Senator James Inhofe seems completely crazy in this clip confusing weather and climate change. He seems to claim that climate change doesnt exist… ’cause snowball. It turns out that a lot of ignorant people make this same mistake, or just choose to ignore science and definitions. Examples here and here.
A sad day for all sci-fi fans. Leonard Nimoy, ‘Spock’ of Star Trek, died today at the age of 83. Check out the beautiful remembrance via NYTimes.
Let’s call it: 30 years of above average temperatures means the climate has changed
If you’re younger than 30, you’ve never experienced a month in which the average surface temperature of the Earth was below average.
Each month, the US National Climatic Data Center calculates Earth’s average surface temperature using temperature measurements that cover the Earth’s surface. Then, another average is calculated for each month of the year for the twentieth century, 1901-2000. For each month, this gives one number representative of the entire century. Subtract this overall 1900s monthly average – which for February is 53.9F (12.1C) – from each individual month’s temperature and you’ve got the anomaly: that is, the difference from the average.
The last month that was at or below that 1900s average was February 1985. Ronald Reagan had just started his second presidential term and Foreigner had the number one single with “I want to know what love is.”
These temperature observations make it clear the new normal will be systematically rising temperatures, not the stability of the last 100 years. The traditional definition of climate is the 30-year average of weather. The fact that – once the official records are in for February 2015 – it will have been 30 years since a month was below average is an important measure that the climate has changed.
How the Earth warms
As you can see in the graphic above, ocean temperature doesn’t vary as much as land temperature. This fact is intuitive to many people because they understand that coastal regions don’t experience as extreme highs and lows as the interiors of continents. Since oceans cover the majority of the Earth’s surface, the combined land and ocean graph strongly resembles the graph just for the ocean. Looking at only the ocean plots, you have to go all the way back to February 1976 to find a month below average. (That would be under President Gerald Ford’s watch.)
You can interpret variability over land as the driver of the ups and downs seen in the global graph. There are four years from 1976 onwards when the land was below average; the last time the land temperature was cool enough for the globe to be at or below average was February 1985. The flirtation with below-average temps was tiny – primarily worth noting in the spirit of accurate record keeping. Looking at any of these graphs, it’s obvious that earlier times were cooler and more recent times are warmer. None of the fluctuations over land since 1976 provide evidence contrary to the observation that the Earth is warming.
Some of the most convincing evidence that the Earth is warming is actually found in measures of the heat stored in the oceans and the melting of ice. However, we often focus on the surface air temperature. One reason for that is that we feel the surface air temperature; therefore, we have intuition about the importance of hot and cold surface temperatures. Another reason is historical; we have often thought of climate as the average of weather. We’ve been taking temperature observations for weather for a long time; it is a robust and essential observation.
Despite variability, a stable signal
Choosing one month, February in this instance, perhaps overemphasizes that time in 1985 when we had a below average month. We can get a single yearly average for all the months in an entire year, January-December. If we look at these annual averages, then the ups and downs are reduced. In this case, 1976 emerges as the last year in which the global-average temperature was below the 20th century average of 57.0F (13.9C) – that’s 38 years ago, the year that Nadia Comaneci scored her seven perfect 10s at the Montreal Olympics.
I am not a fan of tracking month-by-month or even year-by-year averages and arguing over the statistical minutia of possible records. We live at a time when the Earth is definitively warming. And we know why: predominately, the increase of greenhouse gas warming due to increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Under current conditions, we should expect the planet to be warming. What would be more important news would be if we had a year, even a month, that was below average.
The variability we observe in surface temperature comes primarily from understood patterns of weather. Many have heard of El Niño, when the eastern Pacific Ocean is warmer than average. The eastern Pacific is so large that when it is warmer than average, the entire planet is likely to be warmer than average. As we look at averages, 30 years, 10 years, or even one year, these patterns, some years warmer, some cooler, become less prominent. The trend of warming is large enough to mask the variability. The fact that there have been 30 years with no month below the 20th century average is a definitive statement that climate has changed.
The 30-year horizon
There are other reasons that this 30-year span of time is important. Thirty years is a length of time in which people plan. This includes personal choices – where to live, what job to take, how to plan for retirement. There are institutional choices – building bridges, building factories and power plants, urban flood management. There are resource management questions – assuring water supply for people, ecosystems, energy production and agriculture. There are many questions concerning how to build the fortifications and plan the migrations that sea-level rise will demand. Thirty years is long enough to be convincing that the climate is changing, and short enough that we can conceive, both individually and collectively, what the future might hold.
Finally, 30 years is long enough to educate us. We have 30 years during which we can see what challenges a changing climate brings us. Thirty years that are informing us about the next 30 years, which will be warmer still. This is a temperature record that makes it clear that the new normal will be systematically rising temperatures, not the ups and downs of the last 100 years.
Those who are under 30 years old have not experienced the climate I grew up with. In thirty more years, those born today will also be living in a climate that, by fundamental measures, will be different than the climate of their birth. Future success will rely on understanding that the climate in which we are all now living is changing and will continue to change with accumulating consequences.
Participate in Science Friday’s twitter brainstorm #CrimeHeadlinesFrom2025:
Paul spoke at the American Spectator Annual Gala in Washington (at the 10:03 mark), and commented on how he has tried to point out potential areas where government spending could be reduced.
Paul, Feb. 11: Remember when we were talking about Ebola last year? Everybody was going crazy about Ebola, and they’re like, oh Republicans didn’t spend enough at the NIH. And they didn’t spend enough on infectious disease. Turns out, the budget had been going up for years and years at NIH, the budget had been going up for infectious disease. You know how much they spent on Ebola? One-40th of the budget was being spent on Ebola. But you know what we did discover? They spent a million dollars trying to determine whether male fruit flies like younger female fruit flies. I think we could have polled the audience and saved a million bucks.
- Paul claimed the NIH’s budget has been increasing “for years.” That’s not accurate even in raw dollars. And when adjusted for inflation, the budget has actually decreased over the last decade.
- He also suggested the NIH wasted $1 million on a study of whether male fruit flies prefer older or younger females, and in the process he belittled the impact of basic research using flies — which has yielded dozens of discoveries and even a few Nobel Prizes over the last century.
Check out the full detailed article. If you think Rand Paul’s claims are legitimate due to his MD, think twice. Simply having a medical degree does not necessarily equate to understanding science and research. Not to mention, there are some issues with his board certification.
I’m constantly shocked at how ignorant elected decision-makers can be about the very topics on which they make policy decisions (for example…). I don’t think this bodes well for science.
Almost as a followup to our earlier post about How To Piss Off A Scientist, I ran across an article in Daily Beast – The Dumbest Question You Can Ask A Scientist. Kevin Ashton writes a terrific argument that the economic value of any type of basic science is as unknown as the potential discovery.
The dumbest question you can ask a scientist—or any other creator, inventor, or discoverer—about his or her work is, “What’s the economic value?”
Ashton includes historic scientific findings that at first seemed to have little or no economic value, but wound up having huge economic value – Hertz discovery of electromagnetic waves and Dobson’s discovery of atmospheric ozone.
Using quotes from physicist David Kaplan, in response to being asked what the value of finding the Higgs Bosun would be. Ashton examines the value of basic science more closely.
Add in the fact that the point of basic science is to know what’s unknown, and we see that the dumbest question requests the unknowable value of the unknowable consequences of an unknown thing.
The work of basic scientists like Hertz, Dobson, and Kaplan can only be driven by curiosity, not purpose. What is the value of a particular curiosity? There is no way to know in advance. Discovery is curiosity’s product; everything else, including immeasurable economic value, follows. We cannot know the worth of something we have not yet discovered. In science, as in all truly creative work, the joy is the rainbow, not the hope of gold at the rainbow’s end.
Be sure to read this beautiful piece by Marcelo Gleiser praising the work of neurologist, writer, and chemist Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Turned Life Into Magic), who recently revealed in the New York Times that he has terminal cancer. I have had the pleasure of reading a number of Sacks’ books and seeing him give a terrific talk in Philadelphia a few years ago. Oliver Sacks is among the strongest of my inspirations for studying the brain!!
Oliver Sacks is a rare soul-reader among us, a golden heart that beats in resonance with an enlightened intellect and a refinement of feeling that finds the humanity cloistered in the deepest recesses of a damaged life. The stories he tells are the stories of his patients, but also his own; he knows and tells us, beautifully, how each experience touches and transforms his own, how each tale he narrates becomes part of his own narrative, his own life story. In this, and in writings such as Uncle Tungsten or Altered States, his New Yorker essay on hallucinatory drugs, we learn that to Oliver life is a grand experiment of the human condition, an experiment that can only bear fruit if we have the courage to engage fully with it. Oliver is the bravest man I know.
From Science Careers, check out the humorous list:
- Make sweeping generalizations about scientific concepts based on one data point. Start them with “my friend knew this guy …” or “once I heard someone say on the bus …”.
- Ask what the scientist is working on. When the scientist responds, immediately zone out. There, that feels better.
- Make important equipment unavailable for a petty logistical or political reason. “Sorry,” you’ll tell a scientist, “I know you need to use that instrument, but the Highly Arbitrary University Office of Too Many Administrators has instituted Unnecessary Form 722A-01, which you can’t fill out until you’ve finished the Completely Irrelevant Online Training Seminar, which requires a Creepy Background Check at the Obscure Basement Office You Can’t Find, That Doesn’t Understand What You Do, And Is Always Closed. But you can’t do any of this, because Rival Grumpy Professor is in charge of the program and is still upset that someone in your lab gave someone in his lab herpes in 1977.”
- Tell the scientist you’re kind of a scientist yourself because you watched an episode of Cosmos and part of Shark Week.
- Move their beaker off the stir plate.
- Give the scientist an unimportant-sounding title, like associate research fellow or postdoctoral technician. Apart from pissing off the scientist, this has the added advantage of keeping the scientist’s college friends content that they made more intelligent career decisions than the scientist did.
- If you’re the scientist’s spouse, say something like, “You know what would be great? If your lab would let you work part time. Do you think they’d let you do that?”
- Assign the scientist to mentor a series of thoughtless, pretentious, disinterested high school students whose parents work in the next building. Good morning, Madison and Caleb. Can you please finish your Starbucks coffee in the hallway? Can you please not touch that instrument? Can you please—no, I’m not on Tinder. No, I don’t have time to watch a Vine video of your buddies doing parkour. What do you mean you’re going home for the day? You’ve only been here half an hour. What do you mean you want a reference letter?
- Suggest that vaccines cause paper cuts, that global climate change is a result of lesbian weddings, that the Earth is 239 years old, and that evolution can’t be real because look how goofy this sloth is.
- Require PIs to find meaningful employment for all postdocs leaving their labs. Panera Bread doesn’t count, not even the management track.
- Call a scientist with a Ph.D. “Mr.” or “Ms.” If they kindly correct you and say, smiling, “Heh, technically, it’s ‘Dr.,’ ” ask to see their medical license, and then instruct them to Google “average medical doctor salary.”
- Stand on the scientist, unzip your fly, and go for it. (Read the title of this article out loud a few times—there, now you understand.)
- Let the scientist watch while you ask an average ninth grader to add one-digit numbers without a calculator.
- Invite an unassailable seminar speaker—someone with clout, tenure, or just a personality more assertive than most scientists (which doesn’t take much). Ask this person to present nonsensical results based on a bombastic and misinformed theory. Force the scientists to applaud. Forbid snarky questions.
- When asked to review a scientist’s publications, take full advantage of your anonymity and reject them for reasons that make the scientist say, “Wait, what?” For example, if a paper used a sample size of 100 subjects, write something like, “The sample size should have been >50 subjects!” Wait, what?
- Tell the scientist the day before the new semester begins that he or she has to teach a large section of a new class designed to bring communications and geography majors up to speed on basic quantum thermodynamics. Provide no educational resources, teaching assistants, or additional salary. Spread a rumor that the class is an easy “A” and that the professor will happily admit new students at any point during the semester.
If the scientist isn’t pissed off yet, don’t worry; there are still plenty of beakers to move, stir plates to commandeer, and arbitrary intellectual barriers to construct. Because that’s what pisses off scientists most of all: taking away their ability to freely ask and answer questions.
Also, decaf coffee.
Great post from ‘The Lab and The Field’ about the influence of money on science and diversity in science!!!!
Money — it’s the crux of just about everything we do in science. Want to bring in a new student or staff member? Money. Want to do field or lab work? Money. Want to go to a conference? Money. It’s one of the things we expect scientists to be good at (and which is also a full-time profession in and of itself).
I get particularly cranky when I see money used as a barrier to diversity. I’ll explain with two examples that have recently piqued my interest.
The first is something I’ve discussed before – paying staff. I highly recommend Auriel Fournier’s post on the same topic. For me, it boils down to a simple axiom: no money = no staff. You’ll note this is similar to the currently accepted adages “No money = no gas”, “No money = no lab analyses”, and “No money = no milk for…
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