Sunday, February 28, 2010

Local effects of global warming investigated

If you looked at the blogs and articles by deniers of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), it would appear that flaw after flaw has been demonstrated in the science and data behind our understanding of AGW, yet in the real world, this is not the case, and the scientists keep on working on expanding their, and our, understanding of the effects of AGW.

Generally, the effects have been considered on a global scale (the Earth as a whole), or very localized scale (e.g. individual glaciers), but our understanding of how certain types of climate will change have been somewhat lacking. It has been assumed that a climate belt would change more or less uniformly, but nobody has known for sure.

Now, we are a bit closing in knowing, and it appears that climate belts won't change uniformly.

ScienceDaily reports on a new study, which looks into this very subject: Tropics: Global Warming Likely to Significantly Affect Rainfall Patterns

Climate models project that the global average temperature will rise about 1°C by the middle of the century, if we continue with business as usual and emit greenhouse gases as we have been. The global average, though, does not tell us anything about what will happen to regional climates, for example rainfall in the western United States or in paradisical islands like Hawai'i.

Analyzing global model warming projections in models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a team of scientists headed by meteorologist Shang-Ping Xie at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa's International Pacific Research Center, finds that ocean temperature patterns in the tropics and subtropics will change in ways that will lead to significant changes in rainfall patterns. The study will be published in the Journal of Climate this month, breaking ground on such regional climate forecasts.

Scientists have mostly assumed that the surfaces of Earth's oceans will warm rather evenly in the tropics. This assumption has led to "wetter-gets-wetter" and "drier-gets-drier" regional rainfall projections. Xie's team has gathered evidence that, although ocean surface temperatures can be expected to increase mostly everywhere by the middle of the century, the increase may differ by up to 1.5°C depending upon the region.

"Compared to the mean projected rise of 1°C, such differences are fairly large and can have a pronounced impact on tropical and subtropical climate by altering atmospheric heating patterns and therefore rainfall," explains Xie. "Our results broadly indicate that regions of peak sea surface temperature will get wetter, and those relatively cool will get drier."

So, not only will the climate get warmer, but the rainfall patterns are likely to change as well. This is pretty bad news, though not really that surprising, when one stops and think about it - the only reason why people have assumed otherwise, is because of lack of data and models. Now we have the data and models, and can make more precise predictions.

It doesn't look like the mentioned article has been published yet, though I could have overlooked it - Shang-Ping Xie has published quite a few articles on subjects related to climate.

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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Treating kids like criminals

In Alternet there is a rather disturbing article about how kids are treated as criminals for even the smallest infractions

Arrested for Doodling on a Desk? "Zero Tolerance" at Schools Is Going Way Too Far

Not only are kids treated as criminals for doing stuff like doodling on desks, there have also been cases of invasion of privacy (strip-searching and spying on kids through webcams), and even a case of breaching a kid's civil rights (refusing to stand up and recite the pledge of allegiance).

Each of the case reported in the article are hopefully isolated cases, but given the fact that there are no statistics on the number of kids arrested, it's hard to say how widespread the problem is.

In New York, the criminalization of schoolkids seems to be particularly bad, as a NYCLU report (.pdf) explains. The problem seems to have become particularly bad after the New York Police took over the security of New York public schools back in 1998.

"Zero tolerance" laws were panic reactions to some very troubling incidents, but like all such reactions, they were not thought out properly, and do more harm than good. A school with harassment from security guards/police, body searches, and metal detectors is not a good learning environment. Instead, much more gentle, and targeted, measures should be used.

Last year, NYCLU released another report, this time about how one could provide safety for students, without criminalizing them: Safety with Dignity: Alternatives to the Over-Policing of Schools

Hopefully this report will convince the people in charge of school security to change their methods, and allow the kids to be kids, without fear of getting arrested for even minor infractions.

In case the report is not enough, perhaps the class action lawsuit by ACLU and NYCLU will help instead.

NYPD personnel assigned to New York City’s public schools have repeatedly violated students’ civil rights through wrongful arrests and the excessive use of force, according to a class action federal lawsuit filed today by the New York Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union and the law firm of Dorsey & Whitney LLP.

The landmark lawsuit challenges the conduct and behavior of police officers and school safety officers (SSOs) serving in the NYPD’s School Safety Division. It was filed on behalf of five middle school and high school students who were physically abused and wrongfully arrested at school by NYPD personnel. The plaintiffs seek system-wide reform in New York City’s middle schools and high schools.

Either way, the current system got to change.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

A skeptic bookshelf

Yesterday, I finished David Aaronovitch's Voodoo Histories - the Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, and straight after I started on Damian Thompson's Counterknowledge - How we surrendered to conspiracy theories, quack medicine, bogus science and fake history.

Both of these books are obviously aimed towards a skeptical audience (or at least an audience open to skepticism), and reading them straight after each other, made me think about how a skeptic book-list could look like - and as both a blogger and a book-lover, what's more natural to try to build one and blog about it?

All of the books mentioned here are books that I have on my own shelves (though I haven't read all of them), and I would love to get recommendation for other books as well.

I've chosen to make the list alphabetic, since it's impossible to rank books dealing with such broad subjects according to each others.

David Aaronovitch: Voodoo Histories - The role of the conspiracy theory in shaping modern history.
Aaronovitch takes us through the historical examples of how conspiracy theories have helped shaping the world - one example is the usage of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to justify the "final solution" in Nazi Germany, but more modern examples are also given.

Isaac Asimov: The Relativity of Wrong.
A collection of essays by Isaac Asimov in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Mostly focused on astronomy, but with a few on other subjects as well. A lot of the stuff is quite dated, but it's still an interesting read. The relevance to this list, is the title essay "The Relativity of Wrong", which can also be found online.

R. Barker Bausell: Snake Oil Science - The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
One of several books on the list dealing with CAM. Bausell address the science behind CAM, and finds it severely lacking.

Bill Bryson: Shakespeare.
Perhaps a surprising book on the list for many, but in the world of Shakespeare, there are many who believes in alternative authors, making all sorts of wild claims why William Shakespeare can't be the real author. In his book, Bryson explains what we know and don't know about Shakespeare, why our relative sparse knowledge is not surprising, and why all the alternative theories about the authorship are far-fetched and outright nonsense.

Robert Todd Carroll: The Skeptic's Dictionary - A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions & Dangerous Delusions.
Based upon the great online resource, the Skeptic's Dictionary, it's a good reference work, where one can look up all sorts of nonsense, to get a brief introduction to it.

Nick Davies: Flat Earth News.
In this interesting book, Davies explains how news get distributed in this day and age, e.g. causing press releases to be reported as fact. Relevant to skepticism because it explains why science and medicine reporting is so bad, and how obviously falsehoods can make it int the newspapers.

Bart D. Ehrman: Misquoting Jesus - The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.
It's not great secret that I am a hardcore atheist, but I do actually see a difference between atheism and skepticism. This book just happens to cater to both audiences. Ehrman, a former fundamentalist, whose studies into the Bible turned him into an agnostic over time, explains what we know about the Bible and how it has been altered through time, in order to suit specific agendas.

Harry G. Frankfurt: On Bullshit.
The smallest and slimmest volume on my shelf, it's an essay explaining the nature of bullshit, which is not quite the same as lies (a lies knows he or she is telling a falsehood, a bullshitter doesn't care if ti's true or not).

Ben Goldacre: Bad Science.
Goldacre's book is based upon his Guardian column by the same name, and is a great introduction to skepticism. Deals extensively with things like alternative medicine and the media's reporting of medicine.

Susan Jacoby: The Age of American Unreason.
Not the greatest of books in my opinion, Jacoby does to a large degree explains how anti-intellectualism has become so widespread in the US.

Chis Mooney: The Republican War on Science.
Dated, but definitely not irrelevant, Mooney's book explained how the Bush administration tried to suppress science that didn't support their ideology. The same still goes on, though not from the actual government any longer.

Paul A. Offit: Autism's False Prophets - Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure.
Taking on the whole anti-vaccination crowd, Offit explains the lack of science behind the purposed vaccination-autism link, and the dangerous "cures" being pushed to parents of autistic children. Highly recommended.

Robert Park: Voodoo Science - The Road from Foolishness to Fraud.
Another great book taking on many different issues, all based upon scientific claims so bad that one cannot in any way justify how widely believed they are.

Phil Plait: Bad Astronomy - Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax".
Plait, the Bad Astronomer, takes on the many myths, misconceptions, and conspiracy theories related to astronomy.

Rose Shapiro: Suckers - How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All.
Unread, so I can't comment on it.

Michael Shermer: Why People Believe Weird Things - Pseudoscience, Superstition and other confusions of out time.
Shermer tries to explain how and why people come to believe in weird things. Personally, I am not too keen on Shermer's writing style, but the books has been highly praised by others.

Simon Sing & Edzard Ernst: Trick or Treatment? - Alternative medicine on trial.
Unread, so I can't comment on it.

Stuart Sutherland: Irrationality.
I have heard good stuff about this book, but I haven't read it yet.

Damian Thompson: Counterknowledge - How we surrendered to conspiracy theories, quack medicine, bogus science and fake hsitory.
I am currently reading this book, and so far it's a great read. Thompson takes on what he calls "counterknowledge" - misinformation packaged to look like fact.

Christopher Wanjek: Bad Medicine - Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Distance Healing to Vitamin O.
I have tried to get into this book a couple of times, but so far unsuccessful. It's not because it's bad or anything, I've just been distracted by other books.

Francis Wheen: How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World.
Read my book review here. I wasn't too impressed.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lazy linking

I used to do a lot of lazy linking posts, which are posts linking to things I find interesting. The main reason for the decline in these posts, is that I now link to such things from my Twitter account. Still, I'll try to make these posts from time to time, if nothing else then to give some linklove to other people.

First of, a fairly old blogpost about old atomic models in the past: The gallery of failed atomic models, 1903-1913

From the mainstream media, BBC reports on the findings of an rather interesting meteorite: Attic stored meteorite 'four billion years old'

Ed Brayton reports that the Innocence Project Frees 250th Innocent Person

And then there is the news that quack Kevin Trudeau has been hold in content of the court, because he asked his followers to write the judge, resulting in an email deluge.

On the anthropogenic global warming front, Climate Progress reports that Penn State inquiry finds no evidence for allegations against Michael Mann.

Via Sheril Kirshenbaum, I became aware of the Under the Microscope website, dedicated to women in science.

Over at Majikthise, Lindsay Beyerstein takes on the claims that the fathers of modern obstetrics murder more women than Jack the Ripper. Personally I find Lindsay's speculations more convincing than the new claims.

Over at Alternet, Greta Christina writes about Why We Don't Need Religion to Give Life Mystery (also at her own blog)

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Utah takes a stance for anti-science

I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but yet I still am. Utah's House of Representatives has taken a stance for anti-science, and has voted in a 56-17 vote to deny the current state of climate science.

The resolution can be read here.

This joint resolution of the Legislature urges the United States Environmental Protection Agency to cease its carbon dioxide reduction policies, programs, and regulations until climate data and global warming science are substantiated.

Highlighted Provisions:
This resolution:
. urges the United States Environmental Protection Agency to immediately halt its carbon dioxide reduction policies and programs and withdraw its "Endangerment Finding" and related regulations until a full and independent investigation of H. [ the ] .H climate data H. [ conspiracy ] .H and global warming science can be substantiated.

The struck out words were part of the draft, but removed from the final version.

In other words, the Utah House of Representatives ignores the fact that climate scientists have already substantiated the fact that anthropogenic global warming is happening, and wants the EPA to stop listening to the scientists until *someone* says that the scientists are right.

Just who is going to investigate this? The people working in the related fields are overwhelming in agreement, so it's obviously not any of them.

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A bridge too far

This is a, somewhat belated, reaction to Chris Mooney's article in science progress Will the Vaccine-Autism Saga Finally End? in which Mooney writes about the latest developments regarding Wakefield and his infamous study on the possibility of a MMR-autism link (a study which was retracted by The Lancet recently).

Most of the article is quite fine, but at the end, Mooney writes the following:

Instead, I believe we need some real attempts at bridge-building between medical institutions—which, let’s admit it, can often seem remote and haughty—and the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement. We need to get people in a room and try to get them to agree about something—anything. We need to encourage moderation, and break down a polarized situation in which the anti-vaccine crowd essentially rejects modern medical research based on the equivalent of conspiracy theory thinking, even as mainstream doctors just shake their heads at these advocates’ scientific cluelessness. Vaccine skepticism is turning into one of the largest and most threatening anti-science movements of modern times. Watching it grow, we should be very, very worried—and should not assume for a moment that the voice of scientific reason, in the form of new studies or the debunking of old, misleading ones, will make it go away.

This paragraph is problematic for several reasons. First of all, as Orac reports, this has been attempted before, without success. Not because of lack of trying from the scientists, but because of the behavior by the anti-vaccination crowd.

Second of all, it's problematic because it lends credibility to the anti-vaccination crowd. If the scientists are willing to debate them, then there must be something to it, or so it would seem to many.

Let me go into this a little deeper. When I talked to a friend about this yesterday, he said something which actually sums up the problem really well, while staying in the bridge building metaphor: "One cannot build bridges to alternative universes".

When we are dealing with the anti-vaccination crowd, we are dealing with a crowd that believe that there is a world-wide conspiracy among Governments, pharmaceutical companies, doctors, nurses, scientists, and many other, to suppress knowledge about behavior which is harmful to children.

This might not be what they say, but it's the consequences of their claims.

Think about it for a moment.

Childhood vaccinations are given all over the world, from Communist China, over theocratic Iran and feudal Saudi-Arabia to capitalist USA, yet the anti-vaccinationists want us to believe that all these governments willfully ignore data that shows that these vaccinations cause autism?

Big Pharma, as medical companies are often called, is a billion dollar industry, with heavy lobbying in the US, yet in countries like Denmark, vaccinations are made by state-run institutions (in Denmark, Statens Serum Institut).
Somehow, the anti-vaccination crowd wants us to believe that the Danish state continues to give childhood vaccinations, causing autism, even when the same state is the one who has to cover the cost of the special needs of the autistic children, due to the Danish welfare state?

Doctors and nurses all over the world are involved in giving out the vaccinations. They would also need to be part of the conspiracy.

Scientists all over the world do studies into the side effects of vaccinations, into the root causes of autism, and many other related subjects which would uncover a vaccination-autism link, yet only discredited people like Andrew Wakefield makes claims about such a link.

That is one big conspiracy theory.

Yet, Mooney wants us to build bridges to this crowd. Agreeing on something, anything, in order to... what exactly? How does one convince someone who not only believes in such a conspiracy, but actively promotes the conspiracy theory, that it doesn't exist?

And then there is the problem of giving credibility to the anti-vaccination crowd.

When one builds a bridge, the idea is to cross from one side to the other, not to meet halfway. There is the continent of reality, and then there is the islands of anti-science - meeting somewhere between, will move you from reality towards anti-science. Even more so, when you move towards the anti-science crowd, yet the anti-science crowd stands firm - you won't reach each other, but it will move the halfway point closer to their position. A sort of negative Overton Window, if you want.

No, the scientific community should most certainly not try to build a bridge to the anti-vaccination leadership. Instead, the scientific community should try to inform the public, especially journalists, about what the science says, given them the information needed to form informed opinions, when studying the subject.

People like Paul Offit is doing yeoman's work in this regard, with books like Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, yet we could use many more.

So, if one wants to build bridges, one should build bridges to the general public, probably through journalists, and ignore the lunatic fridge like Jenny McCarthy.

A side note: Chris Mooney is interviewing Paul Offit in Point Of Inquiry - I haven't heard the episode yet, so I can't comment on it.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Portrait of Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882), Biologist

Just thought I'd share this other photo of Charles Darwin, uploaded to flickr by the Smithsonian. I think it's rather cool that they upload these photos to the web, so the rest of us can get to enjoy them.

Happy Darwin Day

Darwin 150_200 Portrait
Originally uploaded by OGeorge
As most of my readers are probably aware, today is Charles Darwin's birthday. The drawing of Darwin is by science artist Carl Buell - for more of his drawings see his, unfortunately discontinued, blog Olduvai George.

Ancient Greenlandic Genome Decoded

As one might expect, this has been fairly big news in Denmark, and it has now also been reported in the NY Times

Ancient Man in Greenland Has Genome Decoded

The genome of a man who lived on the western coast of Greenland some 4,000 years ago has been decoded, thanks to the surprisingly good preservation of DNA in a swatch of his hair so thick it was originally thought to be from a bear.

This is the first time the whole genome of an ancient human has been analyzed, and it joins the list of just eight whole genomes of living people that have been decoded so far. It also sheds new light on the settlement of North America by showing there was a hitherto unsuspected migration of people across the continent, from Siberia to Greenland, some 5,500 years ago.

The genome came from some hair which had been in a bag at the Danish National Museum since 1986. The hair were found in an ancient garbage heap.

The study was published in Nature and can be found here: Ancient human genome sequence of an extinct Palaeo-Eskimo

As the NY Times mentions, the research has now given new insight into the migration patterns of the ancient humans, demonstrating some unexpected paths.

This is probably something we'll continue to see when more and more ancient genomes are decoded, expanding our knowledge in this area.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Wakefield saga continues

As my readers might be aware, Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who almost single-handed started the MMR-scare, has been under a great deal of fire recently, with the UK General Medical Council finding that he "failed to act in interests of children" last week.

Now, the Lancet, which published Wakefield's original study, has retracted it.

Lancet accepts MMR study 'false'

The Lancet has been slow in retracting the study, but the GMC ruling against Wakefield appears to be the last straw.

The comment by the Lancet on the retraction states the following:

Following the judgment of the UK General Medical Council's Fitness to Practise Panel on Jan 28, 2010, it has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al are incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation. In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were "consecutively referred" and that investigations were "approved" by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record.

Short, and too the point.

Wakefield's ordeal is not over yet. If one reads the GMC's report on their findings, it's clear that they are not done with Wakefield yet (emphasis added).

Having made the above findings of fact, the Panel went on to consider whether those facts found proved or admitted, were insufficient to amount to a finding of serious professional misconduct. The Panel concluded that these findings, which include those of dishonesty and misleading conduct, would not be insufficient to support a finding of serious professional misconduct.
In the next session, commencing 7 April 2010, the Panel, under Rule 28, will hear evidence to be adduced and submissions from prosecution counsel then Dr Wakefield’s own counsel as to whether the facts as found proved do amount to serious professional misconduct, and if so, what sanction, if any, should be imposed on his registration.

Page 55 of the GMC findings.

Personally, I am looking forward to the result of the 7 April 2010 panel, but I doubt Wakefield is.

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