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What Is Pseudoscience?

Distinguishing between science and pseudoscience is problematic

Climate deniers are accused of practicing pseudoscience, as are intelligent design creationists, astrologers, UFOlogists, parapsychologists, practitioners of alternative medicine, and often anyone who strays far from the scientific mainstream. The boundary problem between science and pseudoscience, in fact, is notoriously fraught with definitional disagreements because the categories are too broad and fuzzy on the edges, and the term “pseudoscience” is subject to adjectival abuse against any claim one happens to dislike for any reason. In his 2010 book Nonsense on Stilts (University of Chicago Press), philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci concedes that there is “no litmus test,” because “the boundaries separating science, nonscience, and pseudoscience are much fuzzier and more permeable than Popper (or, for that matter, most scientists) would have us believe.”

It was Karl Popper who first identified what he called “the demarcation problem” of finding a criterion to distinguish between empirical science, such as the successful 1919 test of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and pseudoscience, such as Freud’s theories, whose adherents sought only confirming evidence while ignoring disconfirming cases. Einstein’s theory might have been falsified had solar-eclipse data not shown the requisite deflection of starlight bent by the sun’s gravitational field. Freud’s theories, however, could never be disproved, because there was no testable hypothesis open to refutability. Thus, Popper famously declared “falsifiability” as the ultimate criterion of demarcation.

The problem is that many sciences are nonfalsifiable, such as string theory, the neuroscience surrounding consciousness, grand economic models and the extraterrestrial hypothesis. On the last, short of searching every planet around every star in every galaxy in the cosmos, can we ever say with certainty that E.T.s do not exist?


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Posted on Categories News, Science

Geoengineering Trials Get Under Way

Update 14 September 2011: The field test will be conducted at an abandoned airfield in Sculthorpe, UK. Matthew Watson of the University of Bristol, UK, presented details of the project at the British Science Festival in Bradford, UK.

Original article, posted 9 September 2011

FIELD trials for experiments to engineer the climate have begun. Next month a team of UK researchers will hoist one end of a 1-kilometre-long hose aloft using a balloon, then attempt to pump water up it and spray it into the atmosphere (see diagram).

The water will not affect the climate. Rather, the experiment is a proof of principle to show that we can pump large quantities of material to great heights. If it succeeds, a larger-scale version could one day pump sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere, creating a sunshade that will offset the greenhouse effect.

The trial, led by Matthew Watson of the University of Bristol, UK, is part of a £2 million project called Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE). Funded by two UK research councils, it also aims to find out the ideal particles to use in an atmospheric sunshade and will attempt to model their effects in greater detail than ever before. The test is not alone: a string of other technologies that could be used to “geoengineer” our environment are being field-tested (see “Coping with emissions”).

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Posted on Categories Climate, News

UK ‘Set to Miss’ Climate Targets

The UK is set to miss climate change targets it is legally bound to meet, according to an independent analysis.

TargetCambridge Econometrics says the UK will narrowly miss carbon budgets up to 2017, and by bigger margins after that. The government is legally bound to keep emissions within its carbon budgets. Separately, a report from a coalition of green groups says the government is not living up to its “greenest ever” pledge. The government says it is making progress on a number of fronts.

It points out that emissions from the government’s own activities, in Westminster, Whitehall and around the country, have fallen by nearly 14% in a single year. But emissions from the nation as a whole actually grew during 2010, as the economy began a modest recovery from the recession. According to analysts Cambridge Econometrics, this has helped to put the UK off the trajectory required to stay within its carbon budgets.

“The unmistakable lesson from the effect of emissions reduction policies 1997-2010 is that policies tend to have a lower impact than forecast, and therefore their strength needs to be increased if targets are to be achieved,” said Paul Ekins from the Energy Institute at University College London, senior consultant to Cambridge Econometrics. The country has also missed the target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2010 that was set by Labour before coming to power in 1997.

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Posted on Categories Climate, News

Geoengineering Too “Immature” to Combat Climate Change

The potential negative consequences of geoengineering the planetary climate remain too unclear to risk deployment at this point

No geoengineering methods are ready for use to combat climate change, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released late last month, citing concerns about cost, effectiveness and adverse consequences.

“Climate engineering technologies do not now offer a viable response to global climate change,” GAO said in the report commissioned by former House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.).

Interest in the technologies has grown amid the difficulty of enacting national and international policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many scientists believe that geoengineering could be a planetary “Plan B,” a tool to use only if steep cuts to the world’s greenhouse gas output fail to blunt global warming.

In its report, GAO said that “the majority of experts we consulted support starting significant climate engineering research now.” But as it stands, geoengineering methods are “currently immature, with many potentially negative consequences,” the report adds.

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Posted on Categories Climate, News

SEC Bears Down on Fracking

WASHINGTON—The Securities and Exchange Commission is asking oil and gas companies to provide it with detailed information—including chemicals used and efforts to minimize environmental impact—about their use of a controversial drilling process used to crack open natural gas trapped in rocks.

The federal government’s investor-and-markets watchdog is stepping into the heated environmental debate surrounding hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” according to government and industry officials, even as state and federal environmental officials have begun to bring greater pressure on the industry. The process, which involves pumping water, chemicals and sand underground to free difficult-to-reach natural gas in shale basins, has come under criticism from environmental groups ad some lawmakers over concerns toxins in the mix may contaminate air and water.

The SEC move shows the broad interest among Washington regulators in taking a closer look at fracking and suggests companies that are betting billions of dollars on the technology will increasingly need to weigh disclosing techniques they often consider proprietary. Battles over disclosure have already broken out at the state level, including in states such as New York and Pennsylvania that sit on the giant Marcellus Shale, an underground formation that has become a fracking hotbed because of the large quantities of natural gas there. Just last week, Noble Energy Inc. paid $3.4 billion for a stake in developing 663,350 acres there.

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Posted on Categories Energy, News

Newly Discovered Icelandic Current Could Change Climate Picture

Current called North Icelandic Jet contributes to key component of ocean circulation

If you’d like to cool off fast in hot summer weather, take a dip in a newly discovered ocean current called the North Icelandic Jet (NIJ). You’d need to be far, far below the sea’s surface near Iceland, however, to reach it. Scientists have confirmed the presence of the NIJ, a deep-ocean circulation system off Iceland. It could significantly influence the ocean’s response to climate change. The NIJ contributes to a key component of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), critically important for regulating Earth’s climate. As part of the planet’s reciprocal relationship between ocean circulation and climate, the AMOC transports warm surface water to high latitudes where the water warms the air, then cools, sinks and returns toward the equator as a deep flow.

Crucial to this warm-to-cold oceanographic choreography is the Denmark Strait Overflow Water (DSOW), the largest of the deep, overflow plumes that feed the lower limb of the AMOC and return the dense water south through gaps in the Greenland-Scotland Ridge. For years it has been thought that the primary source of the Denmark Overflow was a current adjacent to Greenland known as the East Greenland Current. However, this view was recently called into question by two oceanographers from Iceland who discovered a deep current flowing southward along the continental slope of Iceland. They named the current the North Icelandic Jet and hypothesized that it formed a significant part of the overflow water.

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Posted on Categories Climate, News

Japan Quake Is Causing Costly Shift to Fossil Fuels

YOKOSUKA, Japan — The half-century-old, oil-fueled power generators here had been idle for more than a year when, a day after the nuclear accident in March, orders came from Tokyo Electric Power headquarters to fire them up.

“They asked me how long it would take,” said Masatake Koseki, head of the Yokosuka plant, which is 40 miles south of Tokyo and run by Tokyo Electric. “The facilities are old, so I told them six months. But they said, ‘No, you must ready them by summer to prepare for an energy shortage.’ ”

Now, at summer’s peak, Yokosuka’s two fuel-oil and two gas turbines are cranking out a total of 900,000 kilowatts of electricity — and an abundance of fumes.

The generators are helping to replace the 400 million kilowatt-hours of daily electricity production lost this summer because of the shutdown of all but 15 of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.


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Posted on Categories Energy, News

Big Storms Slipping Toward Earth’s Poles


Mid-latitude storm tracks are major weather patterns that account for the majority of precipitation in the globe’s middle latitudes, which includes most of the heavily populated areas of North America, Eurasia, and Australia. Due to atmospheric circulation and the dynamics of weather systems, these bands of low pressure form repeatedly in the same locations. Apart from being meteorologically important, they’re also major players on the climate scene—clouds in these regions are responsible for reflecting much of the incoming solar radiation that is bounced back to space before penetrating Earth’s atmosphere.

Many climate models have predicted that the positions of these storm tracks would slowly migrate toward the poles, but so far this trend had not been detected. However, analysis of 25 years worth of data from the International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project now indicates that this shift is probably already taking place.

The International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project (or ISCCP) operates a network of geostationary and polar orbiting satellites that have been collecting data on clouds since 1983. A team of researchers carefully analyzed data for Northern and Southern Hemisphere storm tracks in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to look for trends in storm track positions. (The Indian Ocean could not be included because of issues with satellite coverage.) The results indicated a slight poleward shift of the storm tracks.

These satellites have known data issues: measurement changes when new satellites came online, lower data quality at the “seams” between coverage from different satellites, etc. So the authors tried several different analysis techniques to test the robustness of the observed trend. Each technique decreased the rate of the observed poleward movement somewhat, but the general trend remained.

That’s mainly interesting because it had been predicted by many climate models. But the data also shows something that may be much more important, though there are some considerable uncertainties involved. The satellite observations also show a roughly two-to-three percent reduction in total cloud cover since 1983. This occurred through a large decrease in low-level cloudiness, and it came despite a slight increase in high-level cloudiness.

Both of these changes act as positive feedbacks to warming, and, as we recently covered, cloud feedbacks are among the largest sources of uncertainty in temperature projections. High-level cirrus clouds aren’t thick enough to reflect much incoming solar radiation, but the increase in water vapor means more trapping of outgoing infrared radiation (the greenhouse effect). Most reflective action is in the low-level clouds, so a decrease there means more incoming solar radiation penetrating to the Earth’s surface.

Although the same models that predict the poleward movement of storm tracks also predict reductions in total cloud cover, the paper is heavy on caveats here. The most interesting data comes at the limits of detection for these satellites, making it unclear how robust the signal is. Like the storm track positions, the trend is consistent among the regions studied, though. In addition, satellite observations of atmospheric radiation fluxes (from the Earth Radiation Budget Experiment) corroborate the changes in cloud behavior.

Studies like this underscore the importance of Earth-monitoring satellites operated by NASA and the ESA. Global climate data isn’t easy to come by, and the analysis is often difficult under the best of circumstances. Increasingly accurate projections require the kind of data only these satellites can provide.

Citation: “Changes in extratropical storm track cloudiness 1983–2008: observational support for a poleward shift.” Frida A-M. Bender et al. Climate Dynamics, April 30, 2011. DOI: 10.1007/s00382-011-1065-6

Posted on Categories Climate, News

Plants and Animals Migrating Upward as Climate Changes

Across the globe, plants and animals are creeping, crawling, slithering and winging to higher altitudes and latitudes as temperatures climb.

Moreover, the greater the warming in any given region, the farther its plants and animals have migrated, according to the largest analysis to date of the rapidly shifting ranges of species in Europe, North America, Chile and Malaysia.

“The more warming there’s been in an area, the more you would expect a species to move, and the more they have moved,” said Chris D. Thomas, a conservation biologist at the University of York in England, who led the work published Thursday in the journal Science. “This more or less puts to bed the issue of whether these shifts are related to climate change. There isn’t any obvious alternative explanation for why species should be moving poleward in studies around the world.”

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Posted on Categories Climate, News

Climate Scientist: Don’t Read Too Much Into Hot Summer

The heat this summer has been relentless in many parts of the country, particularly in the South Central states, where Oklahoma and Texas had their warmest months on record in July. In fact, as previously noted on this blog, Oklahoma’s statewide average temperature was the warmest monthly statewide average temperature ever recorded in the United States during any month. Washington, D.C. had its warmest calendar month on record during July.

In total, more than 9,000 warm-temperature records were either tied or set during the month of July, and more continue to fall in August. Last week, Dallas, Texas, saw this summer’s streak of consecutive 100-degree days end at 40, two short of the city’s all-time record. On Monday, Houston hit 100 degrees for the 15th day in a row, setting a record.

The severity and vast reach of this summer’s extreme heat has led to questions about whether global climate change is already causing the emergence of a new summer temperature regime, with more frequent and intense heat waves, as has been projected by numerous studies.

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Posted on Categories Climate, News