Stories tagged debate

May
14
2010

Leaky pipe: I tried counting each particle myself, but didn't get very far.
Leaky pipe: I tried counting each particle myself, but didn't get very far.Courtesy BP
National Public Radio reported this morning about several methods being used to guess how much oil, methane, and other stuff is leaking out of the BP well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

It's interesting to see how various members of the scientific, government, and business community go about trying to guess the real size of the oil spill. NPR worked with a scientist to estimate the size of the leak by literally watching the video from the subs working on the well, and using a computer to estimate the amount of fluid gushing out over time--a technique called PIV. They got a scary big number. The Coast Guard (and BP) have been looking at satellite images of the oil slick. They look at the size of the slick and come up with an esitmate, based on what they know about how oil disperses in water. BP likes this number because it's not super big. Another group did some estimates based purely on the size of the pipe from which the oil is leaking. This number was also big, but there seems to be some scuttlebutt about the actual size of the pipe.

So what does big"" even mean? We mortals have a hard time understanding the scope of numbers after they start to get lots of zeros on them. So we contextualize these numbers. Everyone seems enamored with using the Exxon Valdez disaster as base unit for oil-spill-disasterdyness. Less than Valdez, bad, but good. Bigger than Valdez, bad. A factor of ten worse than Valdez, whoa-momma...we should really...[insert action here].

This story is a great reminder to think critically about the way we think about science in the news.

The oil spill is now X big.

Wait, how did they even come up with that number?

The oil spill has now surpassed a slightly arbitrary point in the past or record.

Um, yes, and.... Is there's a specific number past which this spill will dictate a different action? I'm totally fascinated with all these stories about the scope of the spill, but I do sort of wonder how far beyond, "really freakin' bad" we need to quantify the oil spill. What do you think?

Innovation 2008 Conference
Innovation 2008 ConferenceCourtesy University of Minnesota
From the University of Minnesota's Hubert H Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs website:

Innovation 2008 Conference - Renewing America Through Smarter Science & Technology Policy -- October 20th and 21st, 2008

This conference, held on the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota, will bring together academicians, policy makers, scientists, educators, artists, students and the public to discuss solutions to the major challenges facing the United States revolving around science and technology policy, including innovation, energy security and sustainability, health sciences policy, and our ongoing economic competitiveness in a high-tech, highly-educated global marketplace. The goal of Innovation 2008 is to bring scientists together with policymakers and the public, to help move the United States toward policies that are better informed by scientific realities, and to help scientists, engineers and the scientific community as a whole become more engaged in the political process. The conference will also explore ways to bridge the divide between science and the broader culture as a way to broaden public appreciation of science.

The conference is hosted by the University of Minnesota's Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy; Science Debate 2008; and the Bell Museum of Natural History.

Jul
06
2006

Global Warming: NASA photo of Earth taken from Apollo 17
Global Warming: NASA photo of Earth taken from Apollo 17

Have you been following the comments in Cari's Buzz Blog post about Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth. I find it interesting that very intelligent people can look at the same data ("truths") and yet totally disagree as to what to accept as reality?

A Global Warming Skeptic Challenge

George Musser on the Scientific American Blog has been moderating a discussion about global warming titled Are You a Global Warming Skeptic? Part IV He started the discussion March 6, 2006 with this statement:

In the comments field, explain which aspects of climate change you don't accept (e.g. you might not think Earth is warming at all, you might not think the warming is due to greenhouse gases, you might not think that the gases are produced by humans, or you might not think warming will cause trouble in the future), what exactly has led you to this conclusion, and -- most important -- what it would take to convince you otherwise. Let's get everything out into the open, so that we can have a real discussion.

The discussion is presented in four parts with hundreds of comments. I am recommending this thread because Musser first listens to, then presents a summary of the skeptics' arguments. I find the fairest way to make up my mind on an issue is to thoroughly understand both sides of the argument. Musser explains how scientists crunch the various data to answer difficult questions. He uses the analogy of examining fingerprints during a crime scene investigation.

Climatologists have maps and time series showing how a boatload of climate variables -- mean temperature, temperature ranges, air pressure, precipitation, and so on -- vary in time and in space, horizontally across the surface and vertically through the atmosphere. These data sets are a gold mine for resolving ambiguity, because the different forcings leave distinct fingerprints. Such patterns make it possible to tease out their relative contributions. Over the years, researchers have considered ever more variables besides temperature and ever more forcings besides greenhouse gases. They have merged spatial and temporal patterns, looked at regional as well as global scales, and developed more sophisticated mathematical tools.

View from the Crime Scene

"Fingerprints" included solar variability, volcanic eruptions, greenhouse gasses, ozone, aeosols, and various generic effects. When climatologists run the fingerprinting analysis for different historical epochs, they find that temperature fluctuations prior to the Industrial Revolution were driven primarily by solar and volcanic forcings. In the early 20th century, natural and anthropogenic forcings seem to contribute equally. From midcentury onwards, greenhouse gases rule(temporal pattern). Since 1979, when continuous satellites observations began, the surface and troposphere have warmed and the stratosphere has cooled(vertical pattern). Pretty much the entire surface has gotten warmer, high latitudes more than lower ones(horizontal pattern). All the oceans have warmed; there isn't the zero-sum game of warming and cooling you'd expect from natural variability(energy variability).

Musser concludes,

"unless I'm missing something, it seems to me that the case for anthropogenic warming is pretty strong...Based on the knowledge we have so far, however, I have to call 'em as I see 'em."

To appreciate the use of critical thinking and scientific method I recommend wading through the four installments of "Are you a global warming skeptic?" Part I (673 words); Part II (2219 words); Part III (2617 words); Part IV (3516 words); and an Appendix