Daily Archives: November 14, 2012

I didn't realize the New Scientist was a tool of climate science denialism: The question of drought

I would almost count it unethical that the New Scientist has a thing that looks like a blog post (an article you can comment on) that has some science in it, but that you have to be a paid subscriber to comment on. WTF New Scientist? What are you trying to pull?

But that’s OK, I’ve got a blog and can comment here.

Link between global warming and drought questioned
14 November 2012 by Fred Pearce

THE world has been suffering more droughts in recent decades, and climate change will bring many more, according to received wisdom.

“Received Wisdom” means stuff we were told, passed down to us from authority or tradition, that we accept generally unquestioned and that becomes part of our belief system even if the science or other data does not support it. Pearce either thinks that the global warming-drought link was made up and passed on (by whom? I don’t know) as opposed to being the result of consideration and research by involved and knowledgeable scientists, or he does not know what “Received Wisdom” means. Either way, this should be clarified.

Now it is being challenged by an analysis that questions a key index on which it is based.

Predictions of megadroughts affecting Africa and the western side of North America may be wrong. We could even be headed for wetter times, says Justin Sheffield of Princeton University.

What you are seeing here is a misdirection used by many climate change science denialists, having to do with the time frame of global warming. Droughts affecting Africa are predicted? Sorry, guy, but they’ve happened already and are in progress now. The link between global warming and drought has to do with the regional water cycle, and the idea that if things warm up you get more evaporation in some regions and higher concentration of rainfall, so drought and floods ensue. If you look at the temperature-specific effects of global warming by region, you’ll see that certain areas of Africa and souther hemisphere land masses show more warmth earlier, and they also show more drought earlier. The idea that the effects of global warming are something of the future is a standard denialist lie, and I’m thinking Fred Pearce doesn’t know that. Droughts in Africa, the circum Mediterranean region, and Australia are old news, and the link to global warming is highly likely.

The problem with the PDSI, says Sheffield, is that it does not directly measure drought. Instead, it looks at the difference between precipitation and evaporation. But since evaporation rates are hard to determine, it uses temperature as a proxy, on the assumption that evaporation rises as it gets hotter.

Mostly, that is a reasonable assumption, holding ambient moisture in the air constant, because of physics and stuff.

Sheffield points out that temperature is only one factor influencing evaporation. He inferred evaporation rates using the Penman-Monteith equation, which includes factors such as wind speed and humidity, and found “little change in global drought over the past 60 years” (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature11575). His new calculations back up his own previous analysis that the most significant of recent droughts mostly occurred in the 1950s and 60s, before global warming got going.

If global warming increases evaporation and changes the water cycle to cause drought, then why have we ruled out droughts in the 50s and 60s as irrelevant? There is a general pattern. Climate on a round planet with a sun (like this one) will tend to be driven by equatorial factors, and similarly, the effects of global warming have probably worked their way out from the equator. Ruling out drought in the 50s and 60s, one hundred years after the start of wholesale burning of coal, is rather absurd. Some effects of Global Warming have become very strong in recent decades, especially in the Arctic, but others have been more slow and steady during the entire time of industrial burning of mainly coal. Sea level rise should give a good indicator of whether or not Global Warming is a thing that only counts from 1970, as the article implies. Let’s have a look at that:

I chose that graph because it is one used by global warming denialists to deny that global warming is real by pointing out that an alleged change that would come with global warming happened before their imagined start of climate change (recently). But no, this is a phenomenon that has been going on for a while.

So, no, major events that have fundamentally changed the distribution of bioms in the 1950s and 60s near the Equator can not be disassociated from this process.

It may well be that the PDSI is not the best measurement for drought, but the arguments made here by the New “Scientist” reek of global warming denialist illogic. I look forward to a spirited discussion among actual drought experts over the coming days. If there is something interesting, I’ll report back.

Meanwhile, New Scientist, you should let people comment on the stuff you put out freely. Paid-to-comment in a world where no one else does that produces the appearance of bias. I would think you would not want to do that.

Kurzweil: How to create a mind

How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed is Ray Kurzweil’s latest book. You may know of him as the author of The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Kurzweil is a “futurist” and has a reputation as being one of the greatest thinkers of our age, as well as being One of the greatest hucksters of the age, depending on whom you ask. In his new book…

Kurzweil presents a provocative exploration of the most important project in human-machine civilization—reverse engineering the brain to understand precisely how it works and using that knowledge to create even more intelligent machines.

Kurzweil discusses how the brain functions, how the mind emerges from the brain, and the implications of vastly increasing the powers of our intelligence in addressing the world’s problems. He thoughtfully examines emotional and moral intelligence and the origins of consciousness and envisions the radical possibilities of our merging with the intelligent technology we are creating.

Certain to be one of the most widely discussed and debated science books of the year, How to Create a Mind is sure to take its place alongside Kurzweil’s previous classics.

I think there are three key ideas in this book about which I have varying opinions. First, he presents a model of how the brain works. Second, he suggests that we can, in essence, reverse engineer the brain using computing technology. Third, he discusses the rate at which computing technology becomes more capable of doing such a thing, both qualitatively and quantitatively. He ties these idea together with reference to artificial intelligence theory.

Regarding the second point, I have no doubt that we will someday be able to produce a non-biological brain. Brains are physical entities that emerge with very little specification as to architecture, have incredibly dense circuitry that carries enough information for otherwise reasonable people to assert that its information storage capacity is infinite (which it is not, of course), and that involves interactivity among components that allows for some amazing things to happen. I think that when we get close to making a mechanical brain, we would probably want to set aside many of the ways in which actual brains function, in order to create a more effective computing solution, because the brain is a product of Natural Selection and is thus not necessarily all that well deigned. The trick will be sorting out that which is good design for mechanical implementation of human braininess from that which is not good design. Regarding the third point, the expansion of computational abilities, I’m sure the basic ideas Kurzweil lays out are reasonable but furturism about technology seems to run into the same problem over and over again: Somebody invents a qualitatively distinct way of doing something that totally changes the game, and after that, this new way of doing things quantitatively evolves. Predicting the qualitative shifts has been difficult.

My biggest problem with Kurzweil’s book is in relation to the first point, a theory about how the brain’s cortex works. He asserts that the cortex is a self organizing entity that responds to information, creating an ability to manage and recognize patterns. My problem with this is that Kurzweil seems to have not read Deacon’s work (such as The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain and Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter. I’m not saying that Kurzweil is wrong in thinking of the cortex as self organizing in response to the challenges and inputs of pattern recognition. I’m simply saying that this property of the cortex, and of the human mind, has already been identified (mainly by Deacon) and that Kurzweil should sit down with Deacon and have a very long conversation before writing this book! (Well, ok, the next book.) I don’t think they’ve done that yet.

Sex and Gender in An Odd Primate

The Gender vs. Sex question…referring to the meaning of those two terms in relation to each other…is standard material for discussion in Anthropology and related fields, but is often left unattended to in day to day discourse. Both terms have internal complexity, with Gender meaning something about people’s identity as well as being a linguistic term, different but overlapping, and of course, Sex is a verby noun sometimes. But when we say “Gender vs. Sex” we are clearly talking about biological things such as chromosomes and genitalia, behavioral things such as attraction and orientation, self image, and so on, as well as the interaction among these things for a given person and for a given person’s interaction in the social matrix. Broadly speaking, “sex” is thought of as biological, “gender” as behavioral, however the last few decades of research and sociocultural maturation of our view of sex, gender and people have complexified this considerably, and the simple versions of these terms are inadequate and earlier, even “postmodern” feminist constructs tend to break easily. For instance, what sex is a person with a female-looking body, a vagina, breasts, all that stuff? Female, right? But what if the person has complete androgen insensitivity? This individual has testes. Wouldn’t that make them male? Such a situation, which is not particularly uncommon, does not mean that we can’t conceptualize complexity, it just means that the term “biological sex” is a bit limited. Continue reading Sex and Gender in An Odd Primate

Climate Change and Sex

I have two questions:

1) Which high power storms had zero extra energy from warming in the atmosphere and seas owing to the release of fossil carbon?

2) Which high powered members of the military, other government units, or industry and business had zero extramarital affairs or the equivalent?

Answer: Number 1 has been on the increase, number 2 on the decrease, on average, the former owing mainly to the burning of fossil fuels, the latter to the disestablishment of the hareem system.

Visit the Petraeus Affair Tumblr.