Saturday, February 19, 2011

CUDOS in Science versus Post-Normal Science

(C)ommunalism – the common ownership of scientific discoveries, according to which scientists give up intellectual property rights in exchange for recognition and esteem;
(U)niversalism – according to which claims to truth are evaluated in terms of universal or value-free criteria;
(D)isinterestedness – according to which scientists are rewarded for acting in ways that appear to be selfless;
(O)rganized (S)kepticism – all ideas must be tested and are subject to structured community scrutiny.
If these CUDOS are followed, science should be "certain and value-free."
from Eva Kunseler, Towards a new paradigm of Science in scientific policy advising

Thanks to "buythetruth" blog for excellent selections from Kunseler

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Substance X causes cancer in animals...."

Consider two statements, S1 and S2: S1: ‘‘Would you agree or disagree that the way an animal reacts to a chemical is a reliable predictor of how a human would react to it?’’

The second statement, S2, is a little more specific: ‘‘If a scientific study produces evidence that a chemical causes cancer in animals, then we can be reasonably sure that the chemical will cause cancer in humans.’’

How did you respond? How would a scientist respond?

from P. Slovic, ‘‘Trust, Emotion, Sex, Politics, and Science: Surveying the Risk-Assessment Battlefield,’’ in Environment, Ethics, and Behavior, M. H. Bazerman, D. M. Messick, A. E. Tenbrunsel, and K. A. Wade-Benzoni (eds.) (San Francisco, New Lexington, 1997), pp. 277–313.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Global CO2 plumes

Ever wonder where our oxygen comes from in the winter? When vegetation dies back in the Northern Hemisphere, we have to subsist on old air until the summer. In this image, you can see the plume of carbon dioxide downwind of large human population centers.

Agroforestry: the "Evergreen Revolution"

Dr. Dennis Garrity spoke today at SENR about how agroforestry is transforming entire landscapes in Africa. Dr. Garrity detailed a number of ways farmers are growing more crops by cultivating trees in their field. The details differ, but usually involve a leguminous tree that can provide both fertilizer for the field and fodder for livestock. One such tree, Acacia (Faidherbia), has the amazing added benefit of loosing its leaves during the wet season when farmers grow crops. This is basically the perfect tree, providing timed inputs of fertilizer, light, and forage at just the times the crops, farmer, and livestock need them.

According to Dr. Garrity, Faidherbia does not grow in the wild and is dependent on human cultivation. But until 10 years ago, no one knew how to propagate the tree: farmers tended them when they found them, but attempts to plant seeds or take cuttings had failed. Once researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre developed a cheap and easy way to propagate Faidherbia, its use has been rapidly adopted, especially in the Sahel region of Africa, where millions of hectares have been transformed.

Many of the questions from the audience focussed on possible problems and objections to this agronomic technique. What if pests wiped out the tree, or used the tree as refuges? If it was so good, why hadn't farmers adopted it before? What would happen when commercial farms replaced small holders? Some of these questions had initially occurred to me as well, but after reflection, the question I was most interested to ask would have focussed on what this example of agroforestry innovation could teach us to look for in the future. How can we learn from this example to look for other species in other parts of the world that might become essential components of new agricultural systems that can increase diversity, resilience, and production for the 21st century?

The real insight of this talk is that productivity is not set in stone: humans can and should manage their environments to improve them over and above what is "natural".

This presentation has in-depth information on the spread of agroforestry in Niger.

This is a great agroforestry organization:

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Do We All Have an Equal Chance for Health?

Unnatural Causes, a PBS documentary, asks the pointed question "Is Inequality Making Us Sick" and answers strongly affirmative. According to information presented in the video series, poverty is correlated with disease, more so than any other socioeconomic variable. This correlation is more than the obvious fact that (in the US at least) you have to have money to see a doctor. The series argues convincingly that there may be a causative factor in poverty that predisposes people to illness, weakened immune systems, increased heart disease, and cancer: increased stress. While our society often thinks of 9-5 businessmen as stressed out, the cortisol levels of the on-call janitors, cooks, and welfare recipients tests out as significantly higher.

Cortisol has been shown by numerous scientific studies to lead to disease. However, the ability to manage and control our circumstances may be the actual barometer of cortisol levels in humans. If that is true, then it will take more than just increased wealth and decreased stress to bring healthier outcomes to the majority of Americans. They will have to have a feeling of control over their lives, too. Furthermore, correlation does not prove causation: poverty need not necessarily be stressful, so poverty need not necessarily lead to poor health. However, the sociologists interviewed in the series may not be concerned with such nit-picking as long as the overwhelming correlation holds.

Nutrient Pollution Management in 2011: New Regulations

Dr. Larry Antosch, Senior Director, Program Innovation and Environmental Policy, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation presented "Water Quality and Agricultural Nutrient Management – Many Forces Converge" to finish up the seminar series theme of Water Quality here in the School of Environment and Natural Resources. Dr. Antosch is well-placed to provide a comprehensive and up-to-date view of nutrient management and water quality, having worked in the field for 30 years, first for the EPA and now for the FBF, which recently sued the EPA over pending nutrient restrictions in the Chesapeake Bay (CB) watershed. Dr. Antosh pointed out that since Ohio is in the CB "airshed" (some of our air pollution is deposited in the CB watershed) these regulations could impact us directly. They could also impact Ohio indirectly as EPA gears up for an even bigger watershed nutrient reduction program for the entire Mississippi.

In Dr. Antosh's opinion, some of the regulatory impetus is misplaced, because science does not have all the answers yet. For example, the increased of dissolved Phosphorous (rather than particulate phosphorous) entering Lake Erie and causing harmful algal blooms, is a mystery. Farmers or cities? Which techniques could best eliminate excess nutrients? Some have even pointed to no-till as a possible source, because nutrients are applied to the surface rather than mixed in.

Although Dr. Antosch emphesized the uncertain nature of water quality science, I believe there is enough information to act today. Several simple examples come to mind: (1) Regulations against applying manure and fertilizer in the winter, when plants are not growing and hence don't absorb any of the nutrients; (2) Existing steps to eliminate phosphorous fertilization of residential lawns; (3) Creating new wetlands to filter the runoff that does occur.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Open-source, DIY genomics

"You can't rely on the model of running everything through the historic, traditional research channels.” “..the locus of control is different and distributed. There are no principal investigators and subjects. Instead, there are organizers and participants, and both of those are collaborators.”

How much is a human life worth?

From a 2008 article in the Washington Post: Several federal agencies have come up with figures for the dollar value of a human life to analyze the costs and benefits of new programs they believe will save lives. A sampling:

According to the Principles of Economics by Gregory Mankiw, economics calculate the
value of a human life by looking "at the risks that people are voluntarily willing to
take and how much they must be paid for taking them".

For example, the decision to work as a contractor in Iraq involved placing a monetary value on
years of extended life. Assuming an annual risk of death of 0.004 and a salary
premium of $30,000 per year over comparable jobs in the United States, contractors in
Iraq are essentially compensated at a rate of $250,000 per statistical year of life. A recent survey of estimates based on occupational risk that found a range from $500,000 to $21 million per statistical life year depending on how dangerous the work is. If someone will accept a 1-in-10,000 chance of death for $500, then the value of life
must be 10,000 times $500, or $5 million.

An example of this kind of analysis was used by the federal Consumer Product Safety
Commission this year:A proposal to make mattresses less flammable was expected to cost the industry $343 million to implement. But, a spokeswoman said, the move was also expected to save 270 people. The commission calculated that each life was worth $5 million, which meant a
benefit of about $1.3 billion.

This total value can also be annualized. The World Health Organization has proposed $108,609 as the value of a disability-adjusted life year, while a recent study by Lee et al using Medicare willingness-to-pay, estimated it as $129,000. Lee notes that this figure compares to a range of $50,000 to $100,000 used in other countries, such as Australia and the UK, which run national health care systems in guiding their coverage decisions.

The fact of the matter is that monetary valuations of human life are a necessary step in triage. However, as Risk and Decision-Making researchers know, individual's valuations of their own and others lives is rarely consistent or logical. For example, many people complain bitterly about automobile or factory pollution, while themselves being one of the largest, willful, and unnecessary sources of pollution:

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Weather vs Climate

First, an editorial by a scientist (Dr. Judah Cohen), advertising his work:
The next day, a series of responses from other scientists on the dot earth blog (by Andrew Revkin):
Day after that, a question-and-answer session between Revkin and Cohen:
A month later, a wrap-up piece by climate journalist Justin Gillis, exploring the historical background of seasonal weather predictions.