Category Archives: Science

Lessons from what didn't happen

Hard to know what to include or comment on. There is a ton of learning going on in real time. mrossol

WSJ 4/2/2020

The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically demonstrated the limits of scientific modeling to predict the future. The most consequential coronavirus model, produced by a team at Imperial College London, tipped the British government, which had until then pursued a cautious strategy, into precipitate action, culminating in the lockdown under which we are all currently laboring. With the Imperial team talking in terms of 250,000 to 510,000 deaths in the U.K. and social media aflame with demands for something to be done, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had no other option.

But last week, a team from Oxford University put forward an alternative model of how the pandemic might play out, suggesting a much less frightening future and a speedy end to the current nightmare.

How should the government know who is right? It is quite possible that both teams are wrong. Academic studies often suffer from a lack of quality control, as peer review is usually brief and cursory. In normal times this doesn’t matter much, but it’s different when studies find their way into the policy world. In the current emergency, it is vital to check that the epidemiological models have been correctly assembled and that there are no inadvertent mistakes.

Several researchers have apparently asked to see Imperial’s calculations, but Prof. Neil Ferguson, the man leading the team, has said that the computer code is 13 years old and thousands of lines of it “undocumented,” making it hard for anyone to work with, let alone take it apart to identify potential errors. He has promised that it will be published in a week or so, but in the meantime reasonable people might wonder whether something made with 13year-old, undocumented computer code should be used to justify shutting down the economy. Meanwhile, the authors of the Oxford model have promised that their code will be published “as soon as possible.”

It isn’t only the U.K. that’s plagued by inscrutable models that describe very different futures. It’s a problem that governments around the world now face. Is there anything that can be done to make the predictions put in front of policy makers more reliable?

Peer review can’t bear reform, because there are simply too few people around with the expertise and time to do comprehensive reviews. It would be much simpler to require publicly funded academics to publish data and code as a matter of course; the possibility of competing teams checking their work might encourage development of the quality-control culture that seems lacking within the academy. It would also mean that in a crisis, when traditional academic peer review would move too slowly to be useful, a crowdsourced review process could take place.

In this way, the combined intellects of experts among the general public could be brought to bear on

 

Scary projections based on faulty data can put policy makers under pressure to adopt draconian measures.

 

the problem, rapidly identifying errors and challenging assumptions. This sort of crowdsourced review would provide the manpower to take apart the abstruse models that are all too common in many academic fields. The authors of the Imperial model have argued that they don’t have time to explain to people how to get their 13-year-old computer code running. But getting computer code running is usually a problem that can be solved in a day or two when you throw enough brain power at it.

Calculations aren’t the only problem. Only a few weeks into the pandemic, we don’t have enough data to feed into the models. In particular, information about how many people are infected but remain asymptomatic is highly tentative. This means that there are a huge number of mathematical models that might explain what has happened so far, each extrapolating a very different future. New data can change predictions considerably.

Take an example from astronomy. On March 12, 1998, media around the world announced that a mile-wide asteroid was on a possible collision course with Earth in 2028. Only a day later, the global asteroid scare was over as additional observational data showed it would miss by 600,000 miles. While the initial calculations weren’t inaccurate, they were based on limited data and weren’t properly scrutinized, which made the announcement premature. A short delay while new information was collated was all it took to show that there was no risk at all.

After this scare, the international astronomical community agreed on a robust warning system based on the Torino Impact Hazard Scale, a tool for categorizing and communicating potential asteroid impact risks. Out of a scientific fiasco, a successful risk-communication tool was developed. It has since prevented many false alarms and taught the public to understand and live with the comparatively small risk of asteroid impacts. Covid-19 is no false alarm, but public health could benefit from a similar warning system, which would help governments and health officials communicate uncertainties and risks to the public.

When competing models are giving wildly different, and in some cases frightening, predictions, the pressure on governments to adopt a draconian approach can be overwhelming. But, as we are seeing, the costs of such measures are extraordinarily high. Nations cannot afford to lock down their economies every time a potentially devastating new virus emerges. Setting up an effective pandemic hazard scale would inform policy makers and the public, helping fend off media demands for “something to be done” until the right decisions can be made at the right time.

Messrs. Peiser and Montford are, respectively, director and deputy director of the Global Warming Policy Forum.

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Requiem for a Climate Dream

I have argued for nuclear power for the better of 30 years… Not that I’m that smart, for sure.

WSJ 12/4/2019 By Holman Jenkins, Jr.

Rigor could be restored to mainstream climate journalism with a single clause. That clause consists of the words “if climate models are accurate.”

A United Nations study issued in advance of this week’s climate summit in Madrid would appear in a different light, though still worrisome, and still a challenge to policy makers, if it were reported as saying: To avoid any chance of a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius, annual emissions cuts of 7.6% must begin next year if computerized climate simulations are correct.

Such simulations, we should admit, are science. Their findings represent a legitimate pursuit of knowledge. The common failing in the media involves leaving out the necessary caveats. Such carelessness has ultimately enabled a new kind of science denial on the left, where advocates like Greta Thunberg and the U.K. group Extinction Rebellion increasingly talk about climate change leading to a human demise that is nowhere supported in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or other scientific bodies.

In my view, Al Gore bears heavy responsibility here. Name any important policy commitment in history— whether Social Security or Medicare or even fighting World War II—that required that all debate be silenced and all skeptics vilified before it could proceed. The Gore formula is good for stoking tribalism. It’s not good for making policy progress in a democracy. And so it has proved. Nobody remotely believes the supposedly necessary emissions cuts will take place. The only response left to the climate crowd is to ratchet up even more dire predictions.

Let’s start over. If stated properly, the “scientific consensus” would run as follows: climate models teach us to expect some warming from human- caused atmospheric CO2 increases, but disagree about how much. It’s hard to make cost-benefit judgments on such a basis, but happily the Green New Deal makes it easy—it would cost a lot of money and accomplish nothing since U.S. emissions are just 14% of the total and shrinking. India and China, not the U.S., will determine the fate of climate change.

Cost-benefit analysis also tells us a bunch of things that might be worth doing even in light of the uncertainties. A tax reform based on a revenue- neutral carbon tax could make our tax system more efficient and pro-growth. Government investment in basic research tends to have a high payoff, and battery research is a particularly attractive opportunity. Rethinking nuclear power and regulation is another area of huge potential. Safer and cheaper nuclear technologies continue to advance on the drawing board even in today’s inhospitable political environment.

And guess what? All the above would be easier to sell to other countries than Green New Deal masochism. Voters would readily gobble up new energy technologies and tax models that would make their societies richer and stronger. In honor of this week’s global climate gathering in Madrid, the New York Times aptly refers to the “gap between reality and diplomacy.” International agreements, by their nature, are designed to put an imprimatur on what domestic politicians would do anyway, and that doesn’t include prematurely ending their careers by imposing on consumers the kind of crushing burdens the green left seeks.

Look elsewhere for the turning points that actually matter. If climate change proves as severe as some scientists believe, the most damning moment will be one that passed largely unremarked except in this column: the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown after Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany, the world’s sixth biggest emitter, chaotically and thoughtlessly announced within weeks that it would close all 17 of its nuclear plants. China and India, then pursuing ambitious nuclear expansions that should have become more ambitious, instead recommitted themselves to burning vast amounts of coal.

Nuclearphobes should remind themselves that more people die each year from coal-mining accidents than have been killed in all the nuclear accidents in history. Never mind the tens of thousands who are statistically estimated to die annually from inhaling particulates. No technology is perfect, but NASA’s James Hansen, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Gaia theorist James Lovelock, and the late Harvard economist Martin Weitzman are among the diverse and serious students of climate change who have said that meaningful cuts won’t happen without nuclear.

The Fukushima accident, widely misread and breathing new life into the antinuclear lobby, will prove more significant than even the advocacy errors of Al Gore. It will prove more significant than the Paris Agreement, the election of Donald Trump, the tiresome legal vendetta against Exxon, or any of the matters that obsess the climate left. It probably put paid to any hope that emissions cuts will play a role in climate change for at least the next three or four decades. Get used to it.

BUSINESS WORLD

By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.

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Glyphosate?

WSJ  9/4/2019   One of the safest herbicides on the planet.

Perhaps you’ve read that science should rule when determining environmental standards. So why aren’t progressives cheering an Environmental Protection Agency order declaring that the chemical glyphosate doesn’t cause cancer?

In an extraordinary intervention, the EPA recently said it will no longer approve product labels that claim glyphosate is carcinogenic to humans. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, the popular weed killer. The herbicide has been on the U.S. market since 1974, and the scientific consensus is that it isn’t carcinogenic in humans.

The letter is a rebuke to California, which in 2015 said it would add glyphosate to its official list of carcinogens under the state’s 1986 Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, known as Proposition 65. California cited the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer’s finding that glyphosate “probably” causes cancer.

This is the U.N. outfit that has warned against cancer from pickled vegetables, caffeine and working the night shift. California’s move has inspired a flood of lawsuits against Roundup-maker Monsanto, including a $2 billion jury judgment (reduced to $86 million by a judge) in May for a California couple claiming glyphosate caused their cancer.

EPA’s letter is an attempt to restore science to the glyphosate debate and counter California’s rogue regulation. The letter cites EPA’s extensive review of the scientific literature on glyphosate, as well as the concurring judgments of regulators in Canada, Australia, the European Union, Germany, New Zealand and Japan.

The agency also cites its labeling authority under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, which should pre-empt

The EPA intervenes against California’s rogue cancer regulation.

state law. The EPA letter says it “considers the Proposition 65 warning language based on the chemical glyphosate to constitute a false and misleading statement.”

The EPA letter should also be evidence in current litigation brought by farm groups against California. In 2018 a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against California, finding the farm plaintiffs would likely prevail in their claims that the state’s cancer-label requirement violates their First Amendment rights.

California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment responded to the EPA letter by calling it “disrespectful of the scientific process,” but the opposite is true. California is the regulatory outlier attempting to impose its standards despite the precedent that federal law sets national standards on health and safety when Congress’s language is clear.

The EPA might also make a difference in thousands of lawsuits against glyphosate manufacturers. Many of the suits claim Monsanto and others failed to warn consumers about cancer risks, and defendants can now point out that they are barred by federal regulators from issuing such warnings.

California state judges overseeing current glyphosate lawsuits have largely excluded EPA’s conclusions as evidence in court. But anyone who cares about science and the law should welcome the EPA’s intervention.

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