Sunday, October 28, 2007

Warming and Wildfires

Last week major fires swept across California. This lead to the inevitable question - did global warming cause the fires? Radio Show host Glen Beck said no, pointing to the revised figures for the warmest year on record. The progressive group Media Matters took issue with this, pointing out that the incorrect figures were for the US, not the world. Actually, both are wrong although Beck is closer to the truth.

Media Matters was correct that the temperature records that were corrected a few weeks ago were for the US, not the world. They are also correct that it seems to have been a mistake rather than a malicious action.

On the other hand, NASA went to lengths to prevent the person who found the error from having access to the raw data so they are not totally blameless.

More important, global warming is meaningless when talking about local wildfires. The only thing that matters is local weather. The figures that Beck was quoting are more relevant to California than world figures.

Actually, the real culprit in the wildfires is not heat. It is land use. As this article from the New York Times points out, the Baja Peninsula has many small fires while California has fewer but larger fires. California policies forbid controlled burns and call for putting out natural fires whenever possible. That means that fuel builds up for years. When a fire finally reaches it, there is too much fuel and the fire cannot be stopped.

In addition, people continue to build in danger zones. The number of threatened houses doubled since 1980. The tiny bit of warming that has happened in the US in the last few decades is nothing compared to the other factors.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The 2008 Election

The smart money says that the election will be over as soon as Hillary or Obama wins the nomination. The combination of an unpopular president and an unpopular war will cause a repeat of the election of 2006 on a larger scale. The thing is, the smart money isn't always that smart. Here's why:

Bush's approval rating maybe terrible but it looks pretty good compared with Congressional Democrats. Their approval rating is approaching the margin of error (the last I heard it was at 11% and still dropping). If the Republican candidate (I'll assume Rudy for the sake of argument) is weighed down by Bush, how much more will a senator be weighed down by Congress?

The war may not be as big a factor as strategists think. While liberals hate Iraq and moderates are sick of it, nearly everyone hated Viet Nam. Regardless, Humphrey nearly won in 1968 and Nixon won by a huge margin in 1972. What's more, things in Iraq are looking pretty good right now. Everyone expected that if the terrorists and the insurgents kept pushing the US would leave. Instead we came back stronger. We seem to be wearing them down even as the insurgents realize that AQ in Iraq is not really their ally. Hillary has been advocating surrender. Obama is even stronger against it. If things are still going well in a year then they are going to look pretty bad.

Did the election of 2006 indicate that the country has swung to the left? No. Republican losses were typical for a president's 6th year. Reagan had similar losses yet his vice president went on to win in 1988.

In the meantime, Democrats, convinced that the 2006 election was a trend have moved quite a ways to the left. No one is running as a moderate. They are disowning Carter and Clinton, two southern governors who ran as moderates. Instead we will have a senator running as a progressive on a platform of socialized medicine and trade restrictions.

The Democrats have an additional factor working against them - lack of passion. Hillary is a cold candidate. While I have seen Rudy described as a "dark" candidate, he is an inspiring speaker who talks about America in ways reminiscent of Reagan. In 2004 the Democrats were passionate in their hatred of Bush. I doubt that they can muster that level of commitment against Rudy or any of his rivals. With an uninspiring candidate at the top of their ticket and an opponent they don't despise, they will not put forth the same level of effort. Besides, why bother when they already know that they will win regardless?

The wild card is Republican passion. The religious right is likely to sit out this election. The people against illegal immigration and the NRA have their own quarrels with Rudy. Will they let Hillary win in order to teach the Republicans a lesson in the future? That's what the Democrats did in 2000. It worked to the extent that it moved the party to the left but it also gave the country eight years of Bush. I doubt that many Democrats would make that choice again. It may have also moved the party too far to the left.

Will the Republicans learn from the Democrats' mistake in 2000? In 2004 the Democrats united behind a candidate who didn't excite them against a president they hated. Will Republicans unite against Hillary the same way?

The final factor is the "new face". Typically at this point the vice president would be running as a continuation of the president's policies. More often than not the public is sick of the current administration. This time none of the Republicans have ties to Bush. On the other hand, Hillary is still married to Bill. Rudy is a lot fresher than Hillary. Her current status as front-runner amplifies this. People may be sick of her by election day.

Of course, this is all speculation. At this point four years ago Howard Dean was getting fitted for his inauguration tux.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Kids, birth control, and the schools

A few middle schools are now dispensing birth control pills to students without parent's explicit consent. Personally, I am appalled.

The arguments for this are:

Kids are entering puberty earlier and having sex anyway so they should be able to get birth control. Besides, the parents have to sign a consent form for the kids to use the clinic.

My answer to this:

The kids are too young. We are talking about 11-14 year olds. Their bodies might be maturing earlier but their emotions are not. This is the ultimate extension of the "hooking up" craze where two people get together for no-strings-attached sex. When I was that age the hippies said, "If it feels good, do it," but I think that even they would have drawn the line at sex with an 11 year old.

The fact that kids are already having sex can be taken both ways. It can be a call for accepting something you can't change or it can be a call for more and better education and supervision. Just because they are having sex doesn't mean that they should.

Another aspect of the "they are doing it anyway" argument is that making birth control available will probably increase the number of kids doing it. It takes away the fear of pregnancy. Also, by involving non-judgmental adults, it gives the sense that what the kids are doing is ok and it is the parents who are out of step.

This is another example of liberals in general and schools specifically driving a wedge between parents and their children and is closely related to the controversy about parental notification when a child has an abortion.

As for parental consent, from the little that has been presented about this it appears that the parent has to choose between no medical help in case of emergencies and a blanket permission that includes birth control.

Going beyond that, there are darker aspects. Birth control will help conceal an unhealthy relationship with someone older. Even a relationship between an 11 year old and a 14 year old is a felony in most states.

The AP just broke a story about how wide-spread child abuse by teachers is and how it is usually covered up. This will only make the abuse easier.

Then there is the issue of STDs. Many adults are confused about contraceptives not protecting against STDs. Children will assume that the pills the school clinic gives them are all they need.

A couple of weeks ago Boston Legal had an episode where a girl contracted HIV and sued the school system for telling her that condoms are ineffective. James Spader's character was in high dungeon over a comparison between condoms and Russian Roulette. In fact, among "normal use" adults using condoms, 14% conceive each year. The odds in Russian Roulette are 18% which makes it a valid comparison. I wonder if Spader's fictional law firm would sue a school for issuing birth control pills without including a pack of condoms with the pills?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

An Inconvenent Defense

Last week a British court ruled that Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth was a piece of propaganda. The British government plans on sending copies of the movie to every school. The court ruling means that teachers will have to give a warning first. Global warming skeptics cheered the news since it means that an independent party looked at the evidence and found that the multiple award-winning movie is nothing but alarmism.

The left is rushing to Gore's defense. Here is an example.

So, is there anything to this spirited defense of the Goracle? No, and here is why.

The first claim is that the court validated the basic message of Gore's movie and that "deniers" cherry-picked at minor details. The court was not making a ruling on the IPCC's report, it was ruling on Gore's movie. This is an important distinction. Gore wasn't just trying to educate people about warming, he was trying to scare people into action. The fact that the court accepted the IPCC report cuts both ways as we will see later.

Next, there is the smear that the plaintiffs are so far right that normal conservatives call them "fascists" and that they were financed by oil money. Even if any of this is true, it doesn't matter. No one has accused the judge of any of malfeasance. His ruling has nothing to do with who financed the plaintiffs and this is nothing but a cheap shot.

One of the more alarming statements in the movie is that the sea level will rise by 20. The judge says
This is distinctly alarmist, and part of Mr Gore's 'wake-up call'. It is common ground that if indeed Greenland melted, it would release this amount of water, but only after, and over, millennia, so that the Armageddon scenario he predicts, insofar as it suggests that sea level rises of 7 metres might occur in the immediate future, is not in line with the scientific consensus.
Note, the scientific consensus the judge is referring to is the most recent IPCC report. Gore's defenders are on very weak ground on this one. They point out that Gore does not actually say when the oceans will rise, just that they will. They ignore that Gore asserted in interviews that
the sea level change will happen by the year 2100, not 3000.

At one point Gore shows (separately) a graph showing world temperature rise and a graph showing CO2 rise. When presented this way the two graphs appear to be identical providing proof that CO2 causes warming.
Gore's exact statement is
The relationship is very complicated. But there is one relationship that is more powerful than all the others and it is this. When there is more carbon dioxide, the temperature gets warmer, because it traps more heat from the sun inside.
Gore is not kidding when he says that the relationship is complicated. In fact, if the graphs were superimposed on each other they would show that the rise in CO2 followed the temperature rise. The judge says
In scenes 8 and 9, Mr Gore shows two graphs relating to a period of 650,000 years, one showing rise in CO2 and one showing rise in temperature, and asserts (by ridiculing the opposite view) that they show an exact fit. Although there is general scientific agreement that there is a connection, the two graphs do not establish what Mr Gore asserts.
The judge is being kind.

The drowning polar bears is another case where the judge uses the IPCC's report against Gore.
In scene 19, Mr Gore says: "Coral reefs all over the world because of global warming and other factors are bleaching and they end up like this. All the fish species that depend on the coral reef are also in jeopardy as a result. Overall specie loss is now occurring at a rate 1000 times greater than the natural background rate." The actual scientific view, as recorded in the IPCC report, is that, if the temperature were to rise by 1-3 degrees Centigrade, there would be increased coral bleaching and widespread coral mortality, unless corals could adopt or acclimatise, but that separating the impacts of climate change-related stresses from other stresses, such as over-fishing and polluting, is difficult.
You can read the rest of the judgment yourself. The bottom line is that Gore's advocates could not present proof for several of Gore's more alarming claims. That's the real truth.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Happy Columbus Day

Officially Columbus day was celebrated (or ignored) last Monday. Regardless, this is the date that Columbus actually made landfall and changed the world. Even granting that it was all a huge mistake, he was on the wrong continent, it was still one of the most important events in history. It started the biggest human migration ever - a migration so large that it continues to this day. Prior to Columbus, humans stayed pretty close to where they were born. They also tended to marry people from the same area. This meant that you could make a good guess about the general area someone was from just by looking at him. National identity wasn't just a matter of shared culture - it was also shared genes.

Things ahve changed radically since then and the rate of change is increasing. Old concepts of race and national identity are breaking down. People are exposed to new ideas, also. The exchange is not limited to humans either. Our diet includes plants and animals from multiple continents (for lunch, I just had turkey (North America) and cheese sandwich (European cattle and wheat) with potato chips (South America).

For the most part, the world is a better place than it was in 1492. In many ways it is immeasurably better. You cannot say that about the progress between 992 and 1492. The worst things such as genocide in Darfur have historic roots. Genocide was much more common in 1492 than now and no one cared.

Gore, the Award and the Election

Al Gore won half of the Nobel Peace Prize today, sharing it with the IPCC. This has given a big boost the the Draft Al movement. This may turn out to be a defining point in the election. Here's why.

The Draft Al movement reflects a dissatisfaction with the current Democratic slate, especially front-runner Hillary. It is a distraction to Hillary's carefully managed campaign of inevitability. With Obama Edwards failing, this is the best shot that the Stop Hillary movement has.  If you are a dedicated progressive then you are pretty ambivalent about Hillary. Her health care proposal isn't as radical as you want, she's never apologized for her war vote, and she has taken a hawkish position against Iran. The environment is, at best, a second-tier issue for her. Gore seems much better in comparison and already proved that he could win a majority of the national votes.

Assuming that Hillary wins anyway, this weakens her. She will need all of her supporters to turn out in November, 2008. If the party gives her lukewarm support then a lot of potential voters might stay home or cast a protest vote. This is what cost Al Gore the election in 2000.

If the Draft Al movement succeeds then Gore will be the first modern candidate to try to build a national campaign in less than a year. This will be a huge problem. Gore might have to settle for running in just the blue states and a few swing states. This would be a huge boost for Congressional Republicans in red states. Also, Gore has shown that he is a lackluster campaigner. Bush is not a gifted public speaker but was able to hold his own in debates.

Gore carries his own baggage. His energy sink of a house is at the top of the list followed by his fraudulent carbon credits. Even his strong point, his movie, was judged an inaccurate piece of propaganda by a British court. All of these points would make great campaign ads for the Republicans to dismantle Gore's credibility.

The best thing that Gore could do for the Democrats would be to make it clear that he will not run and that the Draft Al people are wasting their time. I don't think that he will do this. Right now he is flattered by the attention. If he refuses to run then a lot of Democrats will turn on him. His performance during the 2000 recount shows that he is not one to put the country's interests ahead of his own.

If Hillary manages to decisively win the primaries and keeps her national poll numbers up then the Draft Al movement will die out. If Hillary seems weaker than expectations then the movement will gain strength and pull Hillary down. Either way, Democrats will probably look back at Gore as the person who cost (or almost cost) them the election.

Congratulations Al.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

False Consensus

This is an interesting article on its own. It seems that there is little evidence that dietary fat is bad. The article traces how a consensus can be wrong. In this case, a diet researcher named Ancel Keys decided in the 1950s that dietary fat was bad. He did an incomplete study to back this up. Because of his prominence, what amounted to personal opinion became scientific consensus despite the fact that several studies have proven otherwise.

This is given as an example of the cascade effect. When multiple people are asked a question as a group, the first one to confidently give an answer can sway someone else who is not sure. This in turn convinces others who think that the majority must have the right answer.

Because of this effect, groups are surprisingly prone to reach mistaken conclusions even when most of the people started out knowing better, according to the economists Sushil Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifer and Ivo Welch. If, say, 60 percent of a group’s members have been given information pointing them to the right answer (while the rest have information pointing to the wrong answer), there is still about a one-in-three chance that the group will cascade to a mistaken consensus.

Cascades are especially common in medicine as doctors take their cues from others, leading them to overdiagnose some faddish ailments (called bandwagon diseases) and overprescribe certain treatments (like the tonsillectomies once popular for children). Unable to keep up with the volume of research, doctors look for guidance from an expert — or at least someone who sounds confident.

When Keys first announced that fat is bad, the American Heart Association disagreed. Three years later it switched positions, not because of new science, but because Keys and some fellow believers were now in control.

In the 1970s Senator George McGovern's office issued a report suggesting that people cut back on fat consumption. The committee that drew up the report relied on the advice of a single nutritionist.

Meanwhile, there still wasn’t good evidence to warrant recommending a low-fat diet for all Americans, as the National Academy of Sciences noted in a report shortly after the U.S.D.A. guidelines were issued. But the report’s authors were promptly excoriated on Capitol Hill and in the news media for denying a danger that had already been proclaimed by the American Heart Association, the McGovern committee and the U.S.D.A.

The scientists, despite their impressive credentials, were accused of bias because some of them had done research financed by the food industry. And so the informational cascade morphed into what the economist Timur Kuran calls a reputational cascade, in which it becomes a career risk for dissidents to question the popular wisdom.

With skeptical scientists ostracized, the public debate and research agenda became dominated by the fat-is-bad school. Later the National Institutes of Health would hold a “consensus conference” that concluded there was “no doubt” that low-fat diets “will afford significant protection against coronary heart disease” for every American over the age of 2. The American Cancer Society and the surgeon general recommended a low-fat diet to prevent cancer.

All of this is interesting on its own but there are obvious parallels with global warming. In the case of warming, the confident voice belongs to Dr. James Hansen of NASA. In 1988 he convnced Congress that global warming was not only real, it was responsible for a heat wave gripping the country at the time. Congress authorized millions (which has since grown into billions) for research. If cascades can happen on their own, imagine the influence of so much cash.

Then there is the "reputational cascade". The background of anyone skeptical about global warming is examined to see if the skeptic ever received a penny from an oil company. If he did then he is denounced as an oil company mouthpiece and ignored.

The existence of the cascade effect does not prove the global warming is not happening but it should serve as a warning against placing too much faith in scientific consensus.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Obama's flameout

Last Spring things looked great for Barack Obama. He not only raised a lot of campaign money, the number of people donating implied that he had deeper support than Hillary. Polls showed Hillary ahead but he was close behind.c Also important, he came out better in match ups against potential Republicans. Hillary has strong voter negatives. All he needed was for Hillary to stumble and he would be in the White House.

Even the questions about him being "black enough" seemed to exist just to convince whites that he wasn't "too black".

But it is Obama who has stumbled. He had falled much further back in the polls. His fundraising is falling way behind Hillary.

A couple of weeks ago I pointed out his proposal for reworking the Income Tax. While some candidates can ride a major proposal into the White House, it is a danger sign when an established candidate suddenly starts coming up with major proposals. It is a sign that his support is failing and is desperate attract attention.

That brings us to Obama's proposal for a world-wide elimination of nuclear weapons. Every nation with nukes would destroy them but retain enough technical knowledge to re-arm if needed.

I have a one-word answer for why this will not work - smallpox.

Smallpox was eliminated world-wide as a contagious disease in the 1970s but the USA and the USSR kept small supplies in their biological weapons labs. In the 1980s it was proposed that these should also be destroyed but they never were. Neither side trusted the other. Both were sure that the other side would cheat and hold back a sample.

The same will be true with nuclear weapons. Most countries will not disarm because they don't trust the other side to disarm.

Obama should know that. Either he is playing to the extreme anti-war wing of the party or he is dangerously naive. Either way, this probably disqualifies him as a vice-presidential candidate as well as a presidential candidate.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Selective Outrage

After getting whipped over MoveOn's Betray Us  ad, the left has come back swinging. Based on a Media Matters report that claimed Rush Limbaugh says that any Iraq veteran who opposes the war is a "phony soldier", they are trying to equate the two.

The trouble is that this is not what Rush said. A caller was complaining about the peace groups promoting "anti-war veterans who came out of nowhere" and Rush added "the phony soldiers". Rush has said several times since then that he was referring to literal phony soldiers, people who pretend to have been to Iraq but have not. From the context, it is clear that this is what he meant. Rush has a long history of supporting troops.

Of course, no one on the left wants to hear the truth. As the movie quote goes, they can't handle the truth (more accurately, they can't use the truth). Not only does it help them defend against MoveOn by saying that the right is just as over the top, it also helps their on-going campaign against Rush. Here is just one example.

The attack on Rush is not likely to work. He has a good defense and his network is supporting him. I suspect that this will go into the left's collective memory to be pulled out as an example of how the right does not really support the troops.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Memogate resurfaces

A couple of weeks ago Dan Rather filed suit against CBS over the incident known as Memogate or Rathergate. The whole incident shows what is wrong with the mainstream media.

First a recap.

When George W Bush ran in 2000 it didn't matter much that he had been in the National Guard instead of going to Viet Nam. Bill Clinton had never been in any version of the military. Al Gore had been in the Army and had served in Viet Nam, but he was in a non-combatant role as a reporter covering an engineering group. Regardless, Bush's National Guard service was a red flag for CBS producer, Mary Mapes. She was sure that the only people allowed to get into the Guard during Viet Nam were the children of the rich and influential. She investigated this and ran into a brick wall. People in the know insisted that there was no waiting line to be a fighter pilot in the Texas Air National Guard. The requirement for a college degree and the commitment for extra time in flight training was enough to keep down the number of applicants. Regardless, Mapes didn't believe what she was told.

Four years later, things were very different. The nation was at war and the Democratic candidate's platform mainly consisted of his three months in Viet Nam. Bush's opponents started looking into his military record more closely. The found some gaps in the documentation and started questioning if Bush actually put in his required time. The White House responded with pay records showing that Bush had been present, even if other records had been lost in the 30+ years interval.

This is where Mapes entered the picture again. She was approached by someone who said that he had memos showing that Bush should have been charged with being AWOL but was not because of his family's influence. CBS was only able to get copies of these memos. They were worried about other sources breaking the story first so they rushed through verifying the memos and aired the story.

Then all hell broke loose. It turned out that CBS's verification process had consisted of asking some handwriting experts if the signature was valid. No one had validated the memos themselves and CBS had been cautioned that a copy of a signature could never be 100% validated.

Worse, there were major problems with the memos. They appeared to have been written in Microsoft Office instead of on a 1970s era IBM Selectric. The officer whose name was on them had already retired and was in no position to apply influence at the time that the incident allegedly occurred.  There were many problems with terminology, abbreviations, etc. Conservative bloggers jumped on all of these immediately. By this time Dan Rather was involved and he publicly defended the documents and the story for several days until the mountain of conflicting evidence became overwhelming and they had to back off of the story.

To this day, Mapes and Rather insist that the story was accurate. They even insist that they could have run it without the memos. The fact that the evidence does not support their story without the memos escapes them. They don't realize that all they have is unfounded opinion and opinion cannot be reported as news.

But that's only the first problem. The second, more serious problem is the polarization of the news in general and CBS in particular. This story was not going to be released in a vacuum. The Kerry campaign had advance notice of it and planned a campaign contrasting Kerry's status as a war hero with Bush's status as a deserter. No one at CBS seemed to feel that this was wrong. Everyone in the newsroom believed in the story strongly enough that no one listened to concerns raised by the people hired to authenticate the documents. When the panel that CBS brought in to evaluate the story included someone of unimpeachable reputation but with ties to the Bush I administration, Rather called it a political hatchet job and refused to consider the findings.

Rather's suit has revived the story as a whisper campaign. I've seen several liberals agree with Rather and Mapes that the story was true but the focus on the forged memos poisoned the story so that no one will touch it in the future. Since this is being presented in blogs and opinion pieces, no proof is required or given (the exception is Media Matters' biased recap of the story).

The liberal spin of numerous stories has passed into the generally accepted version. It is accepted that the Swift Boat Veterans attack on Kerry was all lies and that the Republicans linked Max Cleland with Osama bin Laden. Bush's stint in the TANG is likely to be the next
 commonly accepted untruth.