Friday, July 30, 2010

The Gulf Under Siege...

Despite the hopeful news on CNN, the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are far from over. PRI is pleased to announce the launch of "Under Siege" - our website about the threats of the oil spill on the subsurface biota of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Keys. Check it out!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Climate Change and the New Draft Frameworks for Science Education (and your chance to comment)

The National Science Education Standards were published in 1996 -- almost 15 years ago. Earlier this month, the National Research Council released the Preliminary Public Draft of a Conceptual Framework for New Science Education Standards. In the 1996 Standards, climate change was given the short shrift. This draft gives considerably more attention to climate change, and why it is important to understand it (and especially humanity's role). There is an opportunity for public input, but, for this draft only until August 2, 2010. So, I'll invite you to take a look there and spend your time reading and commenting on that document rather than anything I might say at the moment.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Some Blunt Evidence

Last week, I used this line: "...if you can 'hit them between the eyes' with evidence bluntly presented and objective, it may make a difference." That refers to how to convince people who are skeptical of whatever position they may hold. Of course, I spun it climate-wise.

Since I wrote that, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released State of the Climate Global Analysis June 2010. It offers some pretty blunt evidence. Here's an impressive graphic from the report:
And here's the Global Highlights that lead the page:

Global Highlights

  • The combined global land and ocean average surface temperature for June 2010 was the warmest on record at 16.2°C (61.1°F), which is 0.68°C (1.22°F) above the 20thcentury average of 15.5°C (59.9°F). The previous record for June was set in 2005.
  • June 2010 was the fourth consecutive warmest month on record (March, April, and May 2010 were also the warmest on record). This was the 304th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last month with below-average temperature was February 1985.
  • The June worldwide averaged land surface temperature was 1.07°C (1.93°F) above the 20th century average of 13.3°C (55.9°F)—the warmest on record.
  • It was the warmest April–June (three-month period) on record for the global land and ocean temperature and the land-only temperature. The three-month period was the second warmest for the world's oceans, behind 1998.
  • It was the warmest June and April–June on record for the Northern Hemisphere as a whole and all land areas of the Northern Hemisphere.
  • It was the warmest January–June on record for the global land and ocean temperature. The worldwide land on average had its second warmest January–June, behind 2007. The worldwide averaged ocean temperature was the second warmest January–June, behind 1998.
  • Sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies in the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean continued to decrease during June 2010. According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, La NiƱa conditions are likely to develop during the Northern Hemisphere summer 2010.
Blunt enough for you? Of course, four months in a row does not equal climate change. Three hundred and four? Well, something might be going on.

But, you might point out, some will say that the weather stations are surrounded by concrete and giving temperature readings that are higher than they would otherwise be. Not only is that well debunked here, but for most observers, we can tell by just paying a bit of attention to the fact that when it's hot out, the thermometers at our house or apartment are in reasonably close agreement with the closest National Weather Service station. And when it's cold out too, of course. I don't remember anyone claiming that it didn't really get up to 84° F in early April here in Buffalo, or that we didn't really break 90° F earlier this month (which is really pretty uncommon for us, as our temperatures are moderated by Lake Erie).

The evidence is blunt enough for me. But, here's an interesting quote to ponder from Max Planck (and cited by Thomas Kuhn):
"...a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."
Sigh. Hopefully he's wrong about that. What do you think?

Again, thanks to my Facebook friends (Joe & Nicole) for giving me a bit of inspiration.

Friday, July 16, 2010

12 Eggscellent Things You Can Do with Eggshells

12 Eggscellent Things You Can Do with Eggshells

A colleague sent me this great blog post from the Daily Green! Who knew all the things you could do with your old eggshells!

Enjoy! (Let me know if you do any of these, and how they worked in the comments section!)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Supporting Science at the Museum of the Earth

Many people forget that the Paleontological Research Institution and its Museum of the Earth is a not-for-profit organization. In order for us to provide services and outreach to our community and beyond it entails a certain amount of fundraising. We have always kept this blog separate from those initiatives -- until today! I'm not asking any of our readers for money, but I want to let our local or close to local readers know about a fun event that is coming up tomorrow, Friday, July 16 -- Mastodons and Martinis here at the Museum of the Earth!Join us at the Museum of the Earth on Friday, July 16 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. for a fun summer evening in support of science. Explore our temporary exhibit, One Fish, Two Fish, Old Fish, New Fish*: Exploring the Evolution of Biodiversity; take a journey through time in our permanent exhibits; and enjoy martinis from Felicia’s Atomic Lounge. Hors d’oeuvres by Serendipity Catering and your first cocktail are included with purchase of a social membership ticket. We hope you can join us for this swinging good time in support of science education at the Museum of the Earth!

Social Membership Tickets**: $25

Purchase online at: Mastodons & Martinis

Purchase your social membership ticket by clicking below or for more information and to purchase by phone, please contact 607.273.6623 x11.

*ONE FISH, TWO FISH, RED FISH, BLUE FISH™ & © 1960 Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

**Social Membership includes entrance to Mastodons & Martinis on July 16, as well as advance notice of other social events at the Museum of the Earth. Entrance to Martinis & Mastodons is not included with regular Museum membership. You must purchase a social membership to attend this event.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Pondering How Facts Backfire

In the Boston Globe this past weekend, Joe Keohane's wrote a fascinating summary of how our biases influence the new information we take in or fail to take in. It's been picked up by others in the blogosphere, including Jonah Lehrer (author of the excellent book, How We Decide among other things).

I ask you to read these pieces with how people think about energy and climate change in the back of your mind. With how you think about climate change and energy issues in mind. Before you go off and read these interesting things, consider:
  • Is your mind made up on climate change?
  • On the Marcellus Shale?
  • On nuclear power?
And, to quirk it up a bit, is your mind made up about how you feel about:
  • Your spouse or significant other?
  • Your ex-spouse or former significant other?
What would it take to change your mind? For a lot of us, it feels like it's next to impossible to change our minds on the ideas we hold dear. And, according to Keohane's summary, facts that counter our point of view often make us dig into our positions more deeply. Here's the first of a few longish excerpts (but I still urge you to read the whole piece):

In the end, truth will out. Won’t it?

Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”


I suppose it's unsurprising that we dig things that reinforce our beliefs and shut out things that counter them. It affirms that we who are in the science education business are in a very difficult spot. We deal with stuff that is seen by some as contentious stuff -- evolution, climate change, the Marcellus Shale. These issues tend to polarize people, and, it turns out providing evidence can make people at both poles hold onto their conclusions more tightly. Zow. What's an educator to do? What's an advocate to do?

And talking about it in this way can make whatever position sound like propaganda. Sigh.

Keohane's piece and Lehrer's response to it focus largely on the political. Of course, we can't say much about climate change without saying something political, or something that should be political, anyway. Important science is always political because we want politicians to act on, or at least be well-informed about, important issues. (But my opinions on such things are mine, and not necessarily those of my employer).

Here's an explicitly political excerpt, but one that relates to verifiable data: appears that misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions. A striking recent example was a study done in the year 2000, led by James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He led an influential experiment in which more than 1,000 Illinois residents were asked questions about welfare — the percentage of the federal budget spent on welfare, the number of people enrolled in the program, the percentage of enrollees who are black, and the average payout. More than half indicated that they were confident that their answers were correct — but in fact only 3 percent of the people got more than half of the questions right. Perhaps more disturbingly, the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic. (Most of these participants expressed views that suggested a strong antiwelfare bias.)
Now, what's that got to do with climate change? Well, for me, it raises the interesting question of what would be the outcome of parallel questions about climate change. This line, repeated from above, is a real attention grabber:
Perhaps more disturbingly, the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic.
It's clearly not a universal truth -- I do know a few climate change deniers who know more than the average American about climate change, but most of the climate deniers I know really have weak understandings of the underlying science. Couple that with strong opinion, and you've got a problem.

See more on characterizations of how different segments of the population see global warming here.

So, if facts often backfire, what are we to do? Keohane does have a few suggestions -- build self-esteem. Folks who feel good about themselves are better, more open listeners. Also, if you can "hit them between the eyes" with evidence bluntly presented and objective, it may make a difference. (That was my goal in writing and talking about where gasoline goes, by the way.)

Of course, as an educator, we long to believe that education is the answer, but the most educated can be the most difficult to change:
A 2006 study by Charles Taber and Milton Lodge at Stony Brook University showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong.
Ugh. (Ugh partly because that hits uncomfortably close to home).

Keohane also notes that one of the researchers he cites, Brendan Nyhan, suggests shaming the media sources. Keohane notes that those media sources can be pretty shameless, so that may be wishful thinking.

I suggest looking to the deeply positions we've held as individuals that we no longer hold. What made us change our minds? Or what helped? (There I go asking you to be metacognitive again). Being hit over the head with blunt evidence has worked powerfully for me, as has building my general confidence. What's worked for you?

What would these approaches actually look like in practice. Again, I'll ask you to give me feedback in the comment section. Please.

It's also worth pondering that such a shift in worldview, especially if driven by being metaphorically hit over the head, can hurt like heck. Or worse than heck -- remember a central idea here is that being wrong about important stuff is painful and we try to avoid such realizations. We ought to think about how to make coming down easier as well as coming to whatever realizations we may be after.

Thanks to my various Facebook friends who bring these interesting things to my attention.

Friday, July 9, 2010

PRI and its Museum of the Earth Responds to the Gulf Oil Spill...

It has been just over two months since the first day of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that occurred on April 20, 2010. In addition to the surface slick and tar balls washing ashore, a deep-water oil plume, being carried by a clockwise Loop Current, now threatens the third largest coral reef and marine ecosystem in the world and endangers thousands of invertebrate species indigenous to the Gulf and Florida Keys.

Although dozens of oily pelicans have become the iconic symbol for the recent disaster to hit the Gulf, thousands of forgotten creatures such as the spiny flower coral, yellow mussel, red heart urchin and the purple sea snail are equally under siege by the immeasurable plume of dense oil and dispersants. The Museum of the Earth recognizes the severity of the spill beyond the sandy beaches and below the murky surface.

World renowned malacologist, Dr. Paula Mikkelsen, associate director for science at the Paleontological Research Institution, remarks; “Our intent is not to say that the turtles and pelicans are not important. Our intent is to spread awareness of the high levels of biodiversity in the Gulf that are at risk in this devastating disaster. I hesitate to even suggest this because it’s so grim – there’s a lot we don’t know, as researchers and a society, about what’s going to happen. But it’s a much larger story than tar washing up on the beach.” Mikkelsen has specialized her professional research around the aquatic biodiversity of these now-threatened marine organisms.

Every habitat– from intertidal oyster bars and mangroves, to shallow seagrass beds, to coral reefs, deepwater sand plains, and pelagic Sargassum algae – includes thousands of species of invertebrates (coral, barnacles, snails, clams, starfish, sea urchins, sponges, and others) that depend upon clean water to survive. The deep-water oil plume looping through the Gulf, and heading toward the Florida Keys, is severely threatening aquatic biodiversity through contamination. The relationships of these marine ecosystems could soon be impacted, starting at the most basic levels, as the oxygen quality is compromised and the organisms’ food sources are killed. Many of these species are filter feeders, sieving food particles from the water, while others graze on algae or wait to feed on the filter feeders and grazers. All of these animals “breathe water,” extracting life-giving oxygen with their delicate gills. Oil in the water or their food sources will kill them, along with the algae and marine plants that they depend upon. The devastating reality is that there are no clean up efforts or rescue excursions that can help the eastern oysters, tube coral and other marine invertebrates that could be affected by the spill. As many as 15,000 species are indigenous to the Gulf and are threatened by this disaster.

Visit the Museum of the Earth to learn more about what is happening to the marine life in these affected areas and see some of the amazing specimens from the world famous PRI collection. Seeing the immaculate shells and coral on display creates immediacy to visitors and shatters apathy for these delicate, deep-water creatures. These heart breaking yet stunning displays should be a definite addition for your weekend “to do” list. On Saturday, July 10 at noon, Dr. Mikkelsen will be giving a Natural History at Noon lecture in the Museum’s classroom entitled "The Other 15,000: Marine Biodiversity at Risk in the Gulf of Mexico." For more information on the exhibit and the Museum’s Natural History at Noon lecture series please visit the Museum of the Earth online at or call 607-273-6623 x33.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Is it hot out? You betcha! Do you want to bet me?

I'd planned to say some more about the Low Carbon Diet this week, but found I couldn't ignore the elephant in the room that is the current heat wave. I'll come back to the Low Carbon Diet in a later post.

When the weather is out of the ordinary one way or another, people often bring climate change into the conversation. We saw that this past winter with its freakish snowstorms pummeling Washington, DC and other cities unaccustomed to severe winter weather while at the same time Buffalo, NY (where I live) had its shortest snow season on record. Our first measurable snow was December 1 and our last was February 28 -- unprecedented. The current heat wave is intense and, I think, generally unpleasant. But is it global warming?

We can't say. It's unusual weather, but it's not freakish for our climate.

Bryan Welsh, writing for, does a nice job of fleshing out the issues related to pinning anomalous weather on climate change. I really found his blog post, Turning Up the Heat on Climate Change, well reasoned with a set of graphs I found especially interesting. Here are those graphs:

We can't look at the weather from one particularly unusual day or week and make a definitive statement that it is or is not the result of a changing climate. We can't make reliable forecasts of specific dates that are beyond several days out. But we can look at trends and note that the likelihood of certain has increased, decreased or remained the same.

We know that humans are changing atmospheric chemistry in ways that both models and the wealth of weather and climate data we have indicate changes are likely. We know that record breaking heat has become more common and record breaking cold has become less common.

This line of thinking led me to place a wager a few years ago that the warmest year on record will happen in the next few years. I'm pleased that I haven't won that bet yet but I've still got a couple years. I wouldn't bet much on this year or next year being the warmest on record, but I would (and did) bet that one of the years in the next five will be. I'd bet more if the duration was extended to ten years. If I'd made the bet that the warmest year on record globally would be in the next ten in any year since the early 1960s, I'd have won the bet. The graph below shows the data.

So, I'll extend the offer for that bet here (with certain caveats). Here's the bet:

I will bet $100 to the first three takers that at least one of the years between 2011 and 2020 (inclusive) will set a record for being the warmest year globally (since the beginning of instrumental global temperature record keeping in the latter 1800s) according to NASA data, barring a major volcanic eruption, major asteroid or meteor impact, or nuclear war. (Isn't that cheery?)

I'd go higher, but I work for a non-profit and it's just a likely thing, not a sure thing.

I'll also pledge to spend my winnings on something to lower my carbon emissions.

Is ten years too long a term? I'll go $5 each for the first five takers that one of the following dates will set a record high for its associated city in the remainder of this year.



July 12

July 14

July 16

July 18

August 7

August 17

August 19

August 24

September 6

September 18

September 19

October 3

October 4

October 9

October 30

November 1

November 25

November 27

December 8

December 14

December 19

December 28

December 31

July 14

July 20

July 24

July 27

August 21

August 22

September 8

September 11

September 15

September 17

October 1

October 9

October 12

October 15

October 19

October 20

November 8

November 25

December 1

December 11

December 18

December 26

December 30

January 28 is tempting, but I wanted to keep it to 2010.

How did I pick these dates? Be the first to answer and you'll get extra credit! What do you get for getting extra credit? Well, I'll mention you in a future post. Whoo-hoo! I'll note that I correctly made a similar bet a few years ago with my students and the prediction came to proved correct. And one of my students did get extra credit for figuring out how I made the prediction.

You can check back to this page to see how I'm doing. Here's the weather info for both cities. It will refresh when you reload the page.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Have a "Green" 4th of July!

The 4th of July is arguably my most favorite holiday. First of all -- I love the summer and the 4th is a perfect way to celebrate the season. I love getting together with family and friends enjoying the weather and lots of BBQ's. Did I mention that I love BBQ's? Seriously I love to grill.

As I've grown older, I've begun to realize how much waste there is associated with picnics and said BBQ's. One of the things I've done is to make a conscious effort to take steps to be more green. I no longer buy paper plates, or disposable utensils. It actually seems wasteful.

It's quite nice to be sitting on a blanket in the shade having a delicious meal and not trying to balance a flimsy paper plate on your lap. Instead, I have a "real" plate and "real" silverware! It's almost decadent. I always bring a couple kitchen towels in my basket to have on hand to wipe off my dirty plates, glasses, and utensils. I no longer buy bottles of water, but I bring a big thermos filled with ice water. Once I learned how much goes into making the bottles for the water and how many end up in landfills -- I have really curtailed my bottled water habit.

This works for me and these steps -- although pretty simple -- might not work for you and your family. That all said, I came a cross 8 Tips for Being Green on the 4th of July and I thought I would share them:

1. Ditch the disposable party ware
2. Get outside!
3. Use propane for grilling
4. Save and reuse your decorations
5. Opt for greener fireworks
6. Gather in groups
7. Use large water containers
8. Recycle

Most everything (if not all) from this list is super easy to do. Do what you can and have a safe and happy holiday!