Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Intolerant protest and the lantern

Obstreperous protests are roiling campus at elite universities throughout the nation. At Dartmouth, a Rosa Parks for a new generation screamed “Fuck you, you filthy white fucks!” at students studying quietly in the library. At Yale, protesters fought for sensitivity and racial understanding by spitting on people. At the University of Missouri, protesters made nation news by variously harassing, threatening, and assaulting journalists trying to cover protests taking place in public on an open quad.

The debate over this behavior has unfolded predictably, with those on the hard left trying to draw our attention to the racial problems on these campuses and in society at large which inspired these protests (although the specific offenses cited can seem rather underwhelming) and the right professing simple outrage, unalloyed by any hesitation related to the age of these protesters, the nature of the problems being protested, or the difficulty of growing up and fighting for what you believe in in the era of cellphone cameras and outrage politics. Charges of fascism are leveled, indicating we are in a day whose name ends in a "y."

But both sides, it seems to me, are glossing over the key question which screams out from any reasonable mind reviewing these actions: What on earth were/are these people thinking? Why are people acting in reasonable and inoffensive ways -- people like Tim Tai, Nicholas Christakis and Ericka Christakis, and Tim Wolfe -- the targets of such fury and contempt?

Not for any acts of racism they have committed, for they have not, in the main, been accused of any. Not for any anger or contempt they showed themselves, as may naturally spark anger in return, as those we have on video confronted by protesters (all except Ericka Christakis, and we have her e-mail for comparison) exhibit almost preternatural patience while accepting horrible abuse.

The anger we are seeing, which at a few removes seems utterly disproportionate to any offense offered, is it seems to me best understood by looking at the dynamics of group hysteria -- specifically the way hysteria is deployed by groups to enforce conformity. EM Forster alludes to this in at a key moment in A Passage to India:
But the Collector looked at him sternly, because he was keeping his head. He had not gone mad at the phrase "an English girl fresh from England," he had not rallied to the banner of race. He was still after facts, though the herd had decided on emotion. Nothing enrages Anglo-India more than the lantern of reason if it is exhibited for one moment after its extinction is decreed.
It is sadly apparent that the behavior Forster attributes to Anglo-Indians can be seen in any community, but particularly a tightly-knit community with a strong sense of its own values (a strong sense which perhaps tends to be the stronger when people are conscious that those values may not be shared by all.

It is clear that the protesters believe that this is a moment of great crisis, of emergency, and they believe that they are subject to awful persecution as part of the larger problems of racism, sexism, ableism, etc., which are (as always) worse than ever before. Both the belief in the moment of crisis and that things are catastrophically bad have become markers of group identification for the protesters.

In this context, it does not take anger, or racism, or even indifference to the cause to spark rage. All it takes is a refusal to accept the tacit assumptions they we are in the midst of a crisis of the marginalized, legitimizing the most extreme passions and before which other concerns or other contrasting values or aspirations are but leaves blown about in the howling storm of righteous rage.

To politely remonstrate with the representatives such a community may enrage them more than anything; worse than a defiance of substance, those trying to address the protesters calmly and maintain a sense of proportion are guilty of a defiance of a collective mood. Once again the lantern of reason irritates and provokes those who have decreed its extinction.

This behavior is never laudable, though perhaps one could make an argument for it as one of many characteristics of groups which are morally and ethnically not defensible but which strengthen groups against hostile outsiders and, thus, are persistent. But its use here is particularly pointless and self-destructive, or, to quote another fine English novelist, "as frivolous as the application was ill-judged."

How are these tactics wrong? Let me count the ways. First, this sort of bullying emotional hysteria is by its very nature a tactic of majorities. And while the advocates of political correctness may form a majority of sorts on some campuses, in the wider society they are anything but. And the wider society is ultimately the place where decisions about funding, about regulation, about things such as whether affirmative action will continue to exist are taken.

Second, these protesters have chosen their enemies exceptionally poorly. Choosing the right enemies, and encouraging them to express themselves in the right way, is a critical part of what makes protest successful. Police dragging a tired old woman off a bus at the end of a long day's work; Bull Connor with his fire hoses and his police dogs; the comically evil hatred of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Compare, say, Ericka Christakis, whose firing the Yale protesters have written into their demands:
I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.
There is more to Christakis' letter, but it is all of a piece with the above; measured, judicious, a little bit boring; a liberal arts academic doing exactly what anyone who has spent five minutes with a liberal academic knows that they do: they take a concept or accepted line and "problematize" it. That's virtually their raison d'etre.

This was the e-mail that promoted the student in the first video to scream "You are disgusting! You should not sleep at night!" (They also decided to yell at the husband for something his wife wrote, which is an…interesting…choice for radical social justice advocates.)

This is worse than an error: it's a mistake. Protest, as Gandhi so succinctly expressed it, is about defeating physical force with spiritual force. It is about creating a moral story which is compelling to people on the outside of the dynamic. In this, these protests have failed spectacularly.

Protesters by their very nature don't have more physical (or legal or financial…take your pick, depending on the circumstances) power than their opponents. If they did, they would simply impose their will. So protest is inherently a matter of fighting a stronger opponent. To fight someone stronger, you have to be smarter. You have to be more disciplined. You have to pick your battles carefully and with an eye to the wider public who are not directly engaged. Because whether a rebellion is violent or nonviolent, they mostly share this feature: those that do not acquire external allies will fail.

I see few of these qualities in the current protests. They seem unable to acknowledge that while they may be discriminated against in important ways, that they are also, as students of elite American colleges, very privileged in their own right. They seem to believe they can bludgeon their teachers and their peers with hysterical anger at the slightest deviationism, and yet not spark a backlash.

Instead of focusing their outrage on the horrific racism and other disgusting offenses against modernity with which our society is amply supplied (see any GOP candidate for president), they stay snug and secure on campus, selecting targets of opportunity who on a political correctness scale of one to ten, would on their worst day score no lower than a seven. Rather than focus on police violence or income inequality or lack of representation in government or corporate America, these protesters demand "free expression" posters be prohibited -- and that they be excused from classes missed while protesting.

I am over forty, so take what I say about the young and their methods with appropriate skepticism. That being said, the Christakises are still in their jobs, Tai is still taking photographs, and reeducation classes for dissenters are still just a (disturbing) twinkle in PC eyes. I suspect we have seen the high-water mark of this particular wave of campus protest, and the academy's final verdict will be: "You have widely mistaken my character, if you think I can be worked on by such persuasions as these."

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Radiation risks of the Fukushima nuclear accident, expressed as slices of bacon

If we must die . . .

Because I apparently enjoy banging my head against brick walls and similarly productive activities, I commonly place myself in the path of rampaging internet mobs, calling for humility, moderation, and tolerance (hypocrisy being one of my other defects of character.)

Nuclear energy in the United States is, by far, the largest single source of low-carbon energy. Nuclear energy production has been flat in the United States for the last ten years, even as the need for more low-carbon electricity has become screamingly apparent, partly because these plants tend to be expensive and can take a very long time to build, but in large part because these plants are very unpopular, due to fear of nuclear radiation.

Nuclear kWh -- flat as a day-old soda

Nuclear advocates don't always respond to these concerns in the best way. Besides pointing out that these risks are often overstated, a fair number of them foolishly try to deny that ionizing radiation from nuclear accidents or improperly stored waste could cause any harm at all, justifying that counterintuitive conclusion with misreadings of the epidemiological literature or with reference to pseudoscience like radiation hormesis.

The truth is that the cancer risk of low-level exposure is real, but very, very small. Since the cancer risk of red and processed meats are in the news -- sometimes being similarly exaggerated -- I wondered if one could express the risks of the Fukushima nuclear accident in terms of an equivalent number of slices of bacon.

Ten thousand people living close to the Fukushima plant, tested in this study, were exposed to as much as 1.07 mSv of internal radiation (one person) [1]. The average was less than that. They don't directly give the average or the means to calculate it in the paper, but judging by these graphs, and by the fact that two-thirds of adults had no detectable internal radiation exposure at all, we can estimate the average at less than 0.25 mSv. One mSv carries with it an additional risk of death from cancer of 0.005%.

Doctors and researchers are still trying to sort out the cancer risks, if any, from non-charred red meat. Processed meats, like bacon, are definitely associated with distal colon and rectal cancer. There may be other cancer risks, such as gastric cancer, but these are so small that scientists are still arguing about them. The only significant risk (other than that associated with excess calorie consumption, i.e., obesity and its diseases, and hypertension from excess sodium in susceptible individuals) is from colorectal cancer. Two slices of bacon per week carry with them a 47% increase in the risk of death from colorectal cancer, which in Americans is 15.5/100,000 = 0.0155% risk of death.

0.0155% * 0.47 = 0.007285%

But this is meat consumption over the long term, so we will give our hypothetical colon cancer victim 30 good years of bacon consumption before succumbing -- 0.007285/(30 * 52) = 0.00000466987% excess risk of death from colon cancer per serving. 1 mSv is approximately 0.005%, so 0.00005/
0.0000000466987 = 1070 slices of bacon.

One civilian in the "hot zone" at Fukushima was subjected to an excess cancer risk comparable to three slices of bacon with breakfast daily for a year. The average exposure in the hot zone was on the order of two slices daily for four months.

I suggest slices of bacon as a new standard method of describing radiation risks from nuclear energy. Real, but small. 

1. External exposure is more variable and harder to measure, but this study found 2/3 of external exposures were less than 1 mSv, and 98% were less than 10 mSv. 10 mSv is a good bit of bacon -- 3 slices a day for ten years -- but still less than a single abdominal CT. 98%, again, were below that, and 2/3 were less than a tenth of that.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Matt Ridley is an idiot

We do not often dwell on our mistakes, here at IT. This is because I already have a full-time job. But one glaring error of a few years ago needs to be corrected:

Dr. Ridley, a former editor of the Economist (the only newsweekly in the English language worth the paper it's printed on) is no idiot, nor is the idea that things are going to get better an idiotic one. Hence, consideration of his thesis is a little OT for this blog, but we aren't going to let that stop us, especially as Mr. Ridley's thesis is a favorite canard of the most dangerous and savvy deniers, those that have given up attack the science of global warming and instead dedicate themselves to attacking the case for action. The endless adaptivity of humans figures prominently in this set of crackpot ideas.
My friends, I was wrong. Matt Ridley is a screaming idiot. The evidence of this has been piling up for a while now, but the New York Times has helpfully assembled an overwhelming case for mandatory headgear for the 5th viscount Ridley.

It's mind boggling the diversity and scale of the stupidity Ridley displays in this interview. Ignorance of science, art, and economics are all on display. (He proclaims Vernon Dursley one of his personal business heroes. It would be easier to take this as "a bit facetious" were it not that Ridley oversaw the first run on an English bank since 1878(!), culminating in a taxpayer bailout that left the bank owned by the state.)

Where does one even begin with this density of nonsense? He takes the attitude of a sullen 12-year-old to literary fiction, describing it as "like playing tennis without the net" because it is not composed of things that "actually happened." Yes, this millionaire and hereditary peer, educated at Eton and Oxford, thinks fiction is unworthy of attention because it isn't "really true."

It gets worse. He lavishes praise on "The Hockey Stick Illusion," a discredited heap of paranoia and lies that looks all the more embarrassing in 2015 as dozens of papers have replicated the "hockey stick" and record-shattering warmth over the ensuing five years as extended the sharp edge of the hockey stick even further.

And it gets even worse than that:
Which writers — novelists, essayists, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Ian McEwan, Willis Eschenbach, Stewart Brand, Deirdre McCloskey, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Niall Ferguson, Richard Dawkins, David Quammen, Sam Harris, Bill Bryson. People like this are more than mere writers; they are the generators of new ideas through fine prose, the heirs to Voltaire.
Leave aside the fact that Sam Harris is a bigot, Richard Dawkins has parleyed an interesting idea he had thirty years ago into a career as a professional anti-religious whiner, and the fact that I instantly knew, before Googling the name, that Ayaan Hirsi Ali would be an angry former Muslim employed by right-wing think tanks to vilify Islam and Muslims. What touches this list into immortality is that Ridley has placed Willis Eschenbach -- Willis Eschenbach -- on his list of writers he most admires. Jesus wept.

For those lucky people who have never turned over one of Eschenbach's rocks, he is a failed massage therapist/failed cabinet maker/Watts dittohead whose writing is horrible. Not just wrong on the science (as we expect); not just irrational and paranoid: horrible in style, in usage, even in grammar and spelling. Willis Eschenbach writes like English is his second language, learned exclusively from a brain-damaged crackhead.

Think I'm exaggerating? Take a look:
James Hansen and others say that we owe it to our Grandchildren to get this climate question right. Hansen says “Grandchildren” with a capital G when he speaks of them so I will continue the practice. I mean, for PR purposes, Grandchildren with a capital letter outrank even Puppies with a capital letter, and I can roll with that.
In any case Hansen got me to thinking about the world of 2050. Many, likely even most people reading this in 2010 will have Grandchildren in 2050. Heck, I might have some myself. So I started to consider the world we will leave our Grandchildren in 2050.
But Hansen doesn't capitalize "grandchildren," unless the word is used in a title, as with "Storms of My Grandchildren." This is the dedication of that book:
To Sophie, Connor, Jake,
and all the world's grandchildren
Tastes differ, but I very much doubt anybody with any knowledge of the English language at all would describe the above as indicative of an "heir[] to Voltaire." It rambles. It is vague and lazy ("many, perhaps most of the people reading this . . . .") It attempts a breezy conversational tone which combined with the mistakes with which the post is riddled grammar and usage (the titular eight-tenths needs a hyphen, "grandchildren" is not a proper noun, "unajusted" is still missing its "d" five years on, you don't capitalize "Final Conclusion" and you can't even pretend to blame Hansen for that one . . . .) gives the impression not of relaxed ease, but arrogance coupled with embarrassing vacuity.

Speaking of vacuity, here's Willis trying to defend himself from Roy Spencer's complaint that he stole from 20-year-old climate papers and presented their ideas as his own:
Easy for you to say. You’re some anonymous humanoid, might be a 16-year-old Valley girl for all we know, who is totally safe from such untrue accusations because you never have to take responsibility for your words—you hide your identity behind an alias like some kid in a chat room.
Who is acting like an adult here? Me, or you, you who won’t stand behind what you say, you who are too ashamed to sign your own work? Unlike you, I have a reputation to uphold and defend, and defend it I will.
This writing sample really has it all. It rambles, the second sentence is a garbled, overlong mess, and he's larded up the whole thing with useless flourishes that make it sound even dumber than the underlying stupidity of the content requires.

A decent ninth-grade composition teacher should have cured Willis of referring to "untrue accusations" or unnecessarily explaining that the purpose of an alias is to "hide your identity." He makes the classic neophyte writer's mistake of deploying useless adjectives ("totally safe," "untrue accusations") and seems to be unwilling or unable to hold a coherent thought from one end of a sentence to the other: "Unlike you, I have a reputation to uphold and defend, and defend it I will." What happened to upholding it?

Matt Ridley compared this hot mess to Voltaire. He, like Willis Eschenbach, is an idiot. I deeply regret my error.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Judith Curry hides the decline . . . in her own self-respect

In hindsight, the way the Climategate emails was rolled out, after very careful scrutiny by the targeted bloggers, was handled pretty responsibly.  Lets face it – “Mike’s Nature trick to hide the decline” means . . . “Mike’s Nature trick to hide the decline.[1]”

Wow. Judith Curry, ladies and gentlemen and deniers. Former serious person. What a joke.

In hindsight, we can say the Climategate witch hunt failed utterly. Michael Mann is better-known and better-regarded than he would have been without the denier crusade. Deniers humiliated themselves trying to discredit a "hockey stick" that has now been reproduced dozens of times.

The criminals who stole the emails passed them to their denier allies who used them deceptively, using every variety of quote sniping and ridiculous double standards -- hateful vicious right-wing crusaders picking through thousands of pages of emails, looking for a few lines where responsible scientists, in the course of private communications with each other, said mean things about idiots.

This was used by right-wingers already in denial of the facts to craft a mythology for their gullible dittoheads. Said dittoheads went on to threaten working scientists with imprisonment, murder, the rape of their children, lynchings in the street -- such was the fruit of the handling of stolen emails, to morons by way of liars.

"Pretty responsibly" . . . keep telling yourselves that.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

GISTEMP: +0.75C, Hottest July in the record

GIStemp has updated and the +0.75C anomaly makes July 2015 the hottest July in the instrumental record, setting another 12-month running average record and increasing the likelihood 2015 will break the record set in 2014(!).

Somebody tell me, I'm just a poor amateur -- are the records in a 135-year-old dataset supposed to come one right after another like that? Seems . . . concerning.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Wherein I settle the renewables/nuclear "are expensive" squabble for all time

Lizard (2014) (h/t wikipedia)

The US consumes approximately 4 billion MWh per year. Our GDP is currently about $18 trillion. So if you pay $50/MWh (good wind, unfiltered coal, unfiltered gas) your cost for that is $200 billion annually, or 1.1% of the GDP.

If you pay $100/MWh (nuclear, solar) your cost is 2.2% of GDP.

If you pay $150/MWh (offshore wind, gas with CCS, rooftop solar) your cost is 3.3% of the GDP.

The cost of intermittency is pretty minor:

Apologies for smallness, original here. Bottom line: at a 30% level of penetration, you can add about $30/MWh to the cost of wind or solar, or about 0.7% of the GDP.

In other words, the costs of ALL of the alternatives under discussion are minor. We can do what we want to do. Very high levels of penetration of intermittent sources like wind or solar poses special problems, but we are a long way from having those problems today (1.)

Arguing whether nuclear is cheap or expensive, or what the costs of waste disposal will be, or what the cost is to back up wind or solar, or whether the costs of PV systems will continue to fall, misses the point entirely. We have multiple affordable low-carbon options, and the question is not which is best -- we will learn more about that as we build and operate the plants, and different sources will be optimal for different communities in different circumstances.

The point is that we need to do something, and we have both the technology and the resources to solve this aspect of the global warming problem in the next ten to twenty years. In many ways, this is the easy part -- the electrical grid (easier to green than transportation, land use, or industrial CO2 release) in the richest country in the world. The fact that it is so easy and yet we haven't done it yet underscores that it is political will, not technology or money, that are lacking.


1. I am optimistic about synthetic fuels, as I explore here. To quote myself:
Conventional batteries continue to get better and cheaper, but right now their capacity is orders of magnitude below what would be needed to store, say two or three weeks of energy.

However we do have a large amount of energy storage in the form of fossil fuels: liquid, solid, and gas. This form of storage is stable on geological time scales and extremely energy dense. Unlike many of the alternatives, including chemical batteries, capicators, pumped hydro storage, or molten sodium, the infrastructure to store and release hydrocarbon energy is simple and cheap -- in the case of petroleum, it can be as simple as a barrel or a hole in the ground. . . .

Start with a conventional gas plant equipped with carbon capture technology (assuming we ever get serious about perfecting and deploying that technology.) Then, rather than put the CO2 in the ground, feed it into a synthetic natural gas plant and use a clean energy source to turn the CO2 back into gas. Burn, capture, and un-burn as needed in a closed cycle that doesn't release CO2 into the atmosphere.
Regardless of how cleverly we deploy storage and smart grids, we will meet our emissions goal much faster with nuclear than without it, which is why I remain a strong supporter of retaining and building out the nuclear power sector, despite the irritating epistemic closure on the value of renewables and general hippie-punching tendencies of nuclear power's more fervent advocates.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Judith Curry: Please save me from my belief in +10C of warming

Judith Curry has found a climate risk assessment report she likes, nay, loves. A red-letter day!
I haven’t found climate change risk assessments to be very satisfactory, for a range of reasons.  There is a new report out, entitled Climate Change: A Risk Assessment.  IMO  this is far and away the best risk assessment for AGW that I have seen. . .
Exciting! So what does the report say?
On a medium-high emissions pathway (RCP61), a rise of more than 4°C appears to be as likely as not by 2150. On the highest emissions pathway (RCP8.5), a rise of 7°C is a very low probability at the end of this century, but appears to become more likely than not during the course of the 22nd century. A rise of more than 10°C over the next few centuries cannot be ruled out.
So "far and away the best risk assessment for AGW" Curry has ever seen considers +7C "more likely than not" along a business-as-usual pathway and feels that +10C "cannot be ruled out." Since this would obviously be a catastrophic outcome, Dr Curry goes on to apologize to the scientists she has vilified and pledges to turn her blog over to serious scientific study of AGW and educating the public about these risks.

Kidding! Instead she closes her post with a frankly pathetic plea for someone to please find her a way out of the logical consequences of the report she's just endorsed:
The plausible worst case scenario is arguably where we should focus our efforts (both science and policy).  Working to falsify high values of RCP and sensitivity based on the background knowledge that we do have, should be a high priority.
So the takeaway is that the best risk assessment Dr Curry has ever seen considers +10C as a plausible worst case scenario. Said risk assessment recommends constructing policy around the plausible worst case scenario, and Curry agrees with that too. Her conclusion: I do not like where this science leads, so somebody find me some new science that leads us where I want to go (which is nowhere.)

If someone could find a way out of the logical consequences of her own beliefs and the basic science, she would be eternally grateful to you. In the meantime she will wait patiently and not draw any conclusions until the facts change (1).

1. This reminds me of how the early Zionists pledged their support for democracy -- but opposed democratic elections explicitly and violently during the days of the British Mandate on the grounds that they were heavily outnumbered by Palestinians and would lose them.

Since you can't ethnically cleanse the facts of radiative physics, the same strategy will probably not work for Judith.