Archive for the 'science' Category

Another Realm in Which Expertise Matters: GOTV Software Development

Saturday, November 24th, 2012

Here are a couple of items I found interesting because they relate to what I do for my day job: web application development. It turns out that along with overpaying for advertising and buying a lot of polls that mispredicted the electoral outcome, the Romney campaign also hired a bunch of inexperienced technologists who made common mistakes on their way to under-delivering a custom get out the vote (GOTV) web application called Orca: Inside Team Romney’s whale of an IT meltdown.

Jumping to the end of the article:

IT projects are easy scapegoats for organizational failures. There’s no way to know if Romney could have made up the margins in Ohio if Orca had worked. But the catastrophic failure of the system, purchased at large expense, squandered the campaign’s most valuable resource—people—and was symptomatic of a much bigger leadership problem.

“The end result,” Ekdahl wrote, “was that 30,000+ of the most active and fired-up volunteers were wandering around confused and frustrated when they could have been doing anything else to help. The bitter irony of this entire endeavor was that a supposedly small government candidate gutted the local structure of [get out the vote] efforts in favor of a centralized, faceless organization in a far off place (in this case, their Boston headquarters). Wrap your head around that.”

What made this especially interesting to me is that for the past several years I’ve been learning a lot about the DevOps movement, which solves exactly the kinds of problems the Romney campaign experienced with Orca. If you look around at which companies have done best at iterating their web applications quickly and scaling up successfully (well-known companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google, along with smaller start-ups like Etsy), they’re all using a particular set of practices.

Those practices are the result of an explicitly scientific approach. It’s the same process that Karl Popper described as conjectures and refutations. One can think of the old-school, non-agile, inadequately tested approach to software development that the Romney consultants used as the equivalent of a scientific conjecture. The failure modes that approach leads to are a refutation. If you’re proceeding scientifically, and are treating your ideas as falsifiable, you junk that approach and replace it with one that the people using science have found to be superior. If you’re the Romney campaign’s consultants, though, you ignore what those poindexters are saying and proceed on the basis of your gut feeling.

Contrast this with the Obama campaign, which actually hired people who knew what they were doing: When the Nerds Go Marching In.

We now know what happened. The grand technology experiment worked. So little went wrong that Trammell and Reed even had time to cook up a little pin to celebrate. It said, “YOLO,” short for “You Only Live Once,” with the Obama Os.

When Obama campaign chief Jim Messina signed off on hiring Reed, he told him, “Welcome to the team. Don’t fuck it up.” As Election Day ended and the dust settled, it was clear: Reed had not fucked it up.

The campaign had turned out more volunteers and gotten more donors than in 2008. Sure, the field organization was more entrenched and experienced, but the difference stemmed in large part from better technology. The tech team’s key products — Dashboard, the Call Tool, the Facebook Blaster, the PeopleMatcher, and Narwhal — made it simpler and easier for anyone to engage with the President’s reelection effort.

GOTV software isn’t very important in and of itself. In the rare case that it makes the difference in who gets elected, it would be hugely important (obviously), but that probably didn’t happen here. Obama probably would have won this election without his superiority in GOTV software.

But as a reflection of a fundamental difference in how Romney and Obama (and, to some extent, the modern Republican and Democratic parties that they represent) approach the business of actually governing, I think this story actually is important. Reality matters. Conforming your mental model of the world to the best available scientific understanding is a much better way to get difficult things done than just squeezing your eyes shut and wishing very, very hard that the universe will conform itself to your desires.

More Scary Stuff About the Future by People with Actual Expertise

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

shcb will not find the credentials of the authors of this report compelling. He will imagine that their training and the level of analysis they bring to bear is roughly the equivalent of (or, if he’s being honest, slightly inferior to) his own. He may comment on this item, and if he does, it is likely his comment will strike me the same way it does when Nigel Tufnel stares at Marty DiBergi for a moment before explaining (yet again) that “these go to eleven.”

shcb will be wrong.

Nevertheless, here you go: From John D. Steinbruner, Paul C. Stern, and Jo L. Husbands, Editors; Committee on Assessing the Impact of Climate Change on Social and Political Stresses; Board on Environmental Change and Society; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; National Research Council: Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis.

From the report’s preface:

Core features of the climate change situation are known with confidence. The greenhouse effect associated with the carbon dioxide molecule has been measured, as has the dwell time of that molecule and its concentration in the atmosphere. We also know that the rate at which carbon dioxide is currently being added to the atmosphere substantially exceeds the natural rate that prevailed before the rise of human societies. That means that a large and unprecedentedly rapid thermal impulse is being imparted to the earth’s ecology that will have to be balanced in some fashion. We know beyond reasonable doubt that the consequences will be extensive. We do not, however, know the timing, magnitude, or character of those consequences with sufficient precision to make predictions that meet scientific standards of confidence.

In principle the thermal impulse could be mitigated to a degree that would presumably preserve the current operating conditions of human societies, but the global effort required to do that is not being undertaken and cannot be presumed. As a practical matter, that means that significant burdens of adaptation will be imposed on all societies and that unusually severe climate perturbations will [be] encountered in some parts of the world over the next decade with an increasing frequency and severity thereafter. There is compelling reason to presume that specific failures of adaptation will occur with consequences more severe than any yet experienced, severe enough to compel more extensive international engagement than has yet been anticipated or organized.

This report has been prepared at the request of the U.S. intelligence community with these circumstances in mind. It summarizes what is currently known about the security effects of climate perturbations, admitting the inherent complexities and the very considerable uncertainties involved. But under the presumption that these effects will be of increasing significance, it outlines the monitoring activities that the intelligence community should be developing in support of improved anticipation, more effective prevention efforts, and more decisive emergency reaction when that becomes necessary.

A Dan Kahan Reader on Cultural Bias and Motivated Reasoning

Sunday, November 18th, 2012

As previously mentioned, here’s some Dan Kahan to liven up your day:

Talking about Sandy and Climate Change

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

I’ve been reading a bunch of people talking about whether Hurricane Sandy was “caused by” climate change (answer: it depends on what you mean by “caused by”). Also the related question: Is it kosher to leave off some of the nuance when explaining that issue to the public, if by doing so you can help overcome the impediments created by a toxic, culturally charged information environment that has left broad swaths of the public misinformed about climate change?

  • Probable Cause – Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist from MIT, writing in Foreign Policy magazine. Good, solid information on the question by an expert well-versed in the relevant science. Please note both parts of his argument: 1) It probably is at least somewhat inaccurate to say Sandy was the direct result of climate change. 2) A rational understanding of the risks posed by climate change would lead us to take a much greater collective response to mitigate that risk than we have so far done.
  • The moral logic of climate communication – David Roberts, writing in Grist. Roberts presents an interesting, and to my mind fairly apt, analogy involving a patient who has a serious disease that requires expensive treatment, but who is not yet feeling the effects of it. Then the patient has a flu that was not directly caused by the disease, but may have been worsened by it, and is similar to the effects that the disease can be expected to produce if left untreated. What should the doctor tell the patient about the nature of the disease?
  • Moral logic vs. scientific accuracy – David Appell, writing on his Quark Soup blog. Appell calls shenanigans on Roberts for the previously-listed article. He says, in effect, that Roberts is abandoning scientific truth in the name of winning the argument, but that scientific truth is the only thing our side has, meaning to abandon it is crazy. My personal take: Appell is guilty of arguing against a strawman version of Roberts’ argument. And I wish both authors would pay more attention to the distinction between scientists (who need to do their best to be scrupulously objective) and science communicators (who need to be aware of, and respond to, the ways in which their audience will interpret the stories they are told about what scientists believe).

Kloor: More on How GMO Fear is the Climate Denial of the Left

Friday, October 26th, 2012

Another in a continuing series of posts by Keith Kloor on the similarities between science denialism by those on the right (who deny the scientific consensus on climate change) and the left (who deny the scientific consensus on the safety of genetically modified foods): A tale of two sciences.

Sam Harris on Alexander’s ‘I Visited Heaven’ Claim

Saturday, October 20th, 2012

Again with the people who have actual expertise weighing in on credulous fairy tales: This must be heaven.

Kloor, Frauenfelder, and Hiltzik on Attitudes Toward and the Politics of GMO Foods

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Keith Kloor has an excellent article at Slate on how scientific denialism is not the exclusive province of the Right: GMO Opponents Are the Climate Skeptics of the Left.

This hit home for me, because I’ve been following this issue for a while. People like Dan Kahan (whom Kloor quotes in his article) have been (gently) taking people like Chris Mooney to task for their willingness to paint science denialism as a conservative-specific thing.

It also was kind of depressing for me to see how Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing, a site I like a lot (obviously, since I repost stuff from there all the time) was willing to run a really propagandistic piece attacking the No on 37 campaign (the campaign to defeat California’s Proposition 37, which would require labeling of [some] genetically modified food). It especially saddened me to have a couple of comments (including my own) that I think were quite civil and reasonable, but criticized Fraunfelder for doing that, quietly deleted from the comments there.

Anyway, links for that stuff:

The thing that bugged me about Frauenfelder’s original piece, even after he updated it to acknowledge that the “GMO corn gives rats tumors” study was problematic, was the glib way he seemed to assume that by simply looking at the budgets and list of donors on either side of the Proposition 37 campaign, he could determine which side was the Good Guys and which were the Bad Guys. Here’s what he said:

When I visited the site I was impressed by processed food conglomerates’ desperation to defeat this bill. Monsanto is one of the corporations spending money to defeat 37 (According to Yes on 37, Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, Dow, BASF and Syngenta have donated $19 million to No on 37).

Big food companies are indeed pushing to defeat Prop 37. And somewhat smaller organic food companies are pushing to pass it. In each case, the financial incentive of the people trying to influence the outcome is clear. But the reality of whether GMO foods are, in fact, dangerous, and whether the public interest will be served by mandatory labeling, has nothing to do with how you feel about the companies that stand to profit if the measure passes or fails. It’s a scientific question, and it’s true or not based on how the universe actually works.

Michael Hiltzik had a good piece about this in the LA Times last week: Prop. 37: Another example of the perils of the initiative process.

Singing About Science

Monday, September 17th, 2012

You’ve probably seen it already (since I’ve seen it about 5 times from various sources in my newsfeed), but the Symphony of Science guy (John Boswell, aka melodysheep) has a new auto-tuned song out about climate change:

Also, Phil Plait called my attention to this moving (and scientifically accurate!) song and video about lunar libration:

That in turn led me to this video, from the same people as Libration (Matt Schickele, composition and visuals; Hai-Ting Chinn, voice; and Erika Switzer, piano), though this time with a different skeptic (Steven Novella) providing the lyrics. Also very moving (at least for me), while being simultaneously profound:

Changing One’s Mind

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

Keith Kloor posts today with some examples of people who were sailing along with one belief and then, despite the headwind created by motivated reasoning and confirmation bias, managed to tack and sail off in a completely different direction: The Conversion.

Among the examples:

  • Confessions of a Climate Change Convert – D.R. Tucker, a Republican who went from skeptical to alarmed about global warming after he read the latest IPCC report.
  • Prominent atheist blogger converts to Catholicism – Leah Libresco, who went from having a loudly outspoken belief that there is no God at all to believing that in fact there is one, and Catholicism is the faith that brings her closest to Him.
  • Mutation Butts and Schooled! – Dan Piraro of the “Bizarro” comic, who posted a strongly worded warning on his blog about the dangers of genetically modified food last Saturday. Some commenters on his blog expressed disappointment and encouraged him to educate himself more about the GMO issue, and two days later (yesterday), Piraro posted an item in which he retracted his earlier comments.

From Piraro’s mea culpa (which I guess is the wrong phrase, since he didn’t actually apologize):

I’m not embarrassed that I was wrong and had to change my story. That’s the best thing about being an open-minded, reason-based person instead of, say, a politician; you don’t stick to erroneous beliefs in the face of new evidence for fear that people will think you are fallible. If everyone lived this way, the world would be much less ignorant, as I am today thanks to information given to me by some of my Jazz Pickles. Thanks!

“Jazz Pickles” is Piraro’s term for his regular blog commenters. Go Jazz Pickles! :-)

Hoffman on Ending the Climate Science Culture War

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Andrew J. Hoffman (joint PhD in Management and Civil and Environmental Engineering from M.I.T.) writes interestingly about the climate change debate: Climate Science as Culture War. The piece is long, but definitely worthwhile, with lots of good references to people like Dan Kahan and Roger Pielke, Jr.

Attributing Extreme Weather to AGW, Finding Common Ground (Or Not)

Friday, August 10th, 2012

Another quick post to link to some interesting discussion that I’m not going to bother to write about in detail.

  • Perception of Climate Change – James Hansen of NASA argues in a somewhat science-y way that yes, you really can attribute recent extreme weather events to climate change. This has annoyed the hell out of Roger Pielke, Jr., and Judith Curry. They probably have a point. But then, Hansen has a point, too. As with most grand debates-without-end, I suspect a lot of arguing past each other is going on here.
  • Icy Relations: Extreme-Weather Question Drives Wedge Between Climate Scientists – Keith Kloor writing in Discover magazine. Kloor takes note of the emerging lack of consensus among climate scientists about how to view the Hansen paper linked to above.
  • Climate of Failure – Speaking of arguing past each other, here’s more of Pielke, Jr., writing in Foreign Policy and doing his best to bridge the divide and talk about those aspects of the current situation with the climate that both sides should be willing to agree upon. “Should” being the operative word there. Reminder to me: Really need to get around to reading The Climate Fix.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled beating each other up in the comments, already in progress.

Voosen on Krosnick on Public Perceptions of (Climate) Scientists Who Advocate

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

There was an interesting article from Paul Voosen in Greenwire the other day: Climate: Scientists struggle with limits — and risks — of advocacy. I came across it on Judith Curry’s blog (Just the facts, please). Voosen talks about a not-yet-published study by Stanford psychologist Jon Krosnick:

Krosnick’s team hunted down video of climate scientists first discussing the science of climate change and then, in the same interview, calling for viewers to pressure the government to act on global warming. (Out of fears of bruised feelings, Krosnick won’t disclose the specific scientists cited.) They cut the video in two edits: one showing only the science, and one showing the science and then the call to arms.

Krosnick then showed a nationally representative sample of 793 Americans one of three videos: the science-only cut, the science and political cut, and a control video about baking meatloaf (The latter being closer to politics than Krosnick might admit). The viewers were then asked a series of questions both about their opinion of the scientist’s credibility and their overall beliefs on global warming.

For a cohort of 548 respondents who either had a household income under $50,000 or no more than a high school diploma, the results were stunning and statistically significant. Across the board, the move into politics undermined the science.

The viewers’ trust in the scientist dropped 16 percentage points, from 48 to 32 percent. Their belief in the scientist’s accuracy fell from 47 to 36 percent. Their overall trust in all scientists went from 60 to 52 percent. Their belief that government should “do a lot” to stop warming fell from 62 to 49 percent. And their belief that humans have caused climate change fell 14 percentage points, from 81 to 67 percent.

Krosnick is quick to note the study’s caveats. First, educated or wealthy viewers had no significant reaction to the political call and seemed able to parse the difference between science and a personal political view. The underlying reasons for the drop are far from clear, as well — it could simply be a function of climate change’s politicization. And far more testing needs to be done to see whether this applies in other contexts.

I was glad to see Voosen go on to discuss the study’s implications with Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project. As a Kahan fanboy, I was already saying, “yeah, but…” as I read the interpretation Krosnick appears to be applying to his study’s results, and it was good to see Kahan’s perspective represented in Voosen’s article, even if he (Kahan) was characteristically circumspect about getting into a detailed criticism of a study that he hasn’t seen (since it hasn’t actually been published yet).

We’re still arguing about whether the elephant is more like a writhing snake or a solid tree trunk or a flapping sail (No! It’s like an elephant!), but it’s good to get some data to help us focus on the elephant’s actual characteristics.

JPL’s ‘7 Minutes of Terror’ Video

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

On August 5 at around 10:24 p.m. Pacific time, engineers at JPL will experience “7 minutes of terror” as they follow the delayed telemetry from the Mars Curiosity rover to see if it successfully reaches the end of its automated landing procedure. I’m hoping it does. And if the production quality of the latest video describing the rover’s descent is any indication of the JPL geeks’ technical proficiency, I’d say they’ve got a shot at it.

Laden and Romm on Goldenberg on Gleick

Monday, May 21st, 2012

I’m not sure that anyone else besides me actually cares about the angst I suffered during the whole Heartland/Peter Gleick saga. But for me at least, it was fairly angsty. One of the main things I took away from it was this: Some of the people I’d considered credible sources, people on my “side” of the issue, were revealed to me as being willing to peddle bullshit in the name of scoring points against their ideological opponents.

I’m not just talking about Gleick, though his dishonesty was the most prominent example. I’ve been giving the whole “mock trial of Peter Gleick” thing a rest, but I may revive it. It sounds like there are going to be some new developments to hash over.

Suzanne Goldenberg has an article in The Guardian today alleging that Peter Gleick has been “cleared” of forging the strategy memo: Peter Gleick cleared of forging documents in Heartland expose. The article itself is quite thin on details, but as best I can tell Goldenberg is claiming to have access to the results of an investigation commissioned by the Pacific Institute (the think tank Gleick previously headed, and from which he stepped down in the wake of the scandal), and the investigation reportedly will conclude Gleick did not forge the strategy memo.

A review has cleared the scientist Peter Gleick of forging any documents in his expose of the rightwing Heartland Institute’s strategy and finances, the Guardian has learned.

Gleick’s sting on Heartland brought unwelcome scrutiny to the organisation’s efforts to block action on climate change, and prompted a walk-out of corporate donors that has created uncertainty about its financial future.

Gleick, founder of the Pacific Institute and a well-regarded water expert, admitted and apologised for using deception to obtain internal Heartland documents last February.

He has been on leave from the institute pending an external investigation into the unauthorised release of the documents, although it is not entirely clear what the investigation entailed. That investigation is now complete, and the conclusions will be made public.

It was not immediately clear the findings would allow Gleick to make an early return to his job at the Pacific Institute. However, despite the official leave, Gleick has remained professionally active, appearing at public events and accepting speaking engagements. He delivered an Oxford Amnesty lecture on water in April.

It seems likely, given Goldenberg’s willingness to run with the story, that there is a report, and that it will offer the conclusion that Gleick did not forge the memo. But how strong will the report’s actual language be on that point? What evidence will it cite? Who are the report’s authors? What is their relationship to the Pacific Institute, and how credible are they as representing an independent perspective, given the Pacific Institute’s interest in findings that minimize Gleick’s wrongdoing?

All this is obviously very preliminary at this point. But you wouldn’t know that from Greg Laden’s blog post: An important revelation regarding Heartland Gate (global warming denialism). I’m not going to bother excerpting from Laden’s post. It’s basically anti-Heartland, pro-Gleick propaganda, treating the Goldenberg article as an excuse to trot out a one-sided recapitulation of the whole affair.

Similarly, Joe Romm (and Rebecca Leber) at Think Progress go for maximum spin: Heartland Institute Hemorrhages Donors And Cash For Extremist Agenda, As Coal And Oil Step In. Their piece begins with the following triumphant banner linking to the Goldenberg article:

Peter Gleick cleared of forging documents in Heartland expose

Sigh. I’m not a defender of Heartland (far from it). But this stuff reinforces a decision I made recently to remove Laden and Romm from my newsfeed. It’s not that I’m in the denialist camp that disputes the science of global warming. But just because one champions scientists doesn’t make one’s own assertions scientific. Laden and Romm have let their adopted role as advocates carry them past the point of being honest brokers of information. They’re peddling self-serving spin as truth, selecting what to pass on not on the basis of skeptical inquiry, but simply on the basis of which untested hypotheses paint their enemies in the worst light.

With a universe of information sources available and my own time a scarce and precious commodity, I don’t need their bullshit polluting my information stream.

Pushing Back in the Comments

Monday, May 7th, 2012

I will always love Jack Hitt for his story about taking his daughter to lunch on Martin Luther King day, which featured in what may be my favorite episode of This American Life ever, Kid Logic. I liked that story so much I stole it and included it in Lies.com podcast #21, the first of the “modern” Lies.com podcasts, in which I get all derivative and remix-y (and illegal).

So yeah, sorry about the lack of those lately. I have a batch of things I’d like to get to, but just haven’t been able to scrape up the time. But in the meantime, do check out this article from Hitt that appeared over the weekend in the NYT: Science and truth: We’re all in it together.

I learned about it from Roger Pielke, Jr. in Ignore the gloss at some risk, which is also recommended.

Rounding out the interesting pushback is this item from Dan Kahan: Some data on CRT & “Republican” & “Democratic brains” (plus CRT & religion, gender, education & cultural worldviews). Heh. Includes welcome pushback on Chris Mooney, whose recent book The Republican Brain, is also sitting around waiting for me to find the time for it. I was so excited about The Republican Brain when I first heard about it. But that was before I’d heard the title, and (more) heard Mooney detail the premise. As it turns out, the actual book has been a disappointment to me (which I guess I shouldn’t really be able to say until actually reading it). But I’m disappointed nevertheless. I was hoping that Mooney would really dig into what was going on with motivated reasoning and why people believe the wacky things they do. Instead, it seems what we’ve got is the liberal equivalent of an Ann Coulter book, bashing the other side so we on our side can feel good about how right we are.

Sigh.

Anyway, no time to obsess over this, or even write a proper blog post. If I were going to write a proper blog post, I’d probably write something similar to what I wrote five years ago in Debugging the Bush administration. So I’ll just quote myself:

A famous truism from the world of open source software development is that “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” In other words, if you get a large enough pool of people examining a malfunctioning piece of code, there’s going to be someone for whom the solution is obvious.

Go eyeballs.

The Mysterious Ticking Noise

Friday, April 27th, 2012

This is the bed where my wife and I sleep. I often sit there reading (okay; or playing Draw Something) for a little bit before I turn out the lights.

It was a few nights ago that I first noticed the mysterious ticking noise. Picture me sitting on the right side of the above photo. Linda was on the left side, asleep. As I sat there, I became aware that I was hearing a soft, rhythmic ticking, barely audible, apparently coming from the wall above her head. It was the sort of creaking-house noise one hears from time to time and immediately dismisses.

Except this time I noticed something strange: The noise was repeating. Every 15 seconds or so, a rapid-fire series of clicks could be (barely) heard. Each series of clicks lasted a second or two, starting off fast, then slowing toward the end.

Random household creaks are nothing special. But creaks that exhibit a repeating pattern? What was that?

I leaned over, careful not to wake Linda, and after some cupped-ear investigation I concluded that the sound was coming from the lower right-hand corner of that painting you can see in the photo above. The sound was clearly audible when my ear was within a few inches of that point, but faded when I moved away.

I was intrigued, but I couldn’t figure out what the sound was, so after a few minutes I gave up and went to sleep.

But the next night I heard it again. And when I heard it again on the third night, I mentioned it to Linda.

She was skeptical. This sound was really quiet, and she wasn’t hearing it.

I told her where to put her head, and after a minute she said she thought she heard something, maybe. But she also raised the possibility, half facetiously, that maybe I was imagining it. (TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad?)

The next day, when she was out of the house and things were quiet, I went into the bedroom. Sure enough, the corner of the picture was still ticking. After some experimenting with the my phone’s Voice Memos app and Audacity, I was able to get some decent recordings.

Here’s a two-minute stretch of the best one:

The Mysterious Ticking Noise

I came up with two theories for what it might be:

1. It was some kind of sympathetic vibration from a mechanical rumbling too low for me to hear. Some piece of machinery or electric equipment (or something) was sending out a vibration that just happened to be resonating just right with the wood and glass of the picture frame, causing it to make that audible clicking sound.

2. It was an insect of some kind. I’d heard of a “death watch beetle” that supposedly makes a tapping sound in walls; maybe that’s what this was?

Further research has pushed me very much into the latter camp. I think it’s a beetle (or a beetle larva, or some other bug).

Here’s my reasoning: A mechanical source would likely be very regular in the timing of its clicks. A biological source, on the other hand, would show more variation. And these clicks do, indeed, show variation in their timing. Using Audacity I was able to get extremely accurate timing of the clicks, which I put in a Google spreadsheet. It shows the following:

  • The number of clicks in each set varies. Most of the sets featured 22 clicks each. About a third of them, though, only had 21 clicks, while one had 23.
  • The duration of each set, and the interval between sets, also varied. The shortest set lasted 1.263 seconds, while the longest lasted 1.612 seconds. The shortest set-to-set interval I measured was 9.350 seconds. The longest was 13.811 seconds.
  • There were some interesting correlations in the numbers that seemed to support a biological explanation. For example, the longest sets of clicks tended to come after the longest interval from the previous set. That is, a clicking bug that had rested a little longer was primed to produce a more vigorous, longer-lasting set of clicks.

It was neat to be able to examine the clicks with Audacity. By zooming in I could see lots of detail. I’ve included some screenshots below; if you click on them you can see larger versions.

Here’s a view of the whole 2-minute recording. Each set of clicks is represented by a thick line. You can see how the sets of clicks have slightly variable intervals between them:

Here I’ve zoomed in to show three sets of clicks. The individual clicks have started to separate. You can see an interesting shape to each set: The first clicks are quieter (as indicated by the shorter vertical lines representing those clicks). Then they become louder, then quieter, then louder again at the end of the set.

Here I’ve zoomed in to show a single set of clicks. You can clearly see how the clicks slow down over the course of the set, and how they get louder, then quieter, then louder again.

Here I’ve zoomed in to show five successive clicks from within a single set. At this scale something new becomes visible: Each click is actually three clicks. There’s an initial relatively loud click, then a quieter click an instant later, then a barely detectable third click an instant after that.

Here I’ve zoomed in tight on a single click. You can really see that “triple click” nature of the click, and can make fine measurements of the timing (the scale at the top is reading in ten-thousandths of a second). There’s the first (loud) click, then there’s a quieter click 2.4 milliseconds later, and a much quieter click 1.4 milliseconds after that. I wonder what’s causing those. Are they echoes? The sound of secondary impacts, as insect bodyparts strike against each other? Artifacts of my recording process? I have no idea.

I verified that whatever it is is actually inside the picture or its frame; when I moved the painting to the other side of the room, the sound continued to emanate from the painting’s lower righthand corner. We’ve had that picture and frame for just over 25 years, which I know because I bought it for Linda for our third anniversary, and we recently celebrated our 28th. So the wood and paper and fabric in there has had time to get good and old, and presumably tasty to wood-eating insects.

From the Death watch beetle article at Wikipedia:

The death watch beetle, Xestobium rufovillosum, is a woodboring beetle. The adult beetle is 7 millimetres (0.28 in) long, while the xylophagous larvae are up to 11 mm (0.43 in) long.

To attract mates, these woodborers create a tapping or ticking sound that can be heard in the rafters of old buildings on quiet summer nights. They are therefore associated with quiet, sleepless nights and are named for the vigil (watch) kept beside the dying or dead, and by extension the superstitious have seen the death watch as an omen of impending death.

The term “death watch” has been applied to a variety of other ticking insects including Anobium striatum, some of the so-called booklice of the family Psocidae, and the appropriately named Atropos divinatoria and Clothilla pulsatoria.

If you’ve read this far you really owe it to yourself to view the video at Arkive.org of Xestobium rufovillosum making its ticking noise.

Although the sound produced by that beetle is similar to my mysterious ticking noise, the pattern is not a perfect match, making me suspect I’m dealing with a different species. One possible suspect is described this way in my copy of Evans and Hogue’s Field Guide to Beetles of California:

The Deathwatch or Furniture Beetle (Anobium punctatum) (2.7 to 4.5 mm) apparently arrived from Euorpe as a stowaway in imported furniture. It is now established along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America.

I’m going to pester my online friend Charley Eisemen, co-author of what may well be my favorite field guide ever (which is saying a lot, given the way I feel about field guides), Tracks & Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates. If anyone’s likely to be able to track down the identity of my mysterious noise-maker based only on the sound, it’s Charley Eisemen.

Finally, if you’ve made it this far, and if you’re somehow not among the 125 million who’ve seen it already, I give you the original Mysterious Ticking Noise:

Update: Lang Elliot, co-author of the awesome book Songs of Insects, was kind enough to respond to an email I sent him as follows:

John:

That’s a longhorn beetle larva chewing on wood inside the frame. Before transforming into adults, they are big white grubs with black heads and mouthparts, yummy to eat for woodpeckers at least:

Google Images link

Lang

Russell to Daisey to Gleick

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

There’s a weird synchronicity in all these stories floating around lately about people, nominally good guys, trying to raise public awareness about nominal bad guys, but doing it by exaggerating or outright lying. When the nominal good guys succeed in raising that awareness, and a wider audience is suddenly up in arms about the nominal bad guys, what does it mean when it emerges that while those bad guys really are pretty bad, they’re actually not bad in the particular way or to the particular extent that the nominal good guys made them out to be?

The nominal good guys should have been more honest, right? Ideally, they would have raised awareness without resorting to deception. But what if being honest about the bad guys means that the narrative exposing their wrongdoing is not compelling enough to go viral and get the kind of traction that leads to real pressure for change? Is it okay in that case to stretch the truth a little, to embellish the storyline? Is it okay to stretch the truth a lot? Where do you draw that line? And if the nominal good guy does stretch the truth, only to have the deception come to light later on, is it all just “pearl clutching” for the nominal good guy’s nominal allies to call foul at that point?

I don’t actually know the answers to any of these questions. I’m curious what you think. In particular, I’m curious about the following three cases:

Jason Russell: This is the guy who made the “KONY 2012″ video via his nonprofit, Invisible Children, Inc.:

I still have not watched KONY 2012, though with 81 million YouTube views (and counting), I’m apparently one of the few who can say that. Among those who have viewed it, there exists a subset of people who have checked into the claims it makes, and pointed out that while this Kony guy really is a legitimately bad guy, the monstrous depiction in the video glosses over or outright misstates some important facts. Like, Kony is not currently operating in Uganda, and hasn’t been since 2005. He doesn’t have an army of 30,000 child soldiers; that number in the video apparently was based on an estimate of his actions over several decades. And so on.

From an article by Demian Bulwa in sfgate.com (Kony video quickly raises awareness, skepticism):

In a response to criticism on its website, Invisible Children highlighted its education and rehabilitation programs in the region and said it had “sought to explain the conflict in an easily understandable format.

“In a 30-minute film,” the group said, “many nuances of the 26-year conflict are admittedly lost or overlooked. The film is a first entry point to this conflict for many, and the organization provides several ways for our supporters to go deeper.”

[snip]

Sean Darling-Hammond, a 27-year-old student at the law school, said he was becoming skeptical about all the skepticism.

“Criticizing the efforts of others has become the currency of relevance in social media,” he said. “If this video had been about the group’s cotton project in Africa, they would have gotten 200 views. The sad reality is that narrative sells, and catch-the-bad-guy is a classic narrative.”

I guess. But apparently the stress of his newfound success in selling a not-quite-factual bad-guy narrative — or maybe the pushback from people who want to hold the video to a higher standard of accuracy — has been having a negative impact on filmmaker Jason Russell. From the NYT (Police Detain Maker of Uganda Video):

SAN DIEGO – A co-founder of Invisible Children, the nonprofit organization whose video “Kony 2012” has become an Internet sensation, was detained by the San Diego police on Thursday, after they said he was found in the street in his underwear, screaming and interfering with traffic.

The police found Jason Russell, the filmmaker behind the video, after responding to calls about a man who was acting irrationally, including one call that alleged he was naked and masturbating, a San Diego police spokeswoman said. He was taken to a hospital for evaluation and treatment, and the police have no plans to charge him.

“It’s our belief that a medical condition would explain his irrational behavior as opposed to criminal intent,” said Lt. Andra Brown, the spokeswoman. “If we thought he was under the influence, we wouldn’t have taken him to a hospital; we would have taken him to jail.”

The 30-minute “Kony 2012” video has been viewed nearly 80 million times on YouTube since March 5. It has thrust a sudden celebrity upon Mr. Russell, 33, who narrates the video and appears in it with his young son, appealing to viewers to bring more attention to the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and advocating his arrest.

That success has brought criticism of Invisible Children for the way it spends its money, for a photograph of its founders, including Mr. Russell, holding rifles, and for other matters.

That criticism took its toll on Mr. Russell, according to his wife, Danica Russell, who released a statement Friday.

While the attention the film has drawn has brought increased awareness of Mr. Kony, Ms. Russell said, “it also brought a lot of attention to Jason — and because of how personal the film is, many of the attacks against it were also very personal, and Jason took them very hard.”

Mike Daisey: Because I’ve switched to mostly telecommuting lately, I don’t listen to nearly as much This American Life. As a result, I missed an episode, aired back in January, in which reporter thesbian Mike Daisey gave a first-person account of his investigation into the surreal and horrible working conditions at Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturing company where my iPhone was probably made.

The episode became the most-downloaded TAL episode ever, and apparently played a role in a massive petition campaign that pressured Apple into pressuring (some) of its Asian suppliers into improving working conditions for (some) employees, or (some)thing.

Except it turns out that many of the “facts” narrated by Daisey were not, in fact, factual. This weekend’s This American Life episode consists of an apology, including a detailed account of what went wrong: Retraction. See also this blog post (and attached press release) from TAL host Ira Glass: RETRACTING “MR. DAISEY AND THE APPLE FACTORY”.

Some of the falsehoods found in Daisey’s monologue are small ones: the number of factories Daisey visited in China, for instance, and the number of workers he spoke with. Others are large. In his monologue he claims to have met a group of workers who were poisoned on an iPhone assembly line by a chemical called n-hexane. Apple’s audits of its suppliers show that an incident like this occurred in a factory in China, but the factory wasn’t located in Shenzhen, where Daisey visited.

“It happened nearly a thousand miles away, in a city called Suzhou,” Marketplace’s Schmitz says in his report. “I’ve interviewed these workers, so I knew the story. And when I heard Daisey’s monologue on the radio, I wondered: How’d they get all the way down to Shenzhen? It seemed crazy, that somehow Daisey could’ve met a few of them during his trip.”

In Schmitz’s report, he confronts Daisey and Daisey admits to fabricating these characters.

“I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” Daisey tells Schmitz and Glass. “My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.”

Daisey’s interpreter Cathy also disputes two of the most dramatic moments in Daisey’s story: that he met underage workers at Foxconn, and that a man with a mangled hand was injured at Foxconn making iPads (and that Daisey’s iPad was the first one he ever saw in operation). Daisey says in his monologue:

“He’s never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, “he says it’s a kind of magic.””

Cathy Lee tells Schmitz that nothing of the sort occurred.

Here’s Daisey’s response, as posted on his personal blog (Statement on TAL):

I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.

What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic ­- not a theatrical ­- enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.

Peter Gleick: You don’t really need me to summarize this, right? Just go back and read the last 50,000 words of drivel I’ve spewed in this blog. Note that for the purposes of the current comparison, I’m crediting Gleick with having forged the 2012 Heartland Climate Strategy memo. I’m also crediting him with having created at least some degree of heightened public awareness of what Heartland is up to, awareness that would have been less if he hadn’t “sexed up” his document leak with the forged memo.

So, here’s my actual question: Were these guys (Russell, Daisey, and Gleick) in any sense right to do what they did? All appear to have been willing to deceive the public as part of crafting a more-compelling narrative fiction. And in each case it appears to have worked (at least in a certain sense). Their acts of public deception gave their stories “legs,” making it so more people heard about them, were outraged by what they heard, and were motivated to pass the stories on. The fictions contributed to, and may actually have been essential to, the stories “going viral.”

With the benefit of hindsight, was that a good thing? Is the “it’s not journalism; it’s theater” defense valid?

Two Stopped Watches

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Everyone knows the old adage that “even a stopped clock is right twice a day.” Then there’s that saying (which I’d always thought was a quotation from Mark Twain, but which turns out, at least according to some thinly sourced web pages, to be a quotation from someone named Lee Segall):

A man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure.

Lately I’ve found both metaphors fighting for dominance as I read various climate change blogs. I’ve got my stopped clocks: blogs by committed partisans on one side (like Joe Romm) or the other (like Steve McIntyre), whom I’m used to reading with a grain of salt, since I recognize that, like a trial, I’m only hearing one side’s case at a time. Maybe they’re misleading me (well, they’re almost certainly misleading me, at least in the sense that they are going to exclude or de-emphasize truths damning to their case), but they still might be right, at least sometimes.

But in my post-Gleickian reading of a wider range of opinions, I’m now the man with two watches. And since they’re two stopped watches, with ideologically embedded opinions resistent to change, those stopped watches are never going to tell the same time.

It’s all quite bothersome, metaphorically speaking. Anyway, here are a few examples from my last few days’ reading.

I’ve been reading about Singer lately as I work my way through Oreskes’ and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt. For decades, according to Oreskes and Conway, Singer has made a habit of taking up contrarian scientific positions (on ozone depletion, the health risks of secondhand tobacco smoke, and global warming), then made use of media “fairness” policies to get himself lots of camera time (and corporate research funding). So yes, I’m sure the extreme denialists make it more difficult for Singer to stake out his contrarian-but-science-y-enough-to-be-credible positions. But I also suspect him of promoting a false equivalence by claiming it’s the extremists on both sides who are wrong, and lonely him in the middle who’s right.

Enough with the fighting over hockey sticks. How about a nice, non-contentious topic?

Breakthrough is the think tank founded by Nordhaus and Shellenberger to push their politically liberal attack on what they view as the failures of environmentalism, more or less. Anyway, they’re big on the idea (also articulated fairly persuasively by Lovelock in The Revenge of Gaia, which I recently read and enjoyed) that environmentalists (and the public generally) greatly overestimate the risks of nuclear power, and that a major commitment to nuclear fission is the only way for us to replace our electrical generating capacity in the short term without wrecking either the economy or the climate. (Not sure if that last is really a Breakthrough position. It’s certainly Lovelock’s position.)

  • Prospects for Nuclear Power – A paper by Lucas W. Davis in the American Economic Association’s Journal of Economic Perspectives (the link is to the abstract, but the full text is available as a PDF).

Davis argues that even if you could overcome the sorts of irrational nuke fears described by Lovelock and exacerbated by Fukushima, nuclear plants would still not be economically viable, due to the recent drop in price for natural gas due to techniques like fracking.

I don’t have an ideologically opposed “second watch” for this item, but I don’t feel like a post is complete these days if it doesn’t have a Gleick link. In this piece, Zasloff makes the case that Gleick’s actions may have been ethically justified under the tradition of people using deception to achieve a good end in cases where those ends can’t be achieved without the deception. I raise a question in a late comment (so far unanswered by Zasloff) as to whether he (Zasloff) was taking the account from Gleick’s confession at face value. That is, would the equation still show Gleick’s actions to be ethical if it turned out that he forged the strategy memo himself in an effort to mislead the public about how bad Heartland is?

So, that’s all I’ve got for now. Time ticks onward (or doesn’t, depending on whether your watches — either of them — are stopped). I’ll see what dissonance-inducing contradictions await me in the new day.

The (Imaginary) Trial of Peter Gleick – Part 4: Prosecution Witness Donna Laframboise

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

From the beginning: The (Imaginary) Trial of Peter Gleick.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. It features characters based on real people and evidence based on real events, and is as close to reality as my whim and imagination allow. But it’s completely fake.

INT. – AN IMAGINARY COURTROOM – DAY

BAILIFF

All rise. The Imaginary Court of the Internet is now in session. The honorable Judge Mumble K. Mumbles presiding.

The JUDGE enters and sits behind the bench.

JUDGE

Be seated. Prosecution: Are you ready to call your first witness?

PROSECUTION

Yes, your honor. The prosecution calls Donna Laframboise.

DONNA LAFRAMBOISE stands and makes her way to the witness stand.

COURT CLERK

(standing before Laframboise)

Do you swear to tell the truth, or at least something more or less consistent with your public statements, so help you the Internet?

LAFRAMBOISE

I do.

COURT CLERK

Please be seated.

PROSECUTION

Ms. Laframboise, what is your occupation?

LAFRAMBOISE

I am a journalist, author, and photographer.

PROSECUTION

What is your most recent book?

LAFRAMBOISE

Its title is “The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert.”

PROSECUTION

That’s quite a mouthful.

LAFRAMBOISE

Yes. Most people just call it “The Delinquent Teenager.”

PROSECUTION

When was the book published?

LAFRAMBOISE

October 2011.

PROSECUTION

Who is “the delinquent teenager” referred to in the title?

LAFRAMBOISE

The United Nations climate panel, the IPCC. The book is an exposé of the IPCC.

PROSECUTION

And IPCC stands for?

LAFRAMBOISE

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

PROSECUTION

And what does this organization, the IPCC, actually do?

LAFRAMBOISE

It surveys the scientific research on climate change, decides what it all means, and writes an ongoing series of reports. These reports are informally known as the “Climate Bible.”

PROSECUTION

Ms. Laframboise, by your book’s title do you mean to suggest that this important and prestigious international organization is somehow similar to a “delinquent teenager”?

LAFRAMBOISE

Yes, I’m afraid it is.

PROSECUTION

But the IPCC is made up of the world’s top scientists, isn’t it?

LAFRAMBOISE

I used to think so. But in researching my book I discovered that the truth is very different. Some of the people in charge of writing the Climate Bible are no better than graduate students. I found examples of people who at the time they were working on it were 10 years or more away from completing their PhDs. Others were employees of activist organizations, like Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund.

PROSECUTION

But Ms. Laframboise, how is it possible that such people would be in charge of writing such an important report?

LAFRAMBOISE

Well, what you have to realize is that the IPCC is a political organization. As a result, many of the people occupying these important positions in it were appointed for political reasons. Do they represent the right country? Are they of the right gender? Insiders at the IPCC, in an anonymous survey, used words like “they’re not qualified”, “not competent”, “out of their intellectual depth.” Those are the sorts of people being tasked with writing IPCC reports.

DEFENSE

Objection, your honor. Hearsay.

PROSECUTION

Ms. Laframboise has conducted extensive investigation of the IPCC, and has direct knowledge of how its membership is selected.

JUDGE

Objection sustained. The jury will disregard the witness’s last response. Ms. Laframboise, please refrain from offering testimony on behalf of people not present at trial.

PROSECUTION

Let’s try again. Ms. Laframboise, as a result of your research, how would you characterize the process whereby the IPCC members are chosen?

LAFRAMBOISE

It is a very political process. The selection criteria include things like the member’s nationality or gender. Leading scientists may be excluded simply because their views about climate change differ from those of the IPCC leadership.

PROSECUTION

Were you surprised to learn these things about the IPCC, Ms. Laframboise?

LAFRAMBOISE

I was. The reputation the IPCC enjoys in the media, and in the public mind, has been quite high. The reality, sadly, is very different.

PROSECUTION

Why do you think these shocking facts about the IPCC are not more widely known?

LAFRAMBOISE

Well, I think going back to the 1970s, many in the media have basically seen themselves as being on the side of the environmental movement. Journalists have tended to be very uncritical of anyone working on behalf of the environment. So an organization like the IPCC, which is perceived as being part of that tradition, has not been subject to any real scrutiny.

PROSECUTION

So your book represents the first time such scrutiny has been applied to the IPCC?

LAFRAMBOISE

Yes. As an investigative journalist, every time I’ve taken a look at one of these claims about the IPCC, every time I’ve turned over a rock, I’ve found a scandal under that rock. It really is quite amazing.

PROSECUTION

You said your book was published last October, Ms. Laframboise. What sort of response did it receive?

LAFRAMBOISE

Overall, I would say the response has been positive.

PROSECUTION

But not universally so?

LAFRAMBOISE

(smiles)

No, not universally.

PROSECUTION

Which brings us to the defendant, Peter Gleick. Didn’t he write a review of your book on Amazon.com?

LAFRAMBOISE

Yes, he did.

PROSECUTION

Your honor, I would like to enter into evidence Prosecution Exhibit #1, Peter Gleick’s review of The Delinquent Teenager at Amazon.com.

DEFENSE

Objection, your honor. Prosecution has presented no reason for believing that this review, by Amazon user “PGleick”, was actually written by the defendant.

PROSECUTION

Your honor, if you will refer to the exhibit, you will see that the review is associated with a user identified as Peter Gleick of Berkeley, California. The account is associated with a “Real Name” badge, which according to Amazon is an indication that they have verified that the user possesses a credit card in that name. In addition, as will become clear later on during our case, this review played a prominent role in interactions between the defendant and members of the climate-science skeptics community, during the course of which the defendant never sought to disavow authorship of it.

JUDGE

For the purposes of this imaginary trial, I will accept that this item was, in fact, written by the defendant. Objection overruled.

PROSECUTION

Ms. Laframboise, at the time he posted his review of your book, what did you know about the defendant, Peter Gleick?

LAFRAMBOISE

Well, I knew he was a climate scientist. He is president of the Pacific Institute, an organization in Berkeley, California, where he has been involved in climate research for some time. My understanding is that his particular speciality is water issues, but he has also been a prominent voice in advocating for government action on climate change.

PROSECUTION

This review by the defendant: When was it posted? Was it relatively soon after your book came out?

LAFRAMBOISE

Yes, in the first few days, on October 16, 2011.

PROSECUTION

And what did the defendant say about your book?

LAFRAMBOISE

(smiling)

He didn’t like it.

PROSECUTION

Really? What were his objections?

LAFRAMBOISE

He called it “a stunning compilation of lies, misrepresentations, and falsehoods about the fundamental science of climate change.” He wrote that no one need bother to read it, since it contained nothing new, simply lots of “pseudoscience and misrepresentations of science.”

PROSECUTION

But I thought your book was an exposé about the role of politics at the IPCC, not about climate science itself.

LAFRAMBOISE

Yes, that is correct.

PROSECUTION

It sounds like Gleick, a prominent scientist, did not take a very scientific approach to reviewing your book. How do you account for his making such an inaccurate attack on it?

LAFRAMBOISE

I really can’t account for it.

PROSECUTION

Tell me, Ms. Laframboise, how do you respond to these inaccurate charges Gleick made against your book?

LAFRAMBOISE

We need to have a professional, courteous, grown-up conversation about the IPCC. I think it is remarkable that this organization has been around for 22 years, has won a Nobel Peace Prize, is so important and influential, and yet mine is the first book to take a close and critical look at it. If others wish to follow in Gleick’s footsteps and declare that no one needs to read my book, they are welcome to do so. But I don’t think the average person is impressed by that sort of behaviour.

PROSECUTION

Ms. Laframboise, as you are probably aware, this trial concerns a number of actions -- dishonest, unethical, and perhaps even criminal in nature -- that the defendant is alleged to have taken some months after his harshly negative and inaccurate review of your book. Some of those actions he has confessed to, calling them “a serious lapse of professional judgement and ethics”; others he denies. This trial will focus in large part on whether or not those denials are believable. But setting that question aside, what conclusions do you draw from the actions to which he has admitted?

LAFRAMBOISE

Well, I think there are many ways to win the hearts and minds of the public. But anyone who feels the need to resort to dishonesty and unethical behavior would seem to have little faith in their own evidence.

PROSECUTION

In the wake of this scandal, some climate activists have argued that what Gleick did really wasn’t that bad. They say he acted dishonestly and unethically only because he cares so much about global warming, and that the importance of his cause excuses his actions. How do you respond to that?

LAFRAMBOISE

I’m horrified by the moral vacuity demonstrated by those who argue that Gleick’s behaviour is no big deal. An alarming number of them appear to be employed in the sciences. But regardless of their background, I have a question for each of those people: Where do you draw the line? I understand that you think things like lying and stealing and misleading are OK so long as they help advance a good cause. What else is acceptable? Old fashioned burglary? Arson? Car bombs? Where is the line?

PROSECUTION

Thank you, Ms. Laframboise. No more questions, your honor.

JUDGE

The defense may cross-examine.

DEFENSE

(standing)

Thank you, your honor. Ms. Laframboise, if I understand you correctly, one of the shocking things you have discovered is that the IPCC, an international body, includes people from various parts of the world, and of various genders. Is there anything wrong, in your view, with not being from North America, or not being a particular gender?

LAFRAMBOISE

Of course not, as long as the individual is qualified. My sense, though --

DEFENSE

(interrupting)

Please just answer the question, Ms. Laframboise. And would you agree that given the wide-ranging potential impacts of climate change, and the fact that all parts of the world and all genders are at risk from it, that having those groups represented on the panel is important?

LAFRAMBOISE

As long as the panel includes the most-qualified people, yes. In this case, though, it does not.

DEFENSE

Yes, you’ve made your opinions about that clear. Another of the shocking things your investigations have uncovered, I believe you said, is that the IPCC’s membership has sometimes included one or more graduate students who had not yet received their PhDs. Is that correct?

LAFRAMBOISE

Yes.

DEFENSE

You are certainly aware, Ms. Laframboise, that the IPCC does not actually do any climate research itself. It merely summarizes the work that has been done by the world’s climate scientists. Given that, why do you believe that a graduate student, who might well have many years of relevant scientific experience, could not perform that role?

LAFRAMBOISE

The IPCC authors do not just summarize. Climate science is a complex and rapidly evolving field, and the IPCC’s authors, in particular the lead authors, are deciding which research is the most compelling. They have the power of saying, in effect, “this is what the world’s climate scientists believe, this is what we think is going to happen in the future, and this is what we as humans should do in response.” We are depending on their judgement, which makes their qualifications absolutely crucial.

DEFENSE

Let’s talk about this question of qualifications, then. Let’s talk about the expertise needed to reach valid judgements about this “complex and rapidly evolving” area of science. I believe you described yourself as a “journalist, author, and photographer.” Is that correct?

LAFRAMBOISE

Yes.

DEFENSE

Do you have a PhD, Ms. Laframoise?

LAFRAMOISE

No.

DEFENSE

But you at least have a graduate degree of some kind? A Master’s degree, perhaps?

LAFRAMOISE

No.

DEFENSE

Well, do you at least have an undergraduate degree in some scientific field?

LAFRAMBOISE

No. I have a college degree, but not in a scientific field. But I also have have many years of experience as an investigative reporter researching government --

DEFENSE

(interrupting)

What? Not even an undergraduate degree in science? Any science at all? Please tell us, Ms. Laframboise, what field was your degree in?

LAFRAMBOISE

I graduated -- with honors -- with a degree in women’s studies from the University of Toronto.

DEFENSE

Women’s studies. Women’s studies. A reasonable person might conclude, Ms. Laframboise, that your own opinions about climate science are significantly less expert even than those of this hypothetical IPCC graduate student of whom you are so critical.

LAFRAMBOISE

Not hypothetical. There have been graduate students --

DEFENSE

Yes, yes. I am willing to stipulate that among the many scientific experts who have authored the IPCC reports there have been at least a few who had not yet completed their PhDs. But I’m more concerned about this question of your own expertise. Isn’t it true, Ms. Laframboise, that despite your characterization of your book as merely being about the politics of the IPCC, that in fact your book makes numerous claims that the IPCC has got the climate science wrong? And isn’t it true that it is these opinions of yours, based on no scientific background at all, that have caused many experts -- including Dr. Gleick -- to dismiss your attacks on the IPCC as scientifically naive?

LAFRAMBOISE

No.

DEFENSE

No?

LAFRAMBOISE

No, it is not true that it is my lack of scientific credentials that causes them to dismiss my book.

DEFENSE

Well then, please enlighten us, Ms. Laframboise. In your view, what is it that causes them to dismiss it?

LAFRAMBOISE

It is their own arrogance, their own belief, like the delinquent teenager of my title, that their lofty position makes them immune to criticism. The belief that they can do what they want, say what they want, with no accountability, and the rest of us must simply accept it.

DEFENSE

You find that objectionable.

LAFRAMBOISE

Of course. Anyone would, and should.

DEFENSE

Well, at least we’ve established that you find it objectionable. Tell me, Ms. Laframboise: You described yourself as an author. I believe your attack on the IPCC was referred to earlier as your “latest” book. How many other books have you written, besides this one?

LAFRAMBOISE

One.

DEFENSE

Just one? In all the time since you graduated with your degree in women’s studies, all that time as a journalist and author, you’ve written only one other book? When was that book published?

LAFRAMBOISE

In 1996.

DEFENSE

More than 15 years ago. What was its title?

LAFRAMBOISE

“The Princess at the Window: A New Gender Reality”

DEFENSE

Well, at least it sounds like this was a book closer to your own area of expertise. Isn’t it true, Ms. Laframboise, that that book, not unlike your latest one, consists of a lengthy rant in which you take prominent people to task for a long list of failings that you, with your women’s studies degree, feel qualified to lecture them about?

LAFRAMBOISE

I would not call it a rant. The book was critical of what I saw at the time as the failings of feminist leadership.

DEFENSE

Saw at the time? Has the passage of time changed your views about the failings of feminist leadership? Perhaps you have realized that the things you asserted so stridently were more the product of your own need to take down those in authority, to show that you were better than them, than with any actual wrongdoing on their part?

LAFRAMBOISE

The person who wrote that book has continued to evolve. I’m sure there are passages I’d write differently today. Nevertheless, I stand by the book’s main argument: that the North American women’s movement of the 1980s and 1990s had become “extremist, self-obsessed, arrogant and intolerant.”

DEFENSE

Well, perhaps your argument in that case did have some merit. Certainly the feminist movement, and the women’s studies programs it has spawned, have produced their share of arrogance and intolerance. No more questions, your honor.

Defense counsel sits down.

JUDGE

Prosecution? Do you wish to redirect?

PROSECUTION

Yes, your honor. Ms. Laframboise, the defense seems to be of the opinion that you are claiming that your academic achievements studying the role of gender in society are directly relevant to a scientific understanding of climate change. Is that, in fact, a claim you are making?

LAFRAMBOISE

Of course not.

PROSECUTION

In fact, Ms. Laframboise, haven’t you spent much of the last two decades working as an investigative reporter, uncovering wrongdoing by powerful institutions?

LAFRAMBOISE

Yes.

PROSECUTION

For example, you wrote extensively about the case of Guy Paul Morin, a Canadian who had been convicted and imprisoned for a horrific murder. After years in prison, Morin was proven innocent by DNA testing, released, and compensated financially by the Canadian government. Isn’t that correct?

LAFRAMBOISE

Yes.

PROSECUTION

And isn’t it true that in that case, a government inquiry eventually vindicated your reporting, revealing that, in fact, there had been police and prosecutorial misconduct, and misrepresentation of forensic scientific evidence?

LAFRAMBOISE

Yes.

PROSECUTION

And isn’t it true that the skills you acquired in investigations like that are what have allowed you to uncover and document the political failings and misrepresentations of scientific evidence at the IPCC that are described in your book?

LAFRAMBOISE

Yes.

PROSECUTION

Thank you, Ms. Laframboise. Nothing further for this witness, your honor.

JUDGE

You may step down, Ms. Laframboise.

Laframboise leaves the witness box.

JUDGE (CONT.)

I think we could all use a break. Unless I hear any objection, I’m inclined to adjourn for the day. No one? Very well.

The Judge bangs the gavel.

JUDGE (CONT.)

Court is adjourned until the operator of this blog has time to write the next installment.

Exhibits:

Sources used for Donna Laframboise’s testimony:

The (Imaginary) Trial of Peter Gleick – Part 3: Defense Opening Argument

Monday, March 12th, 2012

From the beginning: The (Imaginary) Trial of Peter Gleick.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. It features characters based on real people and evidence based on real events, and is as close to reality as my whim and imagination allow. But it’s completely fake.

INT. – AN IMAGINARY COURTROOM – DAY

We join the court session already in progress. The prosecution has just finished giving its opening statement.

JUDGE

Defense counsel? Will you be making an opening statement at this time?

DEFENSE

Yes, your honor.

JUDGE

Please proceed.

The Defense Counsel remains seated. He or she stares straight ahead, hands laid flat on the surface of the defense table. The jurors are silent, watching. The silence lengthens; five seconds, ten seconds.

DEFENSE

(still staring straight ahead)

The earth... is flat.

The Defense Counsel, still sitting, lays his or her head on the table and sights along it.

DEFENSE (CONT.)

That’s a simple explanation. Right? Nice and simple. Just take a look. Sure looks flat to me. Done.

The Defense Counsel slaps a hand on the table, then brushes both hands together in a gesture of finality.

DEFENSE (CONT.)

Or how about this: The earth is the center of the universe, and the sun and stars revolve around it.

The Defense Counsel points at the ceiling, tracking the path of an imaginary celestial body across the sky.

DEFENSE (CONT.)

Simple. Obvious. I mean, look: There it goes.

The Defense Counsel turns, and for the first time, looks at the jury.

DEFENSE (CONT.)

This case... is simple.

The Defense Counsel stands, then walks into the well in front of the jury.

DEFENSE (CONT.)

The flat earth, the sun and stars revolving around it, the prosecution’s simple explanation for the case of Dr. Peter Gleick: All of those are things that, from a certain perspective, are easy to believe. But in each case, that belief is wrong. Because the earth is not flat. It is not the center of the universe. And the case of Dr. Peter Gleick, when you look at it with an honest and open mind, is anything but simple.

The Defense Counsel turns and walks slowly away from the jury for a few paces, then turns and faces them again.

DEFENSE (CONT.)

William of Ockham. William of Ockham was an English friar who lived in the 1300’s. He’s remembered today for one thing: a principle of logic called “Occam’s razor.” Basically, it says if you have two explanations for something, you should prefer whichever explanation is simpler.

The Defense Counsel smiles, and gestures toward the Prosecutor.

DEFENSE (CONT.)

The prosecution is a big fan of William of Ockham. Because the explanation they want you to believe is a simple one: You’ve got this one guy, the defendant, Dr. Peter Gleick, who admits doing a bad thing. So he must be the bad guy. The people he did the bad thing to, the Heartland Institute? They must be the good guys. So if you’ve got anything else you need to explain, you just find a way to fit it into that theory. There’s a mysterious strategy memo that paints Heartland in a bad light? Well, they’re the good guys, so the memo must not be true. Who would fake such a thing? Oh, right: the bad guy, Dr. Gleick. Easy!

The Defense Counsel brushes his or her hands together and walks briskly away, then slows, stops, and turns back toward the jury.

DEFENSE (CONT.)

Or is it? Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler.” What he meant was, you have to get the facts of the situation first, before you try to come up with a theory to explain those facts. Using Occam’s Razor before you know the facts is a good way to cut your own throat. It’s a good way to come up with a theory that says the Earth is flat, or the sun and stars revolve around it. Sure, it’s simple. But it’s wrong.

The Defense Counsel walks up to the jury box and stands directly in front of it, looking the jurors in the eyes by turn.

DEFENSE (CONT.)

The prosecution has a theory of what happened in this case. Their theory is simple. But it doesn’t account for all the facts. Facts like these:

The Defense Counsel ticks off “one” on his or her fingers.

DEFENSE (CONT.)

Fact: The organization whose internal documents Dr. Gleick obtained, the Heartland Institute, is not some innocent victim, a poor little think tank promoting research and education. They are sophisticated liars, with an extremist ideological agenda and a history of pushing misleading information intended to confuse the public about things like the health risks of cigarettes and the dangers of pollution.

The Defense Counsel ticks off “two.”

DEFENSE (CONT.)

Fact: At least one person associated with Heartland publicly identified Dr. Gleick as the likely source of the leaked documents days before Dr. Gleick admitted doing so. How did that person know Dr. Gleick was the source? Was it from a remarkably astute reading of clues in the strategy memo itself, as the prosecution would have you believe? Or was it that the accuser knew Dr. Gleick was the source, because the accuser had forged the strategy memo himself and intentionally leaked it to Dr. Gleick beforehand?

The Defense Counsel ticks off “three.”

DEFENSE (CONT.)

Fact: Dr. Gleick is not a stupid man. By his own admission he showed bad judgement under pressure, but that’s not the same thing as being stupid. Yet the prosecution’s so-called “simple” explanation requires us to believe that Dr. Gleick, having obtained Heartland’s internal documents, was stupid enough to think it would be a good idea to forge an additional document that made Heartland look worse, even though that additional document contained almost nothing new that was not already present in the legitimate documents.

The Defense Counsel scowls.

DEFENSE (CONT.)

According to the prosecution’s theory, Dr. Gleick was stupid enough to think it would be a good idea to release this forged document along with the legitimate ones, even though Heartland would immediately know it was a fake. Even though he would be handing Heartland a made-to-order way to cast themselves as victims and shift attention to the forgery, rather than to the embarrassing information in the real documents. According to the prosecution’s “simple” theory, Dr. Gleick was stupid enough to think it was a good idea to include a direct reference to himself in the text of the memo, in effect planting a neon sign of his own guilt. Now I ask you, does that sound like the kind of thing that an intelligent man, intent on exposing his enemies’ wrongdoing without revealing himself as the source, would do?

The Defense Counsel walks to the front of the defense table and gestures toward the empty chair left for the defendant.

DEFENSE (CONT.)

The prosecution pointed out for us that Dr. Gleick is not in the courtroom today, and that under our system of justice he is under no obligation to testify against himself. What the prosecution didn’t mention is this: That rule comes from an even more fundamental principle of our system of justice: The presumption of innocence. In a criminal trial, the burden of proof is on the prosecution. They must make their case beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Defense Counselor walks back to the area immediately in front of the jury box and faces the jury.

DEFENSE (CONT.)

The prosecution’s “flat earth” theory, the theory that Dr. Gleick forged the strategy memo himself, is simple. I think it’s too simple. Your job as jurors will be to listen to the facts, all the facts, that are going to be presented in this trial. To weigh those facts honestly, with an open mind. And only then, only after you’ve considered those facts, to decide whether the prosecution’s “flat earth” theory still makes sense, or whether there might be some other theory, not as simple, maybe, but better at explaining what actually happened. And if there is a better theory, or even if you end up deciding that we just don’t know enough to say with confidence what actually happened, well, then your job will be to be honest about that, too.

The Defense Counsel smiles at the jury.

DEFENSE (CONT.)

I don’t know what you’ll end up deciding. I know what I think, but what I think doesn’t matter. It’s what you think that matters. All I ask is that you consider the facts with an open mind. And remember: The earth is not flat. And this case is not simple.

The Defense Counsel sits down.

JUDGE

Very well. I see it is late, and we could all use some rest before the next installment. Next up will be the opening of the prosecution’s case, and the calling of their first witness. For now, though...

The Judge bangs the gavel.

JUDGE (CONT.)

Court is adjourned.

Next: Part 4: Prosecution Witness Donna Laframboise.