Finding Reliable Information, Part 3

The previous two parts of this series discussed the peer review system, and incompetent or deceptive practices in writing about science. In part three, we will examine another blog post that addresses the same topic as the one in part two, but with more thorough citation, and more sound conclusions.

This blog post makes the case that the current global warming event is too rapid for adaptation to be possible for many species, and will, if it continues at the current rate, result in major ecological damage.

After mentioning the role of CO2 in the atmosphere, the author addresses the claim that the current change is nothing new in recent history. The case for relevance is that if we've had changes like this in the recent past, clearly plants and animals can survive them just fine. Two graphs are provided in contradiction to that assertion. One shows temperature and CO2 levels over the last 20,000 years, and the other over the last 650,000 years. The second graph checks out ok - it's from the U.S. EPA, and has a full citation list to the original research. The references seem to check out ok, and the EPA has a pretty good record of being honest about data used.
The first graph, which goes back 20,000 years, has links to data from the same sources as the EPA data, but the Mauna Loa link doesn't work, so we can't follow any farther with what's provided. If you check out the full Mauna Loa record on NOAA's website, it corroborates the graph provided and the claims made.

So the point that the current CO2 levels are unprecedented in at least the last 650,000 years stands. Furthermore, the author links to an article on Science Daily, a science reporting website, that discusses research indicating that the current CO2 levels are unprecedented in the last 15,000,000 years, further emphasizing that current species have not encountered anything like the current warming event.

In the next section, the author attributes a series of droughts and floods around the world to climate change, without, to be fair, providing too much support for the connection between climate change and the events. The latter part of this section goes into more direct impacts on various plants and animals all around the world that have been tied to climate change. The links all work, and they say what the author says they do.

Moving on to climate events of the past, the author starts by pointing out that the research discussed on HotAir, which we discussed in part two of this series, indicates a boom in diversity in the Amazon region during the period known as the "Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum" came at the same time as a mass extinction event. The source for the extinction event is Wikipedia, which is not the best source in general, but is acceptable for information that is well known and beyond dispute.

Reference is then made to the Permian-Triassic extinction, with a link to Science Daily and a reference back to another post on the same blog, and then finally a link to an article from the journal "Coral Reefs" indicating that the five mass extinction events in the history of life on earth have coincided with increases in ocean acidity, generally driven by changes in the carbon cycle. The blog post asserts that all five have been associated with rapid rises in CO2 levels, and while not explicitly stated in the abstract, the implication is there. When oceanic acidity rises, usually it is because of a rise in atmospheric CO2.

The closing statement does include one claim - that we're in the middle of a mass extinction caused by human activity unrelated to climate - without supporting evidence, but that has no real impact on the overall point of the article.

Overall, the post, while not picture-perfect, does a good job of making a case, and providing reliable support for that case. The links work, the data agree with the author, and there aren't any attempts to infer conclusions other than the ones we are led to by the sources provided.

June 5, 2012

Finding Reliable Information, Part 2

Not all blogs are created equal, especially if you're using them as an information source, so it's important to examine their claims.

For example, an article on in 2010 claimed that research using fossilized pollen to study ancient climate change, and published in the journal Science, overturned the prediction that the rise in temperature driven by man-made CO2 will lead to increased droughts in the Amazon Rainforest, eventually leading to a radical change in the ecosystem with an accompanying extinction of the plants and animals currently living there.

The first thing to note is that the author does not use the original research as his source, but rather a secondary article about the research that was published in The Guardian. While this does not automatically mean that the Hot Air piece will be flawed, it does mean that it is an interpretation of an interpretation.

The Hot Air author claims that the research shows that plants and animals will simply adapt and would even thrive as the climate warms, as an increase in temperature in the past lead to "an explosion of diversity."

The author then implies that nobody really understands the systems in question, and throws out another erroneous concept - that there is an "optimal temperature for the planet."

He goes on to claim that climate science is mainly conjectural - a collection of "speculative horror stories," "already-busted myths,” and failed predictions.

He finishes with this gem: "The study's authors conclude that warming presents little threat to the rainforest, and instead advises activists to focus on fighting deforestation instead."

So. Let's check his sources.

He quotes a portion of the Guardian article:

"In a study published today in Science, Jaramillo and his team studied pollen grains and other biological indicators of plant life embedded in rocks formed around 56m years ago, during an abrupt period of warming called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. CO2 levels had doubled in 10,000 years and the world was warmer by 3C-5C for 200,000 years."

The time frame is the first problem. The rise in CO2 during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum took place over ten thousand years. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, CO2 in the atmosphere has risen from 280pp to around 390ppm, and at the current rate will double from pre-industrial levels in a few hundred years. This difference in the rate of change makes his claim that organisms will adapt dubious at best.

Next, note that the explosion of diversity described in the quote took place over the course of 200,000 years. This suggests that the temperature rose and STAYED high for 200,000 years, and that the "explosion" in diversity, and adaptation to new conditions, took place over that same period of two hundred millenia.

Now, what does the research actually say? While the scientists DO indicate that there may be more capacity for adaptation to warming than many currently fear there is, it's a huge leap to assume that adapting to a 10,000 year doubling of CO2 is the same as adapting to a 500 year doubling of CO2.

The scientists did not call current understanding of climate science into question, nor did they say anything that lends support to Hot Air's assertion that "AGW science is mainly conjectural."

Based on this analysis, we see that the article makes accusations as if they were beyond doubt, and confuses the basic facts of the research on which it is "based". Examining the scientific evidence reveals the obfuscation without much effort.

That does not mean, however, that the point they failed to prove is incorrect, so is it hypothetically possible that the original claim, that plants and animals will be able to adapt to the rapidly warming climate, has merit?

In the next segment of this series, we'll delve into that question while providing an example of what GOOD use of research and scientific literature looks like.

Teaching climate change to children -Gilly Puttick

Polar bears stranded on icebergs at sea, coastal villages subsiding into the waves during violent storms- these scary images are becoming more and more common in the media. Educators who want to teach about climate change must confront a huge dilemma: How do you teach this topic without evoking extreme fear in your students?

Psychologists and educators recommend several strategies that are appropriate for dealing with this problem.

Using the right tone

It goes without saying that, since this is a serious problem that will have an impact on all, it needs to be communicated to all. A calm tone is helpful. Careful choice of impacts to present is helpful; for example, avoiding discussion of scary disasters over which children have no control. Stressing that the problem, though serious, is solveable, reassures children. There are lots of examples of adults working on solving the problem at all levels in business, education, and government. Mention specific initiatives like the increasing practices of retrofitting buildings and building new green ones, the adoption of energy efficient lighting in public places, legislative attempts to control powerplant emissions, and government mandates of new vehicle efficiency standards.

Encourage students to take action

By encouraging students to take action, "You're empowering them," explains Joan Bohmann, director of professional standards and continuing professional development for the National Association of School Psychologists. "You're giving them options and leaving them with a message of hope...” Although there is debate about the extent to which individual actions can mitigate the impacts of climate change, encouragement conveys the message that children are not helpless in the face of this pressing societal problem. It may also be effective to emphasize that they have a voice at home, and can influence their parents’ behavior. Furthermore, research has shown that taking action about climate change actually may provide psychological benefits, including enhanced feelings of self efficacy and satisfaction.

Adopt a local focus

Involving students in education about their local environment gives them a basis for understanding some of the basic impacts of climate change. Older students can then put their local observations in a regional and global context, which better positions them to explore the implications of a changing climate. Understanding local impacts also predisposes learners to develop more pro-environmental attitudes. Education about local mitigation efforts connects learners to the community of adults working to solve the problem, and provides them with opportunities to take action themselves.

A powerful positive example

Older children may be skeptical that little actions can add up, and may need to be persuaded that the problem is solvable. Examples of how global mobilization has solved global problems in the past can be a vital tool in that persuasion. The story of the hole in the ozone layer is a compelling example of how humans managed to mobilize globally to solve a huge environmental threat. Our success on that issue can serve to illustrate that climate change can be addressed too.

Lazuli Bunting

Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena )