2011 - %3, December

The Problem With Science

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 7:57 PM PST

Earlier today, having nothing better to write about, I wondered how many people believe that it's warmer in summer because the earth is closer to the sun. In a highly unusual display of how the blogosphere is often alleged to work but usually doesn't, Michael O'Hare provides an answer. Or close to an answer anyway: Back in 1987, a documentary filmmaker asked 23 graduating Harvard seniors why summers are so hot, and 21 of them thought it was because the earth was closer to the sun than during winter.

The cynical among you might figure that if 9% of Harvard seniors get this right, maybe the general population would clock in at something more like 20%. But probably not. Most likely, it means that 5% or less of the broad public has any idea why we have seasons.

Interestingly, Mike then brings up an analogous scientific question that I was going to mention because I got it wrong for a very long time myself. Namely, how does an airplane wing work? I had long been under the impression that it had something to do with air traveling faster over the top surface, thus producing a vacuum and generating lift. But just like the orbit of the earth, which is quite obviously not a good explanation for the seasons since it's summer in Australia at the same time it's winter in London, this is quite obviously a lousy explanation for lift since planes can fly upside down.

I felt less bad about this, though, when I realized I was wrong and went looking for the correct explanation. It turns out it's fearsomely complicated. As Mike says:

Unfortunately, a real model of lift involves some very hairy differential equations. If you calculate the pressure difference between the top and bottom of a conventional wing from Bernoulli’s equation, and the implied velocity difference, you do not get the lift on a unit length of wing; you get a meaningless number. The simple model allows something that looks a lot like science (it has an actual quadratic equation!), but this teaching convenience requires students to build a wall between what they know to be true from real observation and what’s expected on the exam.

If you're curious, go here for the common but incorrect (or at least woefully insufficient) explanation of how a wing works. Then go here for a long, but nonmathematical, version of the correct explanation. Oddly enough, both come from the same site. Alternatively, you can watch the video above, which has almost comically exciting Michael Bay-esque production values but is sadly no more accurate than your typical Transformers flick.

Another example of an incorrect but common scientific model is the Bohr atom, in which electrons are treated like planets in orbit around a nucleus. Unfortunately, as wrong as it is, it has some genuine pedagogical usefulness, and I find myself occasionally resorting to it because I know that trying to explain what electron orbitals really look like is just a hopeless task in a casual conversation. I once had a chemistry textbook that showed the shapes of the first dozen or so orbitals on its inside cover, and I wish I still had it. Those pictures are handy, and I've never found them in a convenient place anywhere else.

But does any of this matter? Mike thinks it does:

Very few people have occasion to intervene in aeronautic design or planetary motion [or quantum mechanics –ed.], but there’s a lot more science, like heat transfer in and out of your house, that can hurt you if you don’t really get it, and still more, like climate science, that will hurt all of us if we go on voting in profound ignorance. Teaching science like religion is a practice embedded both in the curriculum and the pedagogy, not to mention how easy it is to test without, like, having to find out whether any actual learning has occurred.

I wish I agreed with this. And of course, I do agree with it. Sort of. But the plain fact is that most of us know virtually nothing, and we've been voting in profound ignorance for a very long time. What's more, I'm aware of very little evidence that a better educated electorate produces better overall governance. But I sure would love to see some. It might restore some of my faith in democracy.

Next up: why do cats always land on their feet?

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Quotes of the Year

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 3:56 PM PST

Fred Shapiro, associate librarian at Yale Law School, has released his sixth annual list of the year's best quotes. Enjoy.

  1. "We are the 99 percent." — slogan of Occupy movement.
     
  2. "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for." — U.S. Sen. candidate Elizabeth Warren, speaking in Andover, Mass., in August.

  3. "My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress." — Billionaire Warren Buffett, in a New York Times op-ed on Aug. 15.

  4. "I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy." — Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman in an Aug. 18 tweet.

  5. "Oops." — Presidential candidate Rick Perry after unsuccessfully attempting to remember the third federal agency he would eliminate during a Nov. 9 debate.

  6. "When they ask me, `Who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan?' I'm going to say, `You know, I don't know. Do you know?"' — Then-presidential candidate Herman Cain in an interview by Christian Broadcasting Network on Oct. 7.

  7. "I am on a drug. It's called `Charlie Sheen.' It's not available because if you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body." — Actor Charlie Sheen in a February interview with ABC News.

  8. "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." — Apple co-founder Steve Jobs' last words on Oct. 5, as reported by his sister Mona Simpson in her eulogy.

  9. "I can't say with certitude." — Then-U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner on June 1 when he was asked whether a lewd photograph was in fact him.

  10. "Instead of receiving the help that she had hoped for, Mr. Cain instead decided to provide her with his idea of a stimulus package." — Lawyer Gloria Allred on Nov. 7 discussing Herman Cain's alleged sexual harassment of her client. 

Occupy's Next Target: The Iowa Caucus

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 3:48 PM PST

On October 22, more than 100 Occupy Iowa activists gathered outside President Obama's campaign headquarters in Des Moines to protest his failure to stand up for the 99 percent. That same day, John Stauber, the founder of the corporate watchdog Center for Media and Democracy, suggested in a Truthout op-ed that the protest could be the start of something bigger. "In Iowa an Occupy Obama movement has real potential because it could choose to become a player in the Iowa caucuses in a way that is much more than symbolic," he wrote. "Occupy Obama activists could show up at the caucus meetings in January, for instance, and organize support for an Uncommitted slate of Occupy Obama convention activists." In other words, determined occupiers could inject some unexpected turbulence into Obama's glide path toward being named the Democratic nominee.

A group of Occupy Iowa organizers has adopted that very idea and has expanded it to include both parties' caucuses on Tuesday, January 3. According to Drew Veysey, a 24-year-old Iowa native who is promoting Occupy Iowa Caucus, the goal is to elect members of this "informal Occupy Wall Street faction" as uncommitted delegates to the Democratic and Republican national conventions next year.

An active member of Occupy DC who recently returned to the Hawkeye State, Veysey explains that Occupy Iowa Caucus "does not disrupt the system but uses the system against itself, because the system itself is wrong. It is not democratic. It is not representative of the people's wishes. If the system were representative of people's wishes, there would be no Occupy movement because it would not be necessary." He adds, "I realize it is a long shot. But we feel we have to try. There is almost nothing to lose."

10 Gifts to Give the Ocean

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 3:23 PM PST

NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response.NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response.

What to give that favorite ocean on your list? Here are 10 little presents that say "thanks" in a big way to the  big-wet-deep-dark-mysterious lifegiver to us all.

Credit: DanCentury via Flickr.Credit: DanCentury via Flickr.

1) On your next visit to the ocean—or any of its feeder rivers, lakes, streams, or ponds—pick up trash. Every piece of (mostly) plastic you carry away will spare the ocean pollution lethal to life.

Credit: Buzz Hoffman via Flickr. Credit: Buzz Hoffman via Flickr.

2) Report garbage on the beach via this smartphone app to the Marine Debris Tracker project.

Via Project Aware.Via Project Aware.

3) If you're a diver, join an underwater clean-up group, like Project Aware, and report into their Dive Against Debris dataset.

Credit: reuvenim via Flickr.Credit: reuvenim via Flickr.

4) Reconsider synthetic fleece. As new research shows, its microfibers wend their way from your washing machine through wastewater treatment plants to become yet more plastic pollution in the ocean. (MoJo's Tom Philpott wrote more about that here.)

Credit: Justin Gaurav Murgai via Flickr. Credit: Justin Gaurav Murgai via Flickr.

5) If you eat ocean animals or plants, consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list for what's sustainably fished and what's not. Use its recommendations to double-check the recommendations of the Marine Stewardship Council... the group that "vets" seafood sold at Whole Foods and many other markets and restaurants, but that's been making dubious judgement calls of late.

Credit: colros via Flickr.Credit: colros via Flickr.6) Avoid ocean-based remedies and natural medicines like shark cartilage, fish oil (use flaxseed), coral calcium (leafy green veggies are better), plus ingredients (like dried seahorses) in some "herbal" medicines—or any other stuff taken from the sea that may or may not make you healthier but will sicken the ocean.

Credit: irmiller via Flickr. Credit: irmiller via Flickr. 7) Use ocean-friendly sunscreen at the ocean, river, lake, stream, or pond where you swim. Up to 600 tons of the stuff gets washed off, or washed downstream, into the ocean ever year, carrying all kind of nasties with it. Plus sunscreen may not be so good for you as you think. Here are tips for some better choices.

Credit: Ryan E. Poplin via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Ryan E. Poplin via Wikimedia Commons.

8) If you keep a saltwater aquarium, buy only fish certified by the Marine Aquarium Council.

Credit: Lee R Berger via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Lee R Berger via Wikimedia Commons.9) Forgo the purchase of ocean souvenirs—objects or jewelry made of coral, sea shells, nautilus shell, dried seahorses—anything that had to be killed and removed from the ocean in order for you to take it home.

Credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service via Flickr.Credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service via Flickr.10) Learn more about the ocean. Our well-stocked brains are good for the ocean and all living things.

Happy Holidays!

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Inefficient Lighting

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 3:23 PM PST

Blue Marble readers are no strangers to the multi-year war on efficient lighting undertaken by congressional Republicans. In the name of freedom, they have tirelessly campaigned to overturn a 2007 law, despite the fact that it didn't actually ban incandescent bulbs—it merely required all bulbs to use less energy. Well, last week Republicans succeeded in delaying the new law from going into effect until next October, ten months later than it would have otherwise.

But here's the kicker. Despite all the outrage generated by the GOP about how the bulb law is destroying American business, motherhood, and apple pie, the lighting industry is actually all for it. And manufacturers are annoyed that the law has been delayed, as Politico reports today:

Big companies like General Electric, Philips and Osram Sylvania spent big bucks preparing for the standards, and the industry is fuming over the GOP bid to undercut them.
After spending four years and millions of dollars prepping for the new rules, businesses say pulling the plug now could cost them. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association has waged a lobbying campaign for more than a year to persuade the GOP to abandon the effort.
Manufacturers are worried that the rider will undermine companies’ investments and "allow potential bad actors to sell inefficient light bulbs in the United States without any fear of federal enforcement," said Kyle Pitsor, the trade group’s vice president of government relations.

It's funny. The only time the GOP seems dedicated to "freedom of choice" is when it involves lighting products.

I Am Confused About Lightbulbs

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 11:52 AM PST

The lightbulb industry is upset over Republican efforts to halt the new energy efficient lightbulb standards:

Big companies like General Electric, Philips and Osram Sylvania spent big bucks preparing for the standards, and the industry is fuming over the GOP bid to undercut them....Manufacturers are worried that the rider will undermine companies’ investments and “allow potential bad actors to sell inefficient light bulbs in the United States without any fear of federal enforcement,” said Kyle Pitsor, the trade group’s vice president of government relations.

I have multiple reactions to all this:

  • This law was surely accompanied by the worst PR campaign in recent human history. How many people know, even now, that it didn't ban incandescent bulbs and force us all into a Stalinesque hellscape of flickering, antiseptic CFLs? That all it did was set new efficiency standards for incandescent bulbs? Practically no one, judging from the endless wails on the internet.
  • On the other hand, I confess that the unanimous support for these standards from the lighting industry gives me pause. Industries only support laws that will improve their profitability in one way or another, so I assume that this law does exactly that. This is, obviously, not inherently good for consumers.

But put that aside for the moment. Here's what I really want to know, but can't seem to get a firm grip on no matter how hard I try: were these new energy efficient incandescents really going to be available for mass consumption by January 1? Philips EcoVantage bulbs seem to have gotten positive reviews, though they're expensive and it's not clear just how widely they're available. But what about the others? Here's a brief paragraph from LEDs Magazine:

The legislation will initially impact lamps with 1700-lm output (typical of 100W-incandescent lamps) beginning in January, requiring 30% more efficiency. Incandescent lamps would not likely meet those guidelines, making LED-based solid-state lighting (SSL) or compact-fluorescent lamps (CFLs) the primary consumer choice on store shelves.

What's the real story here? Can anyone tell me? If the new bulbs were on track to be available from lots of manufacturers at a reasonable price, then delaying the new law is probably dumb. But if they're not, then delay was probably justified. Here in the real world, what's the skinny?

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Winter Is Nigh

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 10:24 AM PST

Brad DeLong reprints this old piece of dialogue from Calvin and Hobbes:

Calvin: Since September it’s just gotten colder and colder. There’s less daylight now, I’ve noticed too. This can only mean one thing — the sun is going out. In a few more months the Earth will be a dark and lifeless ball of ice.

Dad says the sun isn’t going out. He says it's colder because the earth’s orbit is taking us farther from the sun. He says winter will be here soon.

Isn’t it sad how some people’s grip on their lives is so precarious that they’ll embrace any preposterous delusion rather than face an occasional bleak truth.

Just out of curiosity, I wonder how many people believe that the reason it gets colder in winter is because the Earth is farther away from the sun? This despite the well-known fact that it's currently getting warmer in Australia.

I would like someone to do a survey on this topic. Thank you very much for your consideration.

Republicans Are Lunatics, Part CCXIV

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 10:06 AM PST

The spectacle of President Obama practically having to beg Republicans to approve a tax cut beggars the imagination. So when I read last night that the House GOP had decided to turn down the latest payroll tax compromise, I was left speechless. Thus the silence on the blog. This morning, then, I'll turn over the mike to Greg Sargent, who's made of sterner stuff than me:

Conservatives have a variety of explanations for opposing the compromise. One is that it’s only two months. But as Ezra Klein and Steve Benen point out, they won’t agree to a clean year-long extension, which is why the shorter-term one had to be negotiated in the first place. Another claim is that the Senate deal isn’t really a compromise, as GOP Rep. Tom Cole put it. But Republicans got their number one priority — the Keystone XL pipeline — included in the deal, while Democrats dropped their number one demand, i.e., that the extension be paid for by a millionaire surtax. Senate Republicans overwhelmingly supported the deal. If this deal isn’t a compromise, then the word has lost all meaning for conservatives, which may be the real story here.

A third reason is that a two-month extension is bad politics for Republicans. On a conference call, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy reportedly argued against the compromise partly because it would allow Obama to again browbeat Republicans into extending the tax cut during his State of the Union address in January. Such balanced priorities!

In any case, my advice is the same as always: just pass the tax cut without paying for it. That's both the best and the easiest option. You'll be doing the country a favor and you'll be home in time for the solstice.

Hungary Test Drives Newt's Plan for the Judiciary

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 9:49 AM PST

Over at Paul Krugman's place, Kim Lane Scheppele describes how the new Hungarian government has consolidated its grip on power by effectively dismantling the judiciary

The Constitutional Court, which once had the responsibility to review nearly all laws for constitutionality, has been killed off in three ways. First, the government expanded the number of judges on the bench and filled the new positions with their own political allies (think: Roosevelt’s court-packing plan). Then, the government restricted the jurisdiction of the court so that it can no longer review any law that has an impact on the budget....Finally, the government changed the rules of access to the court so that it will no longer be easily able to review laws in the abstract for their compliance with the constitution.

....The ordinary judiciary has suffered a similar fate. The government lowered the retirement age for judges from 70 to 62....More than 200 judges will be forced to retire from the bench starting on January 1, including most of the court presidents who assign cases and manage the daily workings of courts....The law on the judiciary also creates a new National Judicial Office with a single person at the helm who has the power to replace the retiring judges and to name future judges.

....The independence of the judiciary is over when a government puts its own judges onto the bench, moves them around at will, and then selects which ones get particular cases to decide.

This sure does sound familiar. As near as I can tell, Newt Gringrich would approve of all of this. I wonder if anyone's asked him what he thinks of recent events in Hungary?

The Weirdest Thing About the North Korea Succession

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 6:02 AM PST
Same as the old bosses.

With the death of Kim Jong Il, questions regarding succession and the North Korean power structure are front and center. It's been nearly three years since Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il's third son, was nominated to succeed his father. On Monday, North Korea's state media referred to Kim Jong Un as the "Great Successor," and called on the people to "faithfully revere" the 20-something, Swiss-educated heir apparent who would guide them in changing "sadness to strength and courage [to] overcome [the day's] difficulties."

Kim Jong Un is the late dictator's youngest son. For a terse primer on why Kim Jong Nam, the eldest son, is not a shoo-in to become the next Supreme Leader, read the last lines of the AP obituary that ran Sunday night:

His eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, 38, is believed to have fallen out of favor with his father after he was caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport in 2001 saying he wanted to visit Disney's Tokyo resort. His two other sons by another woman, Kim Jong Chul and Kim Jong Un, are in their 20s. Their mother reportedly died several years ago.

Until this incident at what is now Narita International Airport, the older sibling had been expected to take the reins following Kim Jong Il's death. In the years since the 2001 micro-scandal, Kim Jong Nam has openly admitted that he is "not interested in the politics" of his country, and has immersed himself in a cushy lifestyle with two wives, a mistress, and a few kids stashed away in mainland China. It's funny to think that this despot-kin-turned-full-time-playboy (those are fairly typical of oppressive regimes) blew his chances at the big title because he wanted to lounge around a Disney tourist trap in Japan. (The faux pas seems even sillier when you factor in just how sensitive North Koreans are about anything involving the Japanese, seeing as how they haven't even started to get over the whole 35-years-of-brutal-occupation thing.)

So you can sort of thank the combined efforts of Mickey Mouse and 20th-century Japanese imperialism for ensuring the rise to power of Kim Jong Un. And thus a grad-student-aged, binge-drinking, 200-pound Kobe Bryant fan who reportedly has issues with hypertension and diabetes will likely become the next ruler of a nuclear-armed state that has one of the most appalling human rights records in the world today.

The more you learn about North Korea's totalitarian ruling family, the more they come off like a sick cross between The Godfather, Arrested Development, and certain scenes in Zoolander.