A geoengineering teaser

So, just read the "News and Views" piece in Nature Geoscience (Vol.1, (644), 2008; doi:10.1038/ngeo326) called "Climate change: Cool spray" by Heike Langenberg. I can't spend the time to really get into it, but I certainly will in the short term. The article simply reports some ideas presented by John Latham in two papers in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0137; 2008, and Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0136; 2008). According to Langenberg, Latham proposes as a low-cost geoengineering fix to anthropogenic global warming the injection of sea salt into the marine boundary layer. This takes advantage of the Twomey effect, whereby additional condensation sites lead to smaller cloud droplets which reflect a higher fraction of incident light (a cooling effect).

Okay, well, I haven't read the papers yet, but I will. And since this is one of those areas where I know something, I should be able to address some of the issues that this plan raises. As has been pointed out regarding other geoengineering ideas, this one is fundamentally a shortwave effect, while the global warming is a longwave one. That means that the crux of the plan relies on reducing the total energy in the climate system, probably by using thin ribbons of clouds over subtropical oceans. Meanwhile, outside of those regions, the same sunshine comes in, and the same CO2 is sitting in the atmosphere, and presumably there's still enhanced water vapor. The effect of those clouds is to change the surface temperature beneath them, creating temperature gradients in the surface air temperature and sea surface temperature. This perturbs the low-level circulation. The low level circulation moves some energy around, but the majority of the north-south energy transport in the climate system is accomplished through storms grabbing energy from the low latitudes and moving it northward. So depending on the placement and extent of this cloud shield, the effects on both the low-level wind field and the indirect effect on the storm tracks will significantly alter the naive expectation that reflecting more light back to space will offset human-induced warming.

But more on the details in a future post.


Great animation about climate change

Wake Up, Freak Out - then Get a Grip from Leo Murray.

Wake Up, Freak Out - then Get a Grip from Leo Murray on Vimeo.

I saw this posted on Grist, and thought it was pretty cool.

I'm not a fan of the "tipping point" argument, actually. Not that I don't believe there are tipping points, but just because I don't know how to really quantify the risk they pose. We don't know where the tipping points are, but we do know about the mechanisms of adverse amplifying feedbacks in the climate system that could introduce these tipping points. I'm interested in the physical processes, and trying to quantitatively understand their impact on the climate system.


Turbulent times at the science-public interface

I read a fair number of climate-related blogs. One of these days I'll try to get some kind of "blog roll" going on the side of the page. In the meantime, there's a small box over there that has items I'd like to share, not always science related, but things I found interesting. Anyway, I sometimes get frustrated with these blogs because it seems like most of their effort is to address/attack/debunk/explain the climate change skeptics/sceptics/deniers/inactivists. This seems less and less useful to me, for a couple of reasons. First, there just aren't that many of those deniers out there that can make waves in the media with anything close to a reasoned argument. Second, just going point by point through their "arguments" to show why they are wrong appears to me to be a weak form or rhetoric. Actually, this is a major problem with the democratic party, too, as they seem to just respond to the outlandish attacks of the republicans.

I think this topic has been addressed in excruciating detail in the climate-blogosphere recently... I should have links to Mooney and other here, but I'm just riffing today. There were a lot of posts about whether or not to directly address the deniers, or whether it was counterproductive. Today I think it is largely counterproductive.

Not to say that these idiotic arguments shouldn't be ripped apart, they should, but we don't need 50 blogs all ripping apart one obscure denialist's claims, as it really just gives them much more "credibility." For example, this weird person that as far as I've seen is only working in the blogosphere and only goes by the name "lucia." She's making all kinds of noise, and because places as high profile as realclimate and deltoid spend time on her, I think she's attracted quite a following. This despite the fact that she is unable to present a reasoned argument that actually answers a question (a recent post by Grumbine demonstrated this).

This is just a bit of a rant, I guess. My point is that I'm now feeling more strongly that refutations of these arguments should simply be compiled in some climate science wiki, where all the people who feel compelled to add their take on a denialist claim should be allowed to add their part. The blogs themselves would be much more interesting if they would start explaining the science of climate change (or impacts of climate change) without the obligatory strawman provided by denialist claims.

From the point of view of marketing climate science and the general findings of the field (e.g. the IPCC report), there need to be stronger statements of the things we know, worded without our normal scientific, passive, conservative language. I've recently seen more of this, even in the recent report on severe weather and climate change, but communication to the public needs to be better. Yes, it probably has to be dumbed down, meaning less nuance and fewer caveats, which as scientists we don't like. However, the public is bombarded with too much information, and the average American is undereducated in basic science, so we have to develop a language to communicate that we are certain that humans are causing climate change, and there are severe risks involved in doing so. And this has to be done without being condescending. Again, this is exactly what the democrats need to do. We need those lists of talking points that the conservative think tanks cook up and distribute. It's sad, and I don't like it, but is there any other way to do it? The ideal way would be to ground all Americans firmly with rational thought and basic science, but that is long-term and probably unrealistic. *Sigh*

Haven't other fields gone through all this? What about AIDS research? Tobacco causing cancer? Evolution, obviously. Stem-cell research... Why can't we start talking amongst ourselves about dealing with the public and the press, without getting bogged down in the details of our own fields? Climate science needs to look to these examples, get the people who have experience, and ask for advice.

[UPDATE: A related post today from Grumbine, discussion versus debate.]


Endangered Species Act to be undermined by new rules

This is outrageous. The Bush administration is trying to introduce some kind of executive rule that would allow federal agencies to conveniently ignore the impact of projects on endangered species. Not only that, but the new rule would apparently ban federal agencies from assessing the greenhouse gas emissions from projects. You need to go read the story, there's one at Yahoo!. There are some additional reactions at gristmill.

I suppose that some might believe this argument that the current system is bloated and that federal agencies really can do their own assessments. However, the idea of independent review is so fundamental to science, and is so successful, that to just throw it aside for an intrinsically flawed self-evaluation system seems ludicrous to me.

We'll see how this plays out. Whether my paranoid, leftist brain is overpowering my rational, pragmatic one will come clear in the coming weeks and months.


Newsflash? No. (again)

Well, in place of posting some hasty response to a story or new paper, I thought I'd point out that there's way more climate-related press these days than even a year ago. It's too much to ingest, much less to respond to it all. The press is saturated with climate, global warming, deniers/skeptics/inactivists, and all manner of good and bad reporting. Nothing new for some fields, though I think the climate science community is still learning to deal with so much attention. Maybe that is a good topic for a post in the near future... why do climate scientists STILL get abused by both the mainstream press and alternative press (on both sides of the issue)?

Anyway, here's a couple of recent stories.

First, the US government might believe in human-caused global climate change. LINK Didn't this happen years ago? Geez.

Apparently the army isn't waiting to see what the higher-ups say, because they're going green. LINK This is actually a pretty big story, as the army is a gigantic consumer of energy.

And a little good news, there's a lot more gorillas in the world than previously believed. LINK

A late addition, I just saw this news story about Plattner et al. who find that the "pipeline" or the "committed climate change" might be much longer than had been thought. LINK


Amplification of Cretaceous Warmth by Biological Cloud Feedbacks -- Kump and Pollard 320 (5873): 195 -- Science

A correction, I have read the Kump & Pollard paper [Amplification of Cretaceous Warmth by Biological Cloud Feedbacks -- Kump and Pollard 320 (5873): 195 -- Science], which I discussed a little yesterday.

I looked at it again briefly, and the main things to add are (1) their experiment is what I thought, which is that they artificially change the effective droplet radius. This is fine, as it is artificially prescribed anyway. And (2) they provide a reference for the assertion that DMS is the primary non-anthropogenic CCN. That reference is actually a perspective in Science by Andreae(DOI: 10.1126/science.1136529). I've just read that piece, which is interesting, but I feel is deeply flawed. Rather than pick it apart, let me just say that my primary concern is that it does not seem to give a broad overview of the current measurements, but cherry picks a few studies that may or may not be designed well enough to get at the points being made. In the end, the firm conclusion is that pre-human aerosol distributions, specifically CCN-sized aerosol, is very poorly understood, and that no good way to guess the concentrations has been devised yet. Good points, and that is all I have to say of that article.

More on CCN later though, as this is a good area to explore!


biology in climate models

Just read a quick blurb in Nature [link] that kind of rankled me. The writer, David Beerling, worries about the fidelity of biological processes in climate models. Fair enough. He cites interesting work by Kump & Pollard that suggest a deficiency in climate modeling of the Cretaceous period might be (partly) due to lower numbers of cloud condensation nuclei because phytoplankton are more stressed and produce less dimethylsuphide, producing more cloud cover but thinner clouds.

In the last paragraph, Beerling writes that the results are unsatisfying because "the effects of heat on biological aerosol emissions need to be better described in their model for it to generate really solid conclusions."

I hardly know where to start. I think the comment is fair to an extent, but perhaps misguided.

Starting from the Kump & Pollard paper, which I admit I haven't read yet, I am not convinced that there's much evidence for this biological effect. If they've artificially changed the aerosol concentration or the CCN concentration, then it's almost a foregone conclusion that there'll be big effects in the simulation. That's one of those parameters which, in most large-scale models, is not well constrained and is set to help make a reasonable current climate. That probably means that it could be adjusted to make a "reasonable" past climate, too, but knowing what that means is a different story. The second issue is whether DMS is really such an important source of CCN. I know it is a source, but does stressing phytoplankton really have so much influence on the mean cloud field?

For that matter, this affect would mostly influence regions of low, stratiform cloud. Other regions are probably not that influenced by modest changes in CCN concentration, as the low clouds are mostly convective anyway (and I'm guessing salt would be their main source of CCN -- I could be wrong). So the result is dependent on the way these clouds are parameterized as well as the assumptions about the biological processes influencing CCN. Sounds shaky. I'll look at that paper and post an update. If I can find anything, I'll also post something about the source for CCN, and whether DMS is really that important.

As for adding biology to climate models, I'm very hesitant about the issue. There are potentially important climatic feedbacks. And if we could construct models for the biological interactions, that would help with long-term climate simulations, especially for future climate change and paleoclimate simulations. It'd be great. We're at the very nascent stages though. Current generation climate models incorporate some kind of land model that has simple biology, and usually isn't interactive (meaning the plants don't respond to changing climatic conditions). The ocean usually has no biological model, but there are some marine ecosystem models that exist and are being tested for the next generation of climate models. The complexity ranges dramatically from very simple to quite complex, but there is still much debate about the results from models incorporating these ecosystem components. This is a slippery slope though. Adding ecosystem models seems like a great idea, but if they are true models with prognostic equations, it usually means more expensive simulations (more computer time, more storage, and more human time to analyze the output). And where do we draw the line? Phytoplankton respond not just to temperature and salinity, which are the state variables in ocean models, but also to light availability (varies with depth) and micro- and macronutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous. Should we have include nutrient models, or prescribe the nutrient distributions. Well, if we try to prescribe them, then there will be biologists who (rightfully) will say that the models are missing the feedback between changes in nutrients and biology, which propagates upstream to the rest of the climate model. If we do somehow include nutrient models (perhaps by making the biological production simple diagnostics from available nutrients), then geologists and geographers and social scientists will argue that the processes that are the natural and anthropogenic sources and sinks of nutrients are not properly represented. For example, factories and power plants emit a lot of sulphur, but there's a lot of variability among factories and power plants, as well as seasonal and daily cycles in their emissions. Do we need to simulate these cycles to properly represent the emissions to the atmosphere? If so, that would mean that for climate change simulations, we'll have to model the changing energy needs of populations, since that will impact the amount of emissions from the powerplants. Meanwhile, current climate models to not properly represent processes like wave breaking at the ocean surface which is probably one of the main sources of CCN over the ocean; when will we get to add this? For that matter, different kinds of aerosol have totally different properties as CCN, and what happens chemically to these things in cloud droplets can have an influence on future cloud evolution, so should our microphysical models incorporate the chemistry of individual chemical species within cloud droplets? How do we do that?

My point is not that we should not add more complexity to climate models, only that we don't know how to do it. Even if we stick to the ocean, ice, atmosphere, and land surface, we know we're missing huge chunks of well understood physics. To venture into the chemical and biological world, much less the anthropological, seem hasty at this point. I think we'll do it; I mean, it is being done, but we have to remember that climate models are tools for understanding the natural world. They won't be able to provide solid answers to questions without much thought; climate models can not be run as black boxes with the results taken as truth, no matter how much we add to them.


Impact of warming on insects and other ectotherms

There has been quite a lot of press coverage of a new paper in PNAS (doi:10.1073/pnas.0709472105) by Deutsch et al. about how global warming might affect land-based invertebrates. The paper is very short, and easy to understand, so I recommend it. It's actually a simple idea, based on empirically derived "fitness curves" for different organisms. As I read it, the story comes down to the fact that tropical temperatures don't vary much during the course of the annual cycle, while at higher latitudes it does. This has affected the organisms that live in these different climate regimes; tropical organisms have come to "expect" a small temperature variance, and don't do well when the temperature changes more than normal. Organisms from places with distinct seasons are more amenable to temperature swings. This has been derived empirically as these fitness curves, which are broad for extra-tropical organisms and narrow for tropical ones. An interesting characteristic is that the maximum fitness level comes at a temperature optimum, followed by a precipitous decline. So Deutsch and co-authors followed up on this, defining a "warming tolerance" and a "thermal safety margin," which just measure how close an organism lives to its maximum temperature tolerance and to it's optimal temperature, respectively. Then they apply a warming scenario to see what happens, and it turns out that tropical insects (the data they used), get pushed really hard compared with midlatitude insects. This is somewhat surprising, since the tropics don't warm as much as higher latitudes, but because the tropical organisms live so close to their maximum temperature already, they are heavily stressed by the more moderate warming. They extrapolate to a global scale of impact on insects, and then three extra classes (lizards, frogs, turtles). This part of the paper does not seem surprising after the initial analysis, though the extension to lizards, frogs, and turtles helps deliver the message.

We often hear about the impact of climate change on biology, ecosystems, etc., but we don't often see such a concise and simple, yet far-reaching and quantitative analysis of "impact." This paper stands out to me because of these traits, and gives an excellent example to use when discussing the importance of climate change beyond temperature, precipitation, etc.


Another example of what should have been done already

Today I read an article posted on Science Daily (Aerodynamic Truck Trailer Cuts Fuel And Emissions By Up To 15 Percent) that made me kind of upset. The story is about a new, more aerodynamic sideskirt design for truck trailers. The design reduces drag, and increases fuel efficiency by about 10%. That is great, right, so why am I so mad about it? Well, because this very small improvement could have been made years ago with little effort, but corporate inertia has kept this kind of innovation from being properly implemented. EVEN MORE EGREGIOUS though, is that there have been radically different designs for trucks for decades that could improve fuel efficiency by 25% WITHOUT CHANGING THE ENGINE. The design that I'm aware of is by Luigi Colani, who I've only become aware of recently by watching "Future Car" on the Discovery Channel. In the 1970s, Colani came up with a radically more aerodynamic truck design, which apparently sat on his shelf unimplemented for a couple decads. In 2001, he introduced a new design, this one 50% more efficient than conventional trucks, but still no one is building it or even stealing some of his ideas. Why? It doesn't make sense.

While I was trying to remember Colani's name, I found two examples of a "more efficient truck." First was just from a couple months ago. Navistar has introduced a new model called LoneStar, which is supposed to be 5-15% more fuel efficient than traditional trucks. The second was from 1995, when the US DOT gave an award to Kenworth for their T600A, which had been produced since 1985. The award was described by Barry Langridge, Kenworth's general manager, "It literally changed the face of the trucking industry forever by creating a new generation of fuel efficient trucks which have saved billions of gallons of fuel. The 70,000 T600s built since '85, when compared to non-aerodynamic conventional models, will save an estimated 1.25 billion gallons during their useful lives." As far as I can tell, these trucks still are getting 6-8 miles per gallon.

Also read a similar post at the "Our Futrure" blog, which sent me to the Colani site and echoes my lack of enthusiasm for current truck design.


recent deaths

I just wanted to note a rash of recent deaths of prominent scientists.

Arthur C. Clarke, writer and futurist, died at 90 years old on 19 March 2008. NYTimes Wikipedia

John A. Wheeler, physicist, died at 96 years old on 13 April 2008. NYTimes Wikipedia

Edward N. Lorenz, meteorologist and "discoverer" of chaos, died at 90 years old on 16 April 2008.

A couple of other notable deaths include:
David Gale, UC Berkeley mathematician, died at 87 on 7 March 2008. Frederick Seitz, physicist, died at 96 on 2 March 2008. Astronaut G. David Low died at 52 on 15 March 2008.

Two very different actors also recently died: Charlton Heston and Paul Scofield.


Science Debate 2008 - May in Oregon!?!

Obama has backed out of the debate scheduled for next week, and McCain and Clinton were non-committal. So organizers are trying to schedule the Science Debate for May in Oregon. [LINK].

Please visit the official Science Debate 2008 web site and find a way to support this important cause. Basic research funding, ethical stands on scientific/technological issues, and policy decisions that should be informed by scientific findings all need to be discussed in an open and fair forum, and the candidates must be expected to be knowledgeable, thoughtful, and articulate about how they will deal with science and technology in the next 4-8 years.

update: If you happen to be reading this and have any doubt that we need a president who cares deeply about science and technology, go read ScienceNOW's April Fool's day joke: Bush to Science: "Let's be friends". This is an official website under the American Association for the Advancement of Science! Can you imagine this kind of attitude from the mainstream scientific organizations with ANY OTHER ADMINISTRATION?

Brian Greene brings science to the masses?

I just saw a blurb in Science about the World Science Festival, which is apparently an attempt by Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe) and others to popularize science on a large scale. It seems like a good idea, and there look to be some really fun events. However, I do wonder about the effectiveness of making science a cultural event in the middle of New York City, where there are abundances of both cultural events and people interested in science. It will be nice to see such an effort in a less "sophisticated" place, even if it is a big city like Houston, Denver, or the Twin Cities: places that could reach large audiences that don't have such easy access to cultural and scientifically interesting events. Just a thought.


Leveraging the Amazon Kindle, some ideas

This is off-topic, but I just struck myself with a couple of simple ideas related to the Amazon Kindle. I'm sure you know, but just in case, go look at the Kindle, it's an interesting device that uses "E-Ink" to make it's display look a lot like an actual printed page. It connects wirelessly to a cell phone network to download books from Amazon, or I think it can be connected and synced with a library on a computer, or something like that. The important thing is that it's a small, lightweight device that can (apparently) successfully mimic the experience of reading a page from a physical book, magazine, or newspaper. People have responded pretty well to it, and today I noticed that Amazon has had supply issues because of the large demand. Great, but I'm not trying to advertise this device, which I've never even held in my hands, but really I'm trying to make the case that there is such a device and that it isn't horrible. Many people complain about reading text from monitors of any kind, TVs, computers, iPods/iPhones, etc, and that is why they always print things and carry around books and papers and such. The early success of Kindle shows there's a chance these people could be satisfied with a similar device, at least to some extent. This leads me to some obvious observations about the potential for such devices.

Go to a high school, or better yet, just go across the street from a high school when classes let out and students start pouring out from the school. Yes, you will probably be put on some kind of list with the local law enforcement, but do it anyway. You will see that kids are loaded with gigantic backpacks, hanging improperly from their shoulders. This was an issue when I was in school, and I've seen it recently enough that I know it still is. It isn't just teenage garbage that fills those packs, there are a bunch of heavy textbooks. In my days, I know that I often had to leave some books at school or home because I couldn't fit all my books in my bag every day; there are injuries due to heavy bags, which is just stupid. Many times, students take home textbooks just for a few pages, either of reading or homework assignments. Wouldn't it be convenient if they carried one "book" with them that had all their course material at the ready? A Kindle-like device would be perfect for this.

An added bonus is that if publishers work with the content provider (e.g., Amazon), then new editions of books, or supplements, or any number of extras could be provided to under-funded schools and students at minimal costs. Once the burden of putting ink to paper (incurring costs related to ink, paper, layout of presses, binding, packing, shipping, etc) is removed, the cost of materials drops dramatically. At higher education levels, this is even better, since small, esoteric books are really expensive, and authors don't make any money from them anyway, this could take the cost of such books to the floor, and college students, grad students, and professional researchers could actually afford to buy the books that are most useful to them (do you hear the frustration?). If you don't know what I'm writing about, go look at technical books in just about any field, for example, Cloud Dynamics by Houze costs $80+ on Amazon, which is a graduate/researcher level book that is really useful to a relatively small number of people. If we could just download it to our digital library, the cost SHOULD be dramatically reduced while still preserving the publisher's profit and the royalties that Houze gets (which I bet isn't much).

It would also be possible to self-publish under this model, so instructors could upload their class notes to some service which would make the download available to students. This might hurt copy stores, who make a lot of money by selling over-priced readers to students, but would be great for instructors and students.

Similarly, scholarly journals could use this distribution model very easily. They already have online subscription models, by which most people now go to a web site, find the article of interest and download the pdf of the article, which is then read on-screen or printed. This would be a natural extension of that model, and would reduce printing costs and wasted paper.

What needs to be done to make a Kindle-like device actually work for these educational and scholarly purposes? Very little. One potential gotcha is that the current E-Ink technology used in the Kindle does not allow color. This presents serious limitations compared to having a regular pdf or a printed book. This is especially true for high school and lower-level textbooks, which regularly rely on "creative" layout and color to "draw the student in." There is electronic paper with color already developed, however, so this might not be a deal-breaker (example).

The other technology-related speed bump is speed. One of the criticisms of the Kindle, and E-Ink in general, is that it is slow to render pages. I imagine the problem would be worse with graphics-heavy, color-intensive pages, so quick flipping back and forth would be a problem. And as we know, when doing homework or research, there are often periods of intense page flipping, searching for some specific passage or re-reading something that didn't register the first time. There are myriad potential solutions, from having a little screen-space for "saving" passages or efficient built-in searching, to more dramatic changes in E-Ink.

Other problems are design of the device, which would probably require different models catering to grade-school, high school, college, and professionals. No problem. Then there's the potential problem of getting publishers to embrace this model. They're apparently onboard with Kindle, Amazon offered 80,000+ titles when the Kindle was released, but it might be more difficult for the small publishing houses to deal with such a dramatic change in distribution. I don't know enough about publishing to really have a good guess, but we know the music and movie industries have basically freaked out and tried to avoid moving into a digital distribution framework. And then there is the cost of these devices, and how to widely distribute them to schools already strapped for cash. You can imagine the nightmare scenarios.

So at the end, I don't think any of this is new, and I'm sure it has all been discussed much more elsewhere, but I'm suddenly enamored with the idea of carrying a single "book" wherever I go, having all the books I need, and being able to buy technical books for a fraction of the current cost. Maybe this is an idea that a company like Amazon could actually pursue, too, since they probably have enough sway to get a school district to do a test program by providing Kindles and the textbooks needed (except it doesn't address the color problem yet). It would also help to raise a generation of people who don't "need" to have paper in front of them to read.


Here's some ideas to improve the Kindle, though I think there's a conflict with some of these suggestions and the E-Ink interface. That E-Ink technology is not as versatile as a lot of bloggers think it is.

Ouch! Here's Scoble on the Kindle, and he's pretty unhappy about the lack of design. Watch the video, I think these are good points that need to be addressed in this commercial form of the product, but also for some future educational applications.

Another overview of the Kindle, with some of the same criticisms. Down in the comments, someone suggests Kindle Textbooks as a good option for this technology, so at least someone else has thought of this.

Here's a post that thinks Kindle has a chance at textbooks.

There's a thread on the Amazon site about college texts on Kindle. There seems to be support for this, but the publishers aren't yet on board. I really don't think it'll work unless you can buy a textbook for, say $25, as opposed to the paper versions for $50-150. The idea of automatic updates to new editions (maybe with some sanity limits) is so sweet for the consumer that it'd sell Kindles alone. The publishers lose out though, except I bet they could increase their profit margins to make up the difference.


I found the included video from a lecture by Naomi Oreskes on Deltoid. You'll remember Oreskes from her Science article a while back in which she showed that there is strong scientific consensus in the belief that global warming is human-induced. In this lecture, she presents a very brief history of the science of global warming, doing an excellent job of going back to the very roots, and making the important point that scientists have predicted global warming for at least 50 years. A related point is that as time has marched on, the predictions have gotten more detailed, and they've shown to be true so far. I especially think back to the 1988 Hansen paper, which showed projections of climate change from numerical simulations, which has now shown to be a conservative estimate of the warming. In the second half of her lecture, Oreskes discusses the "denial of global warming." This goes back to that now familiar, but surprisingly recent, poll that most Americans still think there is scientific debate about whether global warming is human-induced (versus a "natural cycle" or such). Oreskes asks why this is, when scientists, as she has just shown, really reached consensus about global warming in the 70s/80s and about the cause of the warming in the mid to late 1980s. She traces the origins to the Marshall Institute, and a tactic she calls the "tobacco strategy." She traces the history of the Marshall Institute to its roots as a PR campaign to defend Reagan's star wars program: ultimately a conservative, anti-communist group. She follows the progression, and discusses Fred Singer and others, who have through the past two decades argued against scientific issues essentially to stop government regulation (and thus "creeping communism"). It's a very interesting presentation, clear and objective, and I think shows very well how the "tobacco strategy" has effectively misguided the American public through deliberate manipulation of mass media outlets.


Environmental Research Letters - Best of 2007

An e-mail I received today:

Environmental Research Letters (ERL) has just released the Best of 2007, a mixture of Perspectives and Letters that best represent the high quality and breadth of the contributions that were published last year in ERL, as chosen by the Editorial Board, guest editors and publishing team.

This special collection includes contributions to invited focus issues on Environmental Health and Justice, Northern Hemisphere High Latitude Climate Change, Tropical Deforestation, and Global Impacts of Particulate Matter Air Pollution, as well as an editorial from ERL's Editor-in-Chief, Professor Daniel M Kammen.

To read the ERL Best of 2007, visit http://herald.iop.org/ERL_Bestof2007/m261/crk//link/1319 where you can access the online table of contents or download the full pdf version of this very special collection.


Sex bias in peer review

I think this is an important issue, not just in terms of sex bias, but that the whole peer-review process could probably be improved.

This study (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2007.07.008) by Amber Budden at U. Toronto, suggests that female authors are more successful in a double-blind peer review process rather than the more conventional single-blind review.

Just to be clear, double-blind means that the author doesn't know who the reviewers are and the reviewer does not see the name or affiliation of the author(s). Single-blind means the author submits the paper and the journal/editor finds reviewers (the author doesn't know who they are), but the reviewers see the author's name(s). Almost every scientific journal uses this single-blind approach; for no good reason.

From where I sit, there seems no good reason to maintain this single-blind review process. Not only does it possibly discriminate against women, I think there are likely many more negative effects. The most obvious one is that "prestigious" scientists, those who might have published a lot or have contributed seminal work in a field, seem more likely to get through the process less critically. This is part because they are good scientists, of course, but it can also be because there really are not enough reviewers to go around, and much more junior scientists (sometimes grad students) end up reviewing papers. It is intimidating as an inexperienced scientists to be critical of work by someone you know/respect/fear/want-to-work-with/etc. Also, many sub-disciplines are populated by a fairly small number of experts, who end up being asked to review each other's papers all the time. This can go either way: people are likely to be extra critical of rivals and less critical of friends.

Recently, there has been some open discussion of the review process (e.g., DOI: 10.1126/science.319.5859.32b and DOI: 10.1126/science.319.5859.32c), which is good. However, I haven't noticed any large-scale call for double-blind review. This is amazing, since double-blind studies are a foundation of modern science. I honestly can't think of a single reason that every journal should not immediately switch to double-blind reviews.