Weekly Roundup

You’re not you when you’re hungry: research suggests low blood sugar and irritability are linked, especially irritability at one’s spouse as measured by pricking voodoo dolls and punishment via loud noise. Cartoonist Maki Naro at Popular Science illustrates the “hangry” phenomenon here and here.

It’s a big week for ancient history: puppy prints on Roman tiles and a translation of a fixed Greek wrestling match.

What does your baby cry? According to evolutionary biology, to stop you from getting to work on a sibling.

Cats make terrible research subjects: “Very often, they didn’t participate in the experiment or they walked in the wrong direction.”

Our brains are bad judges of distance, imagining our destinations to be closer than equivalent distances behind us. In addition, we evaluate people and businesses more favourably if they are ahead of us rather than behind us.

It’s been an interesting week for language use in the communication of animal research. Here’s an interesting debate about the “female penis” of Neotrogla curvata. NPR describes how “Albatrosses are 100 percent faithful. That’s not to say that albatross dads don’t occasionally have a dalliance with ladies who aren’t their mates.” Finally, at the Daily Mail, we are treated to “Men really are less likely to say ‘not tonight dear, I have a headache’ than women, new research shows” and “Women lose their libido when they are in pain while men do not.” Top-notch reporting on the research on sex differences in libido response to pain, as long as you keep in mind that the men and women were mice.

YouTube science show Smarter Every Day has a wonderful video showing counterintuitive behaviour of a helium balloon in a moving minivan. There’s a great explanation at i09.

If nothing gets done, it’s not your fault: you just have the lazy gene. Or the procrastination gene. I’m sure the boss will understand.

Infographic: Americans use more energy in 2013 than in 2012

The bad news is that Americans used more energy in 2013 than in 2012.  Unchanged is the fact that US energy efficiency is still terrible. The good news is that 2013 saw  more renewable energy produced!

Each year the Lawrence Livermore Labs releases an energy flow chart, which is a great infographic that displays the origin of US energy, the sectors that use that energy, and the efficiency of each sector. This year’s infographic was recently posted (click on the image to make it larger).

Lawrence Livermore Labs Energy Infographic

Some highlights from the lab’s news release:

  • “Wind energy continued to grow strongly, increasing 18 percent from 1.36 quadrillion BTUs, or quads, in 2012 to 1.6 quads in 2013.”
  • “Natural gas prices rose slightly in 2013, reversing some of the recent shift from coal to gas in the electricity production sector.”
  • “Petroleum use increased in 2013 from the previous year.”
  • “Rejected energy [roughly energy lost to inefficiency] increased to 59 quads in 2013 from 58.1 in 2012, rising in proportion to the total energy consumed.”

What I enjoy about this infographic is that it highlights the rejected energy, which highlights the inefficiency of  US energy use. Transportation, as you can see, produces a lot of rejected energy (probably due to the inefficiency of the combustion engine). If we can’t curb our energy use (which I think we should) then we absolutely need to be doing a better job finding efficiencies.…

Children are NOT the future.

Should we motivate concern for climate action through the wellbeing of our decedents? I argue that it is time for change.

Michael Mann was promoting his new book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars last night with a lecture at the University of Wisconsin. I attended and live-tweeted it on my twitter account @WxPhilosopher for any of you who missed it. For the most part Mann’s talk followed what has become the standard climate talk format: here’s some science we’re sure of, here’s why models are helpful, this is how the topic was politicized, we’re all doomed unless we act fast. Possibly even more cliché than the format itself is the trope with which such talks, including Mann’s, usually close: Consider the legacy of our children, and how climate change could affect them. Let’s ensure they are better off, and leave them a world in which they can flourish. I’ll call this the child trope.

I hate the child trope, and I find my own hatred of it somewhat strange. Of course, I want preserve the planet’s ability to support life, and I want humanity to flourish. So why do I have these negative emotions toward it? After hearing Mann evoke the trope, I sat down to rationalize my emotional position. I realized that I find the trope not very compelling, but also that it possibly reinforces what I think are dangerous presuppositions. I’ve listed a few of the reasons below.

Please, by all means, comment on this post. I might be a little pessimistic, and I want to know if this trope actually is effective in demographics other than those in which I reside.

How the trope works:

Think of the children!

I take it that the child trope is one way of personalizing the harm that climate change will cause even though climate change works on long timescales. Because it isn’t us that will be hurt most by the affects of climate change, but our progeny, and because we are the cause of climate change, the child trope is relied on to make currently existing individuals feel responsible for what happens in the future. The trope creates this feeling of responsibility for yet un-actualized people through two social norms: 1) needing to provide for blood relatives, especially children and 2) the culturally accepted desire for parents to want their children to have a better life then they (the parents) had.

Reasons to question the trope:

It fails to address the link between population and consumption. The trope presupposes that the audience is going to have children. However, population growth and consumption are linked, and consumption is one problem that needs to be addressed to mitigate and adapt to climate change. One way to address consumption is to manage population, and this means seriously questioning the social norms supporting unfettered procreation. It is hard to seriously discuss decisions to procreate if what motivates our responsible action on climate is the product of that procreation.

UPDATE 4/19/14 2 PM Eastern: As some commenters have pointed out, the link between population and consumption is a complicated one. I did not mean to imply in the original post that it was a direct relationship (more people = more consumption). Please see my response to Nathan in the comments for a bit more considered response.

Whose kids? I’ve seen this trope evoked most frequently with a majority white middle/upper class North American, college audience. There is good reason to think that children of this audience will be fine in the future – they have the advantages of being privileged and in developed countries rich enough to take adaptation seriously. They may even find ways to profit from climate change. Children in less privileged countries (especially the sea-side ones) are likely to be hurt more seriously, and much sooner (as in, they already are suffering climate change related affects). These are the people we should care about. But the child trope doesn’t motivate us to do so, because it is predicated on concern for blood relatives.

Wanting more and better (partially) got us into this mess. For much of this century, the “better life for our children” meant the acquisition of wealth and goods, and led to a bigger, faster, and cheaper mentality. This drive towards easy consumption helped create the climate problem. I believe that in order to address climate, we need to learn to be content with only what we need (or at least a lot less), and create efficiencies in providing those needs. Insofar as this trope relies on an unquestioned desire for a better life for offspring, this trope doesn’t steer us towards sustainable living.

The trope doesn’t seem to be effective. Is there any evidence that this trope is at all effective? The trope has been part of the climate discussion since I can remember, and action has been slow. Can’t we do better?  It was interesting to hear Michael Mann say that we need to make climate change relevant to daily life, and then evoke the child trope. Let’s hire a good marketing firm.

Why are non-actualized future individuals assumed to motivate action better than actual existing individuals? The trope presupposes a kind of selfishness: we are motivated primarily by our own interest, in this case, the wellbeing of our future decedents. I think evoking this trope helps to perpetuate this selfishness especially the effects of climate change are becoming visible. The most vulnerable humans are already being harmed, and the biosphere is already experiencing negative effects. Why are we still talking about abstract non-actualized future individuals? If we aren’t willing to go beyond self interest to help those we have never met who will suffer because of our collective actions, then the effects of climate change will be disastrous. We need to work to develop this kind of global awareness.

There is an economic counter argument. A common retort to proposed action on climate change is that it is too costly. The US and other privileged countries benefitted the most from burning the fossil fuels that largely created the climate change problem.…

Weekly Roundup

Image via the galileowaswrong blog.

The release of the trailer for The Principle, a geocentric film casting doubt on Copernicanism, resulted in statements from several people featured in the trailer distancing themselves from the project. Narrator Kate Mulgrew explained on Facebook that she was misled about the nature of the project and that “I am not a geocentrist, nor am I in any way a proponent of geocentrism.” Physicist Lawrence Krauss reasoned that producers either purchased footage of him from another production company, interviewed him under false pretences, or used public domain footage. With regard to the latter, producer Rick Delano said in a released statement that “I can tell him how he ended up in our film. He signed a release form, and cashed a check.” Robert Sungenis, the film’s executive producer, is a geocentrist, running the galileowaswrong.com blog.

Old men become grumpy around age 70, but they live longer in nursing homes.

Entrain, a new app, calculates how best to fight jet lag. The app’s methodology is supported by a recent paper in PLOS Computational Biology.

Just in time for Homeopathy Awareness Week, a new draft report by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council debunked homeopathy’s effectiveness. Homeopathy proponents were permitted to submit material for the report, but it didn’t meet the council’s scientific standards.

“Language diversity” correlates both with mountainous terrain that isolates human groups and with rivers that bring those groups together.

Jenny McCarthy argues in an op-ed piece for the Chicago Sun-Times that she is not and has never been against vaccines. Phil Plait provides an excellent argument to the contrary, but I’ll add that her backtracking might have been motivated by the resurgence of preventable disease outbreaks, grimly documented in the Jenny McCarthy Body Count website.

Kansas is not planning to black out the science program Cosmos, despite the viral popularity of the satirical news story.…

Com’on…it wasn’t that bad: Winter 2014

How cold, nasty, and intolerable was the winter of 2014?

I woke up this morning to a dusting of whiteness out my window: there was snow in

April Fool’s Day storm 1997 over northeast USA.

Toronto. I could hear the moans of Torontonians waking up and looking out their window only to realize it was again cold, and again, snow would ruin their morning TTC ride. This morning reminded me of April 1 1997. As a kid in Boston I woke up to almost 30 inches of snow on the ground – more in that one night than the rest of that winter. I didn’t have a morning commute. Schools were closed. I liked the snow then. This year though, no one is happy to see the snow again. For many North Americans, this winter has felt cold, long, and intolerable.

These feelings about the weather matter. Research shows that the way we perceive weather affects the way we respond to problems like climate change. Simply put, the perception that local weather is at odds with claims regarding the climate (weather is cold but climate is warming), affects the strength of belief or likelihood to act on climate issues.

The purpose of this post is twofold: 1) to convince you that, from a certain perspective, this winter wasn’t the long, cold, and intolerable one you might have experienced (OK, maybe if you live in  Wisconsin), and 2) to buy myself time to put together a proper post on the pop-explanation for this winter, the polar vortex.

Where was it bad? Middle-to-Eastern US and Canada

If you lived in the middle of the US or Canada, you felt cold this winter.

The blue is colder than average (compared to 1981-2010 average), and the red warmer than average. You can still see lots of red. In fact, global land and ocean records reveal an above average winter.

For example, Madison Wisconsin (article here) had their 11th coldest winder on record, with average temp of 13 degrees F, and (at least) 81 consecutive days of at least 1 inch of snow on the ground (the 4th longest in recorded history). The US as a whole had its 34th coldest winter (from 119 recorded winters). Toronto had a record 101 consecutive days with 1 cm of snow on the ground, the temperature average was the coldest in 20 years, 3rd coldest in 50 years, and 35 extreme temperature warnings were issued. Great lake ice coverage was at a near all time high.

But don’t think that because you were cold, that it was a cold winter.

This winter, from a global perspective, was warm (according to NOAA global analysis). Europe was warm. Denmark reported its fifth warmest winter since records began in 1874, Germany its fourth warmest, and Austria its second.

This image breaks up the anomaly in terms of percentage departure from average. You can think of it as the same plot as above, but scaled to the natural variability of regions. Notice the regions of red significantly outnumber the blue, as do the regions of dark red. Thanks Melanie for pointing these images out to me!

Globally, this winter’s (Dec-Feb) land records indicated it was the 10th warmest (2007 was the warmest) and the 126th coolest (1893 was the coldest). In the northern hemisphere, this winter was the 11th warmest and 125th coolest.

Combined land and ocean surface temps for this winter was the eighth highest on record, and .57 degrees C above the 20th century average. What about sea ice? Arctic sea ice extent – the loss of which is thought to affect climate – was at its fifth lowest.

It is easy to forget that everywhere is not like where we are. Please keep in mind that the weather where you live is not an indicator of the global state of the atmosphere. 


Twice Is Nice! Double counting evidence in climate model confirmation

Charlotte Werndl (LSE) is speaking at Western University on Monday (the talk will be live-streamed) on evidence and climate change modeling. Having recently read her paper (with co-author Katie Steele) entitled “Climate Models, Calibration, and Confirmation” (CMCC) I thought I would post about it. The paper focuses on the use of evidence in confirming climate models with particular attention paid to double counting, which in this context means using the same evidence for two purposes (more on this use of the term later). I believe the paper is an important one, as it nicely separates concerns about double counting from other, related, confirmatory issues, and I think successfully shows where a form of double counting is legitimate. Still, despite being a casual fan of Bayesianism, I wonder if it gives us what we want in this particular circumstance. I can’t cover all the threads of argument made in the paper, so here I’ll simply discuss what double counting is, why we should worry about it, and how Steele and Werndl (S+W) argue that it could be legitimate in some circumstances.

What’s the worry about double counting? Climate change models typically go through a process called tuning (also sometimes called calibration). Tuning sets the values of parameters in the model that represent highly uncertain processes for which there are few empirical observations. The parameters are treated as “free parameters” that can take on a wide range of values. The values that result in the best fit with observations during tuning are the values chosen for the model. For example, if scientists are interested in global mean surface temperature (GMST), they would vary the parameter values of some uncertain processes until the model’s output of GMST closely matched GMST observations. The model, with these parameter values, would then be used to make climate projections.

The worry is that one way climate models are evaluated is by comparing their results to observations of some historical period; if scientists want to know if a model is adequate for the purpose of predicting GMST, they compare the model output to historical GMST observations. This agreement is supposed to build confidence in (confirm) the model’s ability to simulate the desired quantity. It is typically believed that to gain any confidence in the model at all, the simulation output must be compared to a different set of observations than the one that was used for tuning. After all, the observations used for tuning wouldn’t provide any confidence, because the model was designed to agree with them!

To deal with double counting, CMCC adopts an explicitly Bayesian view of confirmation. The Bayesian view adopted is necessarily contrastive and incremental: a model is confirmed only relative to other models, and the result of confirmation is greater confidence in the model for some particular purpose (not a claim that the model is a correct representation or the truth). Confirmation of one model relative to another can be tracked with the likelihood ratio, which is the probably of the evidence conditional on the first model divided by the probability of the evidence conditional on the second model. If the ratio is >1, the first model is confirmed,

So here is a simple way in which double counting is legitimate on the Bayesian view presented in CMCC. Imagine tuning some model M whose parameters have not yet been set (S+W call this a base model). In order to tune it, we create several different instances of the base-model, all with different parameter values: M1, M2, and so on. We compare the results of each model instance to observations and select the best fitting instance. This is an example of double counting in the following sense: the same data is used to both confirm and tune the model. This is tuning, because we have selected parameter values by comparing outputs to observations, and it is confirmation, because we have gained greater confidence in one instance over all the other instances in light of the data. S+W call this double-counting 1 and it is fairly uncontroversial.

Double-counting 2 seeks to confirm two different (M and L let’s say) base-models, but the situation is much the same. The Bayesian apparatus is more complex, and I’ll leave it to my readers to seek out the details in the paper itself. However, the evaluation still deals with likelihood ratios, it is just that the likelihood ratio needs to take into account all the instances of base-models M and L, as well as our prior probabilities regarding them. The likelihood ratio becomes a weighted sum of the probability of the evidence given each model instance for one base-model over the other. Double-counting 2 is legitimate in two situations 1) the average fit with the data for one base-model’s instances is higher than the other model’s (assuming the priors for each model were equal) and/or 2) the base-models have equivalent fit with the observations, but one model had a higher prior probability (was more plausible). An example of (1) would be that base-model M is tuned to the observations, and on average, its instances are closer to the observations than model L’s. This would result in a greater likelihood for M compared to L, and thus confirm M relative to L. Again, even in this situation tuning “can be regarded as the same process as confirmation in the sense that the evidence is used to do both calibration and confirmation simultaneously” (p618).

Quick Comments

S+W do a great job distinguishing the two kinds of double counting and separating them from other concerns about model tuning and climate projections (this work is done in the second half of the paper not discussed here). They seem right, given the view of confirmation they hold, that confirmation and tuning can be done with the same evidence. After all, double counting S+W’s sense is a sophisticated way of saying that the model that fits the data best is more likely.

A few issues worth thinking about:

1) Double counting here is a bit of a misnomer.…

Weekly Roundup


Here’s a roundup of the best April Fool’s Day hoaxes from around the web, and another one focused on the science/library community. But NPR’s prank is the clear winner.

“You don’t think of the Bible necessarily as a scientifically accurate source of information, so I guess we were quite surprised when we discovered it would work. We’re not proving that it’s true, but the concept would definitely work”: Physics students at the University of Leicester have determined that Noah’s ark would indeed be buoyant.

Don’t tell Mr. Toad: A new study suggests that children retain less information about animals from anthropomorphized accounts. But kids learn more when science is packaged in a music video.

We don’t have stasis fields yet, but in a new clinical trial, gunshot or stabbing victims will be placed in suspended animation (induced hypothermia) while doctors repair damaged organs. [via Marginal Revolution]

Eliminating invasive species is more difficult than we realize, as is even labelling them “native” or “alien.”…