Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The 4 Cs of Physics


Sabrine Hossenfelder has a post about why physics is not about beauty although many physicists may think so

And I can’t blame them. Because nothing else is happening on this planet. There’s just me and my attempt to convince physicists that beauty isn’t truth.
Nature has no obligation to be pretty, that much is sure. But the truth seems hard to swallow. “Certainly she doesn’t mean that,” they say. Or “She doesn’t know what she’s doing.” Then they explain things to me. Because surely I didn’t mean to say that much of what goes on in the foundations of physics these days is a waste of time, did I? And even if, could I please not do this publicly, because some people have to earn a living from it.
Now Eli does not disagree with this, nor with the Capitalist Imperialist Pig who is on a Greek Philosopher Beauty and Truth kick, but Eli does want to engage with a challenge that the Pig threw down at Back Reaction
Beauty may be an unreliable heuristic, but the challenge for the doubter is to come up with something better - I mean something that works.
This was not well received by the host
I also don't know why you or CIP or anyone else thinks it's my task to come up with something to replace criteria from beauty. I am pointing out using them is bad scientific practice, and that's that. If people who use them cannot come up with anything better, maybe they shouldn't be scientists. I don't know why I should give them something else to do.
 Eli suggested something else and the Bunny would like to discuss it here, especially as his responses appear to have issues getting through there besides which he could use the hits and values the occasional intelligent comment.

It ties back to discussions ongoing where science is under attack, the existence of a consensus and why such a consensus exists.  The sorely missed Andy Skuce had a nice post and Michael Tobis has always skillfully parsed that problem. Eli has also played in the sandbox, most recently pointing out that the consensus is created by a coherent and consilient set of models or three Cs

By this is meant that the theory does not contradict itself, that it explains a great deal, both of the observations as well as extending beyond the immediate issue under consideration.  To this Eli wants to add another C, concise.

Especially for physics, concise takes the place of beauty.  Valued physics theories are concise, they may not necessarily be simple, in the spirit of Einstein's
It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.
After all, ask mom or dad what a LaPlace operator or a Hamiltonian is (no coaching and no moms or dads who are professors of physics), but concise is a good description, terse also, but terse starts with a t.

Engineering does not much like concise, it is much more concerned with precise.  The value of everything is important, the meaning less so or sometimes not at all.  Computers have made this tendency worse.  Chemistry is, with difficulty moving from moleculat engineering to first principles.  Computers have enabled this  Climate science from stamp collecting to calculation with complex models. 

Physics values precision as a secondary issue, but it is focused on understanding and understanding requires a small number of general principles from which precision flows with added complication. 

So truth is not beauty, but it is a creature of a few symbols and a modicum of words explaining much.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

The impeachable offense that doesn't have to be a crime

Good article in Vox, if somewhat over-skeptical, about the Steele Dossier. It acknowledges the dossier was proven correct, in advance of general knowledge, about the extent of contact between Russia and the Trump campaign. It then says the dossier focused on six claims, none proven as of yet.

This is the key one:

4) Trump’s team knew and approved of Russian plans to deliver emails to WikiLeaks, and offered them policy concessions in exchange.

The dossier claims that Trump and his campaign team had “full knowledge and support” of Russia’s leak of the DNC emails to WikiLeaks, and that in return, Trump’s team “had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue.”

This is obviously a subject of ongoing investigation, but none of the conversations about Russian dirt on Clinton that have come to light so far demonstrate what the dossier claims.

If true, it means Trump betrayed America's interest, not to mention the Ukrainian people threatened and killed by Russian forces, in order to collaborate with a hostile authoritarian for purposes of sabotaging American democracy for Trump's personal benefit. Regardless of whether collusion is illegal, this easily satisfies grounds for removal. Republicans who think Hillary should be locked up for careless email security could hardly deny it, although they will.

I can think of two defenses for Trump: first that he was too incompetent and uninvolved to actually know about the deal, and second that he thought the revised Ukraine position was actually in America's interest.

As to the first, I think it fails when the changed campaign platform on Ukraine came to light in July. Trump should have inspected and found out what was going on. Incompetence is an impeachable offense if it's bad enough, and this hits that mark. As to the second, I find it unbelievable that Trump would actually care enough to change the GOP position, and it still involves after-the-fact collusion with potential espionage without alerting the FBI.

The political question for Democrats is whether they should get serious about impeachment, even assuming it's justified. Trump won't get removed when you need two-thirds of the Senate, so it won't actually accomplish the goal. I think it is clear that Democrats should investigate the hell out of all this, I just don't know, if they take the House and possibly the Senate, whether they should push impeachment.

My final, ironic note is that I actually agree that the US shouldn't be overtly arming Ukraine with lethal weapons - we should do it covertly, with about as much of a fig leaf as the Russians are using. That really has nothing to do with the Trump campaign motivations, however.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Renewables and Reviewables

It used to be you got your phone from AT&T and your electricity from the local owner of the telephone poles, but these days you can shop for anything, which makes it totally confusing, but then again merely training for picking health care plans.  In Eli's burrow, a bunny can source his or her electrons from different sources.  Eli chose the one that only sources green electrons.  For one thing they come on a green plate

However, and more to the point, they also provide a yearly summary of where they are getting those little tasty guys from as compared to the average for the other suppliers.


This gives Eli a good idea of what is available but of course it varies between suppliers.  What is particularly interesting and should be watched is the decrease in coal use for electrical generation, which has mostly been driven by replacement by gas since 2014, falling from 45% to 33% while gas has risen from 15% to 26%.   Still driving down coal use is progress and the availability of 100% renewable electricity is also progress.

The extra cost of the renewable electrons? About $50 per year over the past three years.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Betting With Catastrophe Bonds


Betting on climate carries some risk for realists, not so much losing the bet but if, as  here and others there, a bunny bets that global temperature will increase, perhaps that is not a bet an ethical hare would care to win.

Bets do have their virtues because as Steve Schneider put it
On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts.
and you can get tied up in knots trying to convince others that that last detail is not very likely.  The virtue of bets is they simplify things
On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place . . .
and win a few bucks.  Bill Foster, the only physicist in the US Congress put it another way
On the campaign trail, I learned that there is a long list of neurons that you have to deaden to convert a scientist's brain in to a politician's.  When you speak with voters, you must lead with conclusions rather than complex analysis of underlying evidence -- something that is very unnatural to a scientist. 
and even some of the most obdurate denialists recognize this virtue of bets, for example  Gosslein from the No Tricks Zone
If the 2011/20 decade averages to be warmer than 2001/10, then I will concede that the earth is indeed warming. But if the next decade turns out to be cooler or the same, then you will have to concede that the theory that CO2 is driving the climate is bunk. We can work out the details in the days and weeks ahead.
That, as Eli would say, looks like a losing bet

Now in some cases the losers bets pay to charity and in other cases, some bunnies simply are looking for a counter party and not finding any takers.

An interesting presentation at this year's AGU was by Mark Roulston from Winton Capital, a hedge fund that plans to set up a climate betting market in 2018 (not open to US inhabitants) in order to take advantage of the wisdom of crowds (they are familiar perhaps with the results of elections in the US and UK, maybe not).
 The initial market will allow bets to be placed on the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and the global mean temperature anomaly. It will thus produce implied forecasts of carbon dioxide concentration as well as global temperatures. If the initial market is successful, additional markets could be added which target other climate variables, such as regional temperatures or sea-level rise. These markets could be sponsored by organizations that are interested in predictions of the specific climate variables.
If Eli plays the IPCC chalk and wins, that leaves neither Eli nor the world in a good place.  So what could one do.

While thinking about the issue the Bunny came across Catastrophe Bonds, a high risk high interest investment where the issuer pays the buyer interest, but if catastrophe strikes the buyers don't get their capital back.  For example, the New York has issued catastrophe bonds to cover flooding in the subway tunnels, and there are lots of them in Florida covering hurricane damage.

Well, that is an investment for Roger P Jr, and he would have done well for the last seven years or so, and lost his shirt last, but what about Eli

Eli has an idea, a catastrophe bond market where the interest is split according to climate outcomes.  When a catastrophe occurs part of the capital is used for relief.  These bonds could be issued by governments, or perhaps organizations such as the World Bank which has issued catastrophe bonds covering hurricane and earthquake damage in Mexico.  The bonds could specify whether the capital would be used for amelioration, adaptation, conservation, substitution or mitigation.

A new ethical playground for financial engineering                         

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Taxpayers know that's not rain falling on their heads - any lessons for climate communications?

I've been interested in how poorly the Republicans have done in lying to the voters about the tax bill.



After all, most people will get a tax cut in the short term, with the tax increases and service cuts to come later. Why aren't they happy?

Politico thinks it's about relative deprivation - nobody likes being deprived relative to others, and the blatant skewing of this bill for the undeserving rich has lit a fire. Then DJW at LGM responds:


Of course for all this to work, the public needs to view the tax bill as primarily about upward redistribution. It is, of course, but getting that message through to the general public in a hyper-polarized information environment is itself quite remarkable; I’m a skeptic about the value of messaging, but the Democrats clearly did an impressive job here. But good, disciplined messaging alone shouldn’t be enough to break through the partisan divide....
One theory (I have little confidence I’m right about this; I’m just thinking out loud here): since 2009, we’ve moved further into what’s clearly an era of overwhelmingly negative polarization....In an election, you can mobilize your side effectively because it’s us vs. them; when pursuing a policy initiative, it’s us vs. nothing/status quo, which is harder to demonize, and draws greater attention to what you’re actually doing. If this is right, in a weird way high negative polarization makes the politics of elections worse–uglier and less substantive–but may make some features of politics outside of elections better–since voters are less in thrall of their preferred party, they take a closer look at what they’re trying to do. The fundamentally unpopular features of the Republicans’ plans was harder to hide behind the partisan veil.

Interesting theory. If right, then we'd expect more resistance to denialist policies as the public nominally on the Republican side becomes willing to evaluate climate denial more objectively when Republicans are in power. Doesn't provide a lot of guidance for climate communication in terms of what to do, however - losing elections in order to win public opinion isn't a way to get things done.

I'll just add that Democratic consistency over the years has helped - the Ds say for years, correctly, that Republican tax cuts are biased for the rich. So an especially bad tax cut by an exceptionally unpopular president and Congress gets slaughtered in public opinion (with the donor class crying their way to the bank).

Anyway, consistent messaging about denialist Republicans could also help blunt their lies.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Fire Fire Burning Bright, How Many Acres Burned Last Night


Nick Stokes has extended the discussion on the number of forest acres burned in the US, which basically started in nothing is happening twitter and various blogs that deny climate change is upon us, with the appearance of the graph to the left trying to disprove concern about the current California blazes.  To be straightforward about it Nick don't believe the left hand side of the figure, and he quotes from the US Historical Statistics table which comments

"The source publication also presents information by regions and States on areas needing protection, areas protected and unprotected, and areas burned on both protected and unprotected forest land by type of ownership, and size of fires on protected areas. No field organizations are available to report fires on unprotected areas and the statistics for these areas are generally the best estimates available."

Eli is not going to exactly defend this either, but he will stick by the point he was trying to make that 1900 Galveston hurricane has damn all to do with deaths caused by hurricanes today especially with improved building codes, weather satellites and more.  Since forest fire fighting in the US really took hold in the middle 1930s when the federal government got serious about it the left hand side of the figures have not very much to do with the right hand side

However, Eli did come up with a way to look at this, by examining the number of acres burnt per fire.  One of the interesting things in the above graph which the Bunny did not comment on at the time was the surge about 1980 and the increased variability after that.  Nick points to the National Interagency Fire Center data which covers the period after 1960.  The data in the 1960 to 1970 period is the same as from the Historical Statistics.  The NIFC table at the bottom states that
The National Interagency Coordination Center at NIFC compiles annual wildland fire statistics for federal and state agencies. This information is provided through Situation Reports, which have been in use for several decades. Prior to 1983, sources of these figures are not known, or cannot be confirmed, and were not derived from the current situation reporting process. As a result the figures above prior to 1983 shouldn’t be compared to later data. 
Which explains that step, but it is not a huge one and it is an increase.  Using the data in the Historical Statistics of the United States one can compare the number of acres burnt per fire (apologies, were this an NSF grant Eli would be ethically and contractually bound to use hectares, but it is not) burnt on protected Federal, State and private lands compared to those burnt on unprotected lands about which Nick and others have great doubts.  In this picture the red line represents the number of acres burnt per fire on unprotected lands vs the blue line which is the number of acres burnt per fire on the protected lands.  The ratio is greater than 5 to 1. 

 For a further internal consistency check one can look at the total number of fires in the protected and unprotected categories bearing in mind that the amount of forested area in the US has essentially remained constant.  The number of fires remains roughly constant at 150 to 200K between 1926 and 1955 after which it declines to about 100K. 

The graph to the right shows that essentially all land is protected by 1970 because there are few fires ther, moreover from the graph immediately above by ~ 1940 burning in protected land had reached either a constant level or was slowly declining.  The National Interagency Fire Center table (see first two figures) shows that from about 1980 the amount of forest burnt has increased and the average size of each fire has increased.

Of course, since western and eastern US forests are very different beasts, we now need to look at data from both sides of the continent.

Monday, December 18, 2017

So What Climate Change Stories Would Sir Philip Sidney Tell

We here at Rabett Run might ask what Renaissance Literary Theory has to add to climate communications and, as it might occur, to the AGU Fall Meeting.  Turns out more than a bit.  While literary critics have the habit of not using Power Point presentations at their talk and writing out their talks (which has the advantage that they can be published immediately on Medium and elsewhere ), there is important content.  Dr. Genevieve Guenther talked in the Public Affairs session of the AGU meeting on the recommendations of Sir Philip Sidney, an Elizabethan poet, critic and soldier, for climate communication.

In @DoctorVive 's words, Sydney argues that 

. . . literature should be the most celebrated of all the human arts because it best teaches us how we should live. Sidney claims that teaching, by which he means the conveying of information, should not just impart knowledge, but serve to move people to what he calls the “ethic and politic consideration, with the end of well-doing and not of well-knowing only.” Indeed, Sidney thinks this moving is “well nigh the cause and the effect of teaching. For who will be taught, if he be not moved with desire to be taught? And what … good doth that teaching bring forth if it moveth one [not] to do that which it doth teach? For as Aristotle saith, it is not gnosis but praxis must be the fruit. And how praxis [can] be without being moved to practice, it is no hard matter to consider”
But, of course that leaves open what stories we should tell.  Just about all the discussions of climate communication have been operational.  Should there just be recitations of facts, inoculations, MOOCs, should only like proselytize to like to preserve cultural cognition?  Should there be more blockbuster films "showing women who look like Wonder Woman putting solar panels on their roofs? Well, not exactly -- or at least not only" as Doctor Vive says.

What would Sidney say?  Climate change as a tragedy as written by David Wallace Wells has limited appeal.  Why struggle in the second act when all die at the conclusion (Eli knows, yeah there was a line or two of hope at then end, but it basically was an environmental "On the Beach").  Should it be comedy, well no. . To quote again the message in a comedic framing would aim
not to scare people, but connect with them over shared values; next, show how climate change mitigation upholds those values; and, finally, end your message with hope. Thinking about this from a literary critical perspective, I wonder whether ending on a note of hope -- saying, for example, “but we can solve this crisis: we have the technology!” or “but there’s good news, the price of solar has dropped X percent in the past Y years” -- is actually to end your message with a comedic resolution, which is to say a relief of tension, a sort of exhale -- a “whew!,” if you will -- denaturing the driving irresolution that sustains ongoing action.
 In other words, it's all going to be fine at the end so why struggle. 

Which pretty much leaves the epic as the best form.  As Genevive points out, in an epic there is a heroic figure who struggles, motivates people who struggle and they all triumph at the end.  An epic is a journey, with a glowing conclusion of which all are proud. 

Go read the long form.