Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Wee willies that no longer respond to a warm globe

               "If the idea spreads that pollution is affecting not just whales but also willies, 
                   I think we might witness sudden conversions to environmentalism."**

Environmental effects of human activity remain controversial, particularly because of the active opposition of conservative political groups. We've been slow to halt or reverse air pollution, and we're dragging our feet one climate change--the two are of course connected because of the burning of fossil fuels.  Because it has economic implications, the problem clearly mixes science and social politics.  But if some consequences of climate change were to be more in hand, and thus very clear, the otherwise rather vague idea might, by being brought so closely home, be a springboard to corrective action.  A recent report** alerted us to a consequence of environmental degradation that, if more widely known, might help reduce the controversy, and get everyone moving toward the same goal, reversing the damage.

Global warming has many consequences, but most of them rather general, gradual and of only ambiguous long-term implications.  Thus, perhaps no implication can hit home more poignantly and persuasively than one that directly impacts our most intimate personal lives.  As background to this report, we know that carbon (denoted C) and oxygen (O) in molecular combination are greenhouse gasses that are accumulating in our atmosphere, arguably at least in major part because of human combustion of fossil fuels.

Briefly, excess carbon dioxide (CO2) in the upper atmosphere, and carbon monoxide (CO) lower down have been steadily increasing and are widely believed to have caused many changes in both natural and human ecology.  But the data are so complex, involving sensitive measurement challenges of many different global factors, that they are rather hard to get one's head around.  The result has enabled opponents of environmental action to dispute whether climate change is real, and even if so, whether it has done more than cause things like occasional smog alerts in Beijing and overall mean global temperature to increase, with consequent glacial melting.  The skeptical opposing view is that all that the data are suggesting, at most, is temporary natural variation in the normal earthly ecology.

Those who resist the climate scientists' idea that we need to change our behavior to prevent further damage, or who may even think the whole idea is some sort of plot by Democrats (or worse, tree-huggers), do not react to these climate changes with alarm. Even if they believe the data, and indeed even if they say, for the purposes of argument, that climate change is caused by humans, they simply point out that people have always had to deal with one sort of crisis or another, often even ecological ones like the decline of Mayan or Mesopotamian or Indus Valley civilizations.  It's the natural course of events, whose personal consequences for us are hardly experienced.  As for future human generations, the argument is, they will just have to adapt, as humans have always done, even if that means major dislocation, food or resource wars, or societal disruption.  We ourselves should not be asked to give up our quality of life to give future generations a kind of free pass that neither we nor our forebears ever had.  Future quality of life may be different from ours, but people will recover or adjust in their own way.

However, the new report** hits right at the heart of the latter assumption, the very notion of future generations!

COnic section (dotted line); schematic
'Does size matter?' is no longer just a joke!
The new data differ from the existing climate reports because they finally show an important effect of ecological damage.  It is a rather sensitive or awkward finding to discuss and perhaps has received less publicity as a result.  But the fact is that there is a strong correlation between reduction in penis size and global warming.  We find that this is based on COnic section samples from the organ at birth (shown in a hopefully respectful schematic way in the above figure).  These appear to be hard data, not just whimsical speculation with a political agenda in mind.

The second figure, below, shows the relationship over the past 50 years, the period for which there are reliable data.  Clearly, as air pollution levels rise the cross-section size declined.  The smaller size may be a direct ecological effect on the quality of life or, indeed, on the very future of humanity. Whereas in the past, climate change data were rather abstract, the new data hit so close to home that one would expect sensitive people finally to stand up and take note.  Even scientists care about such things in a way that goes beyond the impersonal nature of Big Data spewing from their computers. "These wee willies just give me the willies!" one investigator said as part of our inquiry.

Pollution (black) vs organ size (red), 1957-2013

Genital size is relatively easy to measure, a single, simple indicator that does not require the expensive instrumentation, not to mention computer modeling that is required to analyze more general figures on global warming.  While scientists are careful to caution that it is very difficult to claim that global warming is causally responsive for the observed organic change, the  clarity of the data suggest that one can at least hope that some parts of our society will try to rise to the challenge.  Even if one dismisses the association as not clearly being a directly causal one because, for example, it is ultimately due to a correlation with some unmeasured factor(s), a reduction in global warming could also reduce those intermediate influences, and thus halt the observed trend.

Many effects of ecological change have been dismissed as fads, falsely reported 'trends', or even faked evidence, a kind of self-supporting conspiracy for funding and attention among the climate and ecological scientists, who urge their view as a political tactic to rankle their politically conservative opponents.  Communication on the subject has become so angry that in our society today the one hand doesn't really know what the other hand is up to.

The importance of the new data is that even after many years of steady stories on climate change and its implications, as a society in general, we seem not to have been able to take abstract facts, like sea-level height or the bushel yield of wheat, seriously, because they don't appeal to our deepest or more immediate emotions.  We must acknowledge even as we urge respect for the sciences that face complex analytic data problems, that not all the abstract science in the world can change that.  But wee willies may entail the emotions that one needs to reach, if widespread political change is to be hoped for.

This new report gets to the nub of the effects on human behavior of our wanton destruction of the environment.  But, sensitive though the subject is, or perhaps because of that, we may finally have the kind of hard-hitting report required to shake the complacency and stir up a call to action.

**This post reflects my reading of original reporting by U. Eco, as published in the recent issue of Numero Zero, which is widely available.  Interpretations are of course my own.


Manoj Samanta said...

It is mostly ENCODE-style junk science. The often quoted claims are economic predictions and have nothing to do with science. I have also noticed that most academics repeating those claims never sat with actual "global warming" papers, and tried to follow through the methodology with enough skepticism. Those who did (including me) figured out the scam fairly soon.

Ken Weiss said...

I guess I would disagree about the actual science. Giaeaver's arguments have been heavily criticized (

There are all sorts of issues about climate change and global warming, not least being semantic and definitional. Short-term weather changes (I say as a former professional meteorologist) will be highly stochastic and hard to assign to any broad cause. There is even debate about how much of this year's very anomalous weather can be attributed to El Nino. Climate is by proper definition a long-term concept, as is global warming, and you can define it in various ways.

We write all the time about how and why scientists' statements need to be viewed with circumspection. We have vested interests and play word-games to protect them, just as any interest-group does. But there are also a lot of facts. When things are long-term we have to decide if we care about future generations. When there are serious short-term threats we have to decide if they really can be attributed to long-term trends. But if glaciers melt and swamp coasts or island nations, or there are major shifts in rainfall and so on, there must be some sort of cause(s). One can argue about what they might be, but perhaps it is worth taking something like Pascal's wager. If we accept the threat and take some action, but there is no actual threat, then we've wasted the time and resources taking the action (that would involve jobs of all sorts, so might not be really a 'waste'). If there is a threat, but we deny it and don't take action (even if it's because scientists were gaming us for grants or attention), then the ultimate price we might pay could be disastrous and much greater than if we had played along and take some action.

At least, our point here was that if an issue strikes home rather than being very abstract, we argue that people will pay more attention. It is true, however (and read Eco's book for more), that the ways we assemble facts or decide what we believe or are persuaded to believe, are elusive.

Manoj Samanta said...

"Giaeaver's arguments have been heavily criticized"

So was Dan Graur's in the context of ENCODE, and Eric Davidson's in the context of epigenetics. The question is whether we are counting on the opinions of so-called experts, whose salaries depend on finding evidence supporting one kind of view.

The best way to sort out is to read the original papers, go through the math and see whether it makes sense. I have done that and was thoroughly unimpressed. I can easily tweak the equations of those simulations to give you any prediction you like. I also spoke with researchers and heard that it is exactly what they do.

"But if glaciers melt and swamp coasts or island nations, or there are major shifts in rainfall and so on, there must be some sort of cause(s)."

How do we ensure that the proposed solutions are not 'scientifically' similar to medieval bloodletting?

Ken Weiss said...

There can never be an 'insurance' that current stories for (or against!) global climate change are correct. Even if one were to track temperature etc. for decades, the semantics are such that opponents could claim that the 'change' assertions meant something other than long slow trends. Again, with the diversity of evidence, chemical, physical, and statistical that there is change, and that it may be in substantial part due to, or exacerbated by, human activity and fossil fuels, one can sanely play it safe if s/he cares about the potential consequences. Yes those pro and those con have correlates in other aspects of their lives (e.g., their basic politics). Yes there are vested interests to protect for each side.

Again, I go with Pascal's wager. It is safer to bet on the reality of the change and try to do something about it.

Of course, data uncertainty or even whether reports (like our post) are serious or are intentionally not-so, is something one might enjoy thinking about by reading Mr Eco's book, that we cited.....

Manoj Samanta said...

Hello Ken,

Happy New Year !!

> "Again, with the diversity of evidence, chemical, physical, and statistical that there is change"

Would you please give me a relevant paper that you fully understand? We can start from there. As I said, I started with the papers in the area I have expertise in (physics and computational modeling) and was very disappointed.

Manoj Samanta said...

Here is a comparable example.

100 years back, Margaret Sanger and others started a movement to save the planet from overpopulation. They even had a 'scientifically proven' strategy - eliminate the third group (see below). When science blends with 'save the world for future generation' wishes, it is important to take extra caution, because any scientist providing different evidence from the main theme is turned down as someone not interested in saving the planet or humanity. That is an extra layer of bias we do not see in particle physics or origin of species research.

"Society is divided into three groups. Those intelligent and wealthy members of the upper classes who have obtained knowledge of Birth Control and exercise it in regulating the size of their families. They have already benefited by this knowledge, and are today considered the most respectable and moral members of the community. They have only children when they desire, and all society points to them as types that should perpetuate their kind.

The second group is equally intelligent and responsible. They desire to control the size of their families, but are unable to obtain knowledge or to put such available knowledge into practice.

The third are those irresponsible and reckless ones having little regard for the consequence of their acts, or whose religious scruples prevent their exercising control over their numbers. Many of this group are diseased, feeble-minded, and are of the pauper element dependent entirely upon the normal and fit members of society for their support. There is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people that the procreation of this group should be stopped. For if they are not able to support and care for themselves, they should certainly not be allowed to bring offspring into this world for others to look after. We do not believe that filling the earth with misery, poverty and disease is moral. And it is our desire and intention to carry on our crusade until the perpetuation of such conditions has ceased."

Ken Weiss said...

You give examples and there are many and they go back through history. End-Time catastrophizing or millennarianism or other versions (nuclear winter, Jesus' promise to come back soon, cargo cults, and much more) is more or less as you say. The US in the 1970s were a rehearsal for some of today's versions. Even climate change warnings are couched in terms of many decades or even centuries.

However, only a couple centuries ago we relied on animal or natural power. Cities were founded on waterways, for example. Trends we see now that may threaten them, and threats of climate change that could cause major rearrangements of arable land and so on, and that could do so in our children's lifetimes, are potential threats. As we say in our post which is largely a spoof (I hope you realized that!), there are those who accept that even if change is going to occur it's part of the natural episodic changes on the earth.

I just personally accept the bulk of the (yes, statistical, multifactor, and incomplete) evidence as showing that climate is changing, that human emissions are in part responsible. It is just a judgment about the evidence and who is providing it, as I'm no expert myself. To me, the types of human disasters that could occur if the argument is sound are ones we should try to avoid. I think there are too many people, consuming too much energy and resources, distributed far too unfairly, and that this could get worse.

Even if it's just as you say, but governments _believe_ the pattern is correct, they are likely to use that, sincerely or even just to gain power such as using Trump-style demagoguery, and when humans do that, catastrophes occur (like world wars). For that reason, I would prefer to make Pascal's wager and bet on the truth of climate change rather than its denial.

Of course the evidence is like much in advocacy science these days, imperfect and lends itself to self-interest-based advocacy. Humans aren't particularly good at acting according to knowledge, much less imperfect knowledge that suggests we change our ways. So things are not easy. Our post was, of course, a bit of a spoof about all of this.

Unknown said...

Great essay Ken, I enjoyed it a lot. As Charlie told, you saved the best to the last. I found other "interesting" corrlations. See link below:

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, I know of the spurious correlation site. It's very funny.....and sobering, at the same time.

James Goetz said...

Hi Ken, Did you see this?