Friday, October 23, 2009

The Amazing Dr. Happer

While sifting through my archived correspondence with a good friend of mine, I came across a mail I sent him in response to some questions he had last February regarding the opinions of one Dr. William Happer. Dr. Happer it seemed had added his considerable intellect to the Dark Forces of global warming denialism and his credentials were formidable. He served as director of the Office of Energy Research in the U.S. Department of Energy under George H.W. Bush. And "was subsequently fired by Vice President Al Gore, reportedly for his refusal to support Gore's views on climate change.".

And so it would seem that in Dr. Happer, denialists had finally found the long sought after Philosopher's Stone. Degreed scientist? Check. Head of a major, climate related department in the D.O.E.? Check. Expression of "politically incorrect" scientific views got him fired by AGW's Darth Vader, Al Gore? Check... and check mate!

But before we start popping champagne corks and celebrating the end of global warming, it only seems fair we give Dr. Happer a second look. Here is what I wrote (with a few minor corrections):


The car you are driving has an air conditioning system which uses an HCFC (hydro chlorofluorocarbon) refrigerant, known in the business as R134. This is true of all cars built since around 1997. Prior to that, automobile air conditioning systems used R12, a CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) refrigerant known to deplete atmospheric ozone. This change came about as a result of the Montreal Protocol, which Ronald Reagan signed in 1987 on behalf of the United States. I have a little first hand experience in this matter.

Back in 1987, I had an HVAC/R business which specialized in commercial refrigeration. Just about all light duty commercial refrigeration systems at that time used R12. Right after enactment of The Montreal Protocol, our government put up quotas which diminished, year after year, the production of R12, aiming at the eventual phase out of R12 production entirely - which at this time has occurred. As I said, we now use R134 instead.

Now because I was in a related business, I remember this transition quite well. For quite some time there was a great deal of uncertainty. R12 prices shot up. All sorts of predictable mayhem and double dealing occurred. There was speculation, smuggling, hoarding and price gouging. Yet eventually we all changed over to R134 and the American public hardly noticed.

Now this was odd because a great many of our leaders in and out of government had predicted widespread and calamitous consequences which would result from discontinuing the production of CFC's. People were going to starve in third world countries. Food prices would go through the roof. The effect on world economies would be devastating. I remember well these and many other dire predictions. But none of them came true.

The roots of The Montreal Protocol go back to the mid 1970's and the pioneering work by Dr. G.M.B. Dobson on the ozone layer. This work later formed the basis of ozone depletion models proposed by Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, and independently, Paul Crutzen - who were jointly awarded in 1995 the Nobel prize in Chemistry for "their work in atmospheric chemistry, particularly concerning the formation and decomposition of ozone". Most importantly, none of their work or conclusions are questioned today by anyone, including the most ardent of their earlier detractors.

That Ronald Reagan would decide to sign the Montreal Protocol is a fascinating study in itself. Reagan was not a man who paid much attention to environmental issues. Yet many of his admirers consider Montreal to be a signal expression of his better qualities as a president - that is, the capacity (at times) to rise above petty politics and act decisively on the crucial issues of his day.

After the signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987, a whole host of forces lined up to fight against its implementation. I want to focus on the part played by the George Marshall Institute and in particular, one of its staff - Sallie Baliunas. You won't find her work disputing ozone depletion models at the GMI site, despite the fact that they originated there. The reason is that GMI lost that battle and doesn't need evidence of its own, or Sallie Baliunas's incompetence lying around. But through the miracle of the Internet, here is her written contribution to the the congressional deliberations in the early nineties. Relevant to this note, here's an excerpt:

"The bare cost of replacing or retrofitting equipment is roughly $100 billion, because chemicals do not exist that can be simply dropped into existing equipment. A short term cost of $2 trillion will rip through the U.S. economy (!!!) according to a 1993 estimate contained in House Resolution 291." (emphasis added)

...and what a stunningly horrible prognosticator Ms Baliunas turned out to be. R134, a chemical which could literally be dropped into existing equipment was already being introduced as a replacement.

Steve, I wish you would take the time to read through this. Her arguments against the man-made causes of ozone depletion are eerily similar to the arguments which the George Marshall Institute is today making against the consensus view on global warming. THIS IS NOT A COINCIDENCE. It is just not plausible to say that, well, maybe the GMI was wrong on ozone depletion, but this has no bearing on their work regarding global warming. This is because, as I shall demonstrate, the GMI position against ozone depletion was NOT motivated by any consideration of sound science. If this was true, the GMI would by now have publicly conceded that ozone depletion models were correct (no one today disagrees they were not).

Let me say that again in a different way. IF, you consider the George Marshall Institute to be an impartial source of scientific information, why wouldn't they by now have revised, publicly, their stance on the effects of CFC's? Want proof? Go to the George Marshall Institute website - type in "CFC" in their search bar and see what comes up. What comes up is a dry link which goes nowhere. Now type in "Bauliunas". You then get lots of hits - mostly on global warming - but no mention whatsoever of her paper on ozone depletion. It's just not there.

The primary evidence against prevailing theory amounted to little more than a misunderstanding of Dr. Dobson's measurements of the annual ozone hole over Antarctica. You can find this misunderstanding from the ubiquitous Fred Singer, who chimed in with "My Adventures in the Ozone Layer", a piece of mumbo jumbo published in The National Review in 1988. I found a lovely summary of Fred Singer's current excuse for this (see Robert Parson's comment here):

"Singer has repeatedly claimed that back in the mid 1980’s, the weight of the evidence implied that most of the chlorine in the stratosphere came from natural sources. (I myself remember very well this assertion) He concedes that subsequent measurements contradict this, but insists that back in 1988 his conclusion was the right one to draw. In fact, his conclusion is based on asserting that one particular type of measurement (long-term trends in stratospheric HCl) is the only relevant one, and ignoring a cartload of other measurements going back to 1975 that lead to a different conclusion. His reasoning here has always struck me as peculiar - he concedes that he was wrong in 1988, but argues that everybody else should have made the same mistake that he did. To me, it would seem more natural to conclude that the other guys interpreted the balance of the evidence more accurately than Singer, since it was their conclusions that ended up being confirmed even by Singer’s preferred choice of measurements."

And that about sums it up. Scientists developed a testable theory that CFC's were destroying atmospheric ozone. This led to the creation of a world wide treaty banning the production of CFC's. The United States signed the treaty. Right wing front groups like the George Marshall Institute and many others mobilized and sought to overturn the treaty by questionable attacks against the science and the assumption that the costs of eliminating CFC's would far outweigh any of the benefits. Yet today we know the science was accurate and that the costs of banning the production of CFC's were wildly inaccurate. In fact, as I noted earlier, DuPont went ahead and developed R134 - and today makes no less money on this chemical than it did on R12.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because the same cast of clowns are using the same tactics against the scientific consensus on global warming and the proposed strategies for mitigation. Our government, including the likes of Ronald Reagan - didn't trust them then, why should we trust them now?

Oh... Dr. William Happer, the noted physicist, was a political appointee in the Department of Energy for two years under George H.W. Bush. When the Clinton administration took office in January of 1993, he was asked to stay on until April of that year. In the event, he immediately butted heads with the administration on the issue of ozone depletion and therefore was asked to leave in March. A rare insight on this comes from "Political Science" an article published in the right wing "Reason" magazine in December of 1993 (take note of the date). Some of the quotes attributed to Happer compliment Fred Singer's earlier (and now thoroughly debunked) claims. Here is one particularly egregious line:

Happer noted that the richest fishing area in the world, just off the coast of Ecuador, receives "a thousand times more UV-B radiation that do the oceans around Antarctica during the height of the 'ozone hole'. Yet many of the same species of phytoplankton thrive in both areas with little or no apparent damage."

And another:

"With regard to global climate issues, we are experiencing politically correct science," Happer says. "Many atmospheric scientists are afraid for their funding, which is why they don't challenge Al Gore and his colleagues."

Now Steve. Think. Regarding ozone depletion, way back in 1993 William Happer was pushing the idea that more UV-B radiation just might be good for us, and that scientists were afraid to go against the prevailing view for fear of losing their funding. Well, we now know that more UV-B radiation is NOT good for us - in fact it is bad - and that Happer was dead wrong. You can try to smoke the whole thing up with vague references to global warming - but that was NOT the issue THEN and Happer was wrong. I assume his excuse would be the same as Fred Singer's - that given the evidence, everyone else should have been wrong also - which is a rather bizarre, up is down way of exonerating yourself.

Let's wrap this up. Happer's testimony in 1993 was part of a larger effort in congress, headed by Tom DeLay and John Doolittle, to stop the phase out of CFC's. Thankfully, the movement rapidly petered out after Rowland, Molina, and Crutzen were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995, and we are all better off as a result. And where is Dr. Happer now? As executive director of The Marshall Institute, he's pedaling the same snake oil on CO2 as he did on CFC's. Let's hope he is no more successful now than he was then.


P.S. : For further research on the CFC controversy, you can read a 1994 paper by Robert Parson. The paper is a review of some works on CFC's by Dixie Ray Lee, who also submitted papers on behalf of the GMI. It gives you a fairly good grasp of the obvious, contemporaneous scientific reasons for why the contrary views of Singer, Happer, etal amounted to zilch.

Sites like The Marshall Institute routinely scrub links to failed or embarrassing positions on various issues. Sometimes you can find these scrubbed links at a The Way Back Machine - which archives thousands of pages of different sites dating back to 1999. You have to be absolutely precise when you enter the site you are looking for. The Marshall pages are at:*/http:////


An interesting postscript:

Scanning through the Baliunas material I referenced in my mail, I wondered how she came up with the 2 trillion dollar cost estimate for ceasing production of R-12. For her part, Ms Baliunas cited data from House Resolution 291. This resolution comes from the 103rd Congress. You can find it at Thomas by selecting the 103rd Congress and searching "2 trillion" as a Word/Phrase. But be careful to use this exact link as Thomas seems to be fairly unstable.

What you find is a bill proposed by John Doolittle and co-sponsored by a veritable laundry list of Republican gas bags, including today's prominent pests, Dick Armey and James Inhofe. A few excerpts from the text:

"Whereas substantial questions have been raised by many prominent scientists regarding the validity of the theory that the ozone layer in the stratosphere is thinning and that man-made chemicals cause such thinning;"

"Whereas it has been alleged that it is the chlorine in the CFCs that breaks down ozone molecules and causes a thinning in the ozone layer, even though 600 million tons of chlorine are released each year into the atmosphere from the evaporation of seawater and 36 million tons of chlorine are released each year from volcanoes, compared to only 7,500 tons of chlorine released from the breakdown of CFCs;

Whereas CFCs thus contribute about 1 thousandth of 1 percent of the total amount of chlorine released into the atmosphere by natural sources;"

"Whereas it is estimated that the mandated phaseout of CFCs may require the replacement of 610 million refrigerators and freezers, 120 million cold storage units, 150 million automobile air conditioners, and several thousand refrigeration units used for the storage of medicine, blood supplies, and vaccines, because the approved replacement chemical cannot be used in existing refrigeration systems;"

"Whereas such a delay in the development and an interruption in the food delivery chain will have particularly severe effects in the developing countries, where it could cause an estimated additional 20 to 40 million deaths per year from disease and starvation:"

I can't offhand come up with strong enough epithets for men who would write this kind of abominable legislation. Without a single shred of proof, they threatened the world with 20 to 40 million deaths if we proceeded with what was then the most responsible reaction to the predictions of honest, honorable scientists.

Among other things, ozone depletion has been linked to increased incidence of skin cancer, including malignant melanoma, which is fatal in 15 to 20% of all cases. Had these cheep, seedy whores succeeded in setting back the phase out of R-12, how many deaths would they now have on their hands?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Time For A Game Changer

It looks like America is really beginning to fall behind the rest of the world in a lot of important areas. By all accounts, we're moving towards the back of the bus in health care, education and energy. We've got ourselves bogged down in a couple of confusing wars. Billy Kristol says we've already won one of them but the math for that seems to work only in stories with transporter beams or fairy godmothers. In the other one, after 7 years we've decided to go after "hearts and minds", which probably means we've given up on beating the crap out of the enemy. That's not a good sign, judging from how well the hearts n' minds strategy worked in Viet Nam.

Liberals are taking a lot of heat for this because we're always blaming America. At the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Jeane Kirkpatrick was probably the first to uncover this politically disadvantageous habit by punctuating a long list of problems with: "But then, they always blame America first...", each time to thunderous applause. We became known as the "Blame America Crowd" and I think its high time we turned the tables. As anyone with half a brain knows - people like Sean Hannity for instance - the essence of good parenting is to teach your kids that when they screw up, they should always, always, blame somebody else. "Timmy, are you the one who hit Mildred with the spitball?" "No, it was Marvin." "Marvin isn't here today." "...well, then it was Billy...yeah, that's it... Billy shot the spitball..." And so on.

Republicans virtually own the moral high ground because they never blame America. Have you ever once heard of someone like Glenn Beck running outside the studio, staring at a rock and blaming it for socialized medicine? Or Rush Limbaugh standing next to a tree and calling it out for the pathetic SAT scores most of our kids are racking up? Of course not! Instead, they blame Americans. That is, the voters who identify themselves as Democrats, which are the ones who, when they're not out stumping for health care reform or increased funding for education, are blaming good, solid American rocks and trees for everything that's wrong with this country. What they ought to do is wake up and start blaming other countries, countries like Lichtenstein, or possibly Monaco. Folks, what we need here is a game changer...

Lousy health care? No problem. Its Lichtenstein's fault. Lichtenstinians live in a country with a name that sounds socially snobbish and intellectually elitist, like, "I'm Reginald Lichtenstein the Third, of the South Hampton Lichensteins, who are you?"

Well just who do these pencil necks think they are, to be always expecting us to kiss their asses, just because they come from a country with such a highfalutin name?

The strategy of blaming obscure, European countries with hard to pronounce names for America's woes might also pay big dividends for liberals out there in the "real" America, which is where people live on farms and stuff - like the ones surrounding Rush Limbaugh's 40 million dollar home on Ocean Drive in Palm Beach, Florida.

As everyone knows, "real" Americans like their answers short, sweet and simple - not like the long, boring olios of accurate facts and big words which liberal professors and activist judges are always bombarding them with - and they can't stand foreigners either - just try asking for Mousse de Saumon et C√Ępres with a beaujolais blanc at Dan and Deb's in Dillsboro, Indiana and see what happens. Real Americans would have no trouble believing that wherever there is a problem, some foreigner from a country with a hard to pronounce name is most likely behind it.

And another thing...

Hold on a sec... Yes nurse Pritchett, I heard you the first time! I'll be there in a minute! HEY, GET YOUR GRUBBY HANDS OFF MY COMPUTER! I was just

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

If you think about it, the concept of Intelligent Design really isn't all that threatening to science, or, in a larger sense, the honest pursuit of knowledge generally. If you trouble to disconnect religion from it, I think you will find this concept advanced as the basis for much of which is clearly valid research. For example, millions in public and private funds have been invested in Project SETI to search for unnatural "intelligently designed" patterns in otherwise naturally occurring radio waves. And no one it seems is clamoring for laws to keep discussion of this project out of science classes at public schools. I don't consider it much of a stretch to extend the search to terrestrial sources, including biology.

Intelligent Design has been around speculative fiction for decades. I could point to any number of works ( 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind), not to mention the pseudo-scientific Chariots of the Gods. So, as far as it goes, the idea of detecting evidence of purposeful design in nature is not only harmless, but occasionally amusing and useful.

With all of this fairly uncontroversial and accessible material on intelligent design, it should come as no shock that the public accepts the idea as worthwhile. Well, so far so good...

One place we run into trouble with a theory of intelligent design is where and when it is applied as an argument for limiting scientific inquiry. And what an irony this truly is. If I were to claim, as Michael Behe has, that the bacterial flagellum represents evidence of design, wouldn't I want, indeed welcome, the efforts of biologists to test this claim?

Years ago, Michael Behe asserted that the little flagellum represents evidence of design because it consists of several parts which have no use in nature other than to make a flagellum, which therefore renders the natural evolution of these parts to be virtually impossible. What better way to test this assertion than to go look and see if each of these parts could have evolved independently? Why, if I were Michael Behe, I would welcome this kind of research. In fact, I think I would be performing it myself.

But here we arrive at the sticky wicket - a phrase which originates from a British term for a wooden cricket ball (or "pitch") which has sweated tar and is therefore difficult to hit, much like a spitball in cricket's American derivative, baseball. Convinced once and for all by his own assertion, Michael Behe has stated publicly and under oath that any research into the natural evolution of a flagellum would be pointless.

Now this makes absolutely no sense. Let's do the math here. If Michael Behe is honestly convinced he is right, wouldn't he then have every reason to welcome, and no reason at all to shun, any amount of research which has the aim of proving him wrong? I mean, every time one test or another results in a dry well, wouldn't that add further credibility to his assertion?

That is how science proceeds. You come up with a theory and then you test it. The more times and ways you test it, the more valid the theory becomes. But the essential point here is you can't have one without the other. Progress in science is impossible without the constant input of fresh, new ideas - both large and small - and the constant, patient testing of them. And by the way this constant, patient testing part is what makes most scientists so boring in conversation - particularly when the ones doing the talking are patiently testing some new formula for paving.

Be that as it may, the public at large is generally not very receptive to long, complicated answers to profound questions, and Intelligent Design is a most attractive way of explaining nature's plainly implausible diversity. I once decided it would be easily possible for a person to know all which is known, or could ever be known, provided he lived in a society where language consisted of just one word. And that's just the point. Intelligent Design magically reduces the immense, sometimes frightening world of science to the easy comprehension of Everyman.

I am reminded of a passage from a book of science fiction I read years ago (I can't remember the title now). Two scientists, one a believer and one a non-believer, were contemplating a powerful microscope which could peer into the smallest possible constituents of matter itself. The believer said something like: "When we look, we will find nothing there. The only difference will be that I will have God to explain it and you won't."

Why of course God designed everything there is. Why wouldn't He?

But in another sense, Intelligent Design, as it is currently promoted, is as much an effort to limit God as it is to limit science. Of course God could have made the separate parts of a flagellum as having no other use than to be a flagellum. But how tawdry it is of Micheal Behe to claim that thelimit of God's brilliance. Why couldn't God have designed an even more sophisticated way of making a flagellum? Isn't Mr. Behe just saying God didn't know how - because he, Michael Behe doesn't know how either?

Eventually, scientists will probably discover exactly how the parts of this little biological structure came independently into being. As a matter of fact, they've made remarkable progress since Michael Behe made his original claim almost 20 years ago. But whereas Mr. Behe quit looking, and proceeded to make money by simply giving up - they didn't.

Yet just like "Big fleas have little fleas, upon their backs to bite 'em...", some later incarnation of Michael Behe will point to the parts of a flagellum and claim that those are composed ofsmaller parts which could not have evolved independently, "and so on ad infinitum...".

There may never come a time when scientists will ever be able to look deep enough into time and space to find nothing is there. But if they do, I think God would be standing right beside them, grinning with pleasure that these beautiful creations of His have the courage to look.