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Archive for September 2011

Solyndra fails to change minds on clean energy jobs

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Just a quick note on the Solyndra fall-out (or lack of) from Wall Street Journal.

 Solyndra LLC is far from becoming “dinner table conversation” the way health care reform was in 2009 and has not undermined voter support for public investments in clean energy, according to a poll released this week from Public Opinion Strategies…“Thus far, Solyndra is still news junkie fodder,” the pollsters concluded, citing a recent voter survey in Ohio and focus groups in California.

There are few things that seem to be as broadly popular among US voters as investing in clean and renewable energy. The Solyndra scandal, despite the best efforts of folks trying to whip the issue into a tizzy, just hasn’t had traction to to change opinions about clean energy initiatives, green jobs, or renewables.

In this poll, 62% percent agree that 1 company’s failure should not slow our desire to create clean energy jobs. 32 % oppose such initiatives. Also, the poll makes an important note on party distinctions in the results:

Notably, though, only certain subgroups of Republicans are skeptical of investments in clean energy; GOP women and Republicans who do not identify with the Tea Party more closely resemble the overall electorate in their views.

Oh Tea Party, you always know just what to say.


Written by Christopher ZF

September 29, 2011 at 14:58

Ruminating on 3 scenarios for 2013.

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Who will win the next presidential election? I’ll put it on record that TRC thinks it will likely be  Barack Obama, re-elected to a second term. Why? Here’s two reasons. 1) It’s really hard to defeat a sitting president, and, 2) TRC would really prefer an Obama victory. That’s all I really have on why.

There are various and sundry reasons that President Obama could lose the upcoming election: for example, an economy that, to put it lightly, has yet to begin a noticeable recovery, anger at Obama, fake scandals, etc. And there are many more reasons Obama could win, such as, the GOP field is uninspiring, the devil you know…, and there’s always that pesky detail that Obama has been quite a successful President in terms of the liberal Democratic agenda.

But what’s been ruminating here is not will Barack Obama win the upcoming election, but what happens if he loses? The world will turn, the GOP will have the presidency, and the United States will…what? It’s an interesting thought experiment, because variables are many and scientists who are irresponsibly funded by the government have yet to discover a way to read the future. Here are 3 situations that are not out of the realm of possibility. It’s some situational speculation, for fun, and to remind myself if no one else, this too shall pass.

1. Rick Perry Wins the nomination (somehow) and the Democrats keep the Senate, while Republicans keep the House. What happens?
For comparison, imagine that the current situation exists, only flipped on party lines. Well, politics remains a major CF, and very little is achieved. Gridlock, as they say, captures the president and D.C. despite Perry’s Bush-like announcement that he won Political Capital and  he intends to spend it. But President Perry shows a surprising willingness to compromise. Unfortunately for Republicans, he compromises with the Dems on HPV vaccines and education for immigrant children. The GOP goes crazy, like the Dems did on Obama’s Bush Tax Cuts compromise. But they soon realize Perry is only rope-a-doping. Biding his time until he can spend his capital in years 2, 3, and 4 on tea-party legislation that really grinds the government to a halt because the Democrats, by necessity, feel they must stop the Right-Wing Agenda. Despite the constant near shutdown status of the capitol, several major policy changes occur. Predicting those changes is very difficult. But it could be one of any number of options, like repealing Obama’s Health Care overhaul, ending welfare programs, or the like. Also, Christianity pervades the Presidency making church-and-staters terrified of a theocracy, the EPA regulations really are rolled-back, and US efforts towards climate change mitigation officially becomes efforts towards climate change adaptation. The Perry Presidency represents a mixture of In God’s Hands and Political Expediency that terrifies the Democratic Party, and somehow, the nation’s government grinds to an even more harmful stand-still, resulting in a government shutdown fight over how to fund the needed disaster relief for the now constant wildfires in Texas now that tax rates are lowered, programs are cut, and the government is lean and mean. The government shutdowns and the country burns.

A Perry Presidency with split chambers thus receives 5 Michele Bachmann crazy smiles out of a possible 5.

2. Darkhorse Jon Hunstman pulls a John McCain 2008 and wins the nomination. He asks Chris Christie to be his running mate, who agrees, and the two are victorious in 2012. Due to the reasonable-natured appearance of a Huntsman/Christie ticket, the GOP rides the coattails, and retains the House majority and gets a slim majority in the Senate, giving the Republicans control of all three houses. What happens?
Democrats tell themselves it’s going to be okay; at night they remind themselves who could have been president, it could have been the crazies of Perry or Bachmann or Paul and remind themselves that, at the end of the day, at least they got a moderate Republican who worked for Obama. This lasts about 3 months, as President Huntsman slowly unrolls his vision of America. Then, Huntsman unrolls his vision of America, and the Democrats, realizing they were tricked by their own optimism, remember that Huntsman was the GOVERNOR OF UTAH!  They remember, there is probably no more a Right-Wing job in the United States than the GOVERNOR OF UTAH! Panic strikes. Huntsman begins tinkering with everything, deregulating industry despite his acceptance of climate change (markets can do it, he’ll say),  cutting taxes on the wealthy while cutting programs for the poor (unfair burdens, no nanny state, he’ll say), meanwhile, the most conservative GOP Chambers since history has ever seen (or 1994) will be pushing an agenda that moves America towards isolationism in North America with continued interventionist policies in the middle-East and Asia. Advances towards gay and lesbian equality will stall. Events will transpire pretty much as you would expect when a very conservative majority governs the nation, which sparks fear in the hearts of every Democrat, and rejoicing to the Lord for every Republican. But the American public will tire of a lack of checks and balances, and this will only last 2 years. The Democrats will win the House, but the damage will have been done. Democrats around the country will have nightmares about how, years ago, in a debate that didn’t matter, when asked who would not accept a budget deal with 10 dollars in cuts to 1 dollar in revenues, there was Jon Huntsman, raising his hand, as conservative as anyone else on the stage. And they will crumble at the remembrance that they all fell for one stupid tweet.

A Huntsman Presidency with both chambers for the GOP thus receives 5 pro-science tweets will actually undo science nightmares out of 5.

3. This brings us to the most likely scenario of an Obama loss, as TRC sees it. Despite the craziness of the GOP primary process, and the bonkers nature of the cast of candidates, the expected winner wins the nomination.  Thus, President Mitt Romney takes office in 2013. He is accompanied by VP Huntsman, and welcomed before split Chambers. What happens?
Romney does not unroll “Obamacare.” He believes in the model, since, well, he created it. Democrats start to look at President Romney a little differently. Maybe he’s a pragmatist, they say to themselves. Besides, Democrats have a majority in the Senate, and can prevent the most outrageous tea-party legislation that everyone knows will be brought forth. But the nation will yearn for compromise, after a miserable 2012 of US Politics, and President Romney will side with Speaker Cantor on almost all the social issues of the day, keeping favor among many of Republicans (while knowing most won’t pass the Senate), while remaining pragmatic regarding the economy, pleasing some Democrats (though not most). The economy will improve, and the parties will fight over who gets the credit (It was Obama’s Policies that started it! NO! Obama ruined everything, Mitt did Itt!). Things start to improve economically, and the costs of the recession start to move the background, bringing traditional concerns back to the front. And as that happens, President Romney reveals himself to be a disaster at foreign relations. But VP Huntsman and Secretary of State Whomever are more than up to this challenge, enough at least to soothe potential war with China, which the Republican Party still seems to think is an inevitability, despite this being totally impossible and without any reason to expect for at least decades. The country does not destroy itself over party differences, the Tea-Party resigns itself to the realization that it did NOT win the presidency, and Eric Cantor, now the speaker, realizes that his earnest desire to drive the country all the way to the Right doesn’t actually mean that it will happen.

A Romney Presidency with split chambers turns out only to receive 3 Tea-Party exasperating protest signs out of 5.

I could live with that. I think. Maybe. Obama in 2012.

Written by Christopher ZF

September 28, 2011 at 11:12

Science, Presidential Politics, and Solar Energy

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Well. It’s been a long time. Here’s a few things that have been keeping my attention:

My last post here was on the Alex Berezow USA Today opinion piece on the anti-science nature of both the political left and right. It seems that story got quite a bit of attention in the science blogging community, including from Chris Mooney, who writes The Intersection, which is quite good and worth your effort. He makes some very strong points on why Berezow, and the resulting turn out in support of Berezow, are wrong. Here’s Mooney, in response to Kenneth Green, who wrote in response to Mooney’s response to the Alex Berezow piece (got that?):

Not only does Green dramatically downplay the Christian Right (free market conservatives’ cozy bedfellow, whether or not they want to acknowledge it). He doesn’t seem to understand that science abuse isn’t about getting something wrong. This happens all the time in science, in academia, etc. That’s okay, because science has a self correcting mechanism—and this is part of its very nature.
The real problem is therefore not mistakes. It’s attacking established knowledge, and spreading clearly refuted falsehoods, for political reasons. And clinging to them, sinking into denial. That is what we are actually talking about.

Indeed. The problem, as I see it, is a fundamental misunderstanding of scientific process. What it means when someone says “scientific consensus,” for example.

Second is  the 2012 GOP Presidential Extravaganza. I missed the last two weeks of coverage, and suddenly Michele Bachmann is an afterthought, Herman Cain won a thing that probably means nothing (Ron Paul’s always winning something or other), Rick Perry is fading because he is a terrible debater, and Jon Huntsman said  he wants to be a rising star. If you want to be a rising star, can you say that you want to be a rising star and not have it sound totally ridiculous? I don’t think so. Anyway, when did all this happen? Now Mitt Romney is going to win, which, well, was probably going to happen anyway, unless, you know, he loses. But who would he lose to?

The real story that has been consuming TRC is the “scandal” President Barack Obama finds himself in regarding the federal government’s guaranteed loans to the solar panel manufacturing company Solyndra. Every day I considered writing this story up, but kept getting too worked up, because there’s no scandal here, at all, no how no way. It’s not indicative of the failing of solar as an industry, which is doing very well. Nor it is indicative of poor vetting by the President. Rather, it is for the President terrible timing for a company who was out-competed, to go bankrupt. End of story.

Guaranteed loans for green energy companies are certainly not a Democrat only desire. And they absolutely should not be. Because they are smart policy. The US Gov’t made an investment to spur energy technology, and that investment didn’t pan out. That’s really not that big of a deal. It happens. It’s not a Democratic or GOP failing, it’s what happens when you can’t tell the future. Bad timing, embarrassing e-mails, over-zealous political maneuvering from the White House, I grant you all this. But scandal? I fail to see it.  That Solyndra couldn’t compete in a global market for pv-cells is Solyndra’s fault. Or the fault of the Chinese, who are kicking our asses on solar manufacturing.

Written by Christopher ZF

September 27, 2011 at 16:40

the big tent of the anti-science crowd

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A column in today’s USA Today (I know, I know) got me thinking about a common subject at TRC, science and politics and the science denial-ism of the contemporary Republican party. I write and harp much on today’s GOP for simply ignoring science. Evolution is not something that you can disagree with. It’s science. C’mon, you Republicans, acknowledge facts! These are such things as are common at TRC.

But it is unfair to simply paint the GOP as anti-science, and pretend that the Democrats marry themselves faithfully to scientific knowledge. Which is the point of Alex Berezow’s column, “GOP might be anti-science, but so are Democrats.” The title pretty much tells you the story. Berezow details that, yes, the GOP is anti-science on the three hot-button election cycle science issues: climate change, evolution, and stem-cell research. Here is Berezow on these issues:

“The GOP should never cave to the conservatives within the party who deny evolution and global warming. There is simply no excuse for that. Expressing moral concerns over embryonic stem cell research is legitimate, but it is best to leave regulatory policy to stem cell biologists and bioethicists. Experts should be making those decisions, not politicians.”

Agreed. Then, correctly, Berezow points out that science is not comprised of only these three issues. The Democrats, he argues, are just as likely to join the anti-science denial-ism regarding pet issues of their party. But Berezow selects an unfortunate choice of three issues to mirror the Republicans.  Two make the point well: Nuclear Energy and GMO foods. The third issue does not hold up. And all three fall away when held to a national party platform.

It’s true that many Dems ignore the basic science on Nukes and GM foods. Nuclear Power, by the numbers, is clean and safe. That’s just the case, whether the environmental crowd of the 60s and 70s, who are now the aged-elites of the movement, wish it or not. It is reasonable to question waste issues, and nuclear has profound implications for long term human planning (long-term here being 1000-10000 years, a difficult time-frame for making policy), but the science behind nuclear is, largely, at odds with the anti-nuke folks.

As for GM foods, I don’t have much to say. I recognize why some oppose it, and I acknowledge that, as far as food safety, hunger, and poverty are concerned, GM foods offer an actual solution to a terrible problem. That said, if we lose true wild rice in Minnesota and only are left with strains of GM wild rice that have been created in a  lab and grown in SE Asia, that’s a real, physical loss. But again, these are moral issues, such as those attached to stem-cells research, and not scientific ones.

All of this gets to the final issue that Berezow uses to prove that Democrats are anti-science: the anti-vaccination movement. Here’s the author on anti-vax:

“The most extreme example is the anti-vaccination movement, which has gained new but incomplete attention in the controversy among Republican presidential candidates over the HPV vaccine. Empowered by those who believe the myth that only “natural things” are good for you, anti-vaccine activists routinely share common ground with organic food consumers. In fact, a public health official once noted that rates of vaccine non-compliance tend to be higher in places where Whole Foods is popular — and 89% of Whole Foods stores are located in counties that favored Barack Obama in 2008.”

The anti-vax movement is not a Democratic movement. Saying the Democratic Party is anti-vax like the Republican Party is anti-climate change is utterly and completely false. It is a disgraceful equivalency. Opposition to climate change in the GOP is an accepted party platform, almost a requirement to prove the bona-fides of one’s conservatism today. Democrats who oppose vaccinations are crazy.

That’s because anti-vax Americans are not just anti-science, but anti-reality. They may prefer to vote Democratic on election day, but the Democratic Party as a political party is in no way linked to the blatant anti-science, ignorant position of anti-vaxers. It is not a political position of the National Democratic Party. Some individuals in the party have sympathized, or even cashed in on support from the anti-vax crowd. That shouldn’t be denied, ignored, or accepted. But it does not demosntrate that the Democratic Party is equally anti-science as the Republican Party.

The Democratic Party, by and large, does not carry party platforms that oppose science. They just don’t. Many Democrats in the house and senate oppose nuclear, oppose GM Foods, may even oppose vaccinations for unfounded fears of autism. There are also many who do not accept climate science, or question evolution. But just as many hold opposite points of view regarding each of these science-based issues. And by not opposing these issues, they are not breaking from the party fold. They are not outliers in a party that requires fidelity to anti-scientific positions. This is the difference.

Maybe this represents an optimistic picture of the Democratic Party. They are a political party after all, and speaking too highly of a political party, either party, leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth. But there is a false equivalency, in my opinion, in comparing the anti-science Republican Party to anti-science democrats.

There are, of course, anti-science folks everywhere. Everyone, in some element of their mind, holds views that do not follow the scientific majority on many issues. In pointing this out, Berezow is correct. Democrats and Republicans alike pick and choose the science that serves political interest. But portraying the Democrats as a Party to be as anti-science as the GOP as a Party does not hold up to scrutiny. Because the GOP as a Party holds anti-science views. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, makes room for the anti-science democrats within the party.

Written by Christopher ZF

September 21, 2011 at 11:28

Posted in anti-vax, food, Politics, Science

12:01 = one more step toward the end of ≠

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Busy as a bee lately, but today is a historic, positive day for United States policy, and I wanted to take a minute to recognize.

Congratulations to President Obama and his administration, the United States Military, and to our nation as a whole for bringing about the repeal of the  immoral policy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The policy ended at 12:01 this morning, and with it, one more systematic form of discrimination is removed from the US government.

It’s not the end, and the results of a repeal like this won’t all be positive. But the nation continues to move forward towards a more just and equal treatment of the gay and lesbian communities. And that’s only a good.

Written by Christopher ZF

September 20, 2011 at 10:24

Senate ‘Funds’ JWST

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A rare piece of good funding news came from Washington, D.C. yesterday. The Senate will continue funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, according to the mark-ups made for the 2012 budget bill. Which means that the program will be funded through to its completion and launch in 2018, assuming the funding is able to continue through the appropriations committee, pass a floor vote, be reconciled with the House budget, and passed again, then signed by President Obama. But we’ll take it as a positive.

There was much concern, expressed here previously, that the JWST would not receive the appropriations necessary to see it through to completion, due to a myriad of reasons (including NASA’s running far over-budget and extending the program years beyond deadline).

But much had been invested already, and the telescope, it is said, is 75% complete (what that means is open for discussion). It would be a great shame to have the successor to Hubble scrapped, and be left without an eye to the universe’s deepest secrets.

The scientific community galvanized around the issue, and made the funding of the JWST a priority. When the JWST is complete, astronomers and astrophysicists will see things we’ve never seen before, and learn what we don’t even know that we don’t know, or, as the saying goes discover ‘unknown unknowns.’

So congratulations to the Senate, even at this early stage, for looking beyond to the budget woes of today, and for funding science, knowledge, and the future. Keep moving it through the process, one step at a time.

Written by Christopher ZF

September 15, 2011 at 10:02

the method of science is universal.

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Did you hear about the discovery of a planet made of diamond? If you are interested in science, space, or use the interwebs, or receive media input from any source, I imagine you did. It was a scientific discovery that people of all ilks loved to discuss, pass around, and chat about over the water-cooler (do people still do this?).

In the general population, this is the kind of science we can all get behind. It is fun. Interesting discoveries about the universe are received, processed with minimal critical consideration, and filed away without much controversy. The national coverage allowed a few days of fame for the researches who discovered this planet, and then they went about their lives.

According to one of these scientists, Matthew Bailes, this finding will be the biggest discovery of his career because pretty much the whole world’s media covered it, and covered it positively. But at the end of the day, it’s not really that big a deal. Of course, this brush with fame did not have to go this way. Bailes wrote an article on this celebration of the diamond planet, and wondered how different his life would be if he were a climate scientist. After all, same method used to discover this planet has provided that other, easily rejected and dismissed science of the swindlers: climate change. Here’s Bailes:

Following the publication of our finding in the journal Science, our research received amazing attention from the world’s media.
The diamond planet was featured in Time Magazine, the BBC and China Daily, to name but a few.
I was asked by many journalists about the significance of the discovery. If I were honest, I’d have to concede that, although worthy of publication in Science, in the field of astrophysics it isn’t that significant.

And yet the diamond planet has been hugely successful in igniting public curiosity about the universe in which we live.
In that sense, for myself and my co-authors, I suspect it will be among the greatest discoveries of our careers.
Our host institutions were thrilled with the publicity and most of us enjoyed our 15 minutes of fame. The attention we received was 100% positive, but how different that could have been.
How so? Well, we could have been climate scientists.
Imagine for a minute that, instead of discovering a diamond planet, we’d made a breakthrough in global temperature projections.
Let’s say we studied computer models of the influence of excessive greenhouse gases, verified them through observations, then had them peer-reviewed and published in Science.
Instead of sitting back and basking in the glory, I suspect we’d find a lot of commentators, many with no scientific qualifications, pouring scorn on our findings.
People on the fringe of science would be quoted as opponents of our work, arguing that it was nothing more than a theory yet to be conclusively proven.
There would be doubt cast on the interpretation of our data and conjecture about whether we were “buddies” with the journal referees.
If our opponents dug really deep they might even find that I’d once written a paper on a similar topic that had to be retracted.
Before long our credibility and findings would be under serious question.
But luckily we’re not climate scientists.

The point that Bailes makes often goes unmentioned in popular scientific discourse in the US, where science literacy continues to decline and ignorance about the scientific method is rampant not just in the citizenry but in the media. The scientific method is the scientific method, and is no less valid a method in astronomy than it is in climate science, or any other scientific endeavor.

The labor and attention to detail and  process is no more absent in climate science than in other disciplines. The need for testing and repeating hypotheses, recording observations, submitting to peer review is necessary in climate science and astrophysics, and it is a process whose participants make mistakes, and when they do they can be loud jerks, or humbly correct the record. Often they don’t make big mistakes and are quiet and desire not to be in the public eye. When something important comes about that challenges the status quo it is not hidden from view, at least not for long, and will be adopted into the scientific literature. It will be dealt with by future research, and compared to other observations, tested against other hypotheses, and the conclusions that stands up will be the conclusion that stands up.

I have said this before, and I was told that this is too rosy a picture of science. But I don’t think it is. Mostly this accusation accompanies a defense of climate science. Making that accusation against the process goes beyond climate science and attaches to capital S Science.

It is not appropriate to simply accept without question one field of research, such as astronomy or astrophysics simply because the results provide something bizarre or heretofore never envisioned, and reject another field, such as climate science, because politics allows it. If as a community we want to take science with any seriousness, then this selectivity has to be done away with. As Balies concludes:

In all fields of science, papers are challenged and statistics are debated. If there is any basis to these challenges they stand, but if not they fall by the wayside and the field continues to advance.
When big theories fall, it isn’t because of business or political pressures – it’s because of the scientific process.
Sadly, the same media commentators who celebrate diamond planets without question are all too quick to dismiss the latest peer-reviewed evidence that suggests man-made activities are responsible for changes in concentrations of CO2 in our atmosphere.
The scientific method is universal. If we selectively ignore it in certain disciplines, we do so at our peril.

Written by Christopher ZF

September 13, 2011 at 16:51