Archive for November, 2009

Temptation to Betray the Scientific Process

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Any properly trained scientist is uncomfortably embarrassed with the assertion that the science is in on global climate change. Science is inherently provisional, open to new ideas and new data. Scientific revolutions have been the consequence of new data that needed to be explained. Sometimes these new interpretations undermine established theory. A Newtonian approach to understanding the universe was largely consistent with observed data, particularly, for example, the motion of the planets. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries,  the photo-electric effect, X-rays and other radiation, and spectral lines emitted from heated materials, all created observations that could not be explained with conventional physics. Out of these measurements and new interpretations grew the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.

The science underpinning global climate change is no different. In the 1970’s, scientists were concerned about global cooling. Additional measurements and careful theoretical modeling form a solid basis for concluding now that the Earth is warming in some important measure due to human introduction of additional green house gases into the atmosphere. Nonetheless, there are important questions to be addressed. In the last 10 years there has been a mild global cooling that is difficult to model. Additional work is necessary to understand potential feedback mechanisms that could either accelerate or modulate global warming. Long-term temperature measurements are constructed from proxies, such as tree ring diameters. Honest efforts at these reconstructions can either produce the famous “hockey stick” graph showing an unprecedentedly high global temperatures or roughly analogous temperatures in the Medieval Warm period. The latter graph might suggest a larger role for natural variability in the current period of temperatures.

If man is responsible for  climate changes with negative consequences like sea level rise, it is incumbent on humans to address the problem. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions will increase the cost of energy and very likely reduce economic growth, increase unemployment, and reduce living standards. It is, therefore, rational to balance these consequences against the consequences and possible uncertainty in global climate change. It is in taking positions with regard to this tradeoff that can tempt scientists to circumvent the the scientific process.

Recently, the e-mail server at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, a scientific institution at the forefront of climate research, was hacked. Some the correspondence was made available on line. Some of the e-mails are incriminating, writing of “tricks” to hide the recent decline in temperature. Perhaps most damning are discussions about pressuring journals in the peer review process, keeping articles from consideration by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and refusing to make data available to skeptics of global warming. Although is hard to conceive of contexts that would make these e-mails less damning, we need to acknowledge that this possibility still exists. We shall see what time reveals.

The revealed e-mails suggest less that a climate warming hoax is being perpetrated, and more that the correspondents wanted to make sure that modest scientific disputes are not used to undermine in the public mind a general consensus about global warming. Since climate analysis and modeling is a new science, there will be anomalies and discrepancies that are difficult to explain with theory. The fear among some is that this natural scientific uncertainty and debate will hide an overall generally-accepted conclusion that the Earth is warming.

It is the appropriate scientific (rather than political) disposition that the aggressive and even combative review of data and analysis, especially by skeptics, enhances rather than subverts scientific inquiry. We can be most sure of results if they have passed through such gauntlets. By appearing to eschew to the ethos of open inquiry, these analysts have undermined rather than enhanced the ability to persuade policy makers of the importance of global warming. Worst, they have made publicly suspect people involved in climate research with results similar to theirs.

Campaign Promises

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

Unequivocal campaign promises are useful in an election campaign, but usually nuisances once elected. In 1988 President George H. B. Bush clearly announced, “Read my lips. No new taxes.” After being pressured by a Democratic Congress while trying to garner support for the first Gulf War, Bush acquiesced on taxes. Never mind that Democrats wanted to increase taxes, they were able to effectively bludgeon Bush with his inability to keep a clear promise. It is rhetorically difficult to go back on a campaign promise.

President Barack Obama was not particularly consistent, but seems to have promised to “save or create” 3.5 million new jobs by 2011. Let’s engage in a little sentence parsing. We can assume that he is speaking about jobs created by the entire economy whole not just by the government, so he can claim jobs created in the private sector towards fulfilling the promise. Let us further assume that he is promising 3.5 million “net” jobs saved or created. If 3.5 million jobs are create, but 4 million lost, it would hardly be a boast that  Obama would be proud of.

Unfortunately, the economy has been hemorrhaging net jobs, and its is getting less and less probable that 3.5 million net jobs will be created by 2011. However, he apparently hopes to use creative accounting to at least claim some job creation. Unfortunately, the web site where these jobs are documented as proved to be an inflated embarrassment. Sometimes, cost of living increases are counted as jobs created and in some other instances jobs were created in non-existent Congressional districts. Moreover, created jobs are counted but there is no opposite side of the ledger where jobs lost to government policies are counted.

At the beginning of the year, the Obama Administration promised that if the stimulus package were quickly passed, the unemployment rate would never rise above 8%. At last count, it was 10.2% and still on the increase. Given the ability to calculate and predict economic statistics, people are entitled to be very skeptical of the administrations computation of  650,000 jobs saved.

The figure below shows the total employment since last year in blue. Employment is clearly dropping systematically. The red line is what the administration claims the job level would have been without the stimulus package. The stimulus seem rather ineffectual in the face of falling employment thus far, even if taken at face value. At best, if you believe the Administration’s numbers and if you believe that, without evidence, that the 650,000 represents net jobs not one half of the ledger, the stimulus is only a 0.4% effect on total employment. This seems like a modest benefit for which we raised the deficit to GDP ratio to the highest it has been since the World War II era.

It is understandable that Obama wishes not to be saddled with an unkept campaign promise. But it is preferable and perhaps even better political strategy to not be ridiculed for ludicrous claims or dishonesty than to face problems square on. The electorate can deal more effectively with honest efforts that have failed than dishonesty and denial.

Trials of Choice

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

Regardless of any political assessment of the presidency of George W. Bush, the one undeniable fact is it that after the attacks of September 11 the American homeland remained safe from terrorist attack under Bush’s watch. Whether because of or in spite of the hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, whether because of or in spite of detaining captured terrorists at Guantanamo, whether because of or in spite of enhanced investigative powers, whether due to foolish good fortune or wise policy, Americans have remained safe at home.

Last week, Army Major Nidal Hasan allegedly killed 13 people and wounded 30 others  at Fort Hood in Texas while reportedly shouting “Allahu Akbar!” – “Allah is the Greatest.” While the initial reaction in the media has been to downplay Hasan’s terrorist ties, it has become clear that at the very least Hasan was a home ground jihadist, inspired by radical Islam abroad. Now the Hasan shootings cannot be realistically blamed on the Obama Administration, it does represent the first successful terror attack on US soil since 9/11.

Since coming into office, the Obama Administration has scaled back the War on Terror, refusing to use even the term, while traveling the world apologizing for aggressive US behavior against terrorismm. Guantanamo is being shut down. Last year the War in Afghanistan was a war of necessity, this year decisions about strategy seem to be unsure and tentative, confusing troops and heartening the enemy.

Now the Obama Administration has decided to place five terrorist on trial in federal court, a trial of choice. Let’s be clear, the choice is not between indefinite detention and a fair trial. The Supreme Court has given its blessing to military trials especially designed for acts of war for individuals captured on the field of battle by the military. The federal trial will open up the possibility of accidental release of classified information, as similar trials have in the past, and the opportunity for terrorists to use the trial for propaganda purposes. We were told that the War in Iraq was a war of choice. It is fair to assert that these federal trials are not legally or morally mandated, they are trials of choice.

The only possible advantages of such a trial are moral preening on the part of the Obama Administration, the chance once again to do something George Bush would not have, and an opportunity to appease Obama’s base on the Left. However, as the Administration elects to roll back the intensity on the War on Terror, the more it sets itself up, fairly or unfairly, for blame should terrorists manage to carry off a spectacular attack on the US.

Calculatiing Schwarzenegger’s Letter Statistics

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

Politics can be about principled differences fought out verbally in public. Politics can represent our noblest aspirations for creating a free and orderly society. Sometimes, politics can also resemble middle-schoolers calling names in the school yard. Perhaps it is not surprising that such behavior can be found in California, that seems to lead the country in so many regards.

San Francisco assemblyman Tom Ammiano in an emotional outburst disagreed with California Arnold Schwarzenegger shouting, “You lie,” as Schwarzenegger began to speak at a Left-of-center group. Ammiano further suggested that the governor, “kiss my gay ass?” The incident certainly did not resemble the civility of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Apparently, the Governor’s office is not above subtle slights of its own. The Governor vetoed  Ammiano’s bill  for financing for the Port of San Francisco. The curt letter explaining the veto apparently contained a hidden message. If you carefully examine the letter reproduced below,

you might notice that the first letters of the lines in the body of the text spell out “I f— you.”This is so silly, that one might believe that the whole story is apocryphal, but is was reported, presumably seriously by the San Francisco Chronicle.  No one  believes that the hidden message is the “weird coincidence” press secretary Aaron McLear argued it was, but there is a interesting statistical question as to how likely is it that message would have appeared randomly.If Pw(i) is the probability that a word in the English language begins with the letter i, and Pw(f) is that a word begins with f, etc., then the probability of this curious sequence isPw= Pw(i) Pw(f) Pw(u) Pw(c) Pw(k) Pw(y) Pw(o) Pw(u).

Unfortunately, those probabilities about word beginnings were not easily found. A less direct means to estimate the likelihood of the letter sequence is to use the probabilities of the letters occurring in the English language. These values can be obtained from Wikipedia. The probability of this “weird coincidence” would then be:

P= P(i) P(f) P(u) P(c) P(k) P(y) P(o) P(u)


P=  (0.0697) (0.0223) ( 0.0276) ( 0.0278) ( 0.0077) (0.0197) ( 0.0751) (0.0276)


P=   3.74971 x 10^(-13)

or one chance in 2.7 trillion.

We thank the Governor Schwarzenegger and Assemblyman Ammiano for the entertainment and an opportunity to make an interesting calculation.