Articles

Scientists are Assholes

I’m a scientist. I’ve been in my field for over 25 years, employed at the same place for the vast majority of that time. I’ve got a many peer-reviewed journal publications, and have been around science and science publishing long enough to realize that…

Scientists are assholes.

Scientists have egos. I think for any successful venture, including scientific research, you HAVE to have a healthy ego, a confidence in your own capabilities, and a confidence in what  you’re doing. But underlying the “confident” form of ego is the seedy underbelly of scientists acting like assholes.

The New York Times posted a wonderful piece that focuses on social psychology, but the same general storyline could have played out in any of the sciences. In short, a young scientist published an article in 2010 that summarized one piece of her research. That led to notoriety, and even a 2012 TED talk that become one of the most widely viewed talks ever. After basking in the glow of the work for a short time, other researchers began to question her methodology, and question her results. Even worse, it got personal, with scientists and science bloggers taking the young woman to task, making unfounded and hurtful accusations. In short, the young woman DARED to experience success…which triggered a backlash from other scientists, a group of human beings that love NOTHING more than to tear each other down.

Scientists are assholes. At least there’s a segment of the profession that act in this manner. Many of them have built careers not on perfecting their own new, original research path, but instead by tearing apart the work of others. Even in my own field, there are scientists who I am only aware of because of their published “bakeoffs”, assessing the collective work of OTHER scientists, and meticulously picking through the work to find (perceived) flaws.

Given my cynical nature, it’s not like being an asshole is restricted to the field of science. So why devote a blog post to trashing my own profession? To make a point about climate change science. Climate change skeptics are nearly ALL politicians…talking heads…pundits…but very rarely, actual scientists. Even the majority of “scientists” who do attempt to discredit climate science are not climate scientists themselves.  Most often they are from another field. The pool of real climate scientists that are skeptical that 1) the climate is warming, and 2) mankind is at fault is TINY.

Scientists are assholes. And yet among scientists, climate change discord is remarkably absent. In a profession where ego and competitiveness are sometimes out of control, I can think of no better evidence of the sound scientific basis behind anthropogenic climate change. IF there were any speck of credible evidence that the climate isn’t warming, or that mankind’s activities aren’t the primary cause, stories such as the one provided by the New York Times would be rampant. Scientists would be eagerly ripping apart each other’s work, trying to discredit not only the research, but the researcher him/herself.

 

The economics of climate change

Norfolk - Hurricane storm surge risks

A map showing downtown Norfolk and the surrounding areas, and likely storm surge inundation areas under different categories of Hurricanes. Should a category 4 ever strike the area, most of the region will be flooded. However, coastal flood risks in the area go well beyond the risk of hurricane-related storm surges. Coastal flooding events are becoming increasingly common as sea levels rise, with huge economic impacts on the region. Map Source: Source: Virginia Department of Emergency Management, Commonwealth of Virginia Storm Surge Inundation Maps.

This is the the week the Trump administration may announce their intentions to stay or abandon the Paris climate agreement. There’s some indication that Trump may actually be getting cold feet about abandoning the agreement. However, given the other moves the administration has already made, stating they’re sticking with the agreement may just be window dressing, as reversing Obama’s Clean Power Plan likely makes it impossible that the U.S. could actually meet the agreed upon levels of greenhouse gas reductions. With an administration full of climate-change deniers, it may not seem like there’s a lot of long-term hope that the U.S. will be a meaningful player in trying to mitigate the worst potential climate-change scenarios. However, there is hope…

The New York Times had a great piece yesterday about the Norfolk, Virginia area, and the potential impacts of climate change. What makes the piece wonderful is that it localizes the impacts of climate change and shows how it’s already changing people’s lives. Norfolk, like most coastal cities, is likely to be heavily impacted by climate change and the resultant sea-level rise in coming decades. In the case of Norfolk, however, those impacts have already arrived. Sea-level rises, coupled with sinking coastal land overall in the area, means that the relative sea-level is now 18 inches higher than it was at the start of the 20th century. As the story notes, locals have become accustomed to learning the “dry” spots for parking their cars, avoiding parking in areas where wind-blown tides may bring water inland. The impacts go far beyond the minor inconvenience of finding a dry parking spot, however.

As stated in the New York Times piece, Elisa Staton bought a house in the Larchmont-Edgewater area of Norfolk in 2005.  There were never any records that it had been flooded. Her flood insurance was reasonable, and although the house was within the 100-year flood zone, she wasn’t worried. In the last 10 years, her house has twice flooded. Her flood insurance rates skyrocketed, and the house she purchased for $320,000 was worth perhaps half of that original value. The story notes that flood insurance premiums are rising by as much as 25% a year, and that for every $500 annual increase in flood insurance cost, the value of a house goes down by about $10,000. Short-term remedies include “re-purposing” lower-level rooms to “low value storage space”…in effect reducing the habitability of lower-level rooms in order to get breaks on insurance premiums. Longer-term remedies typically involving raising the house and allowing for increasingly frequent coastal flood waters to flow under the habitable space of a home.  However, even those measures are likely doomed to fail, as relative sea levels in the area may rise by an astounding 6 feet by 2100.

So why did I say there’s some hope regarding climate change, after pointing out the damage Trumps administration has done to U.S. efforts to mitigate greenhouse gases? The current administration may be completely inept on climate change issues, but eventually, basic economics is going to force the hand of government.  The Norfolk story quantifies economic impacts for just one small coastal area in the U.S. In 2008, Norfolk hired a Dutch team (a country well-versed in dealing with coastal flooding and inundation) to develop a climate-change adaptation plan for the city. The price tag? At least $1 billion. That “100-year flood plain” that Elisa Staton’s house was found, where 2 coastal inundation events have occurred in just the last 10 years?  There is over $1 trillion in property in 100-year coastal flood plains along the eastern seaboard of the U.S.  The story does a great job talking about insurance and other economic impacts as well.

Economics.  That’s why there’s hope. Politicians are too short-sighted. As politics has become more partisan in the United States, governing for the long-term welfare of the people has been replaced by governing for the next election cycle.  Climate change impacts? When the next election is a year or two away, climate change is the last thing D.C. politicians worry about.  At a local level however?  With coastal home prices plummeting in areas like Norfolk, you can certainly imagine that local politicians have to address climate change and the resultant economic impacts in their area.  Local residents who feel their livelihoods and homes threatened by climate change will demand it.

That’s where there’s some hope, in the local-level, aggregate response to the economic impacts of climate change. As stories like Norfolk’s become more and more common, the sheer economic impacts of climate change will have to be addressed at the larger state and national scales. Business interests increasingly recognize the devastating impacts climate change may have on their bottom dollar, and realize they can’t ignore the issue.  Our own Defense Department recognizes the threat of climate change to disrupting populations across the globe and introducing instability. At some point, D.C. politicians are going to have to follow suit.

 

A “Devil Wear’s Prada” kind of world…

The Devil Wears Prada

“Andrea” and “Miranda” interacting in the movie “The Devil Wears Prada”. For this blog post, I’ll be playing the role of Andrea…

In the movie “The Devil Wears Prada“, Meryl Streep plays the role of Miranda Priestly, an icon in the fashion industry who is editor of Runway magazine. Anne Hathaway plays Andrea Sachs, a young journalism graduate looking for employment in a very competitive environment.  Andrea ends up taking one of the few jobs available, as a personal assistant to Meryl Streep’s character Miranda.  Andrea knows nothing about fashion, and for much of the movie, is openly skeptical and dismissive of the importance those around her place on fashion.  At one stage, Miranda, tiring of Andrea’s lack of fashion awareness, gives the “Cerulean Sweater Speech”, poking fun at Andrea’s dowdy cerulean sweater she had on, while at the same time providing a backstory on the fashion industry and the role it played in making that color of sweater fashionable. Andrea eventually learns to “play the game”, becomes fashion literate herself, and begrudgingly accepts the importance of the fashion industry, before leaving and finding a real journalism job.

I enjoy that movie.  Meryl Streep is, as always, fantastic in her role. But it’s the part of Andrea that I can really relate to, a young person just entering the “real” world, someone who is baffled at what those around here deem to be important in life.  I must say, I myself am constantly baffled at those around me in a very similar “fashion” (ha-ha), as I wonder about what people focus on as “important”.  For example…

We are a few days from the end of the Obama era.  Newspapers are printing a rash of stories about the legacy of Barack Obama, and what it’s meant for America.  The New Yorker posted a piece on his last speech, and the importance of Obama’s definition of what America “should be”.  GQ wrote a piece stating Obama will go down as one of the greatest Presidents in American history, with a heavy focus on his character as a defining feature.  New  York Magazine published a compilation piece, gathering the thoughts of 53 historians to weigh in on their view of Barack Obama’s legacy, with the focus of those views ranging from the impacts of Obamacare to his attempts to change overall political discourse. Countless other pieces have been written, focusing on his legacy in bringing health care to the forefront of the American consciousness, the major shifts in foreign policy such as opening up relations with Cuba, or his relationship with Congress and inability to reduce partisanship, despite his best intentions.

There have also been some wonderful tributes to Michelle Obama, with various stories focusing on her legacy of promoting healthy lifestyles, her overall legacy and how it was shaped by her personality, or her uncanny ability to relate to everyday Americans. She has been celebrated in a way few other First Ladies have been celebrated, and her upcoming departure has been met with both celebration of her accomplishments, and with tears.  But even a woman as revered as respected as much as Michelle Obama is subject to the same biases faced by all women in the United States.  One of her lasting “legacies” is based on her external appearance and how she presents herself.

The New York Times posted a piece this weekend entitled “What Michelle Obama Wore and Why it Mattered“. Here’s where I put on my “Andrea” hat, as a person who discounts the role of fashion as being an important social institution.  I “get” the interest in what she wears. I obviously get why Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, InStyle, and other fashion/women’s magazines have provided summaries of Michelle Obama’s clothing choices over the years.  I’m not bashing the fashion industry, or people who are interested in it.  A fascination with Michelle Obama’s fashion is on par with, oh, some guy’s fascination with birds and birding. I’d never poke fun at what makes people “tick”, what gets them excited.  However, as somebody who loves birds and birding, I’d also never judge another human being based on how good of a birder they are.  Far too often, however, women in general are judged based on appearance, clothing, or behavior rather than accomplishments. The same types of articles that appear in fashion magazines also show up not only in the New York Times, but also the Washington Post, Time Magazine, and other mainstream news organizations. How many similar stories have been written about Barack Obama’s clothing choices over the years?  How many stories have ever been written about ANY (male, of course) President’s choice of clothing?  Other than the rare puff piece such as the takedown of Barack Obama’s tendency to wear “dad jeans, the answer is like somewhere between “zero” and the number of fingers on one hand. Men and women are simply judged differently.

Serena Williams has dominated women’s tennis for many years and is one of the greatest female athletes in history, yet rather than focusing on her remarkable accomplishments, she has often been subject to “body-shaming” and criticism over her appearance, and even was recently called “a hooker” for a basic Sports Illustrated cover where she (gasp!) dared to show her legs. After Hillary Clinton lost the election, stories popped up about her (gasp!) make-up free appearance, with other stories during the campaign discussed her clothing and appearance and the impacts on her “likeability”. Oprah Winfrey is constantly analyzed for her weight (as are many women). Actresses like Renee Zellweger are expected to maintain a youthful, “sexy” appearance, yet are subject to exhaustive speculation and questions of “did she or didn’t she” with regard to elective surgery to try to maintain that appearance. It’s obviously not just outward appearance that dictates how a woman is (unfairly) judged, it’s demeanor as well.  During the campaign, Hillary Clinton was first criticized for not smiling enough, and then criticized for over compensating and smiling too much. Women seem to necessarily walk a tightrope between acting aggressively and confident and being called “a bitch”, and acting more passively and be dismissed as a “ditz”.  Women are often expected to display a moderate amount of sexuality, but if they go “too far” and they are labeled as bimbos and sluts. It’s often a no-win situation, where your actions and accomplishments mean very little compared to your appearance and demeanor.

When I see a statement in a story such as the New York Times piece that “clothing played a role unlike any it had ever played before in a presidential administration”, I immediately go into Andrea Sachs mode, and scoff at the ridiculousness of such an assertion. When I see a piece from a respected news organization like the New York Times that tries to convince me that what Michelle Obama wore “mattered”, all I see is a perpetuation of the same unfair criteria of how women are judged compared to men.

The one aspect of The Devil Wears Prada that was disconcerting was when Andrea began to become assimilated into the culture and world of Miranda Priestly.  She started to “walk the walk” in order to fit in and keep her job at Runway. That part of the movie perhaps hit a little too close to home, as it so perfectly depicted the lengths women have to go to, to fit in and be accepted in a world that judges them solely by appearance and behavior.  By the end of the movie, Andrea recognizes what’s TRULY important in life, ditches Runway and Miranda Priestly, and accepts a much less glamorous job as a entry-level journalist.  As a society, we’re at that same stage in our evolution. Particularly at a time when a misogynistic pig of a man is about to assume the role of the President, It’s time to ditch this “Runway” world, and start to judge women (and all human beings) based on factors other than appearance or behavior. Sorry, New York Times, I just don’t buy the premise of your story.

 

Science MATTERS – A lesson from Joaquin

Graphic of potential paths for Hurricane Joaquin

September 30th, just a couple of days away from Hurricane Joaquin potentially impacting the U.S. coastline, and nearly all U.S.-based models had the hurricane directly striking the U.S. coast. The outlier? The (well-funded) European model that ended up correctly predicting the path far out to sea. A repeat of Hurricane Sandy, which U.S. models also struggled with, but the European model nailed.

It’s more than a bit depressing at times lately, being a U.S. government scientist.  Funding is a big part of that, as funding profiles for science in the U.S. government have definitely been on the downswing.  For my own project, I’ve had to cut quite a few very good people over the last few years, as the funding I receive to do land-use and land-cover modeling (future and past) has declined precipitously.  There are few things more maddening than working on a project, producing something the world has never seen, something that has tremendous value in helping science and society in general cope and plan for coming climate and land-use changes…and seeing your “reward” come in the form of massive budget cuts, forcing the release of great scientists (and friends).

While the budget declines have been disappointing, what’s even worse is the public attitude towards science in general.  Science and scientists used to be revered in this country.  They were representative of progress, of leadership, of the United States’ leading global role.  During the Cold War, scientific progress itself was as busy an arena for West vs. East competition as was geopolitical competition, with the space race captivating the world.

However, in the past decade or so, science has seemingly become the enemy for many.  As the conservative movement politicized what are inherently science issues, not political issues, the public’s opinion of science, and scientists themselves, has taken a hit.  Instead of admiration, there’s a broad sector of the public that now views scientists with skepticism and mistrust.  The politicization of climate change has certainly played a big role, as political talking heads push a pro-business, anti-environment message by attacking not only the science of climate change, but the integrity of the scientists themselves.  Suddenly scientists are being portrayed as liars and swindlers, pushing climate change research only to support some mysterious hidden liberal agenda (SO hidden that even as as a bleeding heart liberal I can’t see it), or to ensure the big research dollars keep flowing (I myself would LOVE to know where conservatives think all these “big liberal research dollars” are coming from….I could use them!!!).

In the meantime, science is suffering in the U.S.  Environmental protection?  Research for clean energy sources?  Spending on environmental monitoring and assessment?  All irrelevant, as they potentially impact short-term profit margins.   It’s not just “fringe” science that’s being impacted, it’s core research and scientific monitoring that’s crucial to keeping Americans safe.

If you followed Hurricane Joaquin last week, there was tremendous uncertainty in the path of the hurricane as it lingered in the Bahamas.  Scientists use “ensemble modeling” to better characterize uncertainty in difficult to predict events, with a wide variety of models used to assess the same phenomena.  Such an approach helps to form a “consensus” of multiple models.  For Hurricane Joaquin, ensemble modeling was used to help identify a variety of potential tracks.  In theory, the most likely path is something that the majority of models agree upon.

Last week, the models were all over the map.  Even by mid-week last week, the vast majority of U.S. based models were predicting Joaquin would track northward from the Bahamas, making a direct strike on the U.S. mainland, somewhere between the Carolinas and the New York area.  Mid week, there was one model, the primary European model, that was an outlier.  The European model predicted a Joaquin would jog to the northeast, missing the U.S. coast completely.  The European model, although the outlier in mid-week predictions, was the closest to the actual hurricane path.  U.S. models performed quite poorly in comparison.

For Hurricane Sandy, there was similar uncertainty.  For Sandy, the European model (correctly) predicted the hook into the New York area, while most U.S. models predicted Sandy would curve northeastward and miss the U.S. coastline.  Again…it was the European model that was correct, with U.S. models performing poorly.

There’s a great story on the New York times on how far behind NOAA and the U.S. Weather Service have fallen in terms of hurricane forecasting.  Raw computing power is an order of magnitude lower for U.S. models than for the systems being used in Europe.  Input data is lacking, as are other aspects of model parameterization.  In short, the U.S. simply has not invested as much in basic weather forecasting and research as has Europe.

As Sandy showed, and now as Joaquin has showed….the lack of adequate research funding for science in the United States has a VERY real impact on the everyday lives of Americans.  Clearly it’s not just weather research that’s an issue. Science funding profiles are declining for nearly all fields. Keeping Americans safe from weather events, natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanoes, research on treating or curing disease, protection of our air, water, and food resources…all are suffering from lack of investment.

It’s a very curious disconnect right now, with technology-loving Americans seemingly often at war with science in general.  As Joaquin and Sandy showed, and as countless other examples have shown…there’s a real price to be paid for an inadequate investment in science.

%d bloggers like this: