Friday, August 24, 2012

Scientific Ignorance in Politics

Copyright DonkeyHotey at
I have said before that I can’t stand politics.  Politicians say and do anything to stay popular at any expense.  General elections that involve high profile national politics are particularly prone to outlandish comments.  Recently Todd Akin, a Missouri candidate for Senate, gave an interview where he stated that rape victim’s bodies had a way of avoiding pregnancy.  The resulting fallout was tremendous, and highly emotionally charged.  I’m not going to discuss the politics or my own beliefs regarding a highly controversial topic.  What I will discuss is the utter disregard for scientific facts that seem to find its way into the minds of this nation’s policy makers.

Senate Candidate Todd Akin - Missouri
During my career in emergency medicine, I had the occasion to help victims of rape and sexual assault.  I have a great deal of empathy for these people and the physical and emotional pain they have to endure.  The greatest concern for the female victims (contrary to popular belief, men can be victims too) is the threat of pregnancy and STDs.  In all my education in biology and physiology, I never learned of a process where a woman’s body would know the difference between forcible, and consensual sex.  Women can get pregnant after a rape.  People can also be given a sexually transmitted disease.  These situations leave lasting physical and emotional scars that can never be forgotten.  

For a politician to trivialize this horrible violent crime by qualifying his remarks with words like “legitimate” is patently offensive, and suggesting that a woman’s body would differentiate between forced and consensual conception demonstrates and unconscionable ignorance of scientific fact.  Any person who ignores science to justify a moral position is undermining their position.  Anyone who makes up scientific facts to support their position is a reprehensible person who should not be trusted.  Anyone who believes made up facts is a fool. 

Science is fact that is demonstrable, repeatable, and verifiable.  Scientific fact is not for convenience, but improves our knowledge of our universe.  When it is used to justify an agenda, it ceases to be credible science, and becomes emotionally charged propaganda. 

Propaganda is a tool used by politicians to justify their views, and improve their standing among similarly minded individuals.  It’s a sales tactic I learned in college (my minor was sales).  You give people information that sounds logical, and is difficult to disagree with.  The information doesn’t have to be true, just sound that way.  It plays on the fear of unwanted consequences, and gets people to agree with you.  The more people agree with you, the more popular you become.  The more popular you are, the more votes you get at election.  Use of “science” as propaganda offends me as much as any lie ever told.

Copyright mknobil at
Todd Akin isn’t alone in his academic ignorance.  Many people have started attacking tested scientific facts that have improved our society for hundreds of years.  I’m referring to vaccinations.  Politicians and celebrities have been using biased, discredited, and non-science to link vaccinations to mental conditions like autism.  There is not a single shred of evidence exists that proves that vaccinations cause any of the conditions that people have “linked” to this medical treatment.  There is, however, a mountain of evidence that demonstrates the effectiveness against devastating diseases like pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, hepatitis, chicken pox, small pox, and others.  Politicians use propaganda, not science, to appeal to people who object to vaccinations on either religious, philosophical, or fears based on ignorance. 

I can understand religious beliefs, and philosophical objections, but perpetuating ignorance by ignoring science that can be traced back to the early 1700’s is disgusting.  People who prey on the fears of others, and select only information that supports their agenda while ignoring pertinent facts, prevent any meaningful debate, and consequently, real progress.  

Using half-formed unscientific information is not new.  When I was a young boy, I remember being told the story of Chicken Little.  This folk tale has many variations, so people may have heard it differently than I did.  In the story, Chicken Little is standing under an apple tree, and is hit in the head by an acorn.  Not fully understanding what has actually happened, Chicken Little determines that the sky is falling, and the world is ending.  Chicken Little then runs around the barnyard and convinces everyone that the sky is falling.  They determine that they have to tell the king that the sky is falling, and venture off to do just that.  On the way, they meet a fox who dupes them into following him to his den on the guise of leading them to the king.  The animals are then eaten.  In my experience, politicians are like foxes, luring the gullible into liking them.

When people use science properly to make informed reasoned decisions, we can get effective change.  The problem is that getting reliable data necessary to make those decisions takes time.  Coming up with effective solutions requires people who understand the complexities of reality.  Everything is interconnected and interdependent.  For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  When people ignore this, they get unintended consequences.  When people make mistakes based on the best information available it’s understandable.  When they make mistakes based on ignorance or propaganda it is inexcusable.  

Regardless of a person’s religious or political beliefs, there are right and wrong answers.  No matter how a politician may hate the number 13, 5+8 will always equal 13.  The math doesn’t lie.  Regardless of how people feel about abortions, vaccines, evolution, or climate change, there are scientific facts that people ignore because it conflicts with their beliefs.  Instead of accepting facts, and reconciling them with their belief system, people spit out propaganda.  That is an irresponsible and morally reprehensible thing.  It is a lie.  Societies built on lies can’t survive.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Real Advantage of Mars Rover Curiosity

With the successful landing of NASA’s latest Mars Rover, Curiosity, we will now get to see a side of the red planet we’ve never seen before.  We will finally have data verifying if Mars has, or ever had complex organic life.  On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a good investment for the $2.5 billion spent on the project, but that would be discounting the other half of the mission.

Most of the attention surrounds Curiosity’s ability to analyze soil and rock samples for complex carbon compounds, but that isn’t what fascinates me.  The radiation detectors on the rover can tell us more about space travel, and living on Mars than anything ever sent into space.  Until now, we have only assumed that interstellar travel is safe, but we never understood just how much radiation the crew would be subjected to during an extended mission.  

Courtesy NASA
While it is true that we have sent manned missions to the moon, they have primarily been within the protective magnetotail of the Earth’s magnetic field.   This is because all Apollo missions were conducted to coincide with the full moon to optimize communication with the astronauts.  During that time, the moon is within the magnetotail, and therefore protected from the radiation normally associated with interstellar travel.   It is also true that several probes have been outfitted with instruments that detect radiation, but none within the protective shell of a space capsule.  Curiosity changed all that.  

While en route to Mars, NASA engineers turned on Curiosity’s radiation detector to see how much radiation would actually penetrate the protective walls of the capsule carrying the rover.  This allowed Curiosity to simulate the environment an astronaut would encounter on the same trip.  During this time, the sun had a number of X class solar storms that affected the capsule.  The data is invaluable for manned missions.

The true test of this ability will occur over the next two years.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog, Mars does not have a magnetosphere.  This means that anyone who ventures onto the surface will be exposed to more radiation than found here on Earth.  Curiosity will tell us exactly what that exposure will be.  This is vital, because we have only had rough estimates and guesses until now.  Without reliable data, we could be taking unnecessary risks with future manned missions.  We could discover that manned missions are too dangerous to send people for any length of time, or we could find out that the exposure is far less than we expected.   The point is that we wouldn’t know for sure without Curiosity’s radiation detectors.

I am not trying to detract from Curiosity’s primary mission, which is to check for carbon-based compounds.  There are profound implications if it succeeds in confirming the existence of organic organisms.  If there ever was life on Mars, it could have decomposed into oil.  It could also raise serious issues for any astronauts.  We could be exposed to new and highly lethal organisms, which could make the astronauts sick, or even kill them.  These could pose a problem if they were brought back to Earth.  Then there is the ethical issue of seeding a planet with earth organisms if we were to colonize Mars, and begin agriculture on the surface.  It all depends on what we find.

The other question would be if Mars seeded Earth with life, or vice verse.  We could eventually understand the process of how life begins on a planetary scale.  This isn’t as impressive as the information Curiosity will tell us about Martian resources.  The rover has the most sophisticated suit of instruments ever sent to analyze Martian soil.  It will tell us more about the chemical makeup of the planet than any previous rover has.  

NASA Curiosity Mission Controller's Celebrate. Courtesy NASA 
With all the talk and speculation of manned trips to Mars, we have very little practical information to help make the informed decisions necessary for success.  Curiosity is the key to the future of our manned space program.  With all that’s at stake with this mission, I think we owe the EDL engineers a debt of thanks.  They were innovative, and solved one of the most difficult problems involved with getting to Mars, which is safely landing.  Now we just have to stand back and see what Curiosity can tell us about our little red neighbor.

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Word on Climate Change

Petermann Glacier Courtesy NASA
For most people the words Global Warming are very politically charged.  There are people who insist that it is going to be the end of the world, and others who, flat out, deny it exists.  Most people don’t really understand the science behind it, and, therefore, don’t really bother to look at the facts.  I have relatives that get most of their information from political pundits (as opposed to actual scientists), and base their opinion off arguments that draw primarily on emotional, or tangential argument, not science.  

Before I go on and elaborate, understand that I am not approaching this from a political standpoint (although it has political implications).  I don’t much care for politics, and can understand both sides of the issue.  This is incredibly complex, and there isn’t ONE way of addressing the issues.  I also understand that there are some people who are incredibly passionate about the idea of climate change, and won’t alter their opinion (no matter what evidence is presented).  I am not trying to change anyone’s mind.  I'm also not going to go into great detail about this topic.  As it is, this article is 2,500+ words, and the subject is far too complex to adequately discuss in that amount of time.  I am just going to broad-stroke it for now.

As I was saying, there are two sides to the political aspects of this debate, and each has valid points to their argument.  I’m not going to take sides as to who is right or wrong, or negate someone’s opinion.  What I can’t stand is when people drown out dissenting views, because it becomes a matter of “I’m right and you’re wrong”, and that means that no one will have a rational discussion, and nothing is done.    

What I will say is that ignoring science (such as North Carolina has recently done) is asking for trouble.  But, more on that in a minute.

Let’s start with the simple fact that I’m not an expert in Climatology, or Meteorology (although my grandfather was a National Weather Service station chief, and respected Meteorologist, expertise is not inherited).  My interests are primarily Astrophysics, Astronomy, and Theoretical physics, but I read up on all kinds of science.  As far as weather is concerned, I remember watching my grandfather release weather balloons every day.  I didn’t really understand much of what they measured then, but I was always loved watching them rise into the upper atmosphere.  When I was in ground school, training to be a pilot, weather was one subject I struggled with, but I did learn a few things about our atmosphere.  I am using that knowledge to formulate my opinion.

Meteorology and Climatology are relatively modern disciplines.  Cultures throughout history have recorded weather, but not as dutifully as they have since the Industrial Revolution.  In 1850, scientists started recording temperatures on a global scale, and gradually added more weather data as technology progressed.  They use this data to try to forecast weather as far out as they can.  They noticed a steady increase in the average global temperature, both on land, and in the temperature of the water.  This is not something that people really dispute.  After all, how hard is it to record a number off a thermometer?  

That is exactly what they have been doing.  Every day someone will get up and record the temperature several times a day.  As technology has improved, they have been able to gather increasingly accurate information from more sources.  That information is taken and compared to data recorded as far back as possible.  Scientists can then use this information for a variety of practical applications, such as determining what kind of crops will grow best, and how long they can be grown.  With enough years, you can get a feel for when to plant crops, or buy snow shovels.  This is the most basic measurement that has been used to forecast the weather since before Benjamin Franklin first published Poor Richard’s Almanac.  By measuring, both air and water temperatures for over a century, people have come to an inescapable conclusion that Earth is warming.

Granted we aren’t talking a huge amount (1.44° degrees F, 0.8° C according to a 2006 NASA statement) * additional side note - there were other places that gave a slightly higher readings, but I am choosing a reliable conservative reading*, so we aren’t talking a lot...BUT....  

 Think about temperature on a grander scale.  What do you consider a livable temperature?  Some people like it warm and others (like me) like things a little cooler.  I like my temperatures in the 70’s (all temperatures in Fahrenheit), but I have a friend who likes his in the 90’s and 100’s (I start dying after 85°).  According to NASA, the average temperature of Earth is 59° F, but it can swing wildly to both extremes.  The highest ever recorded was 159.26° F (in Iran by the way), and the coldest was -126.58° (Antarctica...shock!).  That means that there can be a difference of 285.84° degrees!  Suddenly 1.44° raise doesn’t sound so horrible, after all, that means the average Earth temperature would be 60.44° F, and that doesn’t sound so bad...does it?  

Think of a refrigerator.  There is only a narrow margin, 10° degrees or so, where food can be kept without freezing or becoming a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.  Too cold and everything freezes (frozen lettuce just isn’t ever going to be good).  Too warm, and you’ll be driving the porcelain bus home, courtesy of Salmonella and E-coli (it could even kill you in the process).  One or two degrees might not sound like much, but since it’s a fairly precise average, it’s a LOT bigger than it sounds.   

This is where we go back and remember that statistics class that most people didn’t take.  If you were awake in class, you would have learned about standard deviations (that pesky plus or minus thing they always use when reciting political poling numbers).  This tells how accurate the number is, based on the sample size.  In the case of polling registered voters to quantify the popularity of a political subject, they don’t call every registered voter, but a small sampling of registered voters.  The reality is that even if you could poll every registered voter, you would arrive at any given conclusion after a certain number of results were recorded.  Depending on what the questions, people, and geographic area they will arrive at the desired statistic after a certain number has been reached.  Coincidentally this is how TV ratings are done.  Usually, for a national poll, this number is about a thousand.  If you did poll every person, the answer would be fairly close to the one obtained by the sample size, but it wouldn’t be exact, so that’s why there is a ± symbol used to denote accuracy, the lower the number, the greater the accuracy.  

When you have data, like temperatures that people have been entering into computers for years, the computer doesn’t need to take a sample.  It has all the raw data, and it can analyze it to a staggering degree.  Every possible combination can be calculated, and spit out in a relatively short amount of time.  If all the data is input, the measurements become very precise, and the facts are inescapable.  In this case, the Earth is warming, even if we don’t want to admit it.  The numbers don’t lie.  
Granted there is an argument that the precision of the readings has changed over the years, but that argument is statistically moot in this case.  This is due to the sheer volume of data, and the reliability of the sources used.  In the case of NOAA or NASA, the information came from official sources.  Even when the readings were made by a human with an old fashioned mercury thermometer, the readings were taken by people trained how to take exacting measurements on the most accurate equipment available.

Where this becomes political, is what people believe/guess will happen with that 1.44° F rise.  People on both political sides are debating the causes and outcomes.  I’ve heard all the arguments, and I’m here to tell you that those who say it isn’t happening are basing their opinion on emotion based politics, NOT science.  I am also going to state that anyone who asserts that humans are not a major source of greenhouse gasses (particularly CO₂), are also basing their conclusions on an emotional argument, and not scientific fact.  I, however, am not saying that the world will end, or that we have trashed our planet beyond repair.  Anyone who is fear mongering is also, basing his or her argument emotion.  HOWEVER, that fear is reasonable IF nothing is done to correct the issue.  

If you recall from an earlier blog I mentioned that to terraform Mars there has to be resources available to perform the terraforming.  Earth has more than adequate resources to alter our planet’s atmosphere.  We ARE terraforming our planet, but not in a constructive way.  Vehicles, power generation, manufacturing, agriculture, and our own human existence put CO₂ into the air.  We measure the emissions from all of these sources by the TON, and that is on top of nature sources. 
Now if we omit the influence of man-made technology, natural forces and all life on this planet couldn’t alter our atmosphere to the point of no return, or we wouldn’t be here.  Earth does a great job of cleaning up our mess, but we are the Earth’s messy little children that dump flour everywhere, scribble on walls, and use excremental finger-paint on every surface imaginable.  Fortunately for us, the current scientific findings released by scientists working for NOAA confirm that the planet is managing to keep processing CO₂ in ‘sinks’ around the globe (the ocean being a huge one).  The caveat is that we know it isn’t able to handle all the greenhouse gases, AND we don’t know exactly how much the world can process without causing irreparable harm.

As a global civilization, humanity needs to drastically curtail its output of man-made greenhouse gases.  These include Carbon Dioxide (CO₂), Methane (CH₄), Nitrous Oxide (N₂O), and Ozone (O₃).  It is unreasonable to believe that complete elimination is possible, but we can certainly reduce our output.  The major problem is, if one or two countries acting aren’t enough to make an impact.  Every country in the world must agree to significantly reduce the total amount produced.  This is the point where the issue runs into stiff political resistance.
In order to reduce the emissions enough to have an impact, significant sources of greenhouse gasses have to agree to limit the amount they produce.  The largest man-made source of these emissions is the burning of fossil fuels.  Sources like oil, coal, gasoline, and natural gas are all burned to provide energy that powers our global economy.  Our economy is so dependent on fossil fuels that if we suddenly couldn’t use them our society would literally come to a grinding halt. 

The economic collapse wouldn’t be limited to one small region, but would affect the entire world in an apocalypse unlike anything in history.  It would be like a car crashing into a wall at 120 mph.  It would be a disaster of epic proportions.  Global famine, war, disease, depression, starvation, riots, and political upheaval would be inevitable.  The suffering, death, and chaos that would ensue would be of biblical proportions.  No one, in their right mind, wants that to happen.

Unfortunately, if we ignore the problem we could have a disaster that could wipe out civilization entirely.  The worst-case scenario has polar ice caps melting and flooding coastal regions to the point that many cities, towns, and even entire countries could become uninhabitable.  Commerce would grind to a halt.  Storms could be so frequent and intense that millions could die.  Homes and businesses would be destroyed.  The worst that could happen would be that the atmosphere could have a runaway greenhouse effect that could turn our atmosphere into something more like Venus (where the average temperature is more than 800° F).  

Granted those are the absolute worst case scenarios and we are nowhere near the point where they will happen... yet.  However, we can’t bury our heads in the sand and hope the problem goes away, or that someone else will take care of it.  That will only make the problem and, as a result, the consequences much worse.  Like some co-eds that had an overflowing toilet my first year in college.  It was just before Christmas.  They didn’t know what to do, and didn’t want to deal with it, so they closed the door and just let it run.  When people returned from the break, more than nine apartments were flooded, destroying thousands of dollars in property.  Why wait until something is a catastrophe when you know about it and can do something to fix it?

One of the reasons why North Carolina passed a law making it illegal to make policy based on the current climate science, is the impact it would have on current, and future, real estate developments.  Developers stood to lose millions if they weren’t allowed to move their projects forward.  Insurance rates would certainly skyrocket if flood plains were updated with current predictions.  All of that has a significant economic impact.  With the current economic crisis, (I seriously doubt we are out of this “recession/depression”), every avenue of economic prosperity has to be taken.  The only problem with that is ignoring the issue only makes matters worse if the predictions are accurate.  What happens when an Oceanside home, business, or development gets completely flooded or washes away?  It could bankrupt individuals, and companies on an epic scale.  

When I was a photojournalist, I met an elderly couple who lost their home to a once in 500-year flood.  The only thing that hadn’t fallen into the river was, literally, their front door.  The man lamented to me that all he had left was a $300,000 mortgage on a front door.  The rest of his house was 40 feet below in the river.  What do you say to people who just lost everything they worked so long and hard to obtain?  Somehow, a sympathetic “I’m so sorry” doesn’t quite cut it.  At the same time, how can we justify doing nothing when it is so clear that we need to act?  

Even though it may difficult, and initially expensive we need to start making the investment in our future.  Everyone in the world has to do their part, and a comprehensive plan has to be ironed out.  People need to stop basing their arguments on emotional nonsense, and rely on scientific facts.  Reasonable solutions, that don’t bankrupt civilization or ignore the problem, need to be implemented.  People have to get used to the idea that not everyone will be happy, but we have to compromise to make the world better for everyone.  Unfortunately, I’m afraid that is an impossible dream.  There is simply too much money involved, and, sadly, money governs everything in this world.   

In the end, I am afraid society's obsession with money could lead to its eventual destruction.