A Study in Fahrenheit (The Weeks in Review, March 13 – 25)

Our treacherous refrigerator.

I reached into the freezer to grab one of the waffles. It compressed under the touch of my fingers. Frozen waffles aren’t supposed to do that. Frozen beets aren’t supposed to leak juice out of their sealed bags. Frozen mugs aren’t supposed to be half-liquid.

An application of a thermometer revealed what I dreaded. The freezer was hovering around 38F. The fridge compartment was at 45F. The refrigerator was not working right. I glanced at my watch. I had a few hours before my flight. That wasn’t enough time to do anything useful. So, I pulled the garbage can over and got to work disposing of food. All the dairy had to go. The bags of once-frozen vegetables had to go; such things don’t survive a thaw and a re-freeze. Before long, I had half-filled the garbage bin outside with ruined or highly questionable food.

This was the start of my trip to Argonne National Lab, back on March 14. Things got a lot better after that inauspicious beginning. My time at the lab was great, though bittersweet. My weekend when I returned home was a mix of yard work and fridge shopping. My return to SMU this past week was busy with a seminar and a prospective graduate student visit, as well as lunch with prospective SMU President’s Scholars interested in physics, math, or biology and biochemistry.

It was an interesting couple of weeks.

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Tips for Science Advocates

Many of the 2008 high-energy physics laboratory users who advocated for basic science research investment in a trip to Washington D.C. in 2008.

I spent a number of years in the early 2000s participating in yearly science advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill. As part of a team of high-energy physicists who would visit the Hill for two days, walking from building to building to meet with Members of Congress, I learned a few useful things about being an advocate for Federal support for basic science research. Now that Donald Trump’s administration has laid out the blueprint for their thinking on Federal spending – a blueprint that largely cuts, cuts, and cuts more at science agencies (with the notable absence of any mention of the National Science Foundation) – perhaps you are thinking about being an advocate for basic science research investment. After all, spending must originate in the House of Representatives, not in the Executive Branch. That’s the requirement of the Constitution. The President can make recommendations, but the House has all the power to initiate spending legislation and together, the Senate and the House control all the powers of the budget. Advocating NOW to steer the budget process in the House and Senate is the positive way to affect the process. Perhaps these tips will help.

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Anti-Steve: The Week in Review, March 5-12, 2017

To get to the Tri-Cities in Washington – Pasco, Richland, and Kennewick – you hop a flight in Seattle and make the short trip inland to a beautiful mountain-ringed desert plain.

This was quite a week! After last week’s near-exhausting onslaught of post-CERN jet lag and my student, J’s, PhD thesis defense (as well as a number of home repair and other such chores), this week I had something of a break to look forward to. Jodi and I are both on approved leaves from teaching this semester, and so we are spending a lot of time in the field – at laboratories and other institutions where our research is ongoing. I’ve been bouncing between SMU, CERN, and Argonne National Laboratory. Jodi is currently at about the mid-point of a 5-week visit to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA. I traveled here this week to visit her and spend some time relaxing a bit before I hit the road again for Argonne this week.

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EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Rejects that the Earth is Round – A Lesson in Two Parts

Part 1 – What he said

The flat earth of Pruitt’s imaginings.

CNBC’s program “Squawk Box” recently interviewed the new EPA chief, Scott Pruitt. In an exchange about the shape of the earth, Pruitt said this:

I think that measuring with precision the shape of the earth  is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the exact shape, so no, I would not agree that it’s round…  But we don’t know that yet. … We need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis. [1]

Part 2 – Wait, WHAT?

Did Scott Pruitt literally say this? No. He’d be a crazy person in the 21st century to insist that a planet around which humans have traveled for centuries, and which daily satellite images show us, has a shape unknown to us. He’d be out of his job in a second, his mental state called into question. “How can the earth be anything other than round when the overwhelming evidence says it’s round?” Believe it or not, there are still people who reject that the earth is round. But, of course, none of them have been Senate-confirmed as EPA Chief.

No, the above is parody, based on what he said in his interview about climate change with search-and-replace applied to remove the mention of climate change and exchange it with statements about the shape of the earth.

Instead, Scott Pruitt believes something that is equally scientifically invalid: that humans have no clear measurable impact on the earth’s climate, and that carbon dioxide (CO2) is not an established greenhouse gas capable of executing such change. This opinion is equally scientifically absurd to believing the earth is something other than an oblate sphere. While all opinions can be equally held, not all opinions are equally valid. The latter is a common misconception. You are free to hold an opinion, but the validity is to be determined by factors external to the person – for instance, evidence from the natural world that has been determined by some reliable methodology.

To a scientist – one, like me, who daily practices the scientific method, the best way we have of establishing reliable information about the natural world – hearing Pruitt’s words about human impact on climate and the role of CO2 in climate change is akin to hearing someone insist the earth is something other than round. It has the same jarring effect on a mind attuned to discerning fact from crap. My crap detector goes off so loudly it drowns out all other mental processes. I find this quite distracting. As you can imagine, this administration is generally quite distracting.

So here is the lesson.

  1. Everyone is entitled to hold an opinion.
  2. However, not all opinions are equally valid, because opinions can be judged against reliable information.
  3. Science is a method for establishing reliable information about the natural world, and thus discerning whether an opinion is valid or not.
  4. The opinion that the earth is flat is disproven by centuries of scientific evidence to the contrary. Holding such opinion is within your first amendment rights in the U.S., but it is equally within everyone else’s first amendment rights to assert the overwhelming evidence to the contrary and call out your nonsense. The good news is that few people any longer hold this opinion in the face of all evidence to the contrary.
  5. The opinion that humans have no measurable effect on climate is equally disproven by a huge body of evidence dating back at least a century. Linked to this is the overwhelming evidence that CO2 plays a major role in that change and is connected directly to human activity. Holding an opinion to the contrary is a bold-faced rejection of scientifically gathered evidence – mountains of it – and is the opinion-equivalent of rejecting the round earth.

My head spins whenever someone mutters these nonsensical statements out loud. I hope you understand why, and share a little of that intellectual vertigo from this parody example.

[1] http://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/09/epa-chief-scott-pruitt.html