Monthly Archives: March 2013

Congressman Dan Young of Alaska on Mexicans and Mexican-Americans

This is why we can’t have nice things, like immigration reform.


Amid a hot-button debate in Washington over how to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, Rep. Don Young, a 21-term lawmaker, referred to immigrant workers as “wetbacks” — a term that could threaten to inflame the debate about immigration reform.

“My father had a ranch; we used to have 50-60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes,” Young said in an interview with radio station KRBD. He was discussing the number of jobs that have been made irrelevant due to advances in automation.

Young is one of the top Republicans in the House. He offered a rather lame apology which seemed to indicate that “wetback” is just a term we used to use and he forgot to stop using it. I hope we were not hanging our hopes on the Republicans to do anything reasonable about immigration related issues.

Please, let us not be inured to this sort of issue. A very senior elected official in the Federal Government just used, casually, the Mexican version of the N-word in an interview about policy. This is more important than March Madness, people. Or at least, we should be more mad about it than we seem to be. I’ve yet to hear mention of censure, but that is the obvious next step.

Treatment of Climate Change and Hockey Stick Controversy in Wikipedia

The current Wikipedia entry for Climate Change has about 7000 words on that one page (including notes, all the other words that show up on Wikipedia pages). The current Wikipedia entry for the Hockey Stick Controversy has about 25,000 words in all.

The controversy over one aspect of climate change, the basic observation of temperature change known as the hockey stick graph, is certainly not more complex than, more important than, or harder to explain than climate change as a whole. Is this a failing of Wikipedia? A success for the Climate Science Deniers who are also hoping to have the conversation about “the controversy” be an order of magnitude lengthier in our schools than any discussion of climate change? A random occurrence? I’m thinking a little of all three.

25,000 vs 7,000. Holy crap. Would someone who works with Wikipedia please see to this? Thank you.

The Altruism Equation

Skeptically Speaking has this:

This week. we’re looking at what science has to say about the origins of selfless – and even self-sacrificing – behavior. We’ll speak to biology professor Lee Alan Dugatkin, about his book The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness. And we’ll discuss altruism from a neurological perspective, with Duke University Neuroscientist Steve Chang, whose research in monkeys looks at how their brains process and record helpful inclinations.

Get the podcast here.

Rat Island

Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue is a new book by William Stolzenburg. I’ve not seen it, but Desiree Schell interviewed the author on Skeptically Speaking:

This week, we’re looking at invasive predators, changing ecosystems, and the ethical questions raised by killing one species to save another. We’ll speak to science journalist Will Stolzenburg, about his book Rat Island: Predators in Paradise and the World’s Greatest Wildlife Rescue.

Also in that edition of Skeptically Speaking, Bug Girl talks about insect conservation.

Click here for the podcast.

Mars Rocks

Don’t miss this excellent Skeptically Speaking:

This week, we’re looking one orbit outward, at the little red planet that’s inspired so much science and science fiction. Guest host Marie-Claire Shanahan talks to University of Tennessee geologist Linda Kah, about her work as part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, analyzing the images sent back by the Curiosity rover. And she’ll speak to geologist Chris Herd, curator of the University of Alberta’s meteorite collection, about using rare meteorites from Mars to study the planet’s composition and atmosphere.


Climate Change Denialism

There are two very important posts out there that I’d like to make you aware of related to climate change denialism. Here’s the teasers, please click through and read them. If you like them, tweet them!

First, from The Scientist, an opinion piece by Michael Mann, author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines:

Life as a Target: Attacks on my work aimed at undermining climate change science have turned me into a public figure. I have come to embrace that role.

As a climate scientist, I have seen my integrity perniciously attacked. Politicians have demanded I be fired from my job because of my work demonstrating the reality and threat of human-caused climate change. I’ve been subjected to congressional investigations by congressman in the pay of the fossil fuel industry and was the target of what The Washington Post referred to as a “witch hunt” by Virginia’s reactionary Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. I have even received a number of anonymous death threats. My plight is dramatic, but unfortunately, it is not unique; climate scientists are regularly the subject of such attacks. This cynicism is part of a destructive public-relations campaign being waged by fossil fuel companies, front groups, and individuals aligned with them in an effort to discredit the science linking the burning of fossil fuels with potentially dangerous climate change…..

CLICK HERE to read the entire post.

The next item is related to a recent screw up by a commenter at Christian Science Monitor who accidentally took science denier Anthony Watt’s interview at seriously (we discussed this here). This is a new interview at with my friend and colleague Professor John Abraham:

Real Pragmatism for Real Climate Change: Interview with Dr. John Abraham

At a time when extreme weather incidents are causing billions in damages, businesses, governments and the public need the right information to make the right decisions. The bad news is that nature of superstorms like Hurricane Sandy has a human fingerprint. The good news is that if man is harming the climate, man can also do something about it….

CLICK HERE to read the entire interview. Anthony Watts has responded on his blog but if I put a link to it he will discover that I’ve written about him and instruct his winged monkeys to fill my comment section with hate.

Hunters, Anglers, and Climate Change: Win a free shotgun!

This comes form Peter Sinclair’s blog:

The Conservation Hawks is a new group dedicated to harnessing the power of sportsmen to address climate change. Stop. Before you give in to anger, or to the “conservation fatigue” that can fall upon us like a giant wet carpet whenever climate change is mentioned, consider this: If you can convince Conservation Hawks chairman Todd Tanner that he’s wasting his time, that he does not have to worry about climate change, he will present to you his most prized possession: A Beretta Silver Pigeon 12 gauge over/under…

Go to Peter’s blog and get your gun!

Meanwhile, here is Climate Denial Crock of the Week’s latest video:

More posts on climate change are here.

Discarding the terms “Hypothesis”, “Theory”, and “Law”

Rhett Allain at Dot Physics has proposed that we stop using the terms “Hypothesis”, “Theory”, and “Law” because people so abysmally misunderstand them. He proposes replacing them all with the term “model”.

Take out all three of these “science” words from introductory texts. They do more harm than good. The problem is that people have firm beliefs that they mean something other than what they are supposed to mean. I don’t think we can save these words.

We do have a word to replace them. Are you ready? It’s the model – or you can call it the scientific model if you prefer.

I’m not sure if the fact that people widely misunderstand these terms is the right justification for giving up on them. Also, a “model” is a thing that is not a hypothesis (for example) so replacing key terms that are at the center of scientific activity with another term that means something else may not be the best idea.

Having said that I agree that there are problems with these terms. Also, “law” (and Rhett forgot “rule” …. a term attached to a lot of models after several initial “laws” were worked out, possibly more often in biology related fields) may well be problematic.

One problem with “model” (and there is quite a bit of writing on this term) is that it has a number of distinct meanings that are in common use in science. It can be a law-ish thing that we use to work out physics problems, it can be a complex set of supposed interactions that we use to structure a climate simulation, or it can be a mouse (as in “model organism”).

Some of the problems Rhett brings up would be partly or largely addressed if we added the other terms that in some cases he’s already mentioned in his post. A hypothesis may well be an educated guess, but a “formal hypothesis” is a thing with a null hypothesis and test conditions, and a “testable hypothesis” is formal hypothesis that is not stupid. A “scientific theory” is a real live scientific theory while a “theory” is a thing we generally don’t believe to be true (“My cousin Nate said he’d be here on time for once … in theory….”)

Underlying much of this difficulty is the way things are taught in high school. Again and again I find HS science teachers trying to get these terms across to students as though they were well fixed, simply defined, exhaustive and exclusive fully understood agreed on descriptions of how science works, applied in the same way across all scientific areas. The formal definition of “hypothesis” and the way it is often used in textbook science would require that all the historical or observational sciences are not real science, because experiments are not set up to test hypotheses. So particle physics can be real science but not astronomy.

If, instead, the terms were taught in their historical context and the nuances brought out more, perhaps at the expense of learning some fact-based material the students may not need too much anyway, they would be better understood. In fact, newer science standards and newer textbooks and other teaching materials tend to do this more and more these days.

In short, a key desire for basic education in science (the stuff we want every citizen to be exposed to) is to develop critical thinking skills. So, starting with a critical, contextualized, nuanced look at the terms would good. As rule. In theory. Well, that’s my hypothesis, anyway.

Covert Ops: Addressing Racism Long Term

I’ve been waiting for people to die before I told this story on my blog, but certain people seem to take forever to do that so I’m not waiting any more. Besides, it happened a long time ago. The story I’m telling you happened to me a long time ago (about 1990) and the thing that happened to me really amounted to someone telling me a story, which in turn happened a long time before that (about 1977).

There had been some kind of thing, a barbecue, at the home of Scotty MacNeish. If you don’t know who Scotty is, you should. He is the archaeologist who discovered and documented the origins of corn in the highlands of Mexico. He was a justifiably famous and generally respected archaeologist who, enigmatically, worked at a prep school instead of a university for much of his career. At the time of his death, in a vehicle accident while in the field in Belize, Scotty worked at Boston University, but for many years before that he was at Phillips Andover Academy. Phillips Andover is the archetypal American prep school, a pretty good imitation of the old style British prep schools, but located in the small community of Andover, Massachusetts, north of Boston. Until recently, Phillips prepared its students mostly for Yale, though a few would go to Harvard. Samuel Morse went there and later invented Morse Code and stuff. Oliver Wendell Holmes went there. Two American Presidents went there.

So, there was this barbecue at Scotty’s house, and Bruno Marino was the chef. That was the first time I had met him. We later became friends and colleagues and later on he went off to run the revamped Biosphere project. The thing about Bruno is that he was CIA. This meant that any event involving food and Bruno, you’d want to go to, because as you know those CIA guys really know how to cook.

Since we were at Scotty’s house, we were also on or very near (I was never sure) the property of the Academy. It seems we just had to walk through the gate in the backyard fence and we were amid the bricks and ivy of the venerable old institution. And at one point, Scotty and I wandered off to the museum and library, which on this summer weekend evening was closed and dark.

Scotty wanted to show me a wooden cabinet he was about to throw in the trash, along with some other items, because I had expressed an interest in it. In fact, that evening I took the item home where it still serves me nicely today. It is a small solid oak card catalog, one of many the library was getting rid of as they started the switch to other means of keeping track of their books.

At some point we wandered off to the museum. We stood in a darkened hall and talked for a while. I could see that there were exhibits around the walls, but the lighting for each exhibit was turned off so I could not see what they were. That’s when Scottie started to tell me the story.

“Years ago, we had a directors meeting here, with the board of directors of the Academy. They were all former students, and all had gone off to Yale and were all pretty wealthy. Doug and I (that was Doug Byers, the famous anthropologist who also worked at Phillips Andover) had the job of schmoozing the richest and most powerful, to see if we could get more money out of them. So we took one of the directors up there,” he pointed up to the room we had just visited, where the oak cabinet had been stored, “for cognac and cigars.”

We may or may not have been sipping something out of glasses ourselves at that moment, but I’m sure we were not puffing on cigars.

“So, our visitor knew who we were, what our research was. He told us, ‘You gentlemen are anthropologists, and there’s a question I’ve been meaning to ask an anthropologist.'”

I should mention that Scotty was the kind of guy who liked trouble, and I could tell by his expression that he was about to reveal something … troublesome. I had seen him go after the unprepared, the uninitiated, before. He knew then up in the room with the brandy and cigars with Byers, and I knew later as he was telling me the story, that it was going to be one of those questions that revealed a common misunderstanding about something about humans, something about evolution or human behavior or history or biology, one of those things people ask innocently about, without realizing that the question itself, the question they naively seek an answer to, reveals their own abysmal ignorance or nefarious racism or something. Indeed, I suspected as he was telling me that it was going to be about race. And it was.

“He said, and these are close to his exact words, ‘I know that Negro brains are smaller. But they seem to have the same size heads as everyone else. So, my question is…'”

At this moment, Scotty paused for effect. There were a lot of ways this could have gone, but the question was finished off, according to Scotty, this way: “‘… my question is, is the extra space filled with bone, so they have very thick skulls, or is it liquid? Or what?'”

That was a pretty stark question. Naive. Ignorant. Nefariously racist. The kind of question, though, that Doug Byers or Scotty MacNeish or me or any anthropologist would get asked a half dozen times a year back in those days, and now and then even these days. So, why was he, Scotty, telling me this story now, in 1990? This wasn’t about someone being stupid. This was about WHO was being stupid. The name at the end of this tale was going to be someone I’d know, or recognize. Someone who was older and established today, likely someone who had gone to Yale. Someone who had lived, back in the 70s or 80s, near enough to Andover Massachusetts to have been on the board of the Academy.

“What did you tell him?” I asked, wondering which of the possible stock answers they might have used, to inform the man but at the same time avoid having him dry up as a donor.

“Who the hell knows, I don’t remember. Byers gave him some mumbo jumbo. The point is, after that evening, we went to work right away on this exhibit.”

I hadn’t noticed Scotty sidling over to the wall near the base of the big central stairway, near one of the darkened exhibits. He reached up to a switch on the wall and flipped it on. The lights inside the exhibit, a diorama of sorts, sprang on and I could suddenly see a number of human brains sitting each in their own straight sided, round bowls that looked like over grown Petri dishes.

“Have a look,” Scotty said, gesturing towards the brains.

I looked. There were brains labeled “Caucasian”, “African”, “Asian”, and “Native American.” Each brain looked pretty realistic, wet, fresh, and there seemed to be fluid accumulated in each of the preternaturally large Petri dishes. All of it was fake, of course. The liquid was Lucite, and with my highly trained Biological Anthropology eye I could easily see that the brains were all molded from the same exact cast.

The text above the brains included a map and some other items but one paragraph was highlighted and foregrounded and it said, roughly, “…all humans have the same brain, the same size, with the same abilities. Race is a made up concept and is only skin deep,” or words to that effect.

“This,” Scotty resumed his story, “is ultimately how we answered the question. It didn’t matter as much to us that this guy had race all botched up, it mattered more that the students wold get it right from then on.”

He looked at me and I could see the “I’m going to cause trouble now” look setting in.

“Of course, with this particular member of the board of directors, it may have mattered more than average.”

“Who was it, Scotty?” I asked, as he expected me to ask.

“Let’s just say that among ourselves, between Doug and me, we named the exhibit after him,” Scotty said, holding his arm out, drawing my attention back to the diorama. “Behold, the George H. Bush Memorial Exhibit on Race!”

I was not even a little surprised. With this much fanfare, it had to be a president or something.

“Of course, he wasn’t President back in those days. Or even Vice President. He was still merely head of the CIA.

That would be the other CIA, of course.

Arctic Sea Ice Cracking Thing (Updated)

It is important to get this right. There is something interesting happening in the Arctic right now, and some people are pointing to it and jumping up and down and yelling about how it is a major climate change event. But it may very well not be. Or it could be. The thing that is happening is something that normally happens, but there are features of the event that are odd. We won’t know its significance until the Northern Summer, and even then we won’t be sure if this is just an unusual thing for this year or a new trend because, by definition, trends run over periods of time.

Every year as you know a certain amount of Arctic Sea ice melts away, and part of that melting process involves the ice breaking into separate chunks and floating around in a big gyre. If you live on or visit a lake in the frozen regions of North America, during the spring, you’ve probably observed the phenomenon. Well, this happens Big Time in the Arctic.

Ice is still forming in some regions of the Arctic, and may continue to form and thicken for some time to come, though the average effect at the moment is melting (see below). But for some reason a large region of ice has started to break up and float around loose, earlier than expected.

One possible outcome of this would be the more rapid melting of ice in that region once extensive melting starts, because broken up ice melts faster than continuous solid ice. Another possible outcome is that it all refreezes in place and has very little effect on what happens in the coming Northern Summer.

From the Arctic Sea Ice Blog:

It is normal for the ice to crack and for leads to occur. However, this is very extensive cracking and there are some very big leads, and all of it seems to come earlier than expected. Given last year’s melting mayhem and the low amount of multi-year ice, it makes one wonder whether this early cracking will have any effect in the melting season to come…. Maybe this will have zero influence. We don’t know. That’s why we watch.

So, how is the march of melt going in the Arctic, independently of this breaking up event? Here is a graph from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which is quickly becoming a very important source of critical information, showing the current state of Arctic Ice in relation to expectations:

The blue line is the current state of arctic ice.  It is at the low end of the late 20th century 30 year average, and very close to last year's track.
The blue line is the current state of arctic ice. It is at the low end of the late 20th century 30 year average, and very close to last year’s track.

Robert Scribbler, in a recent blog post, is predicting rapid and extensive melting. He cites as important factors “…cracking, rapid ice movement, thin ice, warmer than average air temps, and negative Arctic Oscillation…” and describes each of these factors.


Sitting here in late March in a Minnesota covered with a thick blanket of snow and above-freezing daily temperatures happing over the coming week for the first time in months (still no overnight thaws) it is hard to imagine the Arctic as being warm, but if you think about it a bit it makes sense. The Arctic, the Subarctic and the northern Temperate region are simply sharing their air masses in a different way than they usually do. It is a bit like someone drilled a big hole in the bottom of the freezer, connecting it to the refrigerator below. Down here in the fridge (Minnesota) the milk is freezing, but up there in the freezer, the ice is wet and sloppy.

I wonder how long it will be before cruise ships start to regularly ply the Arctic Sea for recreational purposes?