Archives for August 2013

National Geographic’s Pseudo-Scientific Centerfold

natgeo-risingseasWhile plausible arguments can be made that anthropogenic global warming is happening, many proponents thereof often resort to demagoguery and pseudoscience. Hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts and floods, for example, are demagogued to death as signs of global warming, even though the same has been happening since time immemorial.

National Geographic just pulled a whopper in the demagoguery department. Its current feature article is on rising sea levels. There’s a fold-out map, called “If All the Ice Melted,” on what the world would look like if all polar and glacial ice melted – with sea levels some 200 feet higher than present.

The map – which many families will no doubt post up in their homes and many teachers post up in their classrooms – is groundless and very unscientific fear-mongering.

It conveys the impression that if we continue on our current course, the world will look like that at some future date. In fine print they say it could take 5,000 years for all of the ice to melt. But even this is absurd. For one thing, it is estimated that it would take anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 years for all of the ice just on Greenland to melt – and that would raise sea levels by just 20-25 feet. Antarctica, which holds the most ice, isn’t even melting; perhaps that’s because even if global temps rise a bit, it’s so cold there that temps will still remain well below freezing.

More significantly, within a couple of thousand years, we’re due for another ice age. It’s been about 11 or 12 thousand years since the last one and ice ages have been the norm over the past 2.5 million or so years, with “interglacials” such as the one we’re in now lasting around 12,000 years. And with a new ice age, sea levels would drop several hundred feet as happened during the last one.

While someone could speculate that mankind will delay the next ice age due to increased CO2 emissions, the NatGeo article doesn’t go near that – probably because it’s so speculative.

So the NatGeo map is depicting an absurdity.

A scientifically grounded map would depict the likeliest scenario: an ice age a few thousand years hence, with ocean water levels a few hundred feet lower, not higher. In that case they could have mentioned the far less likely scenario of all the ice melting, but then they would have had to argue that mankind will prevent or delay the next ice age through carbon emissions. And they certainly don’t make that argument.

Likewise, their cover graphic of water levels reaching halfway up the Statue of Liberty – some 200 feet above current levels – depicts an absurdity as well.

— update – four months later —

NatGeo finally ran letters to the editor regarding the above cover story. Despite a letter from this observer echoing the above, and I’m sure letters from others making similar points, the magazine had zero letters critical of their cover story. Only only positive letters were featured. Now that’s shoddy journalism.

WaPo Journalist a 150 WPM Typist?

fasttypeFormer vice president Al Gore recently allegedly told Washington Post columnist/blogger Ezra Klein that, “The hurricane scale used to be 1-5 and now they’re adding a 6. The fingerprint of man-made global warming is all over these storms and extreme weather events.”

Turns out that no such additional category is in the works. Klein attributes the misstatement to his transcription error. He writes,

But this was also a segment of the interview in which I remembered struggling to keep up with Gore, and when that happens, some nuance can get lost. (A note on methods: In most cases, including this one, I transcribe these interviews in real time, with a tape recorder as back-up. I also, as is always mentioned in the introduction to the interviews, lightly edit for length, clarity, and redundancy). I’m out-of-town and so away from my tape recorder. So I asked Gore’s staff about the line and they have Gore saying: “The scientists are now adding category six to the hurricane…some are proposing we add category 6 to the hurricane scale that used to be 1-5.”

Knowing a thing or two about transcription and audio recording myself, this is what I posted in the comments section of his blog:

Surely Ezra you must not use an ancient tape recorder – it’s got to be a digital recorder, correct? So why would you have staff listen to it and re-transcribe it – why not just have them e-mail you the link to the audio file so YOU can do the transcribing? Better yet, why not have someone handy with audio editing simply create an audio excerpt of the section in question, post it on your site, and let us readers/listeners decide what Gore said?

Moreover you said you transcribe your interviews in real time. That’s surprising. Because extremely few people can type at 150 words a minute, which is about how fast most people speak. It means either that you know shorthand, or that you know stenography (and use a stenotype machine). I would thing both are very unlikely. So tell us Ezra, what’s your secret to such fast typing skills?

(End comment.)

It’s possible that Mr. Klein does know shorthand – way back when, before the age of electronic recorders, most journalists knew shorthand and a few of them still know it (I recall Walter Isaacson mentioning that he knows it). But if it turns out that Mr. Klein cannot in fact write or type at 150 words a minute, and only types anywhere from 40 to 70 WPM which is more likely, then I would recommend to him that he bases crucial statements in his articles on the transcribed recordings of the interview, and not on his own “transcription,” which is probably more like his notes.

Be Thankful You Live in the Here and Now

Yali Mabel, the chief of Dani tribe, Papua, Indonesia. (istockphoto)

Yali Mabel, the chief of Dani tribe, Papua, Indonesia. (istockphoto)

Lest you think that life in tribal societies was idyllic, think again. It truly was nasty, brutish, and short. Especially for women.

That’s made clear in a recent book by Jared Diamond – The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

By “the world until yesterday” he means the vast majority of human existence. The tribal way of life was so prevalent and so important that our bodies and minds are designed for that way of life (because that’s where we evolved). Our current society is radically different from how humans normally have lived – and for the most part, is radically improved.

Until yesterday, death was ever-present – from disease, from accidents, from animal predators, from murder, and from warfare. Average life expectancy was about 40 years. Physical discomfort was ever-present – from heat and cold, from injuries, from disease, from insects, from skin irritations, and from unsanitary conditions to name a few. Emotional discomfort was ever-present: anywhere you’d go, anything you’d do, there was always the threat of attack from enemies.

Ironically, depression and mental illness didn’t seem to be common in tribal societies. But anxiety must have been. And physical pain certainly was.

And were people ever mean to each other. Whereas our society lives under intermittent warfare, tribal societies had chronic warfare; never-ending warfare with neighboring villages or tribes. They were ruthless to their enemies. The taking of prisoners was practically nonexistent; captured enemies were simply killed. And when enemies were killed, it was a happy occasion for the perpetrators; the whole village would celebrate.

As indicated above, life was particularly brutal for women. One of the most common activities, and one of the most common causes of warfare, was the capturing of women from neighboring tribes or, more commonly, from villages and clans within the same tribe. Imagine being captured and having to live apart from your family for the rest of your life. Sadness and despair among them must have been rampant.

And for captured and non-captured women alike, wife-beating was the norm. Wife-killing was not uncommon. When a husband was upset with is wife for something, a common practice would be for the husband to shoot his wife with his bow and arrow in order to inflict on her a nonfatal injury. Sometimes he would miss and cause a fatal injury.

That probably was practiced worldwide, because it is described vis-a-vis the tribesmen of New Guinea (including in the book Child of the Jungle by Sabine Kuegler), as well as of the Amazon rainforest – opposite ends of the earth.

Those areas were one of the last areas untouched by civilization, so modern anthropologists were able to study them in order to extrapolate how premodern societies the world over always have lived. Nowadays there are likely no more tribal societies untouched by human civilization available to study, but there was in the 1960s and 1970s.

Another recent book that makes plain the savagery of traditional societies is Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists by Napoleon Chagnon. He’s referring to the political correctness of the latter, who are very reluctant to acknowledge the constant brutality and warfare associated with traditional societies. In the 1960s Chagnon was able to live among one of the last tribes in the Amazon rainforest untouched by modern civilization.

It’s a great book. But there’s an apparent contradiction therein. He briefly criticizes Christian missionaries for promoting monogamy among the tribespeople, pointing out that polygamy was the norm in such societies and helped foster social solidarity. Polygamy results in more genetically related people, i.e. more family members, and it’s this genetic relatedness that encourages cooperation within tribal groups.

But Chagnon also writes extensively that the biggest single cause of warfare in those societies is ultimately over women. Would not polygamy be a big factor in causing this warfare? Under polygamy one man has several wives, even though the male/female ratio is still around 50/50. That means many men have no wives, prompting them to go out and seek them by raiding other villages.

So while polygamy may foster group solidarity by producing more genetically related persons, it also fosters warfare. Which would you prefer?

Meantime, be thankful you live right here, right now. Compared with how life was for most of human existence – and not just in tribal societies but also in nation-state societies up until about a hundred years ago – life for the vast majority of people in modern societies is pretty good.


Greatest Generation Redux

korean warIf they aren’t included already as members of the Greatest Generation, Korean War veterans should be. Were it not for them, tens of millions of more people today would be living poverty-stricken lives in a totalitarian nightmare. Korean War vets stopped the communists from conquering the whole of the Korean peninsula, enabling life in the southern portion to flourish under what later was to develop into a showcase of democratic capitalism.

July 27 marked the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War armistice. The juxtaposition of the territories north and south of the line marking the northern advance of the U.S. army in 1953 speaks volumes.

The south has become so successful that its standard of living is on par with other industrialized-countries. Democracy and freedom of expression are strong.

The north, meanwhile, is stuck in the political and economic dark ages – all because it was unfortunate enough not to be conquered by the American military.

To consider what life would have been like for South Koreans had President Truman decided not to intervene on their behalf some six decades ago, look to the Stalinist north. Its per capita income is $1,800, a mere one-eighteenth of the south’s. North Koreans’ life expectancy is significantly lower, and they’re a couple of inches shorter on average than their brethren to the south.

Food scarcity and malnutrition are endemic in the north; it’s only thanks to international food aid that another famine is avoided such as the one that took place in the mid-1990s. Industry in the north is stagnant and infrastructure is crumbling or nonexistent.

Even more frightening is the notorious political repression of North Korea. Freedom of expression is nonexistent. Say or do anything the government disapproves of, and you could wind up in one of its notorious prison camps.

Some 370,000 military personnel – the vast majority of whom were Americans – under UN auspices came to the aid of an ill-equipped South Korean after the North Korean communists invaded the south in 1950. Allied forces pushed the North Koreans to the border of China before the latter entered the war and drove the allies back to near the 38th parallel, where the truce line was drawn. While it would have been nice had the whole peninsula been liberated, that nearly would have been impossible without starting a wider war with China.

Would that one day the whole peninsula is peacefully unified under democratic capitalism. Meantime, next time you pick up your Samsung Galaxy Note II, or climb into your Hyundai or Kia, in addition to thanking the amazing ingenuity of the Koreans, thank a Korean War vet as well.