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March 3, 2008 | 3 Comments

Heartland conference: day 1

For the next three days, I’ll be reporting on the Heartland Conference on Climate Change.

Day started late with a cash bar at the at the Marquis hotel. I live in New York City, where the conference is, so I was not shocked when the bartender asked me for ten bucks for a Budweiser. I could have paid eleven and gotten a Amstel Light.

Dinner followed; surprisingly not terrible and not chicken. Joe Bast, who heads Heartland, gave the expected opening speech, the gist of which was that legitimate skeptics (as to completely harmful global warming) existed. Comedian followed and \.

Patrick Michaels gave one of his speeches, which was a bit unfocused. He correctly emphasized that, yes, warming had indeed taken place and that humans had at least something to do with it. He pointed out, rightly, that the La Nina and low solar activity have recently combined to produce some lower temperatures, but that skeptics should not use these facts to argue global warming didn’t exist. But then showed some slides of the return of sea ice at the poles to show that…what? That warming was gone?

Well, if temperatures are only temporarily going down, then ice will only temporarily reappear.

Michaels did a good job documenting some of the irrational frenzy from some who actually seem to wish ardently that global warming be devastating. He used “warming island” as an example (Google that).

Met some people and collected some tracts. I didn’t need to go and explore the lights of Broadway, so I went to bed.

Stay tuned.

March 1, 2008 | 7 Comments

People take off their shirts when it gets hot: peer-reviewed study

I am finding it difficult to breathe after reading this abstract from a peer-reviewed scholarly article in a respected journal1.

This paper describes the application of a methodology designed to analyse the relationship between climatic conditions and the perception of bioclimatic comfort. The experiment consisted of conducting simultaneous questionnaire surveys and weather measurements during 2 sunny spring days in an open urban area in Lisbon. The results showed that under outdoor conditions, thermal comfort can be maintained with temperatures well above the standard values defined for indoor conditions. There seems to be a spontaneous adaptation in terms of clothing whenever the physiological equivalent temperature threshold of 31?C is surpassed. The perception of air temperature is difficult to separate from the perception of the thermal environment and is modified by other parameters, particularly wind. The perception of solar radiation is related to the intensity of fluxes from various directions (i.e. falling upon both vertical and horizontal surfaces), weighted by the coefficients of incidence upon the human body. Wind was found to be the most intensely perceived variable, usually negatively. Wind perception depends largely on the extreme values of wind speed and wind variability. Women showed a stronger negative reaction to high wind speed than men. The experiment proved that this methodology is well-suited to achieving the proposed objectives and that it may be applied in other areas and in other seasons.

(All emphasis mine; visual proof of their findings is here.)

In case you are not used to parsing academicese, I have take the liberty of re-writing this abstract in plain English.

We went to an open-air cafe in Lisbon on 2 sunny spring days and asked people if they were hot or cold. People were happier being in the sun than indoors. When it got hot, people took their shirts off. People generally did not care to think about out questions about the difference between perceptions of temperature and wind. It was always hotter sitting in the sun. People didn’t like when the wind blew away their newspapers and napkins. Women complained more than men about the wind. We plan on asking these questions in Hawaii in January if we can get another grant.

Remember this! It isn’t true unless a study says it’s true.

1Sandra Oliveira and Henrique Andrad, 2006 (may they forgive me). An initial assessment of the bioclimatic comfort in an outdoor public space in Lisbon, International Journal of Biometeorology, 52, 69-84
February 29, 2008 | 10 Comments

The tyranny and hubris of experts

Today, another brief (in the sense of intellectual content) essay, as I’m still working on the Madrid talk, the Heartland conference is this weekend, and I have to, believe it or not, do some work my masters want.

William F. Buckley, Jr. has died, God rest his soul. He famously said, “I’d rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book than by the dons of Harvard.” I can’t usefully add to the praise of this great man that has begun appearing since his death two days ago, but I can say something interesting about this statement.

There are several grades of pine “2 by 4’s”, the studs that make up the walls and ceilings of your house. Superior grades are made for exterior walls, lesser grades are useful for external projects, such as temporary bracing. A carpenter would never think of using a lesser grade to build your roof’s trusses, for example. Now, if you were run into a Home Depot and grab the first pine studs you came to (along with the book How to Build a Wall), thinking you could construct a sturdy structure on your own, you might be right. But you’re more likely to be wrong. So you would not hesitate to call in an expert, like my old dad, to either advise you of the proper materials or to build the thing himself.

Building an entire house, or even just one wall, is not easy. It is a complicated task requiring familiarity with a great number of tools, knowledge of various building techniques and materials, and near memorization of the local building codes. But however intricate a carpenter’s task is, we can see that it is manageable. Taken step by step, we can predict to great accuracy exactly what will happen when we, say, cut a board a certain way and nail it to another. In this sense, carpentry is a simple system.

There is no shortage of activities like this: for example baking, auto mechanics, surgery, accounting, electronic engineering, and even statistics. Each of these diverse occupations are similar in the sense that when we are plying that trade, we can pull a lever and we usually or even certainly know which cog will engage and therefore what output to expect. That is, once one has become an expert in that field. If we are not an expert and we need the services of one of these trades, we reach for phone book and find somebody who knows what he’s doing.

But there are other areas which are not so predictable. One of these is governance, which is concerned with controlling and forecasting the activity and behavior of humans. As everybody knows, it is impossible to reliably project what even one person will do on a consistent basis, let alone say what a city or country full of people will be like in five years. Human interactions are horribly, unimaginably complex and chaotic, and impossible to consistently predict.

Of course, not everyone thinks so. There is an empirically-observed relationship that says the more institutionalized formal education a person has, the more likely it is that that person believes he can predict human behavior. We call these persons academics. These are the people who make statements (usually in peer-reviewed journals) like, “If we eliminate private property, then there will be exact income equality” and “We can’t let WalMart build a store in our town because WalMart is a corporation.” (I cleaned up the language a bit, since this is a PG-rated blog.)

It is true, and it is good, that everybody has opinions on political matters, but most people, those without the massive institutionalized formal education, are smart enough to realize the true value of their opinions. Not so the academics, who are usually in thrall to a theory whose tenets dictate that if you pull this one lever, this exact result will always obtain. Two examples, “If we impose a carbon tax, global warming will cease” and “If the U.S.A. dismantles its nuclear weapons, so too will the rest of the world, which will then be a safer place.”

Political and economic theories are strong stuff and even the worst of them is indestructible. No amount of evidence or argument can kill them because they can always find refuge among the tenured. The academics believe in these theories ardently and often argue that they should be given the chance—because they are so educated and we are not—to implement them. They think that—quite modestly of course–because they are so smart and expert, that they can decide what is best for those not as smart and expert. Their hero is Plato who desired a country run by philosophers, the best of the best thinkers. In other words, people like them.

The ordinary, uneducated man is more likely to just want to be left alone in most matters and would design his laws accordingly. He would in general opt for freedom over guardianship. He is street-smart enough to know that his decisions often have unanticipated outcomes, and is therefore less lofty in his goals. And this is why Buckley would choose people from the phone book rather the from the campus.

February 27, 2008 | 2 Comments

The Top 50 Eco Blogs: from Times Online

The other (for U.S. readers) Times, the original one, has compiled a list of the top 50 eco blogs and paid me the generous compliment of including this blog.

Other, and more important sites, like Climate Audit and Climate Resistance are featured in the Skeptical Category, with sites like Climate Debate Daily and Dot Earthlisted in the News Category.

The editors at the paper said that “the blogosphere is, frankly, a scary place” and that the “sheer diversity of the groups is staggering.” They “spent countless hours, days and months scouring the web” and ask “Did we manage to find the best?” Visit the site and find out.