Category Archives: Science

Memo to Scientists: Don’t March. Educate!

Women marched on Washington to demonstrate their deeply held feelings for our just minted President.  And it was eugh!  The pussy caps endure, but what else survives of that exhilarating  moment to improve any of the conditions that brought them there?

Now scientists are on the march, first in Boston; then with a climactic event planned for Earth Day.  Some unsolicited advice: save your sneakers; you’ve got much more important things to do with your time.  Don’t march.  Educate!

Marching is a great visual, but it’s not likely these days to move legislation in your direction. The President doesn’t give a damn.  I doubt that he watches Neil de Grasse Tyson or Science Guy Bill Nye on cable.  Senator Snowball from Oklahoma doesn’t give a damn. Chief of Staff Priebus will tell you to go home, shut up and listen. Lamar Smith isn’t likely to show up at the Mall for a listening exercise.  And conducting teach-ins among the devoted is just sooo sixties!

So here’s your marching orders, if I may be so bold.

Educate yourselves.

Learn how to communicate with the average person.  You may be whizzes at what you do, but too many of you are too often incompetent about how you communicate what you do to the average person in terms that are relevant and meaningful to him or her.  Why should you care?  Joe and Jane six-pack don’t pass appropriations and climate legislation and environmental regulations.  But they elect the clods that do, and that’s where the battle needs to begin. If you can’t communicate with them and make science important in their lives, you’re toast.  You’re just another part of the elite they’ve come to despise, and with some good reason.

We didn’t become a nation of science dolts over night. It has taken sixty years for the lessons of Sputnik to wear off.  That’s what whip-lashed us into caring about science then.  It will take something equally existential to bring us back.. Climate Change should be doing it, but you’ve been too complacent as a group for too long, and what is existential to you does not seem too important to a lot of other people.

Prepare for  the Long March.

That’s what you’re on.  Not just some giddy road trip to DC with some selfies and cool t-shirts.

The Long March is to Town Halls and State Capitols where decisions are still made close enough to constituents that the perpetrators may have to look them in the eye.  The Repugnantlans made that Long March over the past twenty years,  and we now have what we have in D.C. by way of local voting precincts and state legislatures. The Democrass couldn’t organize enough people with enough energy and focus around a theme to constitute a march.  The result has impacted science and much more.  The cure will have to tread the same path. And the cure will have to fix much more than science; it’s just part of the syndrome.

 Educate Others

Get out of your labs. Embed yourselves in your community’s affairs.  If not your specific subject matter ( string theory and quantum physics is tough to apply at the Planning and Zoning Commission), bring your discipline of critical thinking, of cause and effect, of data informed (but not data driven) decision-making.  Equally importantly, observe and learn from the actions of non-scientists in the competition of ideas in the broader community. That’s the theater in which the politics of science will play out, as with everything else.  That’s where it must begin to find respect and acceptance, and gradually transform processes and results.  But it will take time…as does much of your research.

Clean Up Your Act.

The ethical constructs of the broadly and loosely organized ‘scientific community’ have come under scrutiny and strain of late,  as well as assault.  You need a code of ethics and a governing body as never before to protect you and your science from the onslaught of interests and self-interest that have perverted science as it has most other human endeavors in our complex and contentious society.

The forces of fear and desecration are about in the land, capable of inflicting fatal harm on reputations and causes with or without justification. That shouldn’t be news to you any longer.  Don’t give them justification.

Clean up the peer review process.  Avoid hyperbole in putting forth your hypotheses and projections.  I know you’re only as good as your last grant or publication, as is true of salesmen in any other field, but let your product sell itself.  Don’t oversell it in order to break through the din.

Inform the Political Process, But Don’t Become Political.

You can be scientists or you can be political activists.  But you can’t be both without compromising your position as scientists.

I was deeply disappointed when Dr. James Hansen concluded his career in science with an act of civil disobedience in defense of his science. I could empathize with his frustration, but I viewed his act as an affirmation that his science was insufficient.  Rather than advance his science and his proper message, he diminished it, in my view. Please do not follow his example. You risk far more in the March on Washington and its potential for unintended consequences in our current environment than you stand to gain.

Stand Your Ground.

Defend what you know. Acknowledge what you don’t know. And fight at every  opportunity the falsehoods perpetrated by others with the weapons your science provides. I have witnessed climate scientists in public forums sit passively while self-styled nabobs of science denial rose to proclaim this or that piece of nonsense courtesy of the Heartland Institute or some other propaganda mill, when they should have risen to professionally counter false assertions.  As we have seen too often of late, lies perpetrated and left unchallenged become accepted as truths among the ill-informed.  Successful lies encourage their liars to more audacious levels.

Maintain Your Sense of Humanity and Humility.

Knowledge without purpose is no better than wealth or power without purpose. Scientific knowledge that does not advance the human condition cannot justify its call on the commitment and resources of others that it depends on to advance.

Your knowledge confers on you significant power, but it is ephemeral.  Do not forget the difficulty of attaining your achievements.  Do not become the difficulty impeding the next step of progress.

With all this said, I have no doubt that the Short March on Earth Day will proceed as intended.  But if it is not followed by the Long March, a Death March will surely await us.





Resilient, Sustainable or Unsustainable?

I have a bone to pick with academics regarding the hijacking of common words in the English language (or probably any other language for that matter) for their own arcane purposes.  There seems to be a tendency, as in other cases in our narcissistic society, to take something of common property and twist it to make it one’s own.  Being an accountant, and therefore trained in the art and science of splitting hairs on seemingly mundane issues, I take offense to this and feel compelled at times to say ‘Enough!‘.

The issue at hand is the discussion of responsive strategies to storm surge and sea level rise, in which the terms ‘resilience’ and ‘sustainability’ have taken on prominence, and are too often used as synonyms for each other, which they are not.  But the mangling of meaning is not only relevant to storm surge, or other facets of climate change, but business continuity, healthcare, the military, technological evolution, the economy in general, life itself.  So, maybe it’s worth taking a few moments to split a hair or two.

First, let us acknowledge that the English language in particular is a living thing, which means that it is also an evolving thing (for those who believe in evolution in all its forms). That means that change is inevitable, if not good, in meaning.  But the point of language is to communicate, and to that end, each word, each little vessel of meaning, should hold reasonably constant over some period of time, or we have babble.

In the context of sea level rise and storm surge (and let’s throw in drought and water depletion and wildfires) the terms ‘resilient’ and ‘sustainable’ have been used interchangeably to define the goal of public policy to move a condition of exposure beyond current vulnerability to a status of future safety and endurance.  The goal is good. But the criteria for attaining that goal require a parsing of the two terms.

In general usage by us common folk of modest educational attainment (and ratified by Merriam-Webster and various and sundry other chroniclers of lexicon) resilience means the ability to bounce back from adversity of some kind, to return to prior form.  Sustainability refers to the ability to maintain form or status or state of being over time and against opposing forces or influences of degradation. Not the same things.

Because we live in a world of competing forces, sustainability generally requires a component of resilience, because all beings or entities face attack in various forms by hostile forces of nature.  In the human analog, I sustain by eating and sleeping well, properly clothing and housing myself against the elements and educating myself in the proper use of language so as to communicate my needs, wants and value to others.  But when my normal mode of function is impaired by illness, my body reserves, my immune system, my health insurance and my family support system, (my various resources of resilience), return me to a state of sustainability…if I have any and all of these necessary to the particular threat.  Unfortunately, short of the end-game of death, there may become situations which are unsustainable, in which no amount of resilience can RETURN AND MAINTAIN me to sustainable health and function.

It is the alternative state of unsustainability which makes the distinction between resilience and sustainability vital, as we are now seeing on the New Jersey and New York shores in the aftermath of Sandy, or the mountain-sides of California and Arizona and Colorado in the aftermath of wildfires, or in little Texas towns run dry by fracking in competition with drought, or in communities on the Elbe and Danube which have had their third ‘100 year flood’ in twenty years, and are finding their resilience to the frequency of such events eroding; or the ability of Microsoft and Apple to fend off disrupters of their various business models from beyond the borders of the hegemony they have long enjoyed; or the US military being drafted for another misadventure when it has not fully recovered from our past mis-adventures.  The list can go on.

Sustainability must include a capacity of resilience because we live in a world of uncertainty and much of that uncertainty poses risks to our status quo.  Resilience often means conserving some portion of resource (cash on hand) or expending some portion of resource (insurance premiums, redundant and distributed operations) or deploying some capacity (distributed operations, the internet) or forming mutual alliances/dependencies to guard against known and unknown hazards that would otherwise render us unsustainable.   Resilience inevitably involves a cost of some kind, a diversion of effort or resources from activities that we might prefer to do with those resources, activities that might further advance our primary purpose/mission rather than merely guard our flanks.

Sustainability is about keeping the enterprise going in a preferred direction or state of being.  It is rarely static, despite to our antipathy for change, because the environment around us is constantly changing and demands response. It is in the nature of that environmental response, whether natural or social or economic or technological, that the distinction between the sustainable and the unsustainable is ultimately determined.  As we know on a human scale, when a cancer metastasizes beyond the capacity of medicine to contain and the body to fight, no amount of resilience by any definition will sustain the unsustainable.  The same is true of parts of the Jersey Shore and perhaps the cotton fields of West Texas, and our involvement in the Middle East, etc.

Stated differently, but hopefully without adding confusion, sustainability is about pro-action to advance primary goals; resilience is about pro-action to position one for reaction and recovery, if necessary.

A simple example may illustrate the distinction.  In a low-lying shoreline area vulnerable to storm surge and eventual sea level rise, purchasing flood insurance for a residential property provides an element of resilience against damage from storm surge.  Raising a residence to FEMA standards enhances sustainability of the basic living areas and critical utilities against storm damage.  But when sea level rise inundates the property and adjoining land on a regular basis, rendering the property unsustainable by norms of public health and safety, no amount of resilience can sustain its status and value.

In the aftermath of Katrina, many voices criticized the Army Corps of Engineers for only rebuilding levees to a Category 3 hurricane standard, when it is reasonable to assume that New Orleans is an ideal and highly probable candidate for a Cat 5 at some time in its future. Separately, but related, when the Connecticut Task Force to Preserve Long Island Sound asked the Corps what standard of projected sea level rise the Corp plans for, the respondent said that it generally looks in the range of one to two feet over several decades, because beyond that the costs of defense escalate tremendously.  It should be noted that the US Navy has chosen a probable global sea level rise projection of three feet by the end of the century.

The point of the above is that, implicit in the Corp’s decision to build only to a Cat 3 specification, is likely the judgment that construction of a stronger levee system would be irrelevant to collateral circumstances that would render such defenses inadequate in themselves, and New Orleans unsustainable. Sea level rise is likely an element of that judgmental calculation.

But if that is the case, it is important for many other parties to understand that, including the energy sector and Midwest farming and manufacturing sector that depend on facilities in New Orleans directly, and their broader respective markets.  If a Plan B is needed for the day when the CAT 3 storm levees no longer sustain New Orleans, and the damage done by sea level rise or storm surge is beyond the capacity of resilience, particularly in the face of repetitive major loss, somebody had better start working on alternatives now, because New Orleans is by no means alone, and there will be many others lining up at the teller’s window to borrow on an uncertain future.

To summarize the above succinctly: No amount of Resilience can Sustain the Unsustainable. Hence the imperative for distinction between Resilience vs. Sustainability, and Sustainability vs. Un-sustainability.

Or, to borrow from the wisdom of the great philosopher, Kenny Rogers, ‘you gotta know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ’em; know when to walk away; know when to run’.

Splitting hairs?  Perhaps.  On the other hand, once you’re bald…end-game.

Meanwhile, I urge academics to respect common language for its broadly shared meaning, and pick a dead language like Latin (or Greek, in keeping with the status of its economy) to re-purpose to their special needs.



James Hansen’s Dilemma…and Ours

James Hansen has left the building. The Elvis of Climate Change has departed his scientific life to become a social activist in the cause to which he has devoted his scientific life.  I understand his motivation, but view his new role with some concern.

I was disappointed when he chose to get arrested as an act of civil disobedience. It diminished his stature as a purveyor of reason to yet another player on emotions. That’s what demonstrations and street theater speak to. Emotions. They represent the surrender of reasoned discourse.

In a recent article reporting his imminent retirement, Mr. Hansen is quoted to have said “At my age, I am not worried about having an arrest record.”  If this glib comment reflects the definition of his future activities, he should be worried, for it will diminish his scientific stature at a time when we need an authoritative voice more than ever.

In recent months the press has presented a series of stories which would appear to cast doubt on the validity of climate change and much of Mr. Hansen’s work and advocacy…assuming you don’t read beyond the titles, and then between the lines.

For example, a recent article in the Economist suggests that the divergence in trends between atmospheric warming and the rise in greenhouse gases may be undermining the validity of the theory of greenhouse gas warming.  The article supported this observation with a model that claims to demonstrate a lower sensitivity of warming to CO2 than alternative model that has previously dominated the discussion. The interesting point is that both models have inherent advantages over the other, and both suffer from constraints of those advantages.  We need a tie breaker.

Yet another article lays out various contradictions between model projections and facts on the ground.  There are various observed anomalies that demand explanation, but it is premature to say that they dismiss the fundamental premise of accelerating climate change, or its hypothetical driver of hydrocarbons.  Further, whatever the discrepancy between theory and fact, there remains the accumulating facts that weather trends and natural transformations consistent with expectations of climate change are occurring at an escalating rate and pace.

Climate science has had the benefit of intensive escalation of projects, addressing many issues for the first time, and reaching a level of data that provides greater direct assessment that has previously relied heavily on proxies with their own limitations, inferences, and inherent questions of relevance and reliability. I suspect that we are arriving at a time in climate science that often happens in other scientific and quantitative areas where we have more data than insight.  We need to digest much new-found information to reach relevant conclusions.  We need to know that the process of that assessment is transparent, professional, objective and verifiable.

This brings us back Dr. Hansen, and his second act. His reputation as a credible voice has been sustained to date by his science, and not by his passion for his cause.  If he now chooses out of frustration to forsake his scientific standing to speak to ‘other passions’, he will surrender his most powerful influence.  We need now more than ever scientists who can not only comprehend this complex and rapidly evolving subject, but can communicate it to those of us who are not scientists but endeavor to translate it into policies and strategies that can effectively address its implications.

I can appreciate Dr. Hansen’s frustration.  In my own small realm of endeavor, I have observed public officials at various levels of government exercise concerted ignorance of credible information in order to pursue policies of short term convenience with long term detriment, or to avoid the challenge of educating their constituencies to contingencies that they must plan for. Even in the wake of realities of Storms Irene and Sandy, they strive to sustain the notion of business as usual.  I wonder how many more Sandys it will take to strip the public and its purported leadership of their self-delusions and deceptions.

But where facts and logic do not work, street theater and civil disobedience will not succeed. I think of the Vietnam War. Did protests end it? The left would like to believe so.  I think it was cold hard facts: our body count, and our walking wounded and living dead who gave mute testimony to the futility of that effort.  Perhaps it will be the same with Climate Change. It will not be accepted until the body count and casualty statistics and economic costs reach a point that registers with even the dullest of minds.

An arrest record will not enhance Dr. Hansen’s scientific standing, and it will deny serious advocates a credible source of information at a time when credibility is in extremely short supply.  There are plenty of climate change adversaries who will be delighted to see Dr. Hansen become a side-show in a climate change melodrama. Dr. Hansen has a dilemma. He can remain true to his science, or succumb to his passion.  But he cannot do both.

Choose wisely, Sir.



“Just give me the facts, Ma’am”


Remember that line, delivered by the granite-faced Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet?  Probably not if you’re under 50 years old, but it comes to mind whenever I listen to debates on energy or the environment or the economy or globalization or (you name it) these days.  The first challenge is not in assessing the information, but assessing the individual who is conveying it.

In the civic arena there is a spectrum of participants in the public discourse on critical issues. True Believers, a term popularized if not coined by the late longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer, embrace an issue as an absolute, unquestionable truth. Theirs is often an emotional attachment, often bordering on the irrational.  Advocates may embrace the same issue, but based on fact and logic and with sufficient detachment that they will modify or even end their commitment if presented with compelling countervailing fact or logic.  Their opposite number is the Skeptic, who does not accept the prevailing conclusion, but is open to persuasion to change based on compelling fact or logic . And finally, there is the Cynic; often confused with the Skeptic, but distinguished by being impervious to reason or logic and therefore the polar opposite of the True Believer.

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