Archive for April, 2009

What Exactly Did President Obama Promise Today?

April 27th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

President Obama gave a nice speech today at the National Academy of Sciences praising science and promising resources, two of the favorite things that scientists like to receive from presidents. But what, exactly did the president promise?

He said:

It’s our character to lead. And it is time for us to lead once again. So I’m here today to set this goal: We will devote more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development.

What does this actually mean?

The federal budget currently invests about 1.0% of GDP into R&D (PDF). Is the president promising to triple the federal R&D budget? I doubt it.

Public plus private R&D was about 2.6% of R&D in 2007 (PDF), to get to 3.0% would require an additional investment of at least $70 billion from public and private sources (using 2007 values). Is that going to happen? I’m not sure how.

Maybe the President is thinking that with a projected GDP of $14.2 trillion in 2009, that would mean that $22 billion in stimulus funding for R&D plus $151 billion in FY2009 appropriations would require about $250 billion in private R&D to reach the 3% threshold. Will the private sector invest $250 billion in 2009? I don’t know.

What did the president promise today?

Swine Flu, Technology and Policy

April 27th, 2009

Posted by: admin

This is not the first time flu and technology have intersected.  While Google Flu Trends is currently mum on the swine flu, you can track CDC notices via Twitter or its official Swine Flu pageGlobal tweets are also available (H/T Marc Ambinder).

A couple of policy points worth making here.  We currently have an acting director of the Centers for Disease Control, no doubt at least in part due to the continuing absence of a confirmed Secretary of Health and Human Services.  While that might also explain why Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been the highest profile government face on this issue, it’s a good argument to try and make sure the transition process can happen more smoothly and more quickly to allow for staff to take positions sooner after January 20 than is currently the case.  Secondly, it would be worthwhile to evaluate the public health response in the U.S. to this flu (especially if it gets worse), and see what changes, if any, need to be made.  $420 million in funds for pandemic flu were removed from the recent funding bills, and it would be nice to know whether that was a good call.

A final point.  It’s relatively early in the process here.  While the cases in the United States have not been as widespread, nor as lethal, as those in Mexico, we simply don’t know enough yet to be sure.  This item from the New York Times explains some of the yet unanswered questions that will help map this particular outbreak.  This post from Effect Measure helps explain what the numbers mean (and don’t mean) and what makes an epidemic, pandemic, and outbreak.

Tony O’Hagan Responds (Not on Behalf of RMS)

April 27th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

[UPDATE: Prof. O'Hagan explains in the comments that his response reflects his personal views and not those of RMS, so I have altered the title.]

Last week I argued that the RMS expert elicitation of expert views on hurricane landfalls over the next five years gave a result no different than if a bunch of monkeys had engaged in the elicitation. Professor Tony O’Hagan who conducted the elicitation on behalf of RMS responds in the comments to that thread. Below I have reproduced his comments along with my rejoinders provided in bold:

I am the statistician who conducted the expert elicitation that Dr Pielke derides. I feel that I must answer his unbalanced criticism of the procedure that I adopted in collaboration with RMS. Like Dr Pielke, I was engaged by RMS as an expert to help them with the assessment of hurricane risks. My skills are in the area of probability and statistics, but in particular I have expertise in the process of elicitation of expert judgements. I am frequently dismayed by the way that some scientists seem unprepared to acknowledge the expertise of specialists in other fields from their own, and seem willing to speak out on topics for which they themselves have no specific training. During the elicitation exercise it was essential for me to trust the undoubted expertise that he and the other participants had in the science of hurricanes, and I wish that he had the courtesy to trust mine.

PIELKE RESPONSE: Prof. O’Hagan is apparently unaware that I am trained in the social sciences, with social science methodology as one of my major fields.

Let me now address Dr Pielke’s specific criticisms.

First, he says that the results obtained were indistinguishable from the results of randomly allocating weights between the various models, and he implies that this is inevitable. The latter implication is completely unjustified. I was not involved in the 2006 elicitation which Dr Pielke uses for his numerical illustration, but I can comment on the two most recent exercises. The experts were given freedom to allocate weights, and did so individually in quite non-random ways. In aggregate, they did not weight the models at all equally. The fact that the result came out in the middle of the range of separate model predictions in 2006 was therefore far from inevitable.

PIELKE RESPONSE: I am happy to see Prof. O’Hagan acknowledge that the results were indistinguishable from a random allocation. On this point we agree. Prof. O’Hagan can further clarify the situation by releasing the values for the five-year predictions from the 39 models used in the 2008 elicitation. I ask him to submit these in the comments to this thread.

The elicitation exercise was designed to elicit the views of a range of experts. They were encouraged to share their views but to make their own judgements of weights. Dr Pielke says that the more experts we have, the more likely it is that the elicited average will come out in the middle, which is again fallacious. The result depends on the prevailing opinions in the community of experts from whom the participants were drawn. The experts who took part were not chosen by me or by RMS but by another expert panel. If, from amongst the models that RMS proposed, all the ones which would give high hurricane landfalling rates were rejected (and so given very low weights) by the experts, then the result would have ended up below the centre of the range of model predictions. The fact that it comes somewhere in the middle is suggestive, if it suggests anything at all, of RMS having done a good job in proposing models that reflected the range of scientific opinion in the field.

PIELKE RESPONSE:Again, I am happy to see Prof. O’Hagan acknowledge that the experts did little more than confirm the distribution of models presented by RMS. I will reiterate that a group of experts with a wide range of views, such as found in the tropical cyclone community, will inevitably provide a result indistinguishable from a set of random views, just as a panel of monkeys allocating random weights would have done, as I argued in my earlier post. This point is simply a logical one. If the community had a consensus, presumably such an elicitation would be unnecessary.

I think the above also answers Dr Pielke’s criticism of RMS’s potential conflict of interest. I agree that this potential is real. RMS is a commercial organisation and their clients are hugely money-focused. Nevertheless, as I have explained, the outcome of the elicitation exercise is driven by the judgements of the hurricane experts like Dr Pielke. Any attempt by RMS to bias the outcome by proposing biased models should fail if the experts are doing their job. If Dr Pielke is convinced, as he appears to be, that no model can improve on using the long-term average strike rate, then he could have allocated all of his weight to this model. That he did not do so is not the fault of RMS or of me.

PIELKE RESPONSE: It is telling Prof. O’Hagan sees fit to attempt to reveal publicly my individual allocations in the exercise after the participants in the elicitation were assured by him and RMS that any individual information would remain confidential. I am sure that there are other “confidential” details about the elicitation that many people would be interested to hear about. I remain perfectly comfortable with my allocation in the process despite the fact that I could have been replaced with a monkey to no real effect on the outcome. My views on one to five year predictions are expressed in a paper (currently under review) that I am willing to share with anyone interested (

This brings me back to the question of expertise. The elicitation was carefully designed to use to the full the expertise of the participants. We did not ask them to predict hurricane landfalling, which is in part a statistical exercise. What we asked them to do was to use their scientific skill and judgement to say which models were best founded in science, and so would give predictions that were most plausible to the scientific community. I believe that this shows full appreciation by RMS and myself of the expertise of Dr Pielke and his colleagues. For myself, the expertise that Dr Pielke seems to discount completely is based on familiarity with the findings of a huge and diverse literature, on practical experience eliciting judgements from experts in various fields, and on working with other experts in elicitation. In particular, I have collaborated extensively with psychologists and other social scientists. I don’t know how much Dr Pielke knows of such things, but to complain that what I do is “plain old bad social science” is an insult that I refute utterly.

PIELKE RESPONSE: I would agree that Prof. O’Hagan does not know how much I am aware of such things.

Dr Pielke is no doubt highly-respected in his field, but should stick to what he knows best instead of casting unfounded slurs on the work of experts in other fields.

PIELKE RESPONSE: Academics sometimes like to conflate a professional critique with a personal “slur,” perhaps to change the subject. I have the highest respect for RMS as the leading catastrophe modeling firm with an important role in the industry. It is the importance of RMS to business and policy that merits the close attention to what they are doing.

In this case, I judge the elicitation methodology to be significantly flawed in important respects. This perspective is no “slur,” just reality. Prof. O’Hagan can help to further clarify the situation by focusing on the critique rather than expressions of outrage. He might start by releasing the results from the 39 models used in the 2008 elicitation. I ask that he publish these in the comments to this thread.

No Trends in Landfalling Tropical Cyclones

April 27th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

A recent paper by Chan and Xu in the International Journal of Climatology looked at trends in landfalling tropical cyclones in East Asia. The paper finds no trends since 1945. From the abstract:

This paper is the first of a two-part series that presents results of a comprehensive study of the variations in the annual number of landfalling tropical cyclones (ATCs) in various parts of East Asia during the period 1945–2004. The objective is to identify possible trends and cycles in such variations, from inter-annual to inter-decadal, and the possible reasons for such variations. The East Asian region is divided into three sub-regions: South (south China, Vietnam and the Philippines), Middle (east China), and North (Korean Peninsula and Japan). . . An important finding from the time series analysis is that none of the ATC time series shows a significant linear trend, which suggests that global warming has not led to a higher frequency of landfalling tropical cyclones or typhoons in any of the regions in Asia.

Considering this finding along with previous research showing no trends in tropical cyclone (i.e., hurricane) landfalls in the United States (e.g., Pielke et al. 2008 in PDF) or Australia (Crompton and McAneney 2008), means that there are few remaining continental locations where such trends might be found. I’d welcome hearing from anyone aware of studies of landfall trends in the other continental regions exposed to tropical cyclones, including the Indian Ocean (including eastern and Horn of Africa) and Eastern Pacific (Mexico).

The data on landfall trends further confirms arguments that global trends in tropical cyclones losses can be explained entirely by growing populations and wealth in regions exposed to tropical cyclone impacts.

Let Us Not Forget About Carbon

April 27th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

For years with respect to climate policy, I have argued that adaptation needs to be treated as a complement to mitigation. Yet often the mere mention of adaptation is enough to get mitigation advocates in a tizzy, simply because you are talking about climate policy but not about carbon. A good example of this myopia can be found in an article last week in the FT by Fiona Harvey on malaria, as part of a special section on World Malaria Day. The article explains that malaria is not primarily an issue of human caused climate change:

But contrary to what many people expect, the spread of malaria is not a simple result of warmer climates. Until recently, forms of malaria were to be found in many areas – from Russia to the UK – that were far from hot. Some of these forms were less virulent than the forms prevalent in the tropics, but were nevertheless problematic.

Malaria was eradicated from those areas in a variety of ways, most recently by concentrated human health programmes centred on the use of insecticides, but also by changes in human behaviour and increasing prosperity – the draining of wetlands and better sanitation, for instance.

Kevin Lafferty, of the US Geological Survey, argues – also in Ecology – that the newly suitable areas for diseases such as malaria will tend to be in more affluent regions where medicines are in widespread use and can more readily combat the problem. He cites model estimations that the most dangerous kind of malaria will gain 23m human hosts outside of its current range by the year 2050, but will lose 25m hosts in its current range. The recent history of malarial eradication in some prosperous areas provides evidence for this, he says. “The dramatic contraction of malaria during a century of warming suggests that economic forces might be just as important as climate in determining pathogen ranges,” Mr Lafferty says.

“If we over-emphasise the role of climate at the expense of other factors that drive disease dynamics, we may be missing the forest for the trees.”

Then, perhaps out of concern that while reading this heresy we may have forgotten the importance of mitigation policies, Harvey reminds us to keep our focus with the following kludge of an analogy:

If that view is correct, there is no inevitability about the spread of malaria as the result of a warming climate – just as there is no inevitability that the worst effects of global warming will be felt if we can cut greenhouse gas emissions immediately.

Apparently not even malaria is allowed to have its own day.

Varmus Interview Discusses NIH Organization, Research Balance

April 26th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Co-Chair of the new President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST), Dr. Harold Varmus, has a new interview at American Scientist’s website.  The interview covers his work in science and science policy.  Those readers not familiar with biomedical research or the NIH will learn more about how the NIH may not be as disease-centered as coventionally thought.  You will also find some suggestion that PCAST will be a more vital and active advisory body than it’s been before.

Unfortunately, the interviewer asks a question that somehow completely confuses the problem of politicization in science.

Do you think controversial scientific questions, such as the use of human embryonic stem cells, can ever be removed from politics in the United States?

While Varmus appears to accept the premise and say that they can, a careful reading of his response demonstrates how questions involving ethics choices – like the use of human embryonic stem cells – always involve some level of politics.  He speaks of how the U.K. and the U.S. used different forms of regulation to control the use of human embryonic stem cells, and how an effective incorporation of scientific expertise in the political process would allow for effective rules on research to be established and used.

President Obama to Address National Academy of Sciences

April 25th, 2009

Posted by: admin

As part of its annual meeting, President Obama will address the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, April 27.  The address will take place at 9 a.m., Eastern Daylight Time, and there will be an audio webcast.  Link to the Academies’ home page starting at 8:55 to follow the address live, and check back after the address for audio and video recordings.  As only three other sitting presidents have addressed the Academy of Sciences (much less the Academy of Engineering or Institute of Medicine), this is noteworthy.  Perhaps the President will give further detail to the oft-repeated phrase from his inaugural address – “restore science to its rightful place” – or give some better idea of what he means by scientific integrity.

Bernie Madoff and Legal Liability in Climate Science

April 24th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Earlier today during a Congressional hearing Al Gore and Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) had an exchange with clear ties to our earlier thread today on legal liability for expressions of climate skepticism (transcript courtesy Think Progress):

GORE: Thank you. I believe it is important to look at the sources of the science that we rely on. With all due respect, I believe that you have relied on people you have trusted who have given you bad information. I do not blame the investors who trusted Bernie Madoff, but he gave them bad information.

BARTON: I have never talked to Bernie Madoff.

GORE: I’m not saying that you have, but he gave them that information and committed a massive fraud that ended up hurting most of all the people who trusted him. Senator Warner made reference in his opening statement to the story on the front page of the New York Times this morning, absolutely incredible. The largest corporate carbon polluters in America, 14 years ago, asked their own people to conduct a review of all of this science. And their own people told them, “What the international scientific community is saying is correct, there is no legitimate basis for denying it.” Then, these large polluters committed a massive fraud far larger than Bernie Madoff’s fraud. They are the Bernie Madoffs of global warming. They ordered the censoring and removal of the scientific review that they themselves conducted, and like Bernie Madoff, they lied to the people who trusted them in order to make money. And the CEO of the largest . . .

BARTON: I will stipulate that CO2 concentrations are going up. there is no debate about that. there — they are about 380 parts per million and they’re going to rise to about 500 parts per million in the next 50 to 100 years. I will stipulate that. Now, the consequences of that, and that is because of man-made CO2, I think are debatable. I do not know about the scientific peer review that you just talked about, but if somebody lied about something 14 years ago, I am sure Mr. Waxman and Mr. Markey will conduct am investigation oversight hearing into that. My question to you was about the cost of the allowance system. How are we gonna to pay for it? How many jobs are we going to lose? if you’ve got information about something that happened 14 years ago, I am sure, again, our chairman and subcommittee chairman — Mr. Stupak, who’s the oversight subcommittee chairman — will look at it. But answer the question about costs, please.

GORE: It is on the front page of the New York Times today, by Andrew Revkin. They themselves conducted review and found a science about it’s valid. And to the point you made a moment ago: they verified in their own studies that man-made global warming is raising temperatures and causing this crisis. Like Bernie Madoff, and they lied about it in order to make money. And they themselves profited. The ceo of the largest got a onetime payment of $400 million. Now, again, those who have trusted them and believed them are due an apology. These corporations ought to apologize to the American people for conducting a massive fraud for the last 14 years.

National Academies Releases Thousands of Reports Online

April 24th, 2009

Posted by: admin

I’m a bit late with this, but it’s still worth spreading the word.

Through Google Book Search, earlier this month the National Academies released approximately 9,000 of their reports online.  The reports, which run from 1863-1997, join several already available online through the National Academies Press.  It includes the earliest issues of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.  The full complement of National Academies report should be available sometime in 2011.

You can read more about it through the Academies’ press release, and access the reports through Google Book Search.  Unfortunately, the indexing on Google Book Search makes the National Academies Press search engine look sane by comparison.

Conspiracy and Criminalization of Public and Private Speech

April 24th, 2009

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Should private organizations be held criminally responsible for promoting or representing non-consensus views on science?

UPDATE: A commenter writes in with a much better posed question, illustrating why s/he is a lawyer and I am not. Here is that question:

a more appropriate question is “Did the defendants, having in their possession compelling evidence which would have convinced a reasonable person to believe that X was in fact the case, conspire to suppress such evidence and undertake to persuade others that X was not correct, when the defendants knew or should have known that such information was false and misleading, thereby leading others to act on such misleading information, causing harm and damage to the plaintiff?”

According to a complaint for damages filed against a number of energy companies on behalf of the town of Kivalina in Alaska, the answer is “Yes.” The complaint (here in PDF) includes these claims:

Kivalina further asserts claims for civil conspiracy and concert of action for certain defendants’ participation in conspiratorial and other actions intended to further the defendants’ abilities to contribute to global warming. . .

Each of the defendants knew or should have known of the impacts of their emissions on global warming and on particularly vulnerable communities such as coastal Alaskan villages. Despite this knowledge, defendants continued their substantial contributions to global warming. Additionally, some of the defendants, as described below, conspired to create a false scientific debate about global warming in order to deceive the public. . .

Kivalina seeks monetary damages for defendants’ past and ongoing contributions to global warming, a public nuisance, and damages caused by certain defendants’ acts in furthering a conspiracy to suppress the awareness of the link between these emissions and global warming. . .

The Conspiracy Defendants’ overt acts contributed to and caused Plaintiffs’ injuries. The Conspiracy Defendants’ campaign to deceive the public about the science of global warming has caused Plaintiffs’ injuries and/or is a substantial contributing factor.

Some documents from this case were discussed in a front page story in the New York Times today by Andy Revkin, who helpfully makes those documents available here.

Revkin writes:

Environmentalists have long maintained that industry knew early on that the scientific evidence supported a human influence on rising temperatures, but that the evidence was ignored for the sake of companies’ fight against curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. Some environmentalists have compared the tactic to that once used by tobacco companies, which for decades insisted that the science linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer was uncertain. By questioning the science on global warming, these environmentalists say, groups like the Global Climate Coalition were able to sow enough doubt to blunt public concern about a consequential issue and delay government action.

The NYT article repeats claims made in support of allegations found in the Kivalina lawsuit of a civil conspiracy to advance views at odds with the scientific consensus. These arguments begin on p. 47 of the court filing here in PDF. The section of the complaint highlighted in today’s New York Times is discussed on page 50.

On this thread I am not interested in a general debate over climate change science (please). I am interested in the more specific questions related to science in political and public debates.

Should private organizations (in this case energy companies or groups that receive energy company money) be allowed by law to present scientific findings in a manner that differs from a scientific consensus?

Should representations of science that differ from that consensus be [Update] subject to civil or even criminal prosecution (the case above is a civil action but others have suggestion criminal trials)? For private organizations that benefit from the representations? For those that do not? How about for individuals?