Friday, May 13, 2011

Blogging from IMCC2

Well, it's been several months since my last post - I apologize for the lack of activity around here, but that pesky Ph.D. keeps getting in the way. However, since I'm currently sitting in a workshop on scientific blogging, and one of the requirements is to do a blog post . . . here it is.

I'm (temporarily) back in my native hemisphere for the 2nd International Marine Conservation Congress in Victoria, B.C. I'll be presenting some preliminary results of my Ph.D. research, looking at spatial and temporal patterns of bleaching and disease on the Great Barrier Reef. Stay tuned, as I'll be updating this post with some excerpts from my presentation and perhaps some general discussion on the topic.

In the meantime, here's a video from the last IMCC in Washington, D.C.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

There's no consensus . . . on the ozone hole?

Continuing from my reading of Merchants of Doubt, here's a short summary of Chapter 4.

It was the early 1970s, and the allure of the supersonic transport (SST) was contagious. Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) were commissioned to determine whether emissions from these high-flying aircraft would pose a potential threat to the atmosphere. Early concerns revolved around water vapour and oxides of nitrogen; the former could contribute to the greenhouse effect, and the latter could deplete stratospheric ozone - although the extent that this might occur was still highly uncertain.

The U.S. SST project got canceled, and the Anglo-French Concorde never sold as many as was hoped, so the SST issue turned out to be a bit of a tempest in a teapot. However, some of the research initially done for the SST EIAs turned out to have far greater implications than most people realized. In addition, NASA was doing an EIA for the new space shuttle program, and there was a concern that chlorine emissions from the solid rocket boosters might also pose a threat to stratospheric ozone. Allegedly, NASA buried the report that raised the chlorine-ozone connection, so scientists were forced to be cagey and instead raise the question - at least in public venues - about whether volcano-derived chlorine might degrade stratospheric ozone. By this point, however, independent research by F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina in Nature showed that the breakdown of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) would produce chlorine monoxide, breaking down ozone in the process.

Unusually, the National Academy of Sciences was tasked by the Ford administration in 1975 with producing a report on what to do about the CFC-ozone problem from a regulatory standpoint. While this report was being written, the aerosol industry's spin machine was already in top gear. The Chemical Specialties Manufacturer's Association setup a U.S. speaking tour for a British scientist named Richard Scorer to playdown the ozone problem. Scorer insisted that the atmosphere was too large for human activities to possibly have any effect on it. Another industry group by the name of the Committee on Atmospheric Sciences argued that volcanoes spewed so much chlorine into the atmosphere that human emissions paled in comparison.

Industry and industry shills attacked the surface measurements as inaccurate, and insisted that the satellite data showed no ozone depletion. They pounced on the news that the atmospheric models needed to be reworked before the NAS report could be released. Although the final numbers from the report weren't as bad as initially feared, they were bad enough that the recommendation was unequivocal: CFCs needed to be regulated, and these regulations needed to be put in place within the next two years. Years later, the satellite data was found to have problems and corrected to show that the problem was as bad - or worse - than the surface data, had indicated.

By 1985, the UN framework for what would become the Montreal Protocol was in place. In the meantime, data from the British Antarctic Survey would find the infamous Antarctic ozone hole, and by 1987, the link between chlorine compounds and stratospheric ozone depletion was undeniable. Or at least, you'd think so.

Enter some familiar names: The Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Marshall Institute. All of these groups toed a party line that insisted that the scientists working on the ozone problem were in it for the money, and that the ozone "problem" was part of a natural cycle. Also at this point, another familiar name - Fred Singer - enters the picture. 

Once again, the Wall Street Journal gave its front page as a platform to attack mainstream science. In his article, Singer asserted (among other things), that because scientists had overreacted on the SST-water vapour problem (they hadn't), they were overreacting now. He cited some reputable scientists, too (including James Hansen) - but he used their findings to support exactly the opposite of what they had concluded. Ironically (in light of his later career), Singer had cited two papers that argued for the existence of anthropogenic global warming as evidence against anthropogenic ozone depletion.

In a National Review article, Singer said "It's not difficult to understand some of the motivations behind the drive to regulate CFCs out of existence . . . for scientists: prestige, more grants for research, press conferences, and newspaper stories. Also the feeling that maybe they are saving the world for future generations."

Even though it was clear that the fight over ozone was over by 1990, Singer fought on. He founded the Science and Environmental Policy Project. Singer continued to insist that the surface station data was wrong and that the satellites were right (even though the satellite data showed that the problem was worse). The volcano scapegoat also refused to die, being repeated by Singer as late as 1995 - in testimony before Congress, no less. In his written testimony to Congress, Singer claimed that there was "no scientific consensus" on ozone depletion.

In a foreshadowing of the 2007 Nobel Prize given to the IPCC (and Al Gore), Rowland and Molina - who had written that original Nature paper on the CFC-ozone connection back in 1974 - were awarded the Nobel Prize together along with Sherry Rowland in 1995. Singer promptly accused the Nobel Committee of politicizing the science. Along the way, Singer proposed that the entire crisis was part of a socialist agenda to bring down "business, the free market, and the capitalistic system" and to foster "international action, preferably with lots of treaties and protocols." None other than George Will accused environmentalism of being a "green tree with red roots".

So, let's recap the ozone denier arguments:
- It's part of a natural cycle
- Humans couldn't possibly affect the atmosphere
- Volcanoes are doing it
- There's no consensus
- Exploring alternatives will cripple the economy
- Scientists are just drumming this crisis up so they can get grant money
- It's a socialist plot to impose One World Government

Is any of this sounding familiar?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Deja vu all over again

Among the items in my basket of Christmas goodies to myself was Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway's book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.

I'm only 65 pages in, and I'll likely post more as I go, but I'd like to post this passage first:
"Seitz then summarily dismissed the models as bad science [...] having dismissed the . . . model as unscientific and casting doubt on the objectivity of its authors by linking them to liberal and environmental organizations, Seitz completed the picture for his readers by alleging ulterior motives. 'Political considerations subliminally skewed the model away from natural history . . .'

. . .He insisted that [it] was not science at all: it was left/liberal/environmental politics dressed up as computer code. 'No one who is familiar with the malleability of computer projections can be surprised at the result.'

. . .Finally, Seitz expanded his attack to encompass all science, and the scientific establishment itself . . . Seitz insisted that scientists had betrayed the public trust. Citizens regard 'the scientific profession as a bulwark of objectivity and credibility in an otherwise untrustworthy world," he noted, but they shouldn't.

. . . Seitz insisted that 'science bears little resemblance to its conventional portrait.' Instead, scientists are guided by such 'non-rational factors as rhetoric, propaganda, and personal prejudice.'

You would be forgiven for thinking that the above passage is referring to the late Frederick Seitz and his quixotic tirade against anthropogenic global warming. In fact, it's about Fred Seitz's cousin Russell Seitz, and his attack on the theory of nuclear winter that was being proposed by Carl Sagan and other prominent scientists during the late 1970s/early 1980s. The Wall Street Journal even gave Seitz a full 2400 words on its front page to attack science and scientists on the issue of nuclear winter.

It's a theme you'll see over and over again, and the central theme of Oreskes' book. Time after time, you'll see the same people, the same think-tanks, and the same tactics being employed in the manufactroversy over climate change. It started with the cigarette industry, it continued with SDI, nuclear winter, acid rain, and the ozone hole, and it's still going on today.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Irony, thy name is Fox News

In this video from Fox & Friends, Tucker Carlson and the host discuss a study from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute that found that college doesn't do a very good job of imparting civic knowledge. The study also found that going to college makes students more "liberal" on the issues of gay marriage and abortion. Scandalous, I know.

Not only do they misrepresent one of the study's findings (going to college does not decrease your civic knowledge), they ignore the other key finding(s) of the study, which is that greater civic knowledge is a better predictor of belief in American ideals and institutions than attending college (also not an earth-shattering finding):
1. Earning a bachelor’s degree exerts an independent, statistically significant influence on a person’s views on five of the thirty-nine survey propositions, most involving a narrow range of polarizing social and cultural issues. If two people otherwise share the same background characteristics, as well as equal civic knowledge, the one who graduates from college will be more likely than the one who does not to:
  • Favor same same-sex marriage; and
  • Favor abortion on demand.
Similarly, a college graduate will be less likely than a non-college graduate to:
  • Believe anyone can succeed in America with hard work and perseverance;
  • Favor teacher-led prayer in public schools; and
  • Believe the Bible is the Word of God.
2. Gaining civic knowledge influences a person’s views on four times as many propositions as college—twenty in all—that range across all of the six major survey themes. Civic knowledge also appears to produce a more independent frame of mind. For example, if two people otherwise share the same basic characteristics, the one who scores higher on the civic literacy exam will be more likely to agree that a person’s evaluation of a nation improves with his or her understanding of it; but also less likely to agree that legislators should subsidize a college in proportion to its students learning about America. Similarly, having more civic knowledge makes one more likely to agree that prosperity depends on entrepreneurs and free markets; but also less likely to agree that the free market brings about full employment.
3. Gaining civic knowledge—as opposed to merely graduating from college—increases a person’s belief in American ideals and free institutions. If two people otherwise share the same basic characteristics, the one with greater civic knowledge will be more likely to support:
  • America’s ideals: He or she will be less likely to agree that America corrupts otherwise good people.
  • America’s Founding documents: He or she will be less likely to agree that the Founding documents are obsolete.
  • American free enterprise: He or she will be more likely to agree that prosperity depends on entrepreneurs and free markets, and less likely to agree that global capitalism produces few winners and many losers.
  • The Ten Commandments: He or she will be less likely to agree that the Ten Commandments are irrelevant today.

But wait, there's more. Literally 30 seconds after Carlson expresses his outrage/disbelief that many students (18%) weren't able to name any of the freedoms that the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees, and specifically says that the Constitution doesn't allow for the establishment of a national religion (the 2:00 mark in the video), the host says - and I'm not kidding - "If degrees are making students . . . less likely to support school prayer . . . how do you fix this?" (2:32)

Yes, how do you fix what isn't broken?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The most cogent argument for the existence of God yet

I interviewed the comedian Miranda Hart recently. She told me she believes in God but was nervous of being quoted on it.
"It's scary to say you're pro-God," she said. "Those clever atheists are terrifying."
"Oh, nonsense," I said. "Let them tell you it's stupid to believe in something you can't explain. Then ask them how an iPad works."
All hail Steve Jobs! We must thank the Insane Clown Posse for spawning this new generation of theologians. You can read the rest of this truly dizzying intellectual riposte on behalf of theists at the Grauniad - er, I mean Guardian:

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Heart to Heart: Polar vs. Suunto

So this post is going to be a change of pace - a brief review/comparison of heart-rate monitors.

I'm not exactly a serious athlete, but my last personal training assessment puts me in the 85-90th percentile in terms of the general Australian public (this says more about the fitness level of the average Australian than my fitness level, really). Anyway, as a casual runner and frequent cycle commuter (and hardcore geek), I've long used all sorts of telemetry accessories such as a heart rate monitor (some other examples being the Nike+ accessory for my iPod, a GPS pod for my new HRM - more on this later, bike computer, etc.).

About ten years ago, I bought a Polar S410 for - if I recall correctly - about $200 on eBay. Although you can still find them on eBay for about $170 or so, this model has since been supplanted by the Polar RS400 (MSRP $USD269.95)

Polar S410

For its time, this was a pretty cutting-edge HRM. You could set up up to 30 different time-based or heart-rate based training intervals, and have it prompt you for each interval, and it would store up to 120 heart-rate samples for a workout, while storing up to five compressed (summary) workout files that would store average HR, duration, etc. Additionally, the SonicLink function allowed you to do bidirectional transfers between the watch and a computer so that you could look get a better look at your workout data, and setup workouts on your computer to transfer back to the watch. This technology basically used the same method as those wicked acoustic coupler modems from the '80s (remember those?) - by holding the watch up to your computer's microphone, data in the form of beeps and bloops gets picked up and decoded by the software. The watch also has a built-in microphone to allow the reverse process to occur. Pretty trick - when it works.

Alas, this proved to be not only the coolest feature, but also the Achilles' heel for this HRM. The SonicLink transfer process was extremely fussy: if the watch was too close to the microphone, it wouldn't work. If it was too far from the microphone, it wouldn't work. If the distance between the two varied too much during the transfer process, it wouldn't work. Nonetheless, I managed to figure out that holding the watch close to the mic from an audioconferencing headset worked pretty well - around a 1-in-2 to 1-in-3 success rate for transfers. When the data finally gets transferred, here's what it looks like in PC Coach Lite (the Polar-supplied software):
One of the really cool things about this is the sampling rate -  it stores 120 samples total, so if you're exercising for an hour or less, you're getting at least 2 samples per minute (once you exceed 120 samples, the watch automatically averages previous samples and then reduces the sampling rate). Of course, if you wanted to be really cutting-edge, you could have bought the S610, which has/had room for 16,000 samples.

At any rate (no pun intended), eventually I tired of this game with the microphone, and bought a shiny new Suunto T4:
OK, so the great thing about Suunto is that they have a whole line of essentially universal accessories, which they call pods. There's a bike Pod, a cadence Pod, a GPS Pod, a PC Pod and a foot pod,  all of which will work wirelessly with most Suunto watches - except for the basic ones, as far as I know. I bought my T4 as a package with the GPS pod from at some ridiculous discount (if you want an invite, let me know and I'll hook you up :)). The GPS Pod allows the watch to monitor and store your actual speed. Unfortunately, the Finnish engineers must have been stoned out of their minds (or spent too much time in the sauna) when they designed this thing, because - get this - the GPS doesn't store position data. If there's anything more frivolous than designing a GPS device that doesn't even tell you your position, well - I'm sure it exists, but I ain't gonna buy it. This is somewhat akin to buying an iPhone for use as a pocket watch.

Luckily, however, someone even geekier than I has figured out how to hack the Suunto GPS so that it's actually useful as, you know, a GPS. I haven't actually done this yet, but it's now on my list of things-to-do.

So that gripe out of the way, how does the T4 do as a heart-rate monitor? For the most part, great! The display is big and easy to read, and having the bezel display bpms in graphical format is great for quick reference. Their "training effect" zones seem like a useful shortcut for judging workout intensity, and actually seem to have some physiological research behind them. You can also display past training logs in bar graph format on the watch itself, which is neat. Downloading data from the watch to the free supplied software (Training Manager Lite) is a snap (once you buy the PC Pod, that is). It's all wireless and takes just seconds.

But there's a downside. The logging on the T4 sucks:
That's all you get in the way of information from a 1-hour workout. Or any workout, for that matter. Your average heart rate and your peak heart rate (and, since I have the bike pod, your average speed and total distance). It doesn't store any heartrate samples. You can't tell when you were going uphill or downhill, when you were moving or when you were stopped, how long it took you to recover after an interval . . . pretty much useless, at least for a telemetry geek like me.

No, if you actually want to store beat-by-beat data, you have to step up to the Suunto T6 - which starts at $260. I managed to find one on eBay for somewhat less than that - I just don't have my hands on it yet. When it arrives, I'll report back.