Thursday, June 29, 2006

Watching the News

A few items from the news before I go on vaction:


A couple of days ago the Surgeon General proclaimed that the debate over second-hand smoke is over. Around the same time, the British decided to look at the issue again because the studies on the subject have only shown a weak association. This column points out just how weak the case against second-hand smoke is. To put it in perspective, smoking exposes you to 250 times as much smoke as second-hand smoke does. It just doesn't make any sense that second hand smoke could have much of an effect.

Anti-smoking advocates in the 1980s realized that the only way to ban smoking was to expand the argument beyond personal responsibility. It's one thing to be killing yourself. It's a different matter if you can argue that smokers are killing everyone else around them, especially "the kids". So, the advocates funded some studies on second hand smoke and inflated the results. One wonders why the Surgeon General went along with this when the science is weak.

Gore and Warming

An AP story from a couple of days ago started with the statement:
The nation's top climate scientists are giving "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore's documentary on global warming, five stars for accuracy.

Pretty impressive. Later on you find out that they only contacted 100 scientists, that only 19 replied, and only five were quoted. As this points out, there are a lot of problems with the story. The movie is currently showing in 514 theaters - not a lot but scientists usually live in populations centers big enough to attract the movie. The AP also included scientists who read the companion book which is presumably in bookstores everywhere. The fact that only 19% of top climate scientists had bothered to see the movie or read the book says that most of them are not interested.

So why doesn't the headline say – "nation's top climate scientists have not seen Gore warming movie" – which is the salient lede in this bit of amateur polling? Or even "some climate scientists ok Gore movie's accuracy." The answer is that neither of these headlines makes for a compelling story.

But even if you accept the newsworthiness of 19 climate scientists, it is important to ask what is the probability that this very low response rate has resulted in selection bias? In other words, were those scientists who read the book or saw the movie more likely to agree with it from the outset - especially as Gore's position is no secret?

A couple of days ago I complained about the press seeing itself as needing to be advocates instead of neutral reporters on global warming. This is just one more example.


MSNBC reported a Supreme Court case this way: "Justices revise part of Texas redistricting". From that, you would think that the Texas Republicans lost the case. Not so. The Republicans won on the big issue - the redistricting itself. Since this was why the Democrats hounded Delay out of the Senate, it was a big win. The court did decide that a few districts had seen the influence of Hispanic voters dilluted but this is a minor adjustment. The Democrats had hoped to have the entire redistricting thrown out by the court.

Electric Cars

There is a new documentary out on Who Killed the Electric Car. It plays on conspiracy theories. GM had a test program for electric cars in the 1990s. When it ended, they insisted that everyone turn their cars back in to be crushed and scrapped. This seems like a mystery. Was the electric car killed by Big Oil? Possibly car mechanics who worried that they would lose work because of the simple, reliable electric cars?

This is stupid. The problem with electric cars is that they are very expensive and very limited. They are not zero-emission vehicles because they run on electricity that has to be generated somewhere. They are not all that efficient. There are power losses in transmitting the power from the generator to the battery and back to the wheels. They may be cheap to run but that is because they are feather-light in order to stretch the battery life and they bypass the highway taxes levied on gasoline.

With very limited range, heavy, expensive batteries, and little cargo space, these things are only useful as a second car for commuters and at $80,000 per car, there is no market for them at all.

So why did GM scrap them instead of letting people continue to drive them? The way they acted does make it seem like something was up. If you step back and assume that it was not related to oil or auto shops then GM's actions look like a company trying to avoid a liability problem. These things carry a lethal charge. Maybe GM was worried about future suits due to bad insulation. I don't know but this speculation is just as valid as the movie.

For more thoughts on the electric car, see here.

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