Daily Archives: November 21, 2012

A Book about Taung and "the Hobbit"

The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed Our View of Human Evolution is by a scientist Dean Falk, who has contributed significantly to the study of evolution of the human brain, and who has been directly involved in some of the more interesting controversies in human evolution.

Back when I was a graduate student I was assigned by my advisor a set of literature to absorb and comment on. The mix of published and soon to be published papers included a series of papers written by Ralph Holloway and Dean Falk. These represented a fight over the interpretation of early hominid brains as studied through endocasts. Endocasts are fossilized casts of the inside of an animal’s brain case or the artificially produced version made of casting material poured into a skull. Either way, you get a roundish blob that resembles the exterior of the original brain. Endocasts are of limited value, as layers of tissue in a living mammal separate the brain from the skull, attenuating detail. As Falk point out in her book, endocasts are a rather “surficial” view of a brain, but are not without their uses.

Fossil endocasts are compared to endocasts made from the skulls of “living” primates and humans, which in turn are understood via Continue reading A Book about Taung and "the Hobbit"

A probabilistic quanti?cation of the anthropogenic component of twentieth century global warming

ResearchBlogging.orgA probabilistic quanti?cation of the anthropogenic component of twentieth century global warming is a paper just out that examines an important conflict in the conversation about climate change and global warming. Before getting to the details, have a look at this graph from the paper:

This is temperature increasing on the earth over a century or so. Notice that there is what looks like a warming around 1940 on top of an otherwise mostly warming trend, followed by a bunch more warming.

The Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, in 2007, referring to data that ran up to 2005 inclusively, said the following:

Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-twentieth century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.

Later, in a congressional hearing, Patrick Michaels, a climate science denialist (one of the meteorologists famous for his rejection of the data and science demonstrating a human induced warming trend) said to a congressional committee, of the statement by the IPCC:

… greenhouse-related warming is clearly below the mean of relevant forecasts by IPCC … the Finding of Endangerment from greenhouse gases by the Environmental Protection Agency is based on a very dubious and
critical assumption.

A probabilistic quanti?cation of the anthropogenic component of twentieth century global warming examines both claims and concludes that Michaels is wrong. From the abstract:

This paper examines in detail the statement in the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report that “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-twentieth century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.” We use a quantitative probabilistic analysis to evaluate this IPCC statement, and discuss the value of the statement in the policy context. For forcing by greenhouse gases (GHGs) only, we show that there is a greater than 90% probability that the expected warming over 1950–2005 is larger than the total amount (not just ‘‘most’’) of the observed warming. This is because, following current best estimates, negative aerosol forcing has substantially offset the GHG-induced warming. We also consider the expected warming from all anthropogenic forcings using the same probabilistic framework. This requires a re-assessment of the range of possible values for aerosol forcing. We provide evidence that the IPCC estimate for the upper bound of indirect aerosol forcing is almost certainly too high. Our results show that the expected warming due to all human in?uences since 1950 (including aerosol effects) is very similar to the observed warming. Including the effects of natural external forcing factors has a relatively small impact on our 1950–2005 results, but improves the correspondence between model and observations over 1900–2005. Over the longer period, however, externally forced changes are insuf?cient to explain the early twentieth century warming. We suggest that changes in the formation rate of North Atlantic Deep Water may have been a signi?cant contributing factor.

Not only is the IPCC assessment correct according to this new paper, but it is a bit of an understatement.

So much for that little bit of climate science denialism.

Wigley, T., & Santer, B. (2012). A probabilistic quantification of the anthropogenic component of twentieth century global warming Climate Dynamics DOI: 10.1007/s00382-012-1585-8

Fukushima Update: Radioactive Fish, Conflicts of Interest, and Filtered Vents

On March 11th, 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant complex suffered damage from an earthquake and ensuing tsunami that caused multiple nuclear reactor core meltdowns and melt-throughs, explosions, and major releases of radioactive material into the air and the sea. In addition to the reactor meltdowns and melt-throughs spent fuel storage tanks were also damaged and probably contributed to the release. It took about a year for the plant to reach a condition that was stable enough that we stopped checking it every day to see if new bad things were happening. Heroic efforts were implemented by the utility and the workers, but in the end, very little that was done aside from the initial flooding of the reactors with sea water really had much effect. Basically, the plant just cooled down and stopped being as dangerous because the nuclear material in the plant escaped into the environment or just settled down to a less reactive level over time.

A handful of news items have come up recently mainly pertaining to contamination and other issues, so we thought an update was in order.

Conflicts of Interest Involving Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Agency and Other Stakeholders

There have been a number of points where it looked like conflicts of interest between the regulators and the regulatees (as it were), or at least the appearance thereof, were in effect since the time of this disaster. It is happening again. Continue reading Fukushima Update: Radioactive Fish, Conflicts of Interest, and Filtered Vents

Success of Climate Science Denialism

One of the reasons that we have not, as a species, as a group of nations, dealt effectively with Anthropogenic Global Warming is the effectiveness of climate science denialism. There are denialists in Congress, on the Internet, and everywhere. They have not succeeded in making a valid scientific argument regarding Global Warming, but they have kept the rhetoric in the foreground, which has allowed interests protecting Big Oil to keep the hapless Main Stream Media focused on a false balance between scientific consensus and unreasonable doubt. As a result, the last decade or so has been a wash when it comes to international action on Carbon emissions and other ameliorating action. As a result, the idea that we could keep global temperature rise from going past the 2 degree C mark. Now, it is increasingly understood that we are heading for much warmer conditions, and this has the World Bank worried.

The World Bank just commissioned an analysis by scientists at the Potsdam Institute looking at the consequences of a 4°C rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels by 2100. And the report appears to have unnerved many bank officials. “The latest predictions on climate change should shock us into action,” wrote World Bank President Jim Yong Kim in an op-ed after the report was released Monday.

The analysis is available here as a PDF file.

The analysis suggests that there is a 20% chance that temperatures will warm to more than 4°C by 2100, possibly reaching g 4°C by 2060. This would result in sea level rise of up to 3 feet, maybe more. If the warming reached 6°C, which is possible, sea level rise would be in the range of a dozen feet or more. The report also discusses the uneven distribution of imacts:

  • Even though absolute warming will be largest in high latitudes,
    the warming that will occur in the tropics is larger when compared to the historical range of temperature and extremes to
    which human and natural ecosystems have adapted and coped.
    The projected emergence of unprecedented high-temperature
    extremes in the tropics will consequently lead to significantly
    larger impacts on agriculture and ecosystems.
  • Sea-level rise is likely to be 15 to 20 percent larger in the tropics than the global mean.
  • Increases in tropical cyclone intensity are likely to be felt
    disproportionately in low-latitude regions.
  • Increasing aridity and drought are likely to increase substantially in many developing country regions located in tropical
    and subtropical areas.

The report is sobering. Let us hope it is also inspiring. You should have a look at it.

Update on Dennis Markuze, and Thank You to Tim Farley

Tim Farley has this on his blog:

On Friday, November 16, 2012 Dennis Markuze was once again arrested by the SPVM (Montreal Police) for violating the terms of his May 22 suspended sentence. It took many people many months to track him down and convince the police to arrest him. This is the story behind that…

Read the rest of that post here.

I would like to thank Tim for his diligent and effective efforts. And, I have a few other things to say.

The whole Dennis Markuze/Dave Mabus thing is an interesting case where we are required to ask ourselves about or attitudes and reactions to the activities of individuals with mental illness. This is an issue that I think needs a lot more discussion and consideration. Mental illness does not mean stalking or potential violence and other annoyances. It is a much larger thing with many aspects, and it is a problem individual people have that can bleed out into the lives of others around them to greater and lesser degrees. In my view, society is pretty bad at dealing with that one (small) branch of mental illness that involves threatening or very anti-social behavior. Having said that, I think the Atheist and Skeptics community has done fairly well with this rare but unfortunate intersection of personal behavior of a mentally ill individual and our own sense of safety. People are not calling for the worst punishment for Dennis, or for his permanent incarceration, which is saying a lot about a community that is often willing to “ban people for ever” simply because they disagree on some issue or another. I think most people are willing to see the Canadian authorities deal with Dennis as a person in need of help, but in a way that firmly requires that he receive that help. I don’t think anyone is really able to say, mainly due to lack of information but also due to the nature of this sort of situation, if Dennis is a “true threat” to others or just a person who is very very annoying.

Regarding him being annoying: I found his latest form of harassment to be in some ways worse, in some ways not as bad as, his previous behavior. Prior to his first arrest many of his missives included clearly threatening language, with phrases such as “all Atheists must die” (I paraphrase). His second round of harassment contained no such language of which I’m aware, but he became more annoying in other ways. For instance, he discovered the Twitter tradition of Follow Friday (#FF). For a couple of weeks, every time I carried out the act, a form of mutual aid, of #FF, Dennis would then spam all the recipients of the minuscule largess that this constitutes. That meant that for me to be “nice” to a fellow Tweeter, I also inadvertently annoyed them by drawing them into Dennis’s crosshairs. Assuming that his previous threats involving all Atheists ending up dead were just hot air, this second round was much worse, directly interfering with our beloved Social Networking Activities (Snorking).

Finally, I want to say this: Tim Farley and I have had our differences. We fell into different, opposing camps in certain key issues and argued about that in the Social Networking World. But never for a moment did these differences bleed out into Tim’s thoughtful and effective campaign to represent all of us in this matter, and for my part I’m more than happy to appreciate his efforts and I sincerely thank him for that. The ability to work together even when we disagree is, or should be, a hallmark of real skepticism. The inability to do so is the hallmark of cliquish behavior and mean spirited Internetitude. Here, I think we did well.

Thanks again time.

And do go read his post, it is epic.

Pick up your eCopy of the novella Sungudogo, a new origin story for the Skeptics Movement! (Bloggers and reviewers, contact me for a review copy)

Godless Gift Idea!

Santa wants you to have this book!
Atheist Voices of Minnesota (which comes in a print version and a Kindle version) is a collection of individual journeys to atheism. All the authors are Minnesotan (natural born, former, or immigrant to the North Star State). While some of the authors are professional writers or high profile bloggers, most are regular people with interesting stories to tell. The essays are selected from a much larger group of submissions, the works are carefully edited, and organized into general categories. The Minnesota connection itself is great for Minnesotans, but really not all that important for general readers; this is simply a collection of stories that help show how Atheism is not a scary cult including baby eaters and hedonistic Satan worshipers. Mostly. And for this reason, it is a great gift for you to give to your family, which probably includes a mixture of believers and non-believers and not-sure-what-to-believers. You can give it to your mom or to Uncle Joe as a gift from you, you can put it in someone’s stocking anonymously, or you can even make it the prize in some Christmas Celebration activity your family celebrates such as the Three-Legged Elf Race or the Inter-Family Scrabble Tournament.

The book has done reasonably well and the initial printing and publishing costs are now paid for, so all the profits from this point forward go to help support Minnesota Atheists, which brings you, among other things, Minnesota Atheists Talk Radio, which is one of the few regular (weekly) shows based in a live radio setting and produced as a podcast that deals directly with issues of interest to Atheists. Many of the shows are about religion, atheism, and related topics, but a good number are about science, science education, and science outreach.

So please consider giving Atheist Voices of Minnesota: an Anthology of Personal Stories to your friends, families, and loved ones for Christmas, Winter Solstice, Hanukah, or Kwanza this year!

The Authors include Norman Barrett Wiik, Elizabeth Becker, Kenneth Bellew, Ryan Benson, August Berkshire, Donald L. Boese, Ryan Bolin, Jill Carlson, Justin M. Chase, Greta Christina, Linda Davis, Andrew Downs, Shannon Drury, Anthony Faust, Paul Gramstad, Mike Haubrich, Kori Hennessy, Peter N. Holste, Michelle M. Huber, Eric Jayne, George Kane, Greg Laden, Bill Lehto, M. A. Melby, PZ Myers, Robin Raianiemi, Rohit Ravindran, Jason Schoenack, Kim Socha, Chris Stedman, Elizabeth Stiras, Todd N. Torkelson, Timothy Wick, Rob Young, James Zimmerman, Jennifer Zimmerman, and Stephanie Zvan.