Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Real Virtual Shopping

The benefit of shopping in a real, brick and mortar store as opposed to online on your phone is that you can physically touch and manipulate the items prior to purchase. The downside is less convenience, you actually have to go somewhere rather than sit on your couch.

Conversely, the benefit to shopping on your phone is that you don’t have to go anywhere, you can do it from home. The downside is that the only information available to you about the items is what is provided in the app. 

Having said all that, this sounds really stupid. You have to go somewhere to shop with your phone. All of the drawbacks, none of the benefits. I guess its considered avant-garde or something. Try as you might to make this sound good from an urbanist perspective, the empty lots will remain empty lots with all of the same problems they had before. 

The technology is cool, but a good way to buy your groceries this is not. 

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In this piece, for example, the author pats himself on the back for his “paper output” and high h-index. The h-index is a count of papers published that factors in how many times those papers have been cited. It’s a better metric than simply a paper count because it attempts to assess quality under the assumption that quality can be measured by citation. Good papers are cited more than bad ones, in theory. That’s fine, but it’s still a measure inherently based on total output. 

Judging the quality of a scientist by publication volume has always bugged me. Lets say I do a thorough, solid experiment that involves several steps. Maybe first I do some tests to figure out how to control for something. Then next I do some to figure out the best conditions to use. Then, finally, I do my experiment under the conditions and controls I determined earlier. Because I did the first two steps, the third should give me a very nice, definitive data set. If I publish it all, it will make a great paper. If I did my job right, after you read my paper you shouldn’t be left with any doubts along the lines of “well, maybe, but you didn’t account for so and so…” because I already thought of possible problems and did the initial steps to solve them, and included that data. 

But I’m being judged on number of publications, so rather than write one thorough paper I’ll split it up into three, none of which can really stand on their own. That doesn’t help me (you’ll read my paper and say “wow what a piece of shit this experiment is, they didn’t even take so and so into consideration” and so you’ll think I’m an idiot for it) and it certainly doesn’t help anyone who reads the paper. 

The h-index weights a straight paper count by incorporating how often those papers get cited, so its a bit better, but still problematic. For one thing, most papers start out in the Introduction section with some perfectly obvious, banal fact. “As a result of increasing oil prices, alternative forms of energy are attracting significant interest”. People feel the need to cite that All. The. Time. so a great many citations to a paper don’t necessarily cite the results, or some new method, but just some obvious statement that sets up the intro. 
Further, lets say I want to raise my h-index. I’ll start by writing lots of short partial papers like I mentioned, and I’ll get all my friends together. We all agree to cite each others papers every time. Or I could cite myself. Or, as an anonymous reviewer, I could demand others cite me In other words, game the system with a bunch of useless, incestuous citations.

Scientists naturally want to develop a system to quantify everything. That makes sense. But when assessing research, counting papers and citations just doesn’t cut it. You have to read papers, and decide whether or not those papers are good. Output based standards are lazy methods of evaluation that incentivize bad, lazy science. 

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Sullivan passes along a study on stress related hormone levels is homosexual and heterosexual people:

Perhaps most significant, though, was the secondary finding that they hadn’t even been searching for: In their study, lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals all tended to have lower stress levels and a smaller chance of depressive symptoms if they’d come out to friends and family than those who’d kept their sexual orientation a secret. “Coming out,” the authors write, “may no longer be a matter of popular debate, but of public health.”

His qualifier: “the study’s limited sample size means that these results can’t be interpreted as definitive, and further study is needed to confirm that they hold true on a widespread level.”

I suppose that makes sense, though I  would add a second, though related qualifier. Closeted individuals, by definition, don’t tell people about their sexual orientation. That includes researchers. It is impossible to control for a variable like closeted homosexuality, as you have to rely on the subjects self identification. The heterosexual control group may or may not have contained closeted individuals. We can’t be sure, by definition. Given that the incidence of homosexuality in the general population is very low, a large enough sample size could correct for this, as the study’s author alluded to.

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Don’t much care about any of the substantive points raised here, but I do want to point out that online grocery shopping is not about protecting the environment. I find it very hard to believe that such a system would be more environmentally friendly than our current system. I suspect they would net out roughly the same, as each system has different exploitable energy efficiencies not possible in the other.

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A week ago I wrote this post about weapons used in violent crimes and it has since become the most popular post on the blog. A lot of folks seem to be referencing it, if my incoming links stats are to be believed. In one case, the argument in which I was referenced was taking place on an open forum so I took a look. Someone provided my numbers which the person they were arguing with immediately ignored because “you’re going to trust some random WordPress site?” Fair enough. I would be skeptical too. That’s only one case but I imagine its a common response. But that is exactly why I use, whenever possible, publicly available data from a reputable source and I cite it directly. In fact, I try not to use any data here that I wouldn’t use in a peer reviewed journal. So, random internet arguer, you don’t need to trust me, because you can check my work if you’re so inclined.

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If you’re anything like me, you probably found the worst part of the Presidential debates to be the section on energy. Essentially, the candidates spent a couple minutes arguing over Solyndra and then a couple more seeing who could say the most nice things about West Virginia’s 5 electoral votes coal, then they reached a consensus that neither of them actually care when they could be arguing over who is the better job creator instead. 

So I was glad to see that an entire debate was held between the campaigns on energy at MIT. Here’s the transcript. The candidates themselves weren’t present, but their (high level) campaign surrogates were, which I suppose is the best we can hope for in what 99% of the public would find to be an excruciatingly boring debate put on by a bunch of MIT nerds. Romney was represented by his campaign’s domestic policy director, Oren Cass, and Obama by former White House energy and environment adviser Joe Aldy. I won’t write up a complete play by play commentary here, but I do want to point out a couple things. 

On the question of government incentives to spur energy innovation, Romney’s campaign would focus on basic research, rather than direct subsidies to specific companies (read: Solyndra). It kind of gets lost in an argument over wind subsidies, but both campaigns are really saying the same things here, that basic research is something the government should be doing. They both go on to praise ARPA-E (a DOE energy research funding program, modeled on a defense research funding program). The Obama campaign also sets a solid benchmark: a goal of 80% “clean energy” by 2035 in the power sector (ie electricity, not liquid transportation fuels). The problem is that coal and natural gas are included as clean energy. I’m less concerned about the carbon emissions aspect of this (and this holds true for my views on energy as a whole) than I am about the non-renewable nature of these fuels. My concern with a heavy reliance on coal and natural gas is that we will run out of both of these things, and find ourselves in the same boat down the road. We would be better served by renewables. 

The Romney campaign’s follow-up to that is, I think, very troubling (emphasis mine):

I think an interesting thing that Joe mentioned that begins to raise deeper issues about the president’s plan is that he frequently cites job creation as the goal. If job creation is the goal for energy policy, and Governor Romney believes it should be, then we should be focusing our energy policy in a direction that creates jobs. Now it is true that jobs are created assembling wind turbines, assembling solar panels, but in fact, the jobs that are destroyed and eliminated elsewhere in the economy every time we do that are significantly larger.

There is no evidence, frankly, that the sorts of investments the president is making in green energy are superior to using the far more economically effective energy technologies we already have available, and as with almost every area of technology we see, the best way to produce those innovations is not, again, through government choosing which technologies are best, but through actually encouraging innovation in the private sector.

Job creation is a wonderful, important thing. I support it! But it should not in any way be the goal for energy policy. As an added benefit, awesome, but not the goal. The goal of our energy policy absolutely must be to find a way to obtain energy sources that we can continue using for some time. Again, I don’t view this as much as an environmental issue (though it certainly is) than an issue of having the energy we need to do the things we want to do. Continued reliance on fossil fuels, coal and natural gas included, doesn’t fit the bill. We can and should continue our use of fossil fuels, but they will become progressively scarcer and more expensive, and will by necessity be phased out. We need renewable energy to fill their gap. Now is the time to find those sources, before we experience significant disruptions to our economy. Disruptions which, by the way, will have a massively larger impact on jobs than any individual policy we could argue over in this area.

In an exchange about shale gas, we get back into the argument we heard at the Presidential debate over drilling on federal vs. non-federal land. I really don’t undertand the distinction. It seems like a way to cherry pick the data to make a point, and the whole thing is being used as a proxy for an argument over the role of government. That’s all fine, but when it comes down to the actual issue of energy, 1 BTU derived from federal land = 1 BTU from private land. 

On the issue of “energy independence”, the Obama campaign’s answer acknowledges that the energy market is global. This is an important fact that I think is often misunderstood. Even if the US has the necessary energy production (from whatever sources) to meet 100% of its demand, it still participates in a global market. Some of that energy will be sold abroad and some domestically. We will likely never encounter a situation where we utilize only what we produce. 

The Romney campaign defines energy independence as “the economic activity associated with energy production is something that occurs here, so that the wealth that we are seeing experienced in the places that we import from now is instead occurring in our own communities.” But in the very next sentence he goes on to say we need to expand production in Mexico and Canada! 

In an exchange regarding explicit subsidies for various energy sources, The Obama campaign makes what I think is a very important point:

Now when we actually think about reforming these, I think it’s important that’s there some who say, let’s just have a level playing field. Let’s get rid of all the subsidies. Now when you’re doing that, you may say, hey, we don’t want to pick winners, but you are picking winners. First, those who have benefited by subsidies for an incredibly long time, the incumbents in the fossil fuels that have benefited from subsidies for, in the case of oil, nearly a century, they’re winners. They’ve become established, and they will actually benefit if you got rid of all of these.

Exactly. “Leveling the playing field” automatically hands advantage to oil, as the incumbent. Now you may say that this is just the free market at work, and that’s a perfectly reasonable opinion. But my problem is that markets are reactive, not pro-active. The free market case goes that when, for example, oil is no longer preferable, market forces will shift towards renewables (or whatever, non-oil). In the time it takes to make that shift, though, we will be hobbled by soaring energy prices. That will be crippling for the economy. Why, when we know that oil will become increasingly scarce, wait on the market signals? Best to develop the alternatives now, in my opinion, in order that they are ready for deployment when needed. 

The argument then goes on to what counts as a subsidy, and gets a little semantic, but neither side makes what is, to me, the obvious point. The largest government subsidy in the energy sector is the United States Military. The global flow of oil is secured in large part thanks to the fact that anyone who decides to block our flow of sweet, sweet crude will find themselves on the receiving end of a carrier battle group. This is never brought up in the discussion of energy subsidies, or cost/benefit analyses, but it is very significant. If we didn’t have oil to secure, our role in the middle east would be much reduced. 

On the topic of coal: Everyone loves it! West Virginia, 5 EV, etc. The debate quickly becomes a he said / she said on the job killing EPA and the cost / benefit of “clean coal” (ugh), but the Obama campaign makes the fundamental point when talking about the coal industry’s future:

In fact, when you actually look at the analysis, EPA did not say there’ll be no new coal plants because of this regulation. They actually said that because of natural gas prices, we don’t foresee any new coal plants coming online. So they actually estimated that there is not this burden on the coal industry because they are going to have challenges with new plants competing with natural gas.

Exactly right. Coal simply is not competitive with cheap natural gas. That’s just the reality of it. If you want coal to be a big part of our energy future, you have to shut down shale gas or heavily subsidize coal. Romney’s campaign can’t go all free market on us while simultaneously talking up coal’s bright future. Sorry, West Virginia. Yes, EPA regs will exacerbate coal’s problems, but they’re icing on the cake. Coal is going down in the face of cheap natural gas, with or without those job killing lazy socialist bureaucrats at the EPA. 

On the policy steps each campaign would take to reduce carbon emissions, Romney’s campaign makes the crucial point:

China’s increases in coal consumption are extraordinary. In fact, over President Obama’s term, for every 1 unit of coal that has been cut in the United States, China has increased its consumption by 10. And so in that context, for the United States to take action to drive up the price of carbon in this country to try to reduce emissions is not going to address what is a global problem. What it is going to do is hurt our economy very seriously, and it’s going to drive a lot of industrial activity from the United States to countries that are frankly much less efficient in their use of energy. So the positive benefit is weakened even further in that respect.

I don’t agree with the economic analysis here, but I’m glad Romney’s camp recognizes that carbon emissions are a global issue, and that the energy appetite of developing countries is voracious. Our reductions will pale in comparison to others’ increases. Now I don’t think that’s a reason not to attempt to curb our own emissions, but it’s an important aspect of the situation to recognize. Improving our efficiency and switching to renewable forms of energy will reduce our emissions, and have the benefit of reducing our demand for non-renewable energy! We can’t just ignore the problem because China. 

On the larger question of climate change, this came as news to me:

So what Governor Romney has said about climate change generally is that he believes its occurring, that he believes human activity contributes to it, but that he thinks there’s absolutely still a debate around the extent of — on both of those factors, and the nature of the threat that that poses. And so he certainly supports continued scientific inquiry in that respect.

Mitt Romney: Not a “climate denier”? Who knew? Don’t tell the Republicans. 

This post is already long and rambling so I’ll wrap it up. In my opinion, the largest problem we face on the issue of energy is that we rely on non-renewable sources which we will exhaust, at massive cost to our economy and society. We must find reliable, renewable alternatives. The issue of energy is largely misunderstood, and its discussion typically comes down to tree hugging hippy liberals vs. greedy pollution loving conservatives, but that’s a silly framing. Overall this was a good, substantive, and informative debate. I wish people knew it actually happened, and I wish the candidates themselves could engage in a debate like this, on this and every other issue. We would be a lot better off. 

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Obama got a little jab in at Romney in a speech in Iowa:

Noting that the Republican candidate has criticized wind energy, saying a windmill can’t be put on top of a car to power it, Obama had a zinger.

“I don’t know if he’s actually tried that,” Obama said. “I know he’s had other things on his car.”

I’m not going to comment on the Seamus thing because I think it’s dumb, but I am going to defend Romney here because he’s right. He’s making a distinction that most people seem to forget when they’re talking about alternative energy sources, the difference between electricity and liquid transportation fuels. I hear this mistake constantly from folks on the left, and it annoys me to no end. Energy sources such as wind and solar generate electricity, which you can’t use to drive around in your car unless you own an electric car, which most folks do not. And so we need to distinguish between alternative electricity sources and alternative liquid fuel sources (biodiesel or ethanol, for example). Those two can be used to drive around in your car.

So when you hear people say things like “we shouldn’t do biodiesel / ethanol because we should do wind / solar instead”, they’re comparing two things that shouldn’t be compared. That is not a criticism of wind energy because we need electricity too. It’s just an important distinction to make. We need both electricity and liquid fuels, but when we talk about alternative energy everyone seems to think that their favorite source should be done at the expense of all others, ignoring the important distinction. We can and should do both.

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