Talking about the weather, volume sellers, FDA vs. doctors, simplifying complexity...


Talking About the Weather

Regarding Gregory Benford's cover story "Climate Control" (November): Bravo! I have waited several years for a reasoned discussion of the technical issues buried in the fog of propaganda on anthropogenic influences on climate. I suspect this piece will infuriate proponents of draconian government action.

I am struck by the persistent inconsistency of the position that inadvertent consequences of human energy use cannot be counteracted by intentional mitigation efforts. The thesis seems to be that mankind can only influence the environment negatively and unintentionally. Benford should consider a similar contribution to Scientific American.

Frank Albini
Research Professor
Mechanical & Industrial Engineering
Montana State University
Bozeman, MT

Benford's story was the first time I have been exposed to a point of view on climate that didn't portray modern industrial man as bumbling, incompetent, destructive, and incapable of effective action of any kind short of self-immolation. I have never understood environmental Puritanism and find it difficult, if not impossible, to challenge such Puritans rationally.

This becomes even more difficult when scientists themselves espouse these puritanical ideas. I'm sure many of Benford's suggestions, and even the very idea of geoengineering, went over with some people as well as a whale-blubber sandwich at a Greenpeace rally. This is to be expected. Fortunately, history shows that apocalyptic and Luddite movements quickly become irrelevant when their irrational fears are proven wrong by either time or the preponderance of evidence.

Unfortunately, when these movements have powerful state support, a lot of unnecessary damage can occur. Environmental Puritanism pretends to know the answer to every question concerning man, technology, and the environment: Technology: bad! Man: bad! Nature: good! All without considering man as an integral part of nature.

Before going to engineering graduate school, I worked for several years in the pulp and paper industry and learned the truth about recycled paper. I once suggested to an environmentalist acquaintance that as a small contribution to reducing greenhouse gases, we should collect paper, compress it into blocks, and bury it in an anaerobic environment. The process consumes less energy than recycling the paper (thus lowering greenhouse gas emission), and we'd be supporting a process that removes carbon from the atmosphere, makes good use of it as paper, and confines it forever underground. We could even bury it in old coal seams and provide coal for our (distant) descendants!

Needless to say, even though this person could not find any reasonable flaw with the idea, I was viciously attacked for even suggesting that using lots of paper and then putting it into a "landfill'' could help the environment. I now suggest this idea whenever I want to have fun with certain environmentalists. It's like a Zen riddle to them.

Gregory Wojak

Benford's article was very good. I had heard about the iron addition game but didn't have the details of the results. One interesting aspect of this approach is the possibility of ocean ranching. For example, take a large rotating mass of water in a low-productivity, iron-short area of the ocean. Within a few days we will see the algae bloom with about 2,000 tons of algae for each ton of iron. Zooplankton will then bloom to consume the algae, but before the zooplankton really gets going, we introduce filter-feeding fish larvae. Some species of fish will grow to harvest size in 60 to 90 days, with a weight gain of 10,000 kilograms or more.

This food chain will recycle some of the nutrients and decrease the overgrazing by the zooplankton, thereby stabilizing the system, with the energy flowing into the fish biomass and the carbon sinking with the fish feces. The added nutrient recycling and slower grazing rates should result in more carbon removal per kilogram of iron. The sinking rate of the high-carbon fish waste can be much faster than the smaller particles formed from the zooplankton.

Going into areas with few fish predators and parasites, we could transfer a lot of energy into fish biomass and get rid of a lot of carbon at the same time. Energy transfer efficiencies of marine food chains are very high (they can be in the 30 to 60 percent range--marine life don't spend energy keeping warm or fighting gravity). For every kilogram of iron, we could end up with 200 or more kilograms of fish, which is worth a lot more than a kilogram of iron waste product.

A profitable carbon removal system could become reality long before the governments can decide what to do. Some entity would have to enforce temporary property rights to a water mass to keep someone else from harvesting your crop.

Dallas E. Weaver, Ph.D.
Scientific Hatcheries
Huntington Beach, CA

I enjoyed Dr. Benford's article very much. I continue to be optimistic that people will see science and technology as our friends and not the enemy. I am disheartened when so many scientists seem to believe that science is good, but applied science is the root of all evil.

I had some questions concerning various assertions I've heard regarding global warming. I've heard that if the atmosphere does increase in temperature, a greater amount of moisture will evaporate from the ocean surface. The presence of more water vapor increases the cloud cover over the oceans, thus increasing the Earth's albedo. As a result, the Earth's atmospheric temperature is self-regulating. Is this thinking correct?

I have also read that the CO2 and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere are almost entirely a by-product of natural processes (e.g., volcanic eruptions) which almost completely eclipse human contributions. Is this so?

Greg Parsons
Cincinnati, OH

Benford suggests a series of Rube Goldberg "climate controls" to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gases, despite the complete lack of scientific consensus that global warming is occurring, that it is an imminent threat, or that humans are the cause. Benford speaks of a "consensus that the only way to counter global warming is by reducing emissions." No such consensus exists.

A recent Gallup poll of the Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Society shows that 17 percent agreed with the proposition that human actions were causing global warming, while 83 percent disagreed. Only 13 percent of scientists responding to a Greenpeace survey believe catastrophic climate change will result from continuing current patterns of energy use. Recently more than 100 noted scientists, including the former president of the National Academy of Sciences, signed a letter declaring that costly actions to reduce greenhouse gases are not justified by the best available science.

The man who started the ruckus by telling Congress in 1988 he believed "with a high degree of confidence" that global warming had arrived, NASA's James Hansen, now thinks the net effect of recent atmospheric changes to be far too small to have much of an effect on temperature. Harvard's Brian Farrell has said bluntly: "There really isn't a case being made for the detection of greenhouse warming."

The facts are, as noted by Robert C. Balling, director of the Office of Climatology at Arizona State University, that the world has seen an increase in the level of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from 305 parts per million in 1890 to 432 parts per million by 1990, a 42 percent increase. Yet during this period the planetary temperature rose a meager 0.45 degree Celsius.

The plot thickens when we observe that 0.4 degree of this increase occurred before World War II, while much of the rise in greenhouse gases occurred after this date. The timing of this modest warming is not consistent with the rise in greenhouse gases. The effect seems to precede the alleged cause.

In fact, as Dr. Balling notes, despite all the talk about global warming during the 1980s, the buildup of greenhouse gases from 1979 to 1994, and the anticipated 0.3 degree per decade warming, highly accurate satellite-based global temperature measurements not only show no warming but instead show very real cooling, a statistically significant cooling of 0.13 degree Celsius over this period.

Even if the Earth's temperature has increased slightly, the increase is well within the natural range of known temperature variation over the past 15,000 years. Indeed, the Earth experienced greater warming between the 10th and 15th centuries, predating the Industrial Revolution.

A slight warming trend that occurs mostly in winter and at night (which many scientists consider the most probable scenario) would actually benefit mankind, producing milder winters and longer growing seasons. Carbon dioxide, rather than being a pollutant, makes forests and crops more abundant.

Benford claims that "systematic weather prediction has advanced more than tenfold in its assured time range" and that with "the latest systems, backed by heavy computer modeling, we will shrink uncertainties." Let's hope so. Current global warming predictions are based on computer models that cannot replicate what is already known about climate changes over the past 50 years.

One of Benford's goals is to increase the amount of sunlight reflected back into space. He'll have to reflect more than he figured. In the current issue of the journal Science, Richard Wilson, an atmospheric physicist from Columbia University's Center for Climate System Research, reports evidence that the sun has been gradually brightening over the past few decades, with total solar irradiance increasing over the past 19 years by about 0.036 percent per decade. If that continued over a century, it would be enough to bump global temperatures up by about 1 degree Fahrenheit or more.

Astrophysicist Sallie Baliunas of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and colleagues have studied records going back 120 years and conclude that between 70 and 90 percent of global temperature shifts are sun-induced, not man-induced. It could just be that Benford, Clinton, and Gore have been standing out in that sun too long.

Daniel John Sobieski
Chicago, IL

I agree strongly that if global warming were treated as a technical problem instead of a moral outrage we could cool the world. Having said that, I wonder whether the world really needs cooling. The idea that anyone knows the "global" temperature in 1897 to within 0.5 degree Celsius seems bizarre, to say the least.

Most of the alarm about global warming appears to stem from a prediction made by a computer program. Perhaps Dr. Benford can help me there. Whose computer program? Where is it documented? Where are the peer reviews of the program and its predictions? I spent most of my professional career creating and running computer models of physical systems--including gas-to-surface and gas-to-gas radiant energy transfer--and interpreting the results. I learned early to be extremely wary of programs until they have been shown to agree with results observed in a physical system. To the best of my knowledge, the global warming program fails that test. Does it, for example, predict that the tropopause is much higher and colder over the tropics than over the temperate zone, as a wealth of observations testify? How is the exchange of air across the tropopause modeled?

As an engineer I firmly believe that given incentives, we could cut energy consumption in half within a couple of decades without significantly impacting anyone's standard of living. How? Simply shift a major portion of the federal tax load from income to carbon fuels and let consumers decide how and where to cut. To anticipate the cry, "This will hurt the poor!," start by replacing the Social Security tax with a carbon tax. Certain lead-footed drivers might have to settle for accelerating from zero to 60 in 11 seconds instead of eight, but that doesn't seem like a severe burden.

Benford's suggestion of white roofs to reduce air-conditioning loads is well taken. Similarly, reducing the huge expanses of glass in office buildings would be a step in the right direction. We could also use 480-volt electricity instead of 120; the big saving there would be in the transformers that supply our homes. Railroads can move a ton of freight a mile for about one-fourth the energy of trucks, and that doesn't even take into account the energy needed to build and maintain highways. We could go on and on in that vein.

Another point: I don't know what Benford means by operating aircraft jet engines "rich." Does he mean an over-stoichiometric fuel-air mixture? Gas turbine engines operate with a huge amount of excess air. Even to approach a stoichiometric mixture would quickly melt the turbines down to slag. Furthermore, independent of cost, fuel is such a large part of an airliner's takeoff weight that to require them to carry still more would quickly become prohibitive.

About Benford's other suggestions: We should wait until we're sure they're needed before we tinker with the world's atmosphere.

Leon Billig

While I generally like REASON, I found "Climate Control" to be below the general quality of the magazine. I especially disliked the idea that some of the climate control solutions could be foisted on the public without their suspecting it. Not what I would expect in a magazine that generally favors lessening government intervention in our lives.

Gabe Gargiulo
Manchester, CT

Gregory Benford replies: I applaud Dallas Weaver's ingenious idea, which is just the sort I sought to stimulate with my article. Markets can mitigate warming effects better than a Greenhouse Czar.

Daniel Sobieski and Leon Billig want me to write another sort of article, arguing whether warming is real. I simply take the preponderant opinion of atmospheric scientists, who use a panoply of indicative effects (not just computer simulations) to conclude that warming is at least partially human-driven. Sallie Baliunas's signs that the sun is getting warmer may explain much of it (a discussion of this was cut from my article for space reasons), but even if so, we will still need mitigation methods (mostly increased reflection) if it persists.

The offsettings cited by Greg Parsons are apparently real, but don't fully compensate for greenhouse effects from humans, who make a substantial contribution to the overall CO2 balance.

Gregory Wojak and Frank Albini are right: Emotion and posturing have dominated discussion so far, but I hope they can be bested by reason (and REASON).

I found amusing Gabe Gargiulo's notion that I would advocate foisting solutions on an unsuspecting public in a national magazine; one would think that would ruin the supposed secrecy. Of course, I merely said the best methods will not be intrusive, and keeping out of people's backyards will provoke less resistance--always a good idea.

FDA vs. Doctors

Alexander Volokh's article "Software Pirates" (November) grapples with an evolving dispute pitting licensed physicians' sovereignty against FDA intrusion into private doctors' offices with its attempts to regulate any and all medical devices, including computer software.

As a physician and former FDA medical reviewer for excimer lasers, I have been disappointed with the FDA's misguided crusade against a few highly trained refractive surgeons using unapproved, custom excimer lasers in their private practices. Why would an agency that gets criticized regularly for foot-dragging and excessive tardiness in completing its assigned workload squander significant resources to crucify these few custom laser physicians engaged in the private practice of medicine?

To justify overruling safeguards in the law protecting physicians from FDA oversight, the FDA has redefined these physicians as "manufacturers" just because they advertise their treatment to the public. Having rewritten the definitions to suit its needs, the FDA sets precedent by subjecting these physicians in the private practice of medicine to the same regulations as medical device manufacturers. Instead of partnering with these innovative physicians, the FDA intends to destroy them.

FDA boosters will ask, "Yes, but what about these unregulated lasers?" Trust me as a physician: FDA sanctions offer little deterrent compared to an aggressive trial lawyer suing for malpractice. One might then ask, "What motivates eye surgeons like Dr. Trevor Woodhams in this story?" The answer is simple: In his expert medical opinion, treating his patients with an FDA-approved device limited by software restrictions is more risky than treating with his own custom-tailored excimer laser. FDA management has arrogantly preempted Dr. Woodhams's lawful right to practice medicine, claiming to know better than he how to treat patients. Who would you choose to give you medical care: an armchair bureaucrat from the FDA or a highly qualified physician like Dr. Woodhams? Dr. Woodhams gets my vote.

Instead of nurturing cooperation through judicious "enforcement discretion," for the benefit of all concerned, FDA management intentionally wields enforcement indiscretion. Had it not been for such highly respected and visionary physicians like Woodhams, there would be no debate on current alternatives in laser vision correction. FDA is in the business of approving medical devices. As a physician, I say, "Please keep the FDA far away from the art and science of taking care of real patients."

Mark D. Stern, M.D.
Brinklow, MD

Simplifying Complexity

In "Computer Games" by James V. DeLong (November), the simplicity of the explanation about how the government can take a simple statement and turn it into a billion dollar program impressed me. I knew, but didn't know. As a federal employee in the Defense Department, I have a deep appreciation for how the government works but I never could completely comprehend the massive machine that was slowly churning in Washington. This article explained the functioning of the government in 10 minutes. Good job.

Mark Sapp

Volume Sellers

Charles Paul Freund convincingly explains why statist elites despise large bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders ("Literature in Chains," November). After reading Freund's article, I recalled growing up during the 1970s in suburban New Orleans. Back then, the only bookstores I knew were WaldenBooks outlets in the local shopping malls. This chain was OK, but even a not particularly precocious 19-year-old quickly grew bored. Not until I moved to Manhattan in 1980 did I learn how genuinely joyful book shopping can be. About the only thing I regretted about moving away from New York two years later was that I no longer had access to outstanding bookstores.

Four or five years ago, however, my regret finally disappeared. The spread of Barnes & Noble and Borders meant that no longer did I have to be in New York or San Francisco to have access to the finest in book shopping. These chains brought outstanding book shopping to me even though I lived in upstate South Carolina.

As with so many attacks on the market, the crusade against large bookstore chains reflects the hostility of elites toward the masses' being well served.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Foundation for Economic Education
Irvington-on-Hudson, NY

Skeptic About Skeptics

Brian Doherty's review of my book, Why People Believe Weird Things ("Critique of Pure Skepticism," November), is one of the most intelligent and thoughtful of the 50 or so reviews that have been published to date. He correctly points out that many of the "weird things" in my book are not explained by the generalization of "hope springs eternal" (in the attempt to answer the "why people believe" question). I tried to make the point in my final chapter that the specific reasons for belief obviously will vary with the belief system.

Doherty also notes that I spend some time "indulging in ad hominem assaults on the racist motives of Wycliffe Draper," founder of the Pioneer Fund, a major backer of research on racial differences in IQ. True, but I am a historian and I am interested in extra-scientific issues like who does the funding and what biases in one's research this might create. So, the question is, how can one explore this interesting and (I think) important aspect of science without being accused of the ad hominem attack?

Two minor corrections: 1) The magazine I edit is Skeptic, not The Skeptic; and 2) The proof that I really did think I was abducted by aliens during the 1983 bicycle Race Across America (due to sleep deprivation and riding 1,280 miles nonstop), as I noted in the book, is that it was filmed by ABC's Wide World of Sports, which aired a segment in which Eric Heiden interviewed me about my bizarre hallucinations. If I made it up in order to support my skeptical position 14 years later, I really must be a psychic!

Two significant corrections: 1) My "proof" that Satanic cults are panics and not real is the fact that there is no evidence that they exist. True, skeptics cannot prove a negative--I can't prove Satanic cults don't exist--but the burden of proof is not on me to disprove the cults' existence, it is on those who claim they exist to prove that they do. 2) My statement that "science became my belief system, and evolution my doctrine" was not a slip. Believe me, every editor at Freeman asked me if I really wanted to say it that way. Yes, I did, because science is a belief system--different from all others in its self-correcting nature--but a belief system nonetheless.

However, my statement that it is our job "to investigate and refute bogus claims" was a slip. Doherty is right. We should not go into an investigation with the preconceived idea that we are going to refute a given claim. But, being human, with years of experience of encountering similar claims that turn out to be bogus, we sometimes do. That is one of the human aspects of science that does make it a belief system.

Doherty is also right that sometimes we skeptics react "uncharitably" to some claims and claimants. All I can say in our defense is that when the hundredth person calls with a perpetual motion machine or a theory that explains absolutely everything in the universe, it is damned hard not to chortle a bit.

Michael Shermer
Publisher, Skeptic
Altadena, CA

Brian Doherty replies: Correction noted on the title of Mr. Shermer's magazine, and my apologies for the error. My point about the tale of hallucinated alien abduction was not that he was necessarily lying, but that application of his Humean maxim might lead one to leap to that conclusion without a thorough check of the evidence. Sometimes, the seemingly improbable can turn out to be true.