Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Maybe the answer was no, after all

Martin Cothran did me the favor of correcting my usage of English as a part of his response to an earlier post. I somehow mixed 'disparagements' and 'aspersions' into the accidental portmanteau 'dispersion', even though there is a homonym with no relation at all to the meaning of 'aspersion' or 'disparagement'. Frankly, it would not surprise me at all if Cothran can "speak it [English] more competently than I". Certainly, one of his duties for the Kentucky version of Focus on the Family is to make speeches, and I have no such experience. Although, since I don't believe he has ever heard me speak, he probably meant write, and I would not be surprised if he did that better, as well. Since my original comment was quoted as "It turns out his English is not nearly sufficient to warrant [Cothran's] casting of dispersion on other posters, or maybe it's his grade-school-level-science that is lacking", I have no problem accepting it's a matter of grade-school-level-science.

So, that's probably a couple of tally marks on his side of the ledger. Of course, based on his post, on my side of the ledger there would be the ability to apply logic to a daily situation, the ability to separate experts from non-experts, an ability to better read English, and a grasp of the differences between short-term and long-term phenomena. I'll address those points below the fold. Of course, I probably shouldn't be keeping score, that's just the gamer in me coming out.

The first point, Cothran's apparent inability to apply logic to a daily situation, is pointed out by Cothran's continued confusion of temperature with precipitation (not to mention apparently missing the implication of the "or" in the quote above). While Cothran is busy blogging about snow levels, 2009 was the second warmest year in the modern era. That means that every year of 2000-2009 is in the top twelve years, IIRC. It seems a simple concept: you measure warmth by looking at temperatures. Even in grade school we learned the difference between a rain gauge and a thermometer. Of course, Cothran teaches as a Christian school, so science is probably low in their curriculum priorities. At any rate, given his continuing difficulties distinguishing between precipitation and temperature, maybe he would refuse to wear a coat in a freezer.

For the second point, who does Cothran point to as authorities making predictions concerning global warming? Politicians. When I want advice on how a law is made/executed/adjudicated, I'll go to a politician. When I want direction on a scientific prediction, I'll go to scientists. I'm just crazy that way.

Of course, some people are probably thinking to themselves that Cothran did also link to an IPCC report. This is indeed a good authority, and if Cothran was not lacking in his basic ability to read English, he might have even interpreted this authority correctly. However, contrary to the assertion "But it's the IPCC saying that Global Warming is inconsistent with increased snowfall", there is not one part of that article which predicts decreased overall snowfall. In fact, the article specifically predicts increased precipitation, and lists snow as one type of precipitation that will increase. For example,
Because precipitation comes mainly from weather systems that feed on the water vapour stored in the atmosphere, this has generally increased precipitation intensity and the risk of heavy rain and snow events.
The only place where reduced snow is mentioned is
As temperatures rise, the likelihood of precipitation falling as rain rather than snow increases, especially in autumn and spring at the beginning and end of the snow season, and in areas where temperatures are near freezing. Such changes are observed in many places, especially over land in middle and high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, leading to increased rains but reduced snowpacks, and consequently diminished water resources in summer, when they are most needed. Nevertheless, the often spotty and intermittent nature of precipitation means observed patterns of change are complex.
So, the prediction is for more precipitation overall, including heavy snow, but in the spring and autumn and in a couple of geographic locations some of the snow will be replaced by rain. This was a very readable and accessible document that Cothran completely inverted the meaning of.

Finally, we get to the difference between long-term and short-term phenomena. One extra-hot year one continent is not proof of global warming. So far, the overall temperature increase since the 1960s is less than two degree Celsius, well with typical temperature variation on a single continent from year to year. By the same token, even if 2010 was a cold winter, one cold year on one continent is not proof against global warming. However, we don't even have a cold month here: February 2010 was one of the hottest Februarys ever (again, the difference between temperature and precipitation). So, here is my response to the challenge
Now maybe One Brow could explain how more snow at lower latitudes is consistent with Global Warming.
It's really quite simple: we had more snowfall at lower latitudes and one of the warmest Februarys ever. That occurred at the same time, therefore they are consistent. QED

Maybe, when he has time, Cothran will use his superior English writing skills to tell me how it can be disadvantageous to have a scientific theory? I am much more interested in that question than in climate, frankly.

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

On the disadvantages of a scientific theory

Of course, the first question to ask is: how is a scientific theory supposed to be disadvantageous? Does having a working, tested, reliable explanation for a phenomenon somehow put a person at a disadvantage over someone who shrugs his shoulders and says "Dunno"?

The reader might find this a strange topic, and frankly, so do I. However, it has been brought to my attention, via this post on Vital Remnants, that a least one legislator in Kentucky thinks there can be a disadvantage inherent to having a scientific theory, as stated in Kentucky House Bill 397. Text of the bill and commentary are below the fold.

Here is the entire bill:
AN ACT relating to science education and intellectual freedom.
Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky:

(1) Teachers, principals, and other school administrators are encouraged to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories being studied.
(2) After a teacher has taught the content related to scientific theories contained in textbooks and instructional materials included on the approved lists required under KRS 156.433 and 156.435, a teacher may use, as permitted by the local school board, other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, including but not limited to the study of evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.
(3) This section shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.
(4) This section may be cited as the Kentucky Science Education and Intellectual Freedom Act.

Thank goodness there is not one, but two separate religious disclaimers located in the text. Otherwise, given the specific mention of evolution, abiogenesis, global climate change, and cloning, people might think that the inclusion of the specific scientific topics that have mountains of religiously-motivated denialist materials published might stem from a religious motivation. Actually, I think I have come to that conclusion despite the disclaimer. Maybe the next time some legislator with more faith than brain offers a bill that's designed to undercut science, they could refer to the so-called controversies in physical science (Is the earth really flat?), physics (Can something move faster than light?), or geology (Is the earth 6000 years old?). That should fool everyone, right?

Still, it's pretty amusing to see how desperate the IDers have become. After packing their beliefs as 'equal time' and critical analysis' and watching them both get smacked down in court, after 'strengths and weaknesses' has become a non-starter, they keep trying to peddle the same book in a new cover, and today's cover is 'advantages and disadvantages'.

On another note, I have never heard an elementary/secondary teacher complain that they ran out of material to teach in science class, and need to introduce entirely new conversations regarding the material. Much more common is to hear that there is so much to teach and so little time. So, who does this legislator talk think has all this time in class anyhow? Perhaps those who are personally opposed to teaching the scientific consensus?

Also, it shows a very basic misunderstanding of science to talk about promoting critical thinking skills and logical analysis applied to scientific theories. Scientific theories are the results of applying critical thinking skills and logical analysis to evidence. This is like saying how buttered toast would be tastier if you put some butter on it, of that you could improve the game of basketball if you used a ball. Of course, there would be a lot to be gained from showing how critical thinking skills and logical analysis of the evidence has led to the theories, but that's not in the text of the bill, nor is that the purpose of the bill.

So, going back to the original question: what are the disadvantages of scientific theories? In some ways, I think that was answered in the previous paragraph: they come from using critical thinking and logical analysis of the evidence. If there is one thing the religious groups do not want to see, it is critical thinking skills and logical analysis applied to their beliefs and the evidence they present for those beliefs.

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