Posts tagged with Science
You may not realize it but we are getting a good lesson about the way science works, or at least should work. The lesson involves an independent study of planetary temperature data designed to examine some of the global warming skeptic's concerns about the nature of the data used in previous studies on climate change. The new study was conducted by a group of scientists involved in a project called BEST- the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature study.
Some of the study's conclusions include the following:
- The heat island effect in urban areas is not biasing the estimates of land surface temperature.
- Poor quality weather stations are also not biasing the global estimates of land surface temperature.
- Adding more temperature data gives results that are consistent with those in previous studies.
- The best fit to to the data-(BEST did not use traditional climate models but a correlational approach) are a model that combines volcanic activity (the effect by the way is to cool climate) and carbon dioxide concentration. Variation in solar input is NOT an explanatory factor in current climate trends.
The BEST group has submitted their analysis and results for publication and what is really admirable have opened up their data sets and analytical methods to public scrutiny. The study by the way was funded in part by the Charles Koch foundation.
Now it easy to say well we knew a lot of this stuff from current work-but an important aspect of science is the confirmatory aspect of science- it's what should enable us to gain confidence in our ideas-while others fall by the way side as not tenable. I don't expect these results to convince every one and they may also be flawed in ways that aren't immediately obvious. But maybe they will nudge the scientific and political debate to where we can have a serious talk about how to deal with global warming.
The BEST Website is at http://berkeleyearth.org/
There is also an interesting commentary from the study's principle investigator who has changed his mind and global warming and it's causes based on the results of the study.
Several people have reported seeing these wonderful insects over the last couple of days. These are sometimes called velvet ants. They are not ants but mutillid wasps. The females are wingless and usually brightly colored-orange or orange and black, though a few are grey. The males are winged. The females are enter the burrows of ground nesting bees and wasps and lay their eggs on or near the larvae of their host. The eggs hatch and the Mutlillid larvae feed on the host's larvae.
Mutillids can pack a powerful sting-especially the one pictured here. That probably is the origin of the other common name as a figure of speech- "Cow Killer." The females are extremely active and never seem to stop moving so it is difficult to get a decent picture of them. Fortunately I had a plastic lid to a lens filter handy and was able to trap this one long enough to get a good shot.
There has been a lot in the news about the great drought of 2012 and what the high temperatures might be telling us about what is happening to climate. So rather that rely on "some people say" as a source, I decided to check climate data from NOAA to get some perspective on the situation. NOAA has a great time series of statewide data for important weather parameters including average temperatures, precipitation and several measures of drought severity.
First of all how does 2012 stack up so far temperature wise for Kansas?
My firs NOAA data plot shows June's historical temperature data just by itself:
Notice that June just by itself really isn't so extreme historically. But my impression as a biologist who spends a lot of time doors, is that this year HAS been abnormally warm so lets look at year to date historical data shown in my next plot:
This shows a quite different story. As you can see the year to date temperature through June is very extreme. The year to data average temperature for the state is 55 degrees F. The next closest year to date average for Kansas appears to be 1986 at 54 degrees F. Going back to the 1930's, 1934 is the dust bowl year that comes closest at 53 degrees F. So temperature wise- so far this year is historically abnormal. However many of the record highs of the 1930's still stand.
Another concern is of course the several drought and NOAA provides several drought indices. Not being familiar with how these indices relate to each other I chose just to plot the basic Palmer Drought Severity index which uses local temperature and precipitation data to provide an index of drought severity that can be used to examine historical data: Negative values of the index represent more severe local drought conditions.
Notice that 2012 does not even come close in severity to the earlier droughts, including some relatively recent droughts of the 1980's. What is interesting is that the Palmer index suggests that the drought of the mid 1950's was in some respects more intense than the drought of the 1930's.
So the data suggest that yes it has been really abnormally warm so far in 2012. On the other hand the Palmer data suggest that the current drought is not (At least through June) as severe as a number of other droughts we have had.
One problem we have of course looking at historical data is that agricultural practices have changed since the 1930's. Much of the marginal land that was farmed then is not farmed now or is farmed using large scale irrigation. Farmers today tend to use tillage and other conservation practices that that probably are moderating local temperature and precipitation to some degree compared to earlier years. This might explain the greater number of extreme highs during the 1930's when conservation practices were not as widespread.
If you want to have your own fun looking at climate data, check out the NOAA site at:
There is a pull menu where you can select your state or region. You can also filter the data in various ways. This is a good way to check one's perceptions of climate change against historical data so you won't have to rely on what "some people say" or the infamous "they say" as a data source!
A link the drought indices is here: http://www.drought.noaa.gov/palmer.html
If you are into looking at extremes in terms of temperature and precipitation weather underground has a link to climate data. Go to www.wunderground.com and select the climate tab. Have fun!
Should kids learn about Math?
A bit sexist, but the parallels with Kansas and what certain presidential candidates say about science needs no additional comment from me. ;-)
You may have noticed these large wasps flying around and making burrows in loose soil.
They may look fierce and frightening but they are actually not very aggressive. These are Cicada Killers and the female digs burrows in loose soil and she provisions the nest with cicadas that she paralyzes by stinging them before carrying them to the burrow. It is possible to be stung by these wasps but you have to little put your hand on one to get stung-which is a pretty stupid thing to do. The sting hurts momentarily and the site doesn't seem to swell as a hornet or paper wasp sting does.
How do I know this? Well, guess who was stupid.
At The University of Kansas they used to aggregate around the entrance of Strong Hall - the entrance facing Snow Hall. I haven't checked to see if they are still nesting there.
Here is a pretty good summary of the natural history of these wasps:
You can control them with chemicals but there really doesn't seem any reason to do this from my way of thinking. Supposedly cultural practices like improving your turf in areas where they nest help, but I rather have the wasps myself.
In terms of identification there isn't a whole lot of insects with which you can confuse these wasps. The females are two inches or so long, their burrowing and swarming behavior in areas where you have loose soil is pretty distinctive. Again they are not likely to sting you; in fact I was standing in the middle of a cluster of wasp burrows on the JCCC campus when I took this particular shot. So use some common sense (not like me) and enjoy!
There is an interesting article in the science section of the New York Times about the effects of domestic cats on bird populations.
As the headline suggests, domestic cats are a major threat to bird populations. The article suggests that over 500 million birds are killed by cats each year in the United States-half by feral cats and half by house pets. The article also makes an interesting point that people get all upset about bird deaths due to wind turbines and yet seem to be much less upset about bird deaths due to cats. Wind turbines by the way can apparently be situated to minimize bird deaths.
We accept predation as somehow natural but forget that the domestic cat is not native to North America and so is really an invasive species-so they are more like those big constrictor snakes that people have let loose in the everglades. Now if only we could train cats to attack non native birds such as starlings or English sparrows but I don't think that is going to happen.
Just by chance, our declawed indoor only cat Carl caught and killed a chickadee (pictured) that had gotten on to our screened in back porch yesterday. He had caught one other chickadee during the winter but he just held it in his mouth very gently and we managed to rescue the bird. This time he clearly figured out that the next step in hunting, after catching the bird, is to kill it.
I hope he never figures out the eating stage.
In my last post I introduced the Decline Effect in which statistically significant results often disappear when an experiment is replicated. A possible example in the works has just been reported on by NPR. This involves a Cornell Psychologist by the name of Daryl Bem who claims to have evidence that events in the future can can affect the present. Not the first time we have heard of this sorts of claim and in fact Psi investigations generally are classic cases of the decline effect.
At any rate the NPR discussion of Bem's work is at: http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2011/01/04/132622672/could-it-be-spooky-experiments-that-see-the-future?ft=1&f=1007
Equally interesting in understanding the Decline Effect is this blog post by Melissa Burkely at Psychology Today analysing Bem's claims and this very critical analysis by James Alcock over at the Skeptical Inquirer.
Alcok reviews the history of Psi research and also looks at Bem's writings about research and how they may be related to his findings. Alcock quotes Bem as writing:
""Your overriding purpose is to tell the world what you have learned from your study. If your research results suggest a compelling framework for their presentation, adopt it and make the most instructive findings your centerpiece. Think of your data set as a jewel. Your task is to cut and polish it, to select the facets to highlight, and to craft the best setting for it. Many experienced authors write the results section first. (My italics)...And before writing anything, Analyze Your Data!"
To be fair , Bem, is talking about writing the paper and not the actual hypothesis testing so it could be argued that Alcock is taking Bem's writings out of context, but I wonder how often the results feed back as to how the hypothesis and experimental methods and analysis are reported.
We shall see. Already at least one working paper has appeared that failed to replicate part of Bem's work and you can examine that paper here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1699970