that regulation, practicing the same techniques that they now bring against global warming. “Right-wing” is the right term, because no one opposing conservation of the environment should be called a conservative.)

The effort to control CFCs and stop the expansion of the ozone hole was a great success. That aspect of the atmosphere returned to normal, and after a while, most people stopped thinking about it. Young people today don’t recall that once it was a looming catastrophe. The cooling industry had to move to alternate refrigerants, and to more precise charging and discharging protocols. Unless you’re in that industry, you likely don’t think about that, either.

In recent years, the ozone hole has been growing again. Due to a surprise increase in CFC-11. It turns out China has been cheating, using that chemical in its foam industry.


Treason and identity

July 18, 2018

Throughout much of history, rulers have swapped their foreign foes and friends as readily as perceived advantage allows. Anyone who has spent much time playing multi-player strategy games understands how that works. And if the US is that kind of nation, then it makes perfect sense that we could be Russia’s enemy one minute, and Russia’s friend the next.

The reason many liberals see Trump’s overtures to Putin as tantamount to treason is because the US, in their eyes, is not that kind of nation. In our view, part and parcel of what makes us America is a commitment to liberal democracy. We view political equality as ongoing aspiration, governments justified only by the rights and results those governments secure for all those within their domain, and the adherence to facts as prior to the pursuit of politics. Those are inherently cosmopolitan values. We like that our nation, for most of its history, has welcomed most anyone who wanted to come here and make a new life for themselves. We understand the need for a measure of realpolitik, given practical constraints and the nature of the world around us. Nonetheless, we expect our government to align itself generally with the other liberal democracies, to work with other nations on health and environmental issues, to advance the cause of human rights, and to be wary of strongmen and autocrats.

The right-wing populists whom Trump rode to power have a notion of what constitutes the US that is far more tribal. In their eyes, real Americans are what define America, their community traditions, their religious traditions, their art and music. Their language. They want restrictions on who can join the tribe. They may differ over who they think are real Americans, many insisting that implies Christian belief or at least a degree of religion, not Muslim. Some insisting that whiteness matters. Most agreeing it does not include we liberals. And they are happy to have a strongman as a leader, so long as he is theirs and they are his. They are pleased to see him piss off the EU, whose nations after all are liberal democracies. And they don’t at all mind him cozying up to other strongmen, from Putin to Duterte and Erdogan, if he makes that strategic decision. Their values are loyalty and respect and defense of the group. Values that are quite a bit more universal than those created in the Englightenment. Blood and patriotism.

The rise of the populist right in modern, liberal democracies has spurred books about how democracies turn into authoritarian regimes, and writing on the demise of liberalism. Daniel Cole is having none of it, noting that there were reports of liberalism’s demise a century back. That rebuttal would be more cheering, if the intervening years hadn’t seen the rise of fascist states from former democracies, and the wars fought because of that. Some of which the fascists won. Fascists in Spain still celebrate Franco.

The painting is Patriotic Storm, by Fortunato Depero.

Old Americans, old bread

July 17, 2018

Texas State University archaeologists working at the nearby Gault site report stone tools that are thousands of years earlier and different technology from the Clovis people (cite):

This assemblage exhibits a previously unknown, early projectile point technology unrelated to Clovis. Within a wider context, this evidence suggests that Clovis technology spread across an already regionalized, indigenous population.

About the same time that the people who used those tools were enjoying central Texas, hunter-gatherers in Jordan were making flatbread. That, four thousand years prior to agriculture. Which makes perfect sense: before you bother to plant grain, you know why. (Cite.)

Archaeological evidence is sparse, and more sparse the older the time period. Scientists being conservative, they want the histories they tell to stick close to the evidence in hand. It still is in the trend in archaeology that more evidence results in more complex histories, with dating of biological features, technological developments, cultural practices, and geographic spread pushed further and further back.

Democracy, smothered in lies

July 16, 2018

Before Trump held a rally in Montana, he spewed out a string of lies. Then in the campaign rally, he lied more. He went to the NATO summit. And lied. His lie that Germany gets most of its energy from Russian gas was especially egregious, since gas comprises less than 20% of Germany’s energy mix. After the NATO summit, he congratulated himself. And lied about NATO allies’ commitments on spending.

As I previously have posted, Trump’s lies align him with his followers, and assure them he is theirs. Fact-checking his lies consume the media and push aside more important news. His lies shape what his base believes. Lies are how he rules. His economic trade war is founded on his power to block imports that threaten national security. Not only is that absurd regarding any import from Canada, Trump has made quite clear he is pursuing his own economic agenda. In times past, that flagrant abuse of power by a president would generate scandal and Congressional hearings. Under Trump, it is par for the course.

Trump didn’t create a populist political movement built on lies and conspiracy theories. Fox News and Breitbart and Alex Jones did that. Trump just saw the opportunity to ride it to power. Philosophers and journalists are writing books on that assault on veracity. I found it interesting that Mike Cernovich, one of the more mendacious pundits on the right, is consciously postmodernist: “Look, I read postmodernist theory in college. If everything is a narrative, then we need alternatives to the dominant narrative.”

A curious thing is how the lies keep working and long survive their exposure. The faux scandal around Uranium One never made sense. It has largely dropped from the right wing news, since the whistle-blower they promised turned out to be a dud. But it still wanders around like a zombie in right-wing forums, and Trump still burnishes it in his tweets.

People sometimes lie, including I suspect every president past. Habitual liars are different. For them, lies are not the conscious exception but the routine disregard. This is the first time in US history that we have had a habitual liar for a president. And the first time that a political movement built around conspiratorial thinking has gained national power. Does that threaten the future of our democracy? Ezra Klein argues that we have faced worse internal threats. He certainly is correct in pointing out that our past is not nearly as unspoiled as many want to believe it. Michiko Kakutani, focusing on the nature of the current problem, is not so sanguine. I am loathe to predict.

According to The Star, trying to count, Trump is lying more now than ever before. I’m not sure how one weighs lies.

Short of violence, nothing is less civil than telling a constant stream of lies. Trump’s incivility is amplified by Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Sanders, and others who take the job of pretending that he isn’t doing just that. Having brought us cultic government, no Trump supporter can plea for civility, turn around and claim to care about honesty, or pretend concern for government corruption. If you ever gave a smidgen of credence to Pizzagate or the right-wing nonsense around Uranium One, you need your bullshit meter adjusted. And perhaps, to figure your way out of the cult.

Teenage sailors descend on Corpus Christi

July 14, 2018

Almost 400 teenage sailors from 86 nations are competing here next week in the Youth Sailing World Championship. The ones I have met so far, from Europe, all are well-mannered and speak good English. The guys are ravenous, which is just part of being an active teenage boy.

Photo shows what young sailors looked like in Henry Matisse’s day.

Making America hate again

July 13, 2018

TrumpMuslimTweetsAndCrimesYesterday, I explained how different scientific studies carry quite different meaning, because of different underlying knowledge, different questions being tested, different experimental set-up. So consider a sociology study (cite) from the University of Warwick, that takes a variety of statistical looks at how Trump’s tweets on Islam relate to anti-Muslim hate crimes in the US. The only reason it makes sense even to do such a study is that we already know there is a strong streak of Islamophobia in US, that it both affects politics and generates hate crimes, and that Trump builds his campaign to appeal to it. Without that, this would just be an exercise in looking for spurious correlation. Because we already know that, there is the interesting question of whether and how communication from their leader affects the behavior of Trump supporters who are Islamophobic.

It might be that his tweets incite his followers’ Islamophobia, causing them to commit more hate crimes. It might be that they serve as a cathartic valve, that given the comfort of a leader who expresses their animosity they don’t need to act themselves. It might be neither. So it’s worth taking a look at the data and seeing what is there. Given the nature of what’s being studied, the fact that the data is entirely observational, and that external events affect both Trump’s tweets and his followers behavior, that statistical relationship only goes so far:

While highly suggestive, a major limitation of this research is that it is correlational not causal. In order to prove that Trump’s tweets truly caused an increase in hate crimes, the researchers would need to run a carefully controlled experiment showing that exposure to such messages leads people to act out in hateful ways. This research also does not prove that Trump’s tweets cause people to hold prejudicial views towards Muslims. In fact, the researchers themselves do not seem to believe this. Instead, they point out that their findings are consistent with the idea that Trump’s presidency has made it more socially acceptable for many people to express prejudicial or hateful views that they already possessed prior to his election.

Some conservatives will hate this research. But they should ask themselves why? Those doing it understand its limits. In the case of Scientific American, the reporter understands its limits. I suspect what they really hate isn’t the research itself, but some of the underlying knowledge that raises the question. They would just as soon pretend that there is no Islamophobia in the US, and that Trump doesn’t campaign on it.

Studies, statistics, Bayes

July 12, 2018

The fact that many scientific studies are wrong now generates regular press. Which might lead the casual reader wondering why they should pay any attention at all to scientists and their research.

What that misses is that no piece of research stands on its own. That research I earlier discussed on coffee and longevity makes sense only in the context of an understanding of biology generally and lifestyle studies specifically. Every individual is biological different. From their own life history as well as from genetic variation. There is no universally optimal diet or lifestyle. Virtually every food or exercise or life practice that is generally beneficial will be problematic for individuals, sometimes because of specific medical issues, sometimes just from individual quirk. Nor is there any optimal diet or lifestyle for an individual. Just about everything that helps you in some ways hurts you in some others. And no one knows what new medical problems their future will bring.

One purpose of randomized trials with controls is to increase the likelihood that the experiment shows an effect of the thing being studied, rather than the effect of biological variability. Which alas then buries any tie between that variability and the thing studied. If 75% of white lab rats have a combination of genes that cause them to live longer when fed caffeine, while 25% die quicker, the randomized trial may show you that there is a “general” benefit to caffeine, while hiding that very connection.

It’s harder to randomize people, who generally will live the way they want. When someone educated in biology reads about the study showing British coffee drinkers live longer and the study showing the French who eat more processed food get more cancer, one of the first doubts that pops to mind is that may merely reflect something peculiar about which Brits drink coffee and which French eat processed foods! Or not so peculiar: those habits likely have some correlation with social class. Medical studies sometimes try to compensate for that, but of necessity resort to rough measures.

All that is quite different from reading a physics study on the latest measurement of mass of the top quark. There, the relevant background knowledge is that a top quark is a top quark is a top quark, rigorously adhering to the laws of quantum mechanics, each characterized only by a few parameters. The statistics relevant are due to the probabilistic nature of QM and due to experimental set up, not because some top quarks spent too many years in hydrogen atoms where they acquired bad habits and gained some unwanted mass.

David Papineau describes how Thomas Bayes’s posthumous paper on probability advanced our understanding of the role of background knowledge. I’m skeptical that what we bring to the reading of any paper can be formalized as a set of prior probabilities. For example, what prior do you give to the top quark adhering to the Schrödinger equation? How many 9s does that have? In contrast, the prior for whether a previously untried surgery will be effective is dicey. But there is no way to assign a precise probability.

Yet, I don’t agree with Papineau that significance tests are useless:

One of the great scandals of modern intellectual life is the way generations of statistics students have been indoctrinated into the farrago of significance testing. Take coins again. In reality you won’t meet a heads-biased coin in a month of Sundays. But if you keep tossing coins five times, and apply the method of significance tests “at the 5 per cent level”, you’ll reject the hypothesis of fairness in favour of heads-biasedness whenever you see five heads, which will be about once every thirty-second coin, simply because fairness implies that five heads is less likely than 5 per cent. This isn’t just an abstract danger. An inevitable result of statistical orthodoxy has been to fill the science journals with bogus results.

The issue lies largely in expectations. Should surgeons publish the positive results of a new surgery? Sure. How else are they going to communicate what they are trying? Should the journal insist at least on some statistal significance test, to weigh against a result that is pure chance? Probably. Should the rest of the medical community then take that as a confirmed finding? Of course not! Does that mean we want journals full of bogus results? In a sense.

If researchers are going to communicate on the edge of experiment, some results they produce will be bogus. No matter how much we improve methodology, there is inherent uncertainty in research. While I have some sympathy for the notion that scientific instituions provide too much incentive for novelty and too little for replication and validation, there is another aspect to the problem. Science journalists are not good at distinguishing different kinds of research and qualifying their results against background knowledge. Published papers are more like people than elementary particles, varying widely along diverse dimensions. Too many science reporters treat them all as the same. They need to be better at helping their readers suss out the differences between different kinds of results. “This is the first result for an experimental medical treatment that may, like many, stumble in future experiment.” Versus: “This is the latest in a long chain of related findings backed by deep theory.” And every variation between and besides.

The painting is a portrait of Richard Price, who hobnobbed with Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Priestly, who mentored Mary Wollstonecraft when she was young, who was an early supporter of American independence, and who published Bayes’s famous paper after his death. And who, unlike Bayes, had a portrait painted.