Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 19, 2008

BLINDING US WITH SCIENCE.... Earlier this week, introducing Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu as the next Energy Secretary, Barack Obama made a pointed claim about his upcoming administration: "His appointment should send a signal to all that my administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action."

Yesterday, Obama's commitment to restoring the role for science in government was reinforced even further.

In a sign that President-elect Barack Obama intends to elevate science to greater prominence, John P. Holdren, a Harvard physicist widely recognized for his leadership on energy policy and climate change, will be appointed White House science adviser this weekend, the Globe confirmed yesterday. [...]

"I think they'll be restoring the role of science in the federal establishment," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge-based advocacy organization. "We've got a bunch of people across the [new] administration who get it." [...]

Holdren, who was an adviser to the Obama campaign and a member of a scientific advisory committee to President Bill Clinton, is a specialist on energy, climate change, and nuclear proliferation.

Now, "White House science adviser" may sound like an impressive honor, but it's actually a post with key responsibilities. Joseph Romm noted yesterday that the position "oversees science and technology funding, analysis, and messaging for all federal agencies." Romm also said the combination of Holdren and Chu sends a signal that Obama is "dead serious about the strongest possible action on global warming," adding, "[A]fter eight years of Bush spreading disinformation and muzzling scientists, putting Holdren in charge of the 'bully pulpit of science' is just what the nation and the planet need if we are to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic warming."

What's more, I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention that Obama is also poised to introduce Oregon State University marine biologist Jane Lubchenco as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which adds to the sea-change in elevating the importance of science in the next administration.

The Washington Post explained that Lubchenco is "a vocal proponent of curbing greenhouse gases linked to global warming," and her appointment represents a "radical" departure for NOAA under Bush.

We're talking about science-related choices from Obama that are, for lack of a better word, enlightened. After eight years in which science, reason, and evidence have been treated with disdain, when they weren't being ignored altogether, it's going to be a breath of fresh air.

Steve Benen 8:00 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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Godless liberals and their monotonous obsession with measurable data! No wonder you tightasses don't know how to enjoy a good religious war, a nice pogrom or an innovative alternative biology class.

Posted by: shortstop on December 19, 2008 at 8:38 AM | PERMALINK

Gaia abides...

Of course it is already too late:

Scientists studying sea ice will announce that parts of the Arctic north of Alaska were nine to 10 degrees warmer this past fall, a strong early indication of what researchers call the Arctic amplification effect. That's when the Arctic warms faster than predicted, and warming there is accelerating faster than elsewhere on the globe.

In the 70s Buckminster Fuller called it accelerating accelerations. He was right of course. Just wrong about the timeline. When his predictions in the 70s didn't manifest in the 80s it led to the Reagan 90s and the war against treehuggers.

Today we call Fuller's ideas the "tipping point." The moment when the oceans can't absorb any more carbon and all sorts of exponential changes echo through the biosphere.

In other words: Huge swathes of humanity are buggered:

Two other studies coming out at the conference assess how Arctic thawing is releasing methane - the second most potent greenhouse gas. One study shows that the loss of sea ice warms the water, which warms the permafrost on nearby land in Alaska, thus producing methane, Stroeve says. A second study suggests even larger amounts of frozen methane are trapped in lakebeds and sea bottoms around Siberia and they are starting to bubble to the surface in some spots in alarming amounts, said Igor Semiletov, a professor at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. In late summer, Semiletov found methane bubbling up from parts of the East Siberian Sea and Laptev Sea at levels that were 10 times higher than they were in the mid-1990s, he said based on a study this summer. The amounts of methane in the region could dramatically increase global warming if they get released, he said. That, Semiletov said, "should alarm people."
Posted by: koreyel on December 19, 2008 at 8:50 AM | PERMALINK

shortstop: pfft!

really, why get all worried about facts when you have the bible? it's all true, because the bible says it's true! (cue image of my dog chasing his own tail)

Posted by: Personal Failure on December 19, 2008 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

It may be that many of us are well and truly screwed, but it is hard to see how a determined effort to minimize the damage could be a bad idea.

In the very unlikely event that the danger of global warming is actually greatly exaggerated, the steps taken to minimize the danger will still have been beneficial.

Posted by: Ethan on December 19, 2008 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK

And it is more likely than not that Koreyel is unduly pessimistic....not that I take much comfort from that.

Posted by: Ethan on December 19, 2008 at 9:18 AM | PERMALINK


Unfortunately, koreyel maybe closer to the truth. Scientists have been very conservative in their time-lines so far. Case in point, less than a few years ago the general consensus was that the arctic cap would be ice free during summers by 2050-2070. One scientist,Wieslaw Maslowski, however, insisted that the loss was accelerating much faster and that modelers were greatly underestimating the processes driving sea ice loss. He was considered on the fringe. However, his use of advanced high-resolution regional models that accounted for oceanic advection have proven for more accurate than the IPCC's. 2005 and 2007 were record shattering years for arctic ice-loss and the current ice loss is well ahead IPCC's more conservative projections.

Posted by: palinoscopy on December 19, 2008 at 9:49 AM | PERMALINK

Oh, I failed to mention that Maslowsk's models had predicted the arctic-cap to be ice free during summers by 2013. That prediction was before the 2005/2007 data. He now thinks that 2013 prediction may have been "conservative".

Posted by: palinoscopy on December 19, 2008 at 9:54 AM | PERMALINK

But doesn't the selection of Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation negate all this?! That matters more than anything!!

Please devote twelve more posts to that!!!

Posted by: Brian on December 19, 2008 at 10:18 AM | PERMALINK


Sadly, I don't think that Koreyel's claims are unlikely, just that a massive global population crash is still probably avoidable. I will accept "maybe closer to the truth" as technically accurate. Living in Canada, I do hear a fair amount about the Arctic.

Posted by: Ethan on December 19, 2008 at 10:21 AM | PERMALINK

It is encouraging to see that Obama recognizes that science, facts, and verifiable evidence play, or should play, an important role in policy making. Hopefully these "enlightened" choices will be given the freedom to act free of ideology or undue political pressure. The "know-nothings" are still with us and won't be quiet. The Congress is full of them. Brownback and Imhoff being among the worst, and requiring scientists of high caliber to interact with such jerks is demeaning, frustrating, and tiring.

Obama is also signalling that the celebration of redneck anti-intellectualism, the hallmark of Bush's regime, is over. But weeding out Bush's incompetent appointments, and the useless cronies that have inserted into the bureaucracy will take time, effort and resources. What's needed at many of these agencies is a blank slate, which the civil service rules won't permit.

However, the reality-based community has been thrown a lifeline. Let's hope it doesn't snap.

Posted by: rich on December 19, 2008 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

Thomas Dolby!!! I heard this song on the radio a few days ago.

Ahhhh the 80's.

Posted by: ET on December 19, 2008 at 10:42 AM | PERMALINK

Ignorance of science isn't limited to the wingnuts.

True story, relayed to me by someone in the room: One time, Richard Nixon asked his science advisor if there was a away to repeal the law of gravity...

Posted by: artsmith on December 19, 2008 at 11:11 AM | PERMALINK

I guess there were no beauty pageant directors or recent Oral Roberts University graduates to fill these important jobs.

Posted by: Winknandanod on December 19, 2008 at 11:52 AM | PERMALINK

Mmmmmmm Bucky Fuller.

No love from me until he makes the captial hill dome a geodesic. And bans the teaching of Euclidian Geometry in schools. That's change I can believe in.

Posted by: mark r on December 19, 2008 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK

So why the fuck are you burning the midnight oil over Rick Warren?

Doesn't that seem like a big waste of time?

Posted by: Paul Camp on December 20, 2008 at 3:32 AM | PERMALINK



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