Daily Archives: November 20, 2012

Nature: Do the carbon tax, America!

Nature, the journal, has come out in favor of the US congress acting on a Carbon Tax now.

As looming tax increases and budget cuts threaten to plunge the US economy back into recession, Congress should take a hard look at introducing a carbon tax as an important part of the solution.

This week, a reinvigorated Barack Obama returned to the White House knowing that he was poised on the edge of a fiscal cliff. Rather than relishing his victory last week, Obama must immediately set about crafting a compromise on deficit reduction with congressional leaders. The stakes could hardly be higher — for science, for US citizens and, indeed, for the world. In the event of failure, a budgetary time-bomb of tax increases and sweeping budget cuts will detonate on 2 January. As well as resulting in indiscriminate cuts to funds for scientific research and many other areas, it could knock the United States back into recession and deliver yet another blow to an already fragile global economy.

Just consider the possibilities. To put a levy on carbon would raise revenues that could be used to offset lower tax rates for individuals and businesses. This is what conservatives say they want to do. It would put more income — and thus choice — in the hands of consumers. Economists like the idea for more fundamental reasons. Generally, it is best to tax things that one wishes to discourage (such as smoking) rather than those that should be encouraged (such as working). Environmentalists like the idea of a carbon tax because it could generate some much-needed revenue for clean-energy research and development while reducing carbon emissions.

The editorial is here. I think it is not behind a paywall.

Congratulations Debbie Goddard!

Debbie Goddard, one of my favorite people, and one of the reasons that the skeptics movement is worth keeping despite that fact that it can be annoying somehow, has just been appointed to a new position at CFI:

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is proud to announce that Debbie Goddard, formerly CFI’s campus outreach coordinator, has accepted the position of Director of Outreach. She replaces Lauren Becker in that role, who has shifted to her new position as Director of Marketing, as previously announced.

“Debbie has been a part of the heart of CFI for a long time now, embodying what it means to be a dedicated CFI employee. She has given a great deal of herself to this organization and its cause: bringing about a world that values science, reason, and compassion over dogma and superstition,” said Ron Lindsay, CFI’s President and CEO. “We are all proud to see Debbie take on this crucial leadership role in which we know she will excel.”

Read the whole press release here.

Just In Time for The Hobbit: The Science of Middle Earth

Just a quick note, review to come later. Henry Gee has produced a Second Edition of his book The Science of Middle-Earth: Explaining The Science Behind The Greatest Fantasy Epic Ever Told!, which will be released on December 14th as a Kindle eBook.

There are two things to know about this. First, the Second Edition is revised enough to want to get it even if you have the first edition. Second, if you are not familiar with the book, it may be a bit different than you expect. It is not a book about the science IN Tolkein’s books as much as it is a scientifically oriented investigation of Tolken, the world he created, and the relationship between that made up world and the real world that provided the context for the created universe. Gee is a scholar of Science Fiction literature and his prowess in this field is well demonstrated by his cogent and deep analysis of Tolkien. The Science of Middle-Earth: Explaining The Science Behind The Greatest Fantasy Epic Ever Told! is a philology of the pertaining documents, an anthropology (both cultural and biological) of the languages of that world, and an historical investigation of origins. There is demographics and life history theory, geology, genetics, allometry, and some attention to the mechanics of locomotion of trees and flying things.

You will probably want to read this before you see The Hobbit.

I’ll let you know if I notice the book’s early availability.

Are Children "Natural Scientists" or not?

ResearchBlogging.orgNeil deGrasse Tyson if famous for telling us that children are natural scientists, and cautioning us to be careful not to ruin that thing about them. He makes a good case. No one ever thought, I think, that he meant that children were born resistant to the sorts of biases that scientists actively eschew, or with a developed sense of probability theory that all scientists need to evaluate their work and the work of others, and those other tools that scientists get trained in for several years before they can really call themselves scientists. He mean, rather … how shall I put this. Oh hell, you can see what he says here:

(You should see Huxley with a screwdriver!)

Now, there is controversy, and it is my job as your blogger to tell you about it. It starts with the video above and others like it, and is expanded on by a paper by Claire Cook, Noah Goodman and Laura Schulz in the journal Cognition called “Where science starts: Spontaneous experiments in preschoolers’ exploratory play” (PDF) which hast this abstract:

Probabilistic models of expected information gain require integrating prior knowledge about causal hypotheses with knowledge about possible actions that might generate data relevant to those hypotheses. Here we looked at whether preschoolers (mean: 54 months) recognize ‘‘action possibilities’’ (affordances) in the environment that allow them to isolate variables when there is information to be gained. By manipulating the physical properties of the stimuli, we were able to affect the degree to which candidate variables could be isolated; by manipulating the base rate of candidate causes, we were able to affect the potential for information gain. Children’s exploratory play was sensitive to both manipulations: given unambiguous evidence children played indiscriminately and rarely tried to isolate candidate causes; given ambiguous evidence, children both selected (Experiment 1) and designed (Experiment 2) informative interventions.

To make that just a tad more clear, here is a bit more from the same paper:

These results suggest that preschoolers distinguish, not only ambiguous and unambiguous evidence but also potentially informative and uninformative interventions. In cases where there was information to be gained, preschoolers spontaneously selected (Experiment 1) and designed (Experiment 2) actions to effectively isolate the relevant variables. Critically, the target experiments were not otherwise part of children’s exploratory repertoire; children almost never performed them given unambiguous evidence.

So, scientists seem to have found evidence that children have certain key behavioral characteristics that one would normally see in a growed-up scientist.

Also, we have the blog post “More Than Child’s Play: Ability to Think Scientifically Declines as Kids Grow Up” by Sharon Begley.

Since the 1990s studies have shown that children think scientifically—making predictions, carrying out mini experiments, reaching conclusions and revising their initial hypotheses in light of new evidence.

She discusses the above cited paper, and concludes:

… If even the youngest kids have an intuitive grasp of the scientific method, why does that understanding seem to vanish within a few years? Studies suggest that K–12 students struggle to set up a controlled study and cannot figure out what kind of evidence would support or refute a hypothesis. One reason for our failure to capitalize on this scientific intuition we display as toddlers may be that we are pretty good, as children and adults, at reasoning out puzzles that have something to do with real life but flounder when the puzzle is abstract, Goodman suggests—and it is abstract puzzles that educators tend to use when testing the ability to think scientifically. In addition, as we learn more about the world, our knowledge and beliefs trump our powers of scientific reasoning. …

Now, we have the dissenting view, from Matthew Francis at Galileo’s Pendulum, in his post “Children Are Not “Natural” Scientists“:

A pernicious myth, repeated with good intentions in many places and by many people, is that children are natural scientists. They are born with something that gets beaten or worn out of them by bad teachers, bad schools, bad educational practices, and then must relearn what it means to be a scientist later in life. Like many myths, there’s a mixture of truth and falsehood, but ultimately the myth is damaging and leads us into bad habits of thought.

One gets the impression that Matthew does not like the idea. He states:

“Thinking like a researcher” is not the same thing as a natural curiosity and mental plasticity — scientific research is very much a learned skill, in my experience, but I admit to being entirely ignorant of child development…

The answer, of course, may be more nuanced than simply “yes” or “no” to the scientific kung fu of children, and for nuanced answers we look to people like Marie-Claire Shanahan, who always has interesting and valuable things to say. Marie-Claire argued some time before this recent questioning of the issue arose that Students don’t lose their ability to think scientifically:

…school children and teenagers continue to understand the basics of experimentation very well. There are several resources for teaching the concept of fair testing in science. They usually begin with intuitive ideas related to general fairness, like using the analogy of a race where everyone must start at the same place and take the same route. Even the idea of a fair test experiment, though, gives a very simplified introduction to scientific investigations. What is much more difficult is, for example, the idea of a variable. And here’s where I disagree not just with Sharon Begley but with the authors of the paper. By trying to isolate which blocks will make the toy work, the children are not isolating variables. There is only one variable – the blocks – and the children have found an innovative way to try to test one block at a time.

… Even simple variables like length are more challenging than they seem. It is one thing to measure the length of a particular piece of string, quite another to conceive of length as a general property that can be measured or manipulated in any object. This especially true because it is also somewhat arbitrary, requiring the person doing the experiment to choose an operational definition (e.g., by defining length as the measurement of the longest side). There is no concrete thing called length. It is an abstract word that describes a type of measurement. Understanding that is much harder than trying to find a way to measure it in specific objects, which is analogous to what the children are doing in trying to find a way to test each block individually.

Personally, I don’t think there is a lot of disagreement here. Neil deGrasse Tyson is right: Children ruin things in their never ending quest to find out what they are. The cited experimental research demonstrates that children have certain aspects of the scientific method built in. Marie-Claire is correct in parsing out the fact that true adult scientists have created a discipline in which things that are hard to automatically address are seen to with methology and theory, things that people would not automatically think of on their own.

I’m reminded of some of my recent reading in the literature of Witch Hunting in the late Middle Ages and early Enlightenment in Europe. The argument went like this: There are typical characteristics of Witches that let you identify them. Thus, there is a list of interrogations one uses to spot the Witch. Part of the methodology is to torture the suspected Witch until she or he confesses. It seems like every time a Witch is found, the interrogation produces the same result, confirming the method. Everyone involved seemed to believe this; there is even evidence of individuals “realizing” that they must be a Witch because they confessed under torture to the accusations of the inquisitor. That’s how adults seem to think when left on their own. But at the same time thousands of Witches were being “found” and usually executed, other adults were busy inventing hydropower and figuring out that the Earth is round and that there are planets, and that various elements existed with specific properties, and so on and so forth.

Are children born pre-scientists? Probably. Do we ruin them? Maybe, maybe not. More research is needed.


Cook, C., Goodman, N., & Schulz, L. (2011). Where science starts: Spontaneous experiments in preschoolers’ exploratory play Cognition, 120 (3), 341-349 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.03.003

Greenhouse Gas Levels Reach New Record High

You may have heard that the release of greenhouse gases has recently gone down, to match levels of several years ago. Why, then, do we have someone saying that greenhouse gasses have reached a new record high?

There are two, maybe three, reasons.

First, even though CO2 release from the US may be lower now than it has been in a few years, it is still high (it was high a few years ago, so we’ve reduced to a level that is high!). More importantly, the US has reduced its release of CO2 primarily for incidental economic reasons. With a recession/depression going on, there is less money being spent on things that burn fuel. But, we are also producing more fossil carbon-containing products that we send to other countries, where that fuel is burned, thus releasing the CO2. So, globally, CO2 release is probably as high as it has ever been, more or less.

Second, the greenhouse gasses stay in the atmosphere for a long time. Releasing less does not make what is there go away, really. So if we add less for a couple of years, we still increase the amount.

Third, and less understood, and perhaps not even part of the current calculation of greenhouse gas release, is the extra methane that is being released at large but as yet understudied quantities from drilling operations including those that involve fracking.

So, with those caveats, we have this report from the UN’s World Meteorological Organization:

Greenhouse Gas Concentrations Reach New Record: WMO Bulletin highlights pivotal role of carbon sinks

Geneva, 20 November (WMO) – The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a new record high in 2011, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Between 1990 and 2011 there was a 30% increase in radiative forcing – the warming effect on our climate – because of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other heat-trapping long-lived gases.

At this point I would like to pause and note something important. Here we learn that there has been a 30% increase in warming effects from 1990 onward. This does not mean, however, that Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) started in 1990. You will often see Climate Science Denialists refer to events earlier in the last 100 years as evidence that global warming is not real. If global warming supposedly causes large storms, and there was a large storm in the 1930s, or if global warming supposedly causes droughts, and there was the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, then global warming is not real, the story goes. However, global warming is largely the result of the release of Carbon from the burning of coal and petroleum, and that (especially the coal) started way back in the 18th century and really took off in the mid 19th century. Global warming and its effects have certainly been much more significant over the last several decades, but the effects are much older than that. To return to the UN report…

Since the start of the industrial era in 1750, about 375 billion tonnes of carbon have been released into the atmosphere as CO2, primarily from fossil fuel combustion, according to WMO’s 2011 Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, which had a special focus on the carbon cycle. About half of this carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere, with the rest being absorbed by the oceans and terrestrial biosphere.

“These billions of tonnes of additional carbon dioxide in our atmosphere will remain there for centuries, causing our planet to warm further and impacting on all aspects of life on earth,” said WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud. “Future emissions will only compound the situation.”

“Until now, carbon sinks have absorbed nearly half of the carbon dioxide humans emitted in the atmosphere, but this will not necessarily continue in the future. We have already seen that the oceans are becoming more acidic as a result of the carbon dioxide uptake, with potential repercussions for the underwater food chain and coral reefs. There are many additional interactions between greenhouse gases, Earth’s biosphere and oceans, and we need to boost our monitoring capability and scientific knowledge in order to better understand these,” said Mr Jarraud.
“WMO’s Global Atmosphere Watch network, spanning more than 50 countries, provides accurate measurements which form the basis of our understanding of greenhouse gas concentrations, including their many sources, sinks and chemical transformations in the atmosphere,” said Mr Jarraud.

The role of carbon sinks is pivotal in the overall carbon equation. If the extra CO2 emitted is stored in reservoirs such as the deep oceans, it could be trapped for hundreds or even thousands of years. By contrast, new forests retain carbon for a much shorter time span.
The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin reports on atmospheric concentrations – and not emissions – of greenhouse gases. Emissions represent what goes into the atmosphere. Concentrations represent what remains in the atmosphere after the complex system of interactions between the atmosphere, biosphere and the oceans.

CO2 is the most important of the long-lived greenhouse gases – so named because they trap radiation within the Earth’s atmosphere causing it to warm. Human activities, such as fossil fuel burning and land use change (for instance, tropical deforestation), are the main sources of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The other main long-lived greenhouse gases are methane and nitrous oxide. Increasing concentrations of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are drivers of climate change.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Annual Greenhouse Gas Index, quoted in the bulletin, shows that from 1990 to 2011, radiative forcing by long-lived greenhouse gases increased by 30%, with CO2 accounting for about 80% of this increase. Total radiative forcing of all long-lived greenhouse gases was the CO2 equivalent of 473 parts per million in 2011.

The report goes on to state that CO2 is the single most important human generated greenhouse gas, but also discusses methane, which I mentioned above, and discusses Nitrous oxide as well.

(Thanks to Brad Johnson for the info on hydrocarbon exports.)

The Domestic Turkey and the First Thanksgiving

This is the time of year that we rightfully contemplate the noble Turkey. The very first thing we notice about this large member of the Galliformes is that there is a wild version and a domestic version, and although the two are rather different, they are both given the same species name, Meleagris gallopavo. This is not entirely unknown among domestic animals, but many domesticates have no living wild version. Thus, the cattle we raise for meat and dairy are sometimes called Bos taurus while the extinct wild form is always called Bos primigenius. The domestic cat has the uninspired name Felis catus in some circles, or otherwise, Felis silvestris while the wild version (not the feral version, but the wild cat that lives in Africa today) was once known by a Latin binomial that is no longer polite to say, for a while as Felix lybica, and now, owing to the trend of reconflating wild and domestic forms when they are known to interbreed, as Felis silvestris lybica. The domestic dog was once and still often is Canis familiaris as opposed to the wolf, Canis lupus, but the former which is really a subspecies of the latter is now Canis lupus familiaris. I don’t believe, but this is subject to correction, that the wild and domestic Turkey were ever called by different binomials.

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