Stories tagged politics

Feb
10
2011

Lisa Jackson: The head of the EPA met with House Republicans recently to discuss carbon regulation.
Lisa Jackson: The head of the EPA met with House Republicans recently to discuss carbon regulation.Courtesy EPA
I'm assuming that you aren't at home watching dense legal proceedings related to the regulation of molecules in our atmosphere. So here's the timeline of a recent important story.

  1. Humans figure out how to turn things (engines, turbines) by burning coal and petroleum. This makes like life a whole lot better in lots of ways.
  2. Scientists figure out that, all that burning is causing some problems. When we burn that stuff, we put carbon in the atmosphere and that's disrupting the natural climate system leading to all kinds of problems.
  3. Some different humans hear about this science and think we should pass a law. This law should put some limits on how much carbon we put into the atmosphere.
  4. The humans in the Republican controlled House don't like this idea, because they think these limits would cripple the economy. Oh, and some of them don't even believe the scientists. Since these Republicans are in charge right now, no new law.
  5. The humans over at the Environmental Protection Agency, who are mostly scientists, notice that they should already be regulating all this carbon, because of an existing law, the Clean Air Act.
  6. The Supreme Court agrees
  7. The House Republicans, disagree and call a hearing with the head of the EPA.
  8. Who knows what's next...

OK, you're up to date. Unfortunately the media is framing this issue in military terms. "The coming battle." "EPA and Republicans spar over climate change." "EPA blocks Republican rocket launcher with sweet ion science shield." Yeah, I made that last one up. But we don't need battles, we need conversations and action.

My point is that this issue is a great opportunity to have a discussion about how science is used in our public policy decisions. Do you think the EPA is too focused on the scientific findings related to climate change? Are they ignoring the economic impacts? Are you frustrated with some of the Republican views that outright deny the scientific findings on what's causing climate disruption? Are they ignoring real facts? Could this issue be alleviated by better science education?

The Boston Globe reports on a group of political scientists and more classical scientists alike, who suggest that we should submit potential legal changes up for scientific randomized trails, like how the FDA tests new drugs. Would you submit to experimentation in the law lab?

May
07
2010

One man, one vote.: But how those votes are counted can lead to some surprisingly complex mathematics.
One man, one vote.: But how those votes are counted can lead to some surprisingly complex mathematics.Courtesy Theresa Thompson

Winston Churchill once quipped, "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." Though said tongue-in-cheek, a recent article in New Scientist shows that, mathematically at least, Winnie was on to something.

Every election has winners and losers. Different countries have different systems for determining the winners, and dealing with the losers. And, it turns out, each of those systems has mathematical quirks which prevent the results from perfectly matching the will of the people.

  • The "winner-take-all" system used in America is certainly very simple and straight-forward. The problem is, the thousands--or even millions--of people who voted for the losing candidate end up with no elected official representing their views. (In the recent British elections, the Liberal Democratic party won 23% of all individual votes cast, but ended up with less than 9% of the seats in Parliament.) And in a race with three or more candidates, you can get a winner who carries less than 50% of the vote.
  • Some countries get around this by using "proportional representation:" they count votes cast for each political party, rather than for individual candidates, and divvy up the legislature that way. The voters' voice is fairly represented. But if one party controls more than half the seats, it can effectively shut the minor parties out. And if no party has a majority, they end up sharing power in ways that do not reflect their numbers. (Again, the British elections are a good example. The leading Conservative Party won 37% of the vote and 47% of the seats--not quite enough for a majority. They may form an alliance with the Liberal Democrats. The two parties would share power 50%-50%--quite a boon for the LibDems, who control only 9% of the seats!)
  • A few countries have tried "ordered voting," in which voters rank all candidates in order of preference, and then conducting run-offs until someone gets 50% of the vote. But this can lead to a strange situation where nobody wins!
  • And dividing the electorate into districts can shift power in unexpected ways. (We had a Buzz exhibit last year explaining how the Electoral College redistributes power.)

In 1963, American economist Kenneth Arrow considered all these quirks and tried to describe the perfect voting system. He then proved that it was mathematically impossible. (Of course, this assumes the system he described really is perfect--I'm not so sure.)

It seems to me, though, that the problem isn't with democracy, but rather with representative democracy. The people of Minnesota elect only one governor, only one senator (at a time). And there's no way one person is going to perfectly reflect public opinion--be 53% in favor of issue A and 61% opposed to issue B. And even if they were, they still have to make a series of yes-or-no decisions, and be either 100% for 100% against any given bill.

The only way to have a perfect democracy is to have everybody vote on every issue, a system that would be far too cumbersome to work. Churchill was right: democracy is messy, but it's the best thing we've got.

Jun
24
2009

Last January, Bryan praised Barack Obama’s inaugural address for promising to make decisions based on observation, data and statistics. Bryan also said,

We will keep a watchful eye over the next four years to make sure that science policy adheres to the agenda and principles that our new president has set out.

So, how are things going so far?

One:

Last week, the White House released a new report on climate change. Roger Pielke Jr., professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, says the study is seriously flawed. He finds the report relies on data that is old, narrow, non-peer reviewed, second- and third-hand, and contradicted by more recent, peer-reviewed studies. He specifically objects to claims that global warming is leading to more natural disasters. Such disasters are Dr. Pielke’s specialty, and he argues there is no such trend.

Two:

Back in February, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said that global warming was going to destroy agriculture in California. Dr. Pielke (who is becoming something of a one-man band in reigning in the more outrageous claims of global warming) picked apart that one as well.

Three:

In March, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar removed gray wolves in the northern Rockies from the Endangered Species list. This action was first proposed by President George W. Bush just before he left office, but suspended by the incoming administration. Two months later, they decided that Bush was right to accept the unanimous recommendation of Fish and Wildlife scientists.

Mark hates it when I point out stuff like that…

How would you direct research in a flu epidemic?
How would you direct research in a flu epidemic?Courtesy CDC
Imagine you're the director of the
Center for Disease Control, the US government’s top job for handling public health concerns.

Suddenly you’re faced with a new strain of flu, and must make a series of decisions over the course of a year on how to handle the outbreak. What will you do? Head on over to the Science Buzz swine flu feature and play the, "Swine flu: what would you do?" simulation. Test your decision-making ability to handling a possible flu crisis. See how your decisions compare with others who’ve tried this activity.

Mar
04
2009

Good, good: Kiss some of the other babies... and then threaten them. It'll be a landslide.
Good, good: Kiss some of the other babies... and then threaten them. It'll be a landslide.Courtesy Ti.mo
Here at Science Buzz we try to provide solid scientific information that Internet enthusiasts young and old might use to enhance their lives and their understanding of the world. Ding.

I’m sorry to admit, however, that we rarely offer advice directly to politicians. Sure, bloggers here might make their political leanings obvious from time to time, but we generally don’t give politicians pointers on how to enhance their careers.

Well there’s finally a Buzzer (me) with the courage (plenty) to stand up for the little guy (politicians) and hand out some advice (very valuable).

And here it is: If you want to manipulate people, make them afraid.

What? You sort of already knew that? Well no one sort of likes a smarty-pants, so zip it.

Besides, what you knew before was anecdotal. This is scientific. (Political science, but still, it was published, and that’s pretty good. Right?)

What’s more, it’s not quite so simple as the above statement. The real trick is to get your fear-mongering manipulation in when you’re dealing with a subject that people don’t understand very well. If the plebeians have solid mental footing, they’re much more likely to see through your crumby policies and deceptive statements. But if they’re uncertain about something, start up your scare engine and manipulate away.

Let’s do some practice runs:

“Your cats are unwholesome, and will eat your children. Kill them, and donate all money saved on cat food to my campaign.”

No, I know that isn’t true. If anything, the cats are in danger of being eaten by me. Plus I don’t own children. So I’m keeping that money, junior.

“Cloning research is unwholesome. It will de-value human life. I am against cloning, so vote for me.”

Say… I saw The Matrix. That was scary. I don’t know how cloning works, but it is scary. I am against cloning too. And I’m for you, junior.

“My opponent’s economic policies are going to ruin you. Check it.”

Hey… I’ll probably only live about 2 and a half billion seconds in my life. Economics involves trillions of dollars… that’s incomprehensible to me. I’m yours, junior.

See how easy and fun that was?

Science and scientific stuff is a good place to start, of course, because a lot of people don’t know a lot of stuff about science.

(On the offhand chance that you’re a non-politician reading this, I suppose you could get yerself educated about some science, etc, and have a better idea of when someone is trying to make you afraid and control you. But that’s not very nice to the politicians, is it?)

Feb
25
2009

Last night, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal criticized government spending authorized by the stimulus bill, calling particular attention to "something called volcano monitoring." Hey, $140 million is a lot of money, and what does it get us? Turns out volcano monitoring is actually kind of a big deal.

Fluffy cloud of water vapor, or engine-clogging agent of doom?: Taken from Alaska Airlines jet on July 20, 2008. This photo of Alaska's Okmok volcano was taken from 37,000 feet up, looking south from about 15 miles to the north. Scientists estimate the top of the ash cloud was at 20,000 ft.
Fluffy cloud of water vapor, or engine-clogging agent of doom?: Taken from Alaska Airlines jet on July 20, 2008. This photo of Alaska's Okmok volcano was taken from 37,000 feet up, looking south from about 15 miles to the north. Scientists estimate the top of the ash cloud was at 20,000 ft.Courtesy Phil Walgren, Alaska Volcano Observatory (USGS) and Alaska Airlines

It teaches us a lot about earth processes, of course, but some folks aren't swayed by talk of scientific advancement.

An argument for everyone is that monitoring enables authorities to plan and implement evacuations when necessary.

"The USGS has issued several warnings over the past 10 years, though predicting the timing and size of eruptions remains a difficult task.

Volcano monitoring likely saved many lives — and significant money — in the case of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines (where the United States had military bases at the time), according to the USGS.

The cataclysmic eruption lasted more than 10 hours and sent a cloud of ash as high as 22 miles into the air that grew to more than 300 miles across.

The USGS spent less than $1.5 million monitoring the volcano and was able to warn of the impending eruption, which allowed authorities to evacuate residents, as well as aircraft and other equipment from U.S. bases there.

The USGS estimates that the efforts saved thousands of lives and prevented property losses of at least $250 million (considered a conservative figure)."

Still not convinced? Here's another benefit: volcano monitoring keeps our air routes safer, too. See, a pilot can't easily tell the difference between an ash cloud and a regular cloud. But ash clouds can damage flight control systems and kill jet engines. Don't think that's really a big problem? Some 10,000 passengers and millions of dollars' worth of cargo are ferried by US aircraft over the North Pacific every day, and there are 100 potentially dangerous volcanoes under those air routes.

Suddenly "volcano monitoring" doesn't seem like a goofy piece of esoteric research...

Feb
14
2009

Lithium is harvested from salt water: Lithium is recovered from brine pools in Chile.
Lithium is harvested from salt water: Lithium is recovered from brine pools in Chile.Courtesy ar.obrien

Where does lithium come from?

Demand for lithium needed for lithium ion batteries is exploding but the world supply is very limited. The main producers of Lithium minerals are Chile, Argentina, the USA, China, Australia and Russia. Three fourths of the world's lithium reserves are in South America.

Bolivia has most of the world's lithium

More than one third of the world's known lithium is in Bolivia.

The U.S. Geological Survey pegs Bolivia's deposits at 5.4 million extractable tons. The U.S. has 410,000 tons, while China has 1.1 million and Chile has 3 million. Daily Tech

Bolivians reject exploitation

The Bolivian government is headed by President Evo Morales. A new Constitution that Mr. Morales managed to get passed last month could give native Bolivians control over the natural resources in their territory.

“The previous imperialist model of exploitation of our natural resources will never be repeated in Bolivia,” said Saúl Villegas, head of a division in Comibol that oversees lithium extraction. “Maybe there could be the possibility of foreigners accepted as minority partners, or better yet, as our clients.” New York Times

The trouble with lithium

A study by Meridian International Research points out the trouble with lithium (click link to read 22 pg PDF) in powering the world's future fleet of electric vehicles.

Analysis of lithium's geological resource base shows that there is insufficient economically recoverable lithium available in the Earth's crust to sustain Electric Vehicle manufacture in the volumes required, based solely on Li Ion batteries.

The alternative battery technologies of ZnAir and NaNiCl are not resource constrained and offer potentially higher performance than Li MoralesIon."

Lithium supplies are very limited

If Bolivia wants to cash in on their lithium reserves, they need to move before better alternatives come to the market.

"We have the most magnificent lithium reserves on the planet, but if we don't step into the race now, we will lose this chance. The market will find other solutions." said Juan Carlos Zuleta, an economist in La Paz. Detroit News

I was very excited to listen to Barack Obama's inauguration address and hear him speak the words, science, data, and statistics with pride and emphasis. We will keep a watchful eye over the next four years to make sure that science policy adheres to the agenda and principles that our new president has set out.