I became insane with long intervals of horrible sanity.
Edgar Allen Poe

The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.
- H. L. Mencken

Many people would sooner die than think; In fact, they do so
-Bertrand Russell

What I have been telling you, from alpha to omega, what is the one great thing the sigil taught me — that everything in life is miraculous. For the sigil taught me that it rests within the power of each of us to awaken at will from a dragging nightmare of life made up of unimportant tasks and tedious useless little habits, to see life as it really is, and to rejoice in its exquisite wonderfulness. If the sigil were proved to be the top of a tomato-can, it would not alter that big fact, nor my fixed faith. No Harrowby, the common names we call things by do not matter — except to show how very dull we are ...
-James Branch Cabell

March 27, 2012 - 10:40 a.m.

Democracy in the Age of Science

I actually got some work done on my fantasy baseball team yesterday. I wish my printer at home was working, that would make things much easier. I'll have to start printing things out at school now but that's black and white. I like color coding things. At least I'm doing some research. Well OK I'm putting things in order to do research. I have a list of the current free agents in the league. I have to find a way to revise the list and keep my notes on the players I already researched.

Remember how I was going to go on a shopping expedition yesterday? I never made it. I find it too hard to motivate myself to take the bus shopping when it's so easy to do most of my shopping after school at Trader Joe's. The problem is that I'm running out of some things that I like to buy at Stop and Shop. I stopped by the local Key Food and figured I'd pay a bit more for lower quality for the convenience but they didn't even have chicken thighs which is the main meat I was looking for.

I didn't do much else yesterday so you'll get to read what I've been thinking about. It looks like it is going to be politics.

Geraldo Rivera put a lot of the blame for the shooting of Trayvon Martin on Trayvon's hoodie. Is he in "say the stupidest thing contest?" He says people that see a hoodie think, "criminal." I think, "That's what I wear." I bet everyone one of My Gentle Readers that has seen me in person has seen me in a hoodie. I certainly wear one every evening at Falcon Ridge when it cools off. OK so I didn't put the hood up this year but that was probably the only time I hadn't at Falcon Ridge. I wear a hoodie most days in the spring and fall and often in the winter and I often have the hood up. I pretty much always do at home. I do right now.

The big theme I've been working on is how a democracy, our democracy, deals with scientific and technical issues. You often hear my rants about how my students don't understand basic concepts like fractions. Yes I don't have the best students but they are not exceptional in this.

When I tell people what I do the most common responses are "Math was my worst subject" and "I hate math." What does this have to do with democracy? So many issues involve science and math is vital to understanding science. It goes beyond that, even if it doesn't look like you are using math you are using the same kinds of reasoning. So when it comes to something like global warming how are people making their decisions? The deniers are almost all ignoring the science but do most of the people who want to do something about it basing their decisions on anything more rational? Do you know what makes you take your position? Did you think it out? I'm a geek I've been thinking about this stuff all my life. I was worrying about it as a kid in the 60s from reading things from the early 20th century. I also got teased for being a geek and reading things like that. The thing is I wasn't reading political advocacy pieces, just basic science. Here is the summary of the summary of the summary of the people affecting the climate through the greenhouse effect.

The temperature of an object is determined by when the amount of energy coming in equals the amount of energy going out. For an object in space, like the earth all the energy going in and coming out is essentially radiated. The energy coming in is determined by how much sunlight reaches the earth's surface where it is absorbed. This is affected by things like cloud cover and ice caps which reflect must of the energy back into space. The warmer an object is the more it radiates and at frequency it radiates is higher. An object at temperatures people can live in mainly radiate at infrared, which is lower frequency than visible light. If things get hot enough this changes and they glow. The hotter it gets the brighter it glows and the closer to blue the color gets.

There is also chemistry involved. Some things are transparent to some frequencies but not others. The one that gets the most attention is carbon dioxide. It is transparent to visible light, where the sun radiates, and absorbs infrared. That lowers the amount of energy radiated so the temperature rises. That is uncontroversial basic physics. If that is wrong then we have to start science over from scratch. It would mean throwing out the best tested scientific theories.

Burning fossil fuels puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So more infrared is absorbed so the temperature rises; QED.

Now there are other things that can compensate for it. Raising the temperature evaporates water and so increases cloud cover so decreasing the energy coming in. It also decreases ice cover increasing the energy coming in. It stimulates plant grown which absorbs carbon dioxide. You can go on like that forever but the thing is there is no a priori reason to think that things would balance. The one systematic change adds to the carbon dioxide. And of course that is exactly what has been observed. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is skyrocketing at rates not seen in millions of years.

So that's the basic argument. It's enough to make a prima facia case but of course is not complete. The deniers will look for any little flaw or counter argument in an attempt to prevent people seeing the forest for the trees. So how are you supposed to decide? Yes you could educate yourself on the basic science. And that is exactly what you should do. And reading this doesn't count. Reading what's in some advocacy piece doesn't count. The deniers have their advocacy pieces too. It means doing real work and doing real research. And that's great for you, My Gentle Intelligent Dedicated Readers. It is not realistic to think that most people will do that though. And yes that includes you and me.

So what are we to do? That's what I've been worrying about. I try to see what I do. I have a scientific background and more importantly a grasp of the methods. One thing is to look at predictions. You can't fake those. The predictions were that global carbon dioxide would go up and with them the temperature. That is exactly what happened. That's a major victory. Explaining the increases after the fact by other methods is ad hoc. Watch the predictions.

Learn who to trust. You can't study everything in depth but examine some things and see whose reasoning and methods hold up. That's what I've done on economics and why I'm so fond of Paul Krugman. He made good predictions. He doesn't make things up out of air. It of course helps that I can follow his math. But you can still see how often he was right before the fact. Not afterward.

And learn to trust science. There is a there, there; with objective criteria. It isn't polemics. It isn't people saying anything to make a name for themselves. When science is bogus it is discovered and people's reputations are tarnished. Think of Pons and Fleishman and their claims for cold fusion. Think more recently to the discovery of neutrinos going faster than the speed of light. That would have meant totally rewriting physics. It was exciting and a sure Nobel Prize if true. The thing is hardly anyone thought it would hold up because it did go against everything we knew. Even the discoverers knew that. Guess what it proved an experimental error. You can't make a career on making things up ... unless you have well heeled people willing to finance you to carry out their political agenda.

Instilling a respect for the process of science is the best solution I can come up with. If there is a consensus then it isn't a hoax. It would have to involve far too many people to be a working conspiracy. So that's the level of research you need to do.

One thing you'll find is that things are not usually categorical; they aren't good or bad. They have good and bad points and the key is to not ban or blindly accept policies but to find the balance point. It isn't about winning but about finding the best solutions. Someone was shocked when they found out that while I was against fracking in the New York watershed I wasn't against it everywhere. There are huge benefits to fracking. We can replace far dirtier fuels with natural gas. That's a good thing and so it is fine for it to entail some costs. The question is how much? That means studying and regulating, not reflexive banning. And yes that is subject to change as we learn more. We can't blinding trust the people making profits off it. There is far too much motive towards mendacity. On the other hand it doesn't mean we have to give in to the Frankenstein complex; "there are some things man is not meant to do." How many of you have seen the film of the guy that puts a match to his faucet and it catches fire? How many of you heard the truth that it had nothing whatsoever to do with fracking? His well is on top of a natural gas supply and it leaked in. That happens. What we need to do is learn with an open mind, not try to win people over emotionally and ignore the facts.

Here is a list of some political issues which require math and science to understand.

Economics, public health, private health, genetic engineering, evolution, judging the effectiveness of teachers, school curricula, Iran's nuclear capabilities and the effectiveness of intervening.

I"m not giving any opinions on these. that's not the point. I'm trying to get you to think about what to do, not just pick your favorite point on the political spectrum.

I'm not happy with this but I'm hungry so I'll leave it. Tonight I'm hearing great music and eating barbecue. You'll enjoy reading about that more.

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Horvendile March 27, 2012
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