Category Archives: Uncategorized

Nitpicking the Press: Numbers Count!

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This morning’s news story: “President Biden Will Remove 1.5 Million Lead Pipes”

Thanks, Joe, but “no thanks” to the culture of journalism, which sometimes strings words together that make no sense. We do not count pipe this way, usually. A line of pipe that runs from a main to a house may be made up of one or more pipes (usually more), if you count the number of tubular objects fixed together to connect everything up. Say they the installers use five pipe segments. Is that five pipes that President Biden will dig up, or is it one pipe all fixed together? The water pipe that feeds Boston, Massachusetts is a complex of pipes that runs about 70 miles, I believe there are two of them in parallel, and although they are not made of lead so President Biden will not be digging them up, I suspect there are tens of thousands of segments joined together to make that work. Or does this count as two?

So who is counting wrong? CONTINUED ON SUBSTACK

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How Trump Ends

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I heard an absolutely awful person (via media not someone I know) proudly complaining that if a good friend or lover suffered a physical insult, such as tripping over a broken sidewalk and landing on their face, that she thereafter could not look at that person again without disdain.

That sounded unbelievable until I remembered this story: SEE MY SUBSTACK!

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Enviro-Misconceptions and Wrongness

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Is climate change accelerating? No.

A subset of climate change scientists and activists are known in the mainstream science community as doomers. These are often credentialed and legitimate scientists who prefer the scarier interpretations of data, and who tend to have hair-on-fire reactions that they pass on to the general public. This does not help us in the broader mission of helping the public understand the science. Assertions that underestimate the amount of warming or the severity of effects do not help; assertions that overshoot the mark also do not help.

I wrote a substack on this, which you can visit HERE.

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Happy Memorial Day: Take Down Your Flag

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There is a story about a young woman named Yara. Yara worked for the city of Franklin in the clerk’s office. During election season, she worked mainly on elections, and during the rest of the year, other things, including staffing the “input line,” the main telephone interface with the public.

One fine June morning she left her house in a quiet cul-de-sac walking distance from City Hall. It was actually her parent’s house; she was living with them until she saved up enough money to move to the Boston area, where she had deferred admission to a graduate program in public policy. Her passion was to work for the government, because she believed public service to be her calling, and she believed in good government. This was something she picked up from her grandfather, who had been a civil servant in Iran; he was an honest government worker, who believed in the elusive concept of democracy. Thus his removal to the united States decades earlier.

Anyway, Yara headed out towards work and as she passed by two side-by-side homes near the corner, the shuddered a bit, thinking about the occupants. They were known to her as MAGA people. One of the residents, a man in his 50s, had one time let himself into Yara’s home while the family was eating dinner, to tell them what the #BLM sign they had just put out on their lawn really means. About how it was racist, and all lives actually matter. And so on.

Read the rest on my substack.

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Is global warming speeding up?

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Is global warming speeding up?

There has been some discussion about this recently. For some, if you look at the changes in global surface temperature, it seems like the rate of warming has increased. For others, an apparent uptick in rate of warming is just a normal short term shift in the rate of warming that is offset by prior and future downturns in rate. Regardless of whether there is a change in rate of warming, the question itself brings up a number of sub-questions of interest. Some of these questions are about climate science, some are about how to wrangle and interpret data, and some are about the rhetorical interface between science and the public conversation.

I have some thoughts.

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My Bear And Man Thing

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Years ago I wrote about the bear and the man, sans the bear. (But there was a dog.) I thought it might be a good time to reprise.

Bold Assertions

Do you know me? Yes? How well and for how long, and how good is your memory? If you’ve known me for a while you might remember that in 2009, as chief proprietor of a widely read science blog, I shocked many people in the skeptics/science world (aka Friends of Big Bang) by coming out firmly against rape. Within a year or so I came out with another shocker: I suggested that under certain circumstances men out alone at night, when encountering a women also out alone at night, might give her a wide berth in order to not engender fear. Cross the street instead of bearing down (as it were) on the person you don’t even know.

These bold assertions overlapped in time with Elevatorgate. Remember that? My position — no on rape, and also no on being a dick — were sufficiently shocking in the world of self styled intellectuals (and actual intellectuals such as Richard Dawkins himself) that I and all the others who were saying similar things at the time were attacked relentlessly by a then growing MRA movement (Men’s Rights Activism). In fact, I’m pretty sure that Rebecca Watson and the women of Skepchick, PZ Myers, Myself, and a couple of others fueled the growth of that movement without intending to do so. As recently as several months ago, one of the MRAs threatened to harass one of my family members “until the day he dies” out of spite.

Read the rest on my substack!

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Oldsplaining The Young Is Cheugy

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How many times have you been to a political meeting and someone says “we need to get more young people on board” or “we need to reach out to yoots” or words to that effect? Lots of times. Maybe almost every meeting that goes longer than a half hour, and they all go longer than a half hour. The conversation often veers into a discussion of strategies to find and recruit young folks, and sometimes, into a complain session about what the young folks are doing wrong….

Read my latest Substack. Also, bonus section on why you are wrong about polling. HERE

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Mann’s victory seems to be timed perfectly to match its significance in today’s political climate

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Michael E Mann, climate scientist, has won a law suit against iffy academic Rand Simberg deplorable radio jock Mark Steyn, for defamation. The details are in the statement released by Mann and his legal team, below.

This entire drama started with the famous “climategate” episode, in which emails passed among scientists were kidnapped and tortured to make them look like admissions or proof of a conspiracy to rig the climate data to show that global warming is real. There were conspiracy theories before that, of course, but this one was firmly tied into science denialism by the global right wing, and ultimately, the American right wing and republicans in Congress. This and related parallel shenanigans involving Congressional committees set the cultural stage for neo-conspiracies such as birtherism, and ultimately, conspiracies related to election denial.

We are seeing multiple juries of ordinary citizens and judges with diverse backgrounds awarding all of us with truth in the E. Jean Carrol case, the Michael Mann case, and elsewhere. The arc of the universe does not bend towards justice. Clearly, when left on its own, it bends away from justice. But persistence and simply being right can push it in the right direction, and that is what we are seeing now.

Thank you Mike Mann, congratulations!

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Does the turkey make you sleepy?

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Maybe tryptophan, an ingredient in turkey makes you sleepy. Maybe not. I suspect it is has either no effect or a small effect. But when people say “the turkey makes you sleepy because it has tryptophan in it,” they are repeating an easily disprovable myth.

Let’s say tryptophan makes you sleepy. Why does turkey take the rap? Other things with tryptophan: Cattle, swine, chickens, fish. Pretty much, animals. Plants too. Tryptophan is a basic building block, aka amino acid, in your basic biological protein.

So if turkey makes you sleepy because of tryptophan, then when you mix up that whey protein super shake, to up your protein intake on a gym workout day, you should pass out. If you consume 120 grams of protein in your workout juice, that’s 2,160 mg of tryptophan.

If you look at a USDA list of nutrients, and search for tryptophan, you’ll find that pork, steak, hamburger, turkey breast, etc. etc. all have almost identical amounts of the amino acid, because the are, after all, almost identical animals (all tetrapods) at the 20,000 foot level (but don’t drop your turkey out of a helicopter at any altitude). But turkey breast has a tiny bit more than the other, for random reasons.

I think the real reason you take a nap is because you need a nap and the turkey takes the rap for your nap. The turkey is none the wiser, so go for it.

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When breakthrough technology that isn’t really breakthrough technology

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Two very important papers are just out by Joe Romm. Hae a look.

1) Why scaling bioenergy and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is impractical and would speed up global warming

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) has generated great interest as global emissions have soared to 50 billion tons (Gt) a year of CO2 equivalent. In theory, biomass could remove CO2 out of the air as it grows, and a CCS system on the bioenergy power plant could permanently bury the CO2, making BECCS potentially a “negative” emissions technology.

But a growing body of research casts doubt on whether either bioenergy or BECCS are scalable climate solutions—or solutions at all. Those doubts are reinforced by findings from the first dynamic, integrated global modeling of BECCS by the researchers of Climate Interactive:

Click through to see the entire paper.

2) Why direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS) is not scalable and ‘net zero’ is a dangerous myth

As global emissions have soared to 50 billion tons (Gt) of CO2 equivalent, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) strategies have generated great interest. The three most widely analyzed and modeled are direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS), which pulls CO2 directly out of the air and stores it underground; planting trees; and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, whereby growing biomass removes CO2 from the air and a CCS system on the bioenergy plant could permanently bury it.

In theory, by combining deep emissions cuts (achieved by substituting carbon-free energy for fossil fuels) with a scaled-up CDR effort, we could bring total emissions down to “net zero.” But as other white papers in this series have explained, scaling tree planting faces major challenges, and scaling BECCS is impractical and would speed up global warming this century.

Click through to see the entire paper.

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How Many Dead?

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Does it matter that everyone across the world knows how many people are dead when some deadly disaster happens, as the event unfolds? Does it matter at all that as the death toll of an earthquake, train wreck, or mass shooting solidifies, that everyone is informed, repeatedly and at short intervals, of the ever changing death count?

I think it does, but for subtle reasons that I’ll address below. But I might be wrong, and if you think this is just prurient voyeurism, and maybe even offensive, you may be right about that, and I’m not going to argue with you. Either way, I am interested in the process of counting the dead at the outset of such disaster, because it is a window into how our system of sharing information operates, and how the press itself operates. If it turns out that we agree that counting the dead as they are still dying, or very soon after as they are still being found, is important and legitimate, then we really should have best practices for doing so, rather than what we have now.

As the (onging as I write) mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine of 2023 unfolded, the number of dead soared to 20, and most notably, the number of wounded soared to 60, before both numbers came down to about a dozen or so each. I still don’t know what the numbers are. The press has been reporting “at least 13” for the last 10 hours or so, which I find astonishing. Do they not know yet? Or are they being told by hospital people, subtly, that there are individuals on life support and they are just waiting for the families to give the nod? In any event, I cannot explain why the numbers changed so dramatically in this case, but I can tell you a story about a disaster that happened several years ago in which the number of dead soared to well over a dozen, but in reality, was always exactly 3, and known to be that number from the moment authorities arrived on the placid and un-confusing scene.

It was Saint Paul, Minnesota, in April of 2004. Four teens found their way past the barrier built to secure an old mine in the high bluff over the Mississippi River, in a suburban neighborhood. The horizontal mine shaft is part of a complex known as the “Wabasha Street Caves.” They are not caves. They are mines from early in the state’s European history, dug by the corporate ancestor of 3M, and never filled in or properly secured after they fell out of use. Some of the caves have been upgraded to use as commercial facilities for parties and tours, the value of this use enhanced by the elaborated and hyperbolized history of the caves as gangster hangouts and as haunted venues. But some of the caves are just holes not comfortable or useful for these purposes, and these have supposedly been secured by capping off the entranceways.

These four kids had a way pas the cap, and on that April day in 2004, went into one of the caves, built a fire, and three of them died of carbon monoxide poisoning. A fourth was sickened, but escaped, and went to get help.

The cave was probably about two thirds of the way up a steep heavily vegetated bluff. If one were to remove a body from the cave and move it to an ambulance or coroner’s wagon, one would have to move the body down, not up, owing to the steepness of the upper third of the cliff. But the heavy vegetation meant moving very slowly. Just climbing as a fit climber from the bottom of the cliff to the cave would take a person some 30 minutes, but a bunch of fire fighters, police officers, or sheriff’s deputies moving a stretcher to which a shrouded body of a child is strapped would take a long time to reach the bottom. Hours, as it turns out.

The press was on the scene. Various reporters from the four local news stations were camped out in people’s back yards above the curved bluff, where they could barely see activity, including authorities moving with a stretcher. Others were camped out in various nearby parking lots in the commercial zone down on the flats below the bluff. They also could barely see through the vegetation if anyone was moving up or down the bluff. And, of course, some reporters could see the bodies being loaded into a vehicle, but for the most part the public and the reporters were all kept well back from the parking lot to which the bodies were being moved.

For some reason I decided to watch this event unfold from my office, with all four TV stations running either on a TV, a computer, or a radio. As I observed, I notated that reports of a body being removed would come first from a particular reporter, then some 15 minutes later or so, a different reporter, and after another 15 minutes or so, another reporter. Meanwhile, all the reporters were listening to each other. The process of removing a body and moving that body to the parking lot below took a long time, and no one was coordinating the information, so over time the total number of bodies being removed became a function of one or more reporters reporting that they could see a body, with those reports happening in a short period of time, separated by long periods of no reporting, but a lot of yammering about earlier reports echoing among the various news stations. Every cluster of observations was counted as a body, even though one body’s movement was triggering between two and four clusters of reports.

So every kid got counted about four times, causing the death toll to creep up to about a dozen. It stayed that way for most consumers of the news until much later that night or the next morning, when authorities reported the number of three dead.

I would wager that something like this happened in Lewiston. In a chaotic environment, with reporters and witnesses both providing information and hiding out at the same time, some, perhaps many, of the dead were counted more than once. This way 13 got to 20. I suspect the injury counts were from garbled information from hospitals and treatment centers. Three hospitals hear that there are a total of 20 injured people, but that count is for all the hospitals. Reporters hear “20” three times and gets 60.

We know people can’t count. Have you ever been at a four-way stop with five cars at it? Then you know people can’t count. Reporters are not hired due to their ability to handle numbers, but you would think editors and producer would know by now that these numbers are always garbled.

And I think getting it right is important. Roughly concurrent with the Lewiston tragedy is the ongoing analysis of a missile strike in Gaza, where the number of dead killed in an explosion at a hospital went from 500 and climbing to 300 then, according to one source, 50. This is all tragic no matter what, but 500 would have been equal to a third of the number of Israelis killed a couple of days earlier by Hamas, while 50 is yet another Israeli air-strike on an occupied building. Politically, this matters a lot.

So why does the immediate as-it-happens death count matter? It might not, but there are a few possible reasons it does. One is the basic principle that everyone wants to know everything all the time; telling the press to not be an immediate conduit of information for one thing may be the first domino in a series of domino falls that are not good. Another is that there may be agents that need information right away and act on it. I’m sure that hospitals and such have phone trees to call people in during a disaster, but I can also imagine a hospital worker, a nurse, or an ER doctor hearing about a disaster in their geographical area and, learning that the number of casualties is high, heading towards their workplace even before a possibly semi-broken or otherwise ineffective call to action happens. Politically, is is important that a broad range of people know about some bad thing some bad person is doing. Potential donors to disaster relief have to get softened up as soon as possible. That sort of thing.

But at the same time, having the information be inaccurate can cause more problems than it can solve. This argues for best practices to be developed and deployed. There should be a manual for counting the dead. At the very least, officials need to change the way they prioritize the transmission of information. Instead of focusing on presenting laundry lists of agencies involved (which is the de rigueur yammering we tend to hear these days) perhaps they should focus more on accuracy in describing what is happening. It seems that at present, there is not much of a focus on accuracy.

When I started writing this post the death toll in Lewiston was “13 or more” according to NBC. As I finish it (a couple of hours alter, having had an interruption or two), the same news agency is saying “at least 18.”

The suspect remains at large.

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