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09/24/2005

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Palooka

"There is never complete certainty in scientific matters, but the efforts of a minority of scientists to debunk global warming are beginning to resemble the efforts of a minority of scientists to debunk evolution."

Outrageous! The US has experienced an average increase of one-half of one degree fahrenheit over the last one hundred years, Judge Posner.

The hottest decade of the last century was the 1930s. And much of the warming that is recorded is likely due to land-use changes, not increases in greenhouse gases.

Nobody disputes that global temperatures (as recorded, at least) have warmed slightly in recent history, but that's not the issue. The issue is what proportion of that warming is due to human influence, and if that influence can be reversed.

Your suggestion that Katrina is due to global warming (which is due to human activity) is wreckless and totally without foundation. There isn't, as I understand it, even a consensus on whether global warming will increase hurricane intensity, let alone that the recent hurricanes in the Gulf are due to global warming due to human activity. Some of the most respected hurricane scientists in the world sharply disagree that recent events have anything to do with global warming, but you instead wish to slander them as crackpots and outsiders.

Also, the much-needed efforts to reduce spam preventing me from posting comments on your last entry. Just a heads up.

Wes

Refusal to recognize developments that may make the future differ from the past is illustrated by a comment which states that only the United States has the technology necessary to create devastatingly effective bioweaponry.From a certain perspective, the common flu is devastatingly effective bioweaponry. It kills roughly 30,000 people a year in the United States alone. The question at hand is what it would take to develop a disease substantially worse than already exists in nature. Re-releasing something like smallpox that previously existed in nature is an interesting way to avoid having to create a new disease. Whether smallpox is substantially worse than other diseases that still exist in nature is unclear.Now, on to the facts......scientists could if they wanted to, and if they could get hold of smallpox virus,To the extent that Islamic fundamentalists in caves in Afghanistan are able to get hold of the smallpox virus, it will only be because the USA or Russia makes it available to them (if only through inadequate security).make the virus immune to existing vaccinesWhether new diseases develop in nature or are created by humans, the USA and other developed countries should have the ability to produce new vaccines quickly in large quantities. It should be noted that vaccines are by no means the only way to avoid infection (eg. staying away from the sick people is also quite effective).and even more lethal than it is in nature, where the death rate is 30 percent.Obviously a disease needs to do more than give people a slight cough for a few days in order to be a devastating bioweapon but, for diseases that produce the necessary symptoms (eg. lethality), achieving high rates of infection is actually the difficult part.Because smallpox is highly contagious even before symptoms appear,That's not what the CDC says on their website:"Exposure to the virus is followed by an incubation period during which people do not have any symptoms and may feel fine. This incubation period averages about 12 to 14 days but can range from 7 to 17 days. During this time, people are not contagious.""A person with smallpox is sometimes contagious with onset of fever (prodrome phase), but the person becomes most contagious with the onset of rash. At this stage the infected person is usually very sick and not able to move around in the community. The infected person is contagious until the last smallpox scab falls off.""Generally, direct and fairly prolonged face-to-face contact is required to spread smallpox from one person to another. Smallpox also can be spread through direct contact with infected bodily fluids or contaminated objects such as bedding or clothing. Rarely, smallpox has been spread by virus carried in the air in enclosed settings such as buildings, buses, and trains. Humans are the only natural hosts of variola. Smallpox is not known to be transmitted by insects or animals."and its initial symptoms are ambiguous,If the CDC can be believed, a person actually has very distinct symptoms (the "pox") by the time they are contagious and they are too sick to move around the community.hundreds of millions of people could be infected before the epidemic was even discovered,Even assuming the initial infection event went undetected, based on what the CDC has to say about transmission, it seems more likely that at most a few thousand people would be infected before a correct diagnosis was made.and there would no vaccinated health workers or security personnel to enforce a quarantine.Right, so health workers and security personnel should avoid "direct and fairly prolonged face-to-face contact" with people who are sick (eg. wear a protective face mask)....it is expected that the smallpox virus will be synthesized within five years;This synthesis will require much more sophisticated equipment than is found in caves in Afghanistan.That is our future.As opposed to our past where smallpox was rampant throughout society and there was no vaccine or even an understanding of how the disease was transmitted.I'm actually a big fan of disease prevention research including outbreaks of diseases resulting from intentional infection. I actually agree that the US government should be devoting non-trivial resources to bio-terrorism. I certainly hope that somewhere in the vast bureaucracy of the US government someone is making plans to deal with a re-release of the smallpox virus should that occur.It's also important, however, not to let recent events like September 11th or opportunism with respect to the world's natural resources distort our perspective on likely dangers. I am much less worried that some Islamic fundamentalists in a cave in Afghanistan will create some new disease that is substantially worse than already exists in nature. I am much more worried that the United States will either create such a new disease itself or that the United States, in its zeal to prevent someone else from creating a new disease, will initiate a conflict that escalates into World War Three.

Jim Hamister

To suppose that an established trend is bound to continue is to be guilty of naïve extrapolation

In other words, this time things are different? This is not strong support for your arguments. Since material welfare has gone up substantially while population has grown, wouldn't your counter argument require much stronger support than you have presented?

Also, the challenges with bio terrorism seem to me to have little relationship to population growth or climate change. Is your point that sometimes things are different?

Sylvain Galineau


History is not extrapolation; by letting us compare the predictions of the past with what actually happened, it allows us to identify those among today's predictions that are most likely to be flawed or proven wrong, because they make the same incorrect, self-defeating all-things-being-equal assumptions.

As for global warming, nobody denies temperatures have risen, just like nobody denies temperatures were cooling for about 40 years until the early 80s (remember the coming 'global ice age' ?). What is being debated is the role human activity plays in this and this is hardly a fringe topic. One cannot criticize extrapolation when it suits him and casually dismiss those who point out the inherent fragility of 100-year global weather forecasts - assuming such things can even be done - as irrelevant.

There is one extrapolation that can probably be made reliably : those who blundered hugely in the past, predicting widespread starvation from overpopulation, desertification, promised shortages and depletion of many commodities, assuring us of a coming ice age etc will still be given attention tomorrow.

Sylvain Galineau

One last comment : Mr Posner's argument against those who work at 'debunking' global warming theories seems to be that their view is a minority one. It may be so today, but this does not prove them wrong, nor does it prove the success of the alternative explanation to be purely scientific. The implicit underlying view of the scientific community - that it is immune to significant mistakes, financial or political incentives - is naive.

Mr Posner's cigarette smoking example is a good one : after taking second-hand smoking for granted for over 20 years, we are only now hearing strong dissenting views. If this cannot be conclusively settled over a couple of decades, can we really trust the apparent consensus over something as complex as long-term global weather patterns that emerged over a decade or so ?

Dan MV

Jim and Sylvain:
You've both misinterpreted Posner here.

"To suppose that an established trend is bound to continue is to be guilty of naïve extrapolation"

Jim, Posner is not here trying to establish that there is global warming; he's providing a counter to the argument apparently advanced by Sylvain...

Sylvain, the counter he's making to your argument is that it is not the case that all induction is created equal. The gambler who makes this argument:
"The horse always wins on the first tuesday of the month. It's the first Tuesday of the month. I'll bet on the horse."

is extrapolating from past events to future events, but his method stinks! Your method may be better than my gambler's, but it is hardly scientific - at least as it's presented here.

Sylvain:
"The implicit underlying view of the scientific community - that it is immune to significant mistakes, financial or political incentives - is naive."

No one is arguing that science is immune to error, but contemporary science is humanity's best attempt at real knowledge. The only reasonable course of action for a non-scientist to take when confronted with an issue that requires knowledge of science, is to defer to the scientists.

Sylvain Galineau

Dan, I did not misunderstand Posner; you, however, clearly misunderstood me. Here is my argument, using your own analogy : "Three months ago, I bet on this horse because he always won on the first Tuesday of the month. I lost. I made a similar bet on a greyhound the following month. I lost again. I then bet on a boxer who always wins in Vegas in February. He also lost. My betting strategy does not work and cannot be relied on to produce consistent results."

Likewise, when past predictions have been proven spectacularly wrong, those contemporary predictions that use similar or even identical arguments - usually simplistic all-things-being-equal extrapolations - can be relied on to produce similar results. There is nothing unscientific about this. On the contrary, the argument is both logical and rational.

Second, that science is 'humanity's best attempt' might a comforting warm-and-fuzzy generality, but as such it is as vague as it is irrelevant in evaluating whether a specific theory is able to produce useful information abot possible future outcomes for the purpose of decision or policy making.

Our best might not be enough. Our best can, has been, and is, very often, dead wrong.

The only reasonable course of action for non-scientists is to inform themselves as best as they can by going as close to the source as they can, instead of blindly deferring to authority or rather, as if too often the case, unsubstantiated appeals to authority by unreliable non-scientist interpreters whose agenda or motives might be anything but scientific.

Maybe you are happy to defer to others, even when you have no means of knowing or understanding whether you in fact should, on no other basis than their credentials or position.

I need more. Science is a process. It is uncertain, changing and constantly evolving. Today's majority may turn into tomorrow's minority. There are gaps, unknown and assumptions galore. What we do not know is often more important to understand than what we think we know.

And since you're a non-scientist, how would you know which scientist to defer to anyway ?

N.E.Hatfield

Yep! That's the scientific process, there is no hypothesis validity until it becomes so apparent that even the grade school kids can reproduce the effects in class. Ahh, the scientific method and the pursuit of truth!

And much like Faust, we have struck a bargain with the Devil. Hopefully, we'll be able to ride the tiger instead of being eaten by it. ;)

ben

Global warming is a profound danger to human welfare. Granted, there is still some scientific debate over global warming, but increasingly it resembles the scientific debate over the health consequences of cigarette smoking. There is never complete certainty in scientific matters, but the efforts of a minority of scientists to debunk global warming are beginning to resemble the efforts of a minority of scientists to debunk evolution.

My comments are not grounded in disbelief of global warming or denial that humans have contributed to it in some amount. They are grounded in skepticism that raising the price of gas without limit is ultimately in the interests of humans in view of the high up front costs and questionable long run benefits in the form of reduced global warming.

To my knowledge there is no serious view that any human response is capable of reversing global warming, only of delaying the arrival of higher temperatures. The question is not whether humans are causing warming, but whether it is in our interests to delay warming or to instead deal with the consequences.

It is a truly complex question with myriad trade-offs. For example, consider that while very high energy prices will reduce output of greenhouse gases, the cost of transitioning to an economy based on other fuel types will damage economic growth and delay the arrival of higher incomes and new technologies, among them environmentally friendly energy. Which effect on human welfare dominates?

Under a human welfare standard, or even the simpler environmental welfare standard, there must be a hundred other second order trade-offs to consider before reaching a view as to whether higher energy costs are in fact in our interests. I am skeptical that Posner or anyone has enough information to resolve enough of the tremendous uncertainty around the question to reach a position. That is why I think Posner's view is ultimately grounded in belief not reason. His off-target response only helps that perception.

Posner refers us to his book, which I shall read with interest.

I do not deny climate change is occurring, nor do I expect all uncertainty to be resolved before a positive response to global warming becomes appropriate. But I am not yet convinced enough is understood about the problem to allow any kind of weighing of the evidence. Posner's apparent confidence is therefore suspect.

GaryGech

I took a course on the subject of biological computing in college which was about gompterization curves.

These curves are used all the time by oncology researchers to look at tumor mass and growth.

The problem with applying these curves to human populations is that we don't really know the carrying capacity.

There is no benefit to being Malthusian, I believe if that were the case, England would have lost World War II.

As far as I can see, women and men have been having children since anyone can remember. The earliest policy to control population that was recorded was in Egypt relating to the ancient Hebrews.

This was a very unpopular policy and led to the Exodus.

Any good conference on population genetics should recognize this important case study. If you try to limit the population growth of people, many people who are good will leave.

That is why America is so populated. We depend on immigration and internal population growth.

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Anonymous

"There is never complete certainty in scientific matters, but the efforts of a minority of scientists to debunk global warming are beginning to resemble the efforts of a minority of scientists to debunk evolution."

It's not exactly the same. There certainly is differing levels of available evidence, especially given the chaotic nature of weather systems.

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