Is it 99.999% certain that humans are driving global warming? (No.)

A post recently came up in my Facebook feed that is notable for the confluence of three things: (1) a spectacular claim, (2) it’s wrong, and (3) it’s not a journalist’s fault. The combination of (1) and (2) is quite common, but usually it turns out that the actual science is much less spectacular than the headline suggests, because a journalist or editor has misunderstood the science or amplified the claim unjustifiably in order to garner readers. In this case, though, the paper itself is at fault.

The usual story. Not this time!

The claim in question is that “it is highly likely (99.999 percent) that the 304 consecutive months of anomalously warm global temperatures to June 2010 is directly attributable to the accumulation of global greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”1 The Facebook post linked to an article from The Conversation, but that quote is directly from their paper, published this April in Climate Risk Management.

  1. Kokic, Philip, Steven Crimp, and Mark Howden. “A Probabilistic Analysis of Human Influence on Recent Record Global Mean Temperature Changes.” Climate Risk Management 3.C (2014): 1–12. Web.

Do sports perpetuate or help fight discrimination?

I look at an article from sports sociology that suggests descriptions of athletes might perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes.

Like many other people, I was shocked to hear the alleged tape recording of Donald Sterling saying that his girlfriend should not take photographs with black people, or bring them to basketball games (but she can bring them to bed). I don’t follow sports very closely anymore; I didn’t know that Sterling, at least according to the Guardian, made millions as a landlord through racist housing policies. Maybe we should have seen this coming.

Some have argued that the emphasis on Sterling’s comments obscured the larger, more

“In 1997, the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson joining Major League Baseball, his old team the Dodgers had the exact same number of American-born Blacks on the opening day roster as they did in 1947: one.” J. R. Woodward (2004)

harmful, actions that he has taken (the Guardian suggests this, as does the link below).  In particular, they point to the housing discrimination he was accused of perpetrating as an owner of 100’s of properties in the Los Angeles area. Housing discrimination is terrible, and (like all forms of discrimination) should not be tolerated.

However, many of these arguments that suggest housing discrimination is “actually harmful” imply that Sterling’s other actions were largely inconsequential. I thought that, perhaps, this position might stem from a belief that in the realm of sport, discrimination was not significant. In fact, it might even be thought that sports are a way for those frequently discriminated against to get ahead, since, on the face of it, it would seem that on-field performance would be the dominant driver of athletic success. There are obvious reasons to resist at least the first part of this description, for example, racism against black soccer players in Spain is so pervasive that the players can plan their responses in advance. 

Still, I wondered, do sports perpetuate or help fight discrimination? There is obviously no cut and dry answer to this question. It is too broad a question to be answered directly: there are many different sports, and too many ways of thinking about discrimination for the question to be taken seriously. However, in thinking about the question, I took a look at the academic literature on sociology of sport. I found it surprising that this literature is not more heavily cited in recent discussions of racism in sports.

Here I’m going to share excerpts from a paper entitled “Professional Football Scouts: An Investigation of Racial Stacking” by J. R. Woodward (2004). The study covered in the article analyzes draft guides that describe the suitability of college athletes for the NFL draft, paying particular attention to the descriptions of the perceived physical and mental capabilities of white and African American players. I quote this paper it because the study is interesting, but also because it has a fairly detailed literature review with some interesting studies. Given that it seems the sports media perpetuates the messages discussed in this study from 2010, and broadcasts to millions of people, I would guess the messages we receive about sports and athletes portray more bias than we immediately realize.

Literature Review

“Coakley (1998) notes, there are roughly 20 times more African American physicians and lawyers than top professional athletes; nor have most sports truly integrated to allow for equal participation and rewards between the races. In 1997, the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson joining Major League Baseball, his old team the Dodgers had the exact same number of American-born Blacks on the opening day roster as they did in 1947: one.”

“Whites dominate most sports at the collegiate and high school level; football, basketball, track, and baseball—sports where Whites are underrepresented—make up only 4 out of at least 40 sports played competitively.”

“The belief that sport has been a source of upward mobility for African Americans has been rebutted in previous research and is not the object of this project (see Sailes, 1998; and Smith, 1993, 1995). What is of interest, however, is the tenacity of this view. Personal beliefs about race and sport are often solidified when society at large seems to share and reinforce these beliefs, regard- less of their veracity.”

“One manifestation of our “race logic” (how we come to understand racial phenomena in society) is the link between race and athletics, principally the belief in African American athletic superiority. Unfortunately, concomitant with this view has been the conviction of mental inferiority; i.e., the “dumb jock” stereotype (Hoberman, 1997; Eitzen, 1999). American history is replete with academic, intellectual, and social discussions of the primitive nature of Blacks, whose supposed strength, power, and sexual aggression made them appear almost animalistic, an assertion strengthened by their perceived lack of innate cognitive abilities (Mead, 1985).”

“Racial ideology, then, was situated in a particular, disparaging view of African Americans as physical, not mental beings. Athletics was just one of many endeavors in which this view was manifested (Coakley, 1998).”

“Racial stacking is the over- or underrepresentation of players of certain races in particular positions in team sports (Coakley, 1998). For example, quarterbacks in football and catchers in baseball have traditionally been White, whereas Black players are more often found playing in the outfield in baseball and as running backs or wide receivers in football.”

“Loy and McElvogue (1970) presented the first study on racial stacking by examining the racial makeup of baseball and football in America. Their findings suggested that White players are more likely to be found in what they termed central positions (i.e., discrimination is most likely to occur at central positions in any social organization, where the most interaction occurs).”

The Study

“In this study, an assessment was made to determine whether scouting reports of college quarterbacks, centers, inside linebackers, and tight ends relied on mental descriptors of White players and physical descriptors of African American players. At a basic level, scouts are individuals raised in contemporary U.S. society with all the implied racial beliefs. Because physical and mental abilities relative to football can be extremely subjective, it follows that descriptions of athletes in various positions would differ for Whites and African Americans, based solely on the ascribed characteristic of race.…

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.…

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. 


Snowquester – A perfect storm for HPS/STS

If you were following the weather recently, you know about the Snowquester. What happened was that there was very little snow in Washington DC, and lots of snow in Boston and the Northeast. While this shouldn’t sound surprising, it really blindsided weather forecasters. Forecasters predicted lots of heavy wet snow for DC, which caused government services, municipal services, and schools to shut down before the flakes even began to fall. When the storm came, only a few inches appeared. The forecast was a bust and quite costly to the city. In the Northeast, Boston kept schools open based on a prediction of 6-10 inches of snow, but then received almost 30 inches of the white stuff. Another bust for forecasters. What exactly happened?

The finger pointing began almost immediately and almost everyone and everything that could be blamed was. The result, however, was a perfect storm for those of us that study HPS and STS.…

Can you predict the weather?

All of my friends raise an eyebrow when they hear that I’m a member of a competitive weather forecasting team. What is a weather forecasting team? And what possible qualifications could I have as a philosopher allow me to predict the weather?

This is the first year that the University of Toronto has had a forecasting team. Started by graduate students studying atmospheric physics, the team competes in the WxChallenge, a North American collegiate forecasting competition against approximately 60 other North American Universities. The competition involves predicting the high temperature, low temperature, highest sustained wind-speed, and precipitation, for a particular observation station 24 hours in advance. The next day predictions are compared to the observations made at the station; the higher the discrepancy the more points a forecaster earns. The few thousand forecasters that compete are then ranked according to these points and the top 64 will go into a head-to-head forecasting tournament at the end of the season. To add some variety, the weather station changes every two weeks which continually presents forecasters with new challenges.…

Shermer, Isopp, and the ‘Liberal War on Science’

Last week Bernhard Isopp dissected science writer, noted “skeptic”, and purported science historian Michael Shermer‘s claim that there is a “liberal war on science“. Shermer’s article is so simplistic that I have trouble believing that Shermer has ever read any history of science, let alone that he could be called a historian of science. Bernhard does a good job of refuting Shermer’s implied argument that assenting to the claims of scientists demonstrates rationality while failing to due so implies some sort of ideological bias. However, Shermer goes wrong on a much more basic level: whether or not there is a “war on science” has very little to due with assent.…

Rebooting The Bubble Chamber

Three things happened.

First, Steve Fuller came to our department. In a casual lunchtime talk, he argued that science studies—meaning not history and philosophy of science—has succeeded by giving people what they want. In Steve’s view this unfortunately seems to be mostly apolitical legitimation. Cory Lewis made the point that what history and philosophy of science has to offer the outside world—what we can sell people—is teaching and explanation. Obvious? Maybe. True? Yes! That was the original mission of The Bubble Chamber: to use our skills as historians and philosophers of science to analyze, explain, and debate science in a way that is accessible to everyone.

Second, Will Thomas of Etherwave Propaganda had some insightful and provocative reflections on the state of academic blogging:…

Big pharma, at home and outsourced

When I was in college, a friend told me something that sounded too good to be true: I could get paid forty dollars for a blood test. And if I didn’t have a history of a certain symptom, they would pay me forty dollars every month for the next two years in exchange for more blood tests. They were in the last year of signing up subjects for a clinical trial (something I’d read about in my biochemistry classes) on a common, as-of-yet uncured disease for which a bigger pharmaceutical company had developed a vaccine. There were no abnormal reactions worse than those of a flu shot, and I might get the placebo, making the whole thing even more of a walk in the park. The first nurse I talked to assured me that during the trial, anyone contracting the disease would receive immediate and free treatment for as long as it was required, even if they had been on the placebo.

If the above sounds like your dream job, you can be a guinea pig, joining the ranks of many familiar faces from Western popular culture. Medical test subject was the entry-level occupation in the first version of The Sims, and is featured a few times on the Simpsons. When Bart gets expelled, he imagines a future testing dangerous food additives; the “2-4-dexoxypropaniramine” in Nature’s Goodness, a new diet soft drink, mutates him into a hulking beast (whereupon the lead scientist remarks “pleasing taste, slight monsterism”). In a different episode, Homer signs up to be a guinea pig at the “Screaming Monkey Research Lab” where he goes blind from a diet pill.…

Science and the Media: Upside-Down Pyramid Thinking

This is the second post to appear in our new section called “quick thoughts.” The aim of this section is to raise an issue for comment in more detail than the weekly roundup does, but in a more succinct format than our longer 1000 word posts. We hope that this section will turn the spotlight onto those that choose to comment, rather than the author of the post.

I’ve been reading Naomi Oreskes’ book Merchants of Doubt, which I will review for Spontaneous Generations and post here on the Bubble Chamber as well. I will save my comments for that review, but the book, and a recent lunch conversation with philosophers and HPSers, has me thinking a lot about how the media reports on events within the scientific community.

While I was a master’s student, I was course instructor for “Phil120 – Introduction to Logic,” which was interestingly enough a required course for the school of journalism (I have a hot chili on, in case you were wondering). The second and third year journalism students, who constituted a majority of my class, did not understand why they needed to take the course, and they were vocal about it. As a response to this, and to low marks across the board, I gave an extra credit assignment: Use your journalism skills and interview a professor or administrator responsible for the inclusion of this class in your course requirements. Respond to this interview with your own arguments, either for or against the position presented.…