Archive for October 18th, 2009
A 21-year Michigan State University experiment that distills the essence of evolution in laboratory flasks not only demonstrates natural selection at work, but could lead to biotechnology and medical research advances, researchers said. Charles Darwin’s seminal Origin of Species first laid out the case for evolution exactly 150 years ago. Now, MSU professor Richard Lenski and colleagues document the process in their analysis of 40,000 generations of bacteria, published this week in the international science journal Nature.
Lenski, Hannah Professor of Microbial Ecology at MSU, started growing cultures of fast-reproducing, single-celled E. coli bacteria in 1988. If a genetic mutation gives a cell an advantage in competition for food, he reasoned, it should dominate the entire culture. While Darwin’s theory of natural selection is supported by other studies, it has never before been studied for so many cycles and in such detail.
"It’s extra nice now to be able to show precisely how selection has changed the genomes of these bacteria, step by step over tens of thousands of generations," Lenski said.
Lenski’s team periodically froze bacteria for later study, and technology has since developed to allow complete genetic sequencing. By the 20,000-generation midpoint, researchers discovered 45 mutations among surviving cells. Those mutations, according to Darwin’s theory, should have conferred some advantage, and that’s exactly what the researchers found.
The results "beautifully emphasize the succession of mutational events that allowed these organisms to climb toward higher and higher efficiency in their environment," noted Dominique Schneider, a molecular geneticist at the Université Joseph Fourier in Grenoble, France.
I enjoyed the original Freakonomics quite a bit. It surveyed some fun-to-read economic research that Steve Levitt had done at the University of Chicago, and while a lot of that work was employed in the service of trifling questions (“Do sumo wrestlers cheat?” “Do game-show participants discriminate?”), it was clear Levitt was a clever economist who could gin up fascinating “natural experiments” to crack open everyday mysteries.
So now Levitt and his co-author Stephen Dubner have a sequel, Superfreakonomics, which includes a chapter on climate change. Do they deploy Levitt’s trademark economic techniques to shed new light on old questions? Because that might be useful! Alas, no, there’s nothing of the sort. Levitt and Dubner just parachute into the field of climate science and offer some lazy punditry on the subject dressed up as “contrarianism.” There’s no original research. There’s nothing bold or explosive. It’s just garden-variety ignorance. As William Connelly, a former climate modeler at the British Antarctic Survey says in his review of the book’s climate chapter (which he has posted):
Diagnosis, in brief: (1) they write about stuff they clearly don’t understand (2) they pick a catchy reverse-common-wisdom nugget as a headliner without the having the slightest interest in whether it is true or not (3) they pick an expert to talk to, but since they don’t have a clue about the subject they don’t know how to pick a good expert, or even understand what the expert says (4) there is a grain of sense in there, but so badly wrapped in trash it is nearly unfindable.
In just a few dozen pages, Dubner and Levitt manage to repeat the myth that the scientific consensus in the 1970s predicted global cooling (quite untrue), imply that climatologists are unaware of the existence of water vapor (no, they’re quite aware), and traffic in the elementary misconception that CO2 hasn’t historically driven temperature increases (RealClimate has a good article to help with their confusion). The sad thing is that Dubner and Levitt aren’t even engaging in sophisticated climate-skepticism here—there’s just a basic unwillingness to gain even a passing acquaintance with the topic. You hardly need to be an award-winning economist to do that.
What’s more, as Joe Romm reports, the main scientist that Levitt and Dubner actually interviewed, Ken Caldeira, says they’ve completely twisted and mischaracterized his views—a glaring bit of journalistic malfeasance. And, as Matt Yglesias points out, one of Dubner and Levitt’s arguments rests on the (demonstrably wrong) premise that solar panels are always black. Now, as a journalist, I’m all in favor of having people write about things they’re not an expert in—and mistakes do happen—but this is a little absurd.
Meanwhile, over at The New York Times website, Dubner is complaining that critics are all engaged in “shrillness” (without linking to any of the criticisms of his book) and appears to be quietly removing comments when readers attempt to point to Connolley or Romm’s critiques. Guess they don’t make hard-charging contrarians like they used to.
Update: Dubner responds to the charge about twisting Caldeira’s work, but doesn’t address any of the errors that scientists like Connolley have pointed out. Maybe he’ll get around to that soon.
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The above is from a fascinating article by Kevin Hall at McClatchy:
As the housing market collapsed in late 2007, Moody’s Investors Service, whose investment ratings were widely trusted, responded by purging analysts and executives who warned of trouble and promoting those who helped Wall Street plunge the country into its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
A McClatchy investigation has found that Moody’s punished executives who questioned why the company was risking its reputation by putting its profits ahead of providing trustworthy ratings for investment offerings.
Instead, Moody’s promoted executives who headed its “structured finance” division, which assisted Wall Street in packaging loans into securities for sale to investors. It also stacked its compliance department with the people who awarded the highest ratings to pools of mortgages that soon were downgraded to junk. Such products have another name now: “toxic assets.”
As Congress tackles the broadest proposed overhaul of financial regulation since the 1930s, however, lawmakers still aren’t fully aware of what went wrong at the bond rating agencies, and so they may fail to address misaligned incentives such as granting stock options to mid-level employees, which can be an incentive to issue positive ratings rather than honest ones.
The Securities and Exchange Commission issued a blistering report on how profit motives had undermined the integrity of ratings at Moody’s and its main competitors, Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s, in July 2008, but the full extent of Moody’s internal strife never has been publicly revealed.
Remember that commenter who said we should just trust businesses to do the right thing?
One of the amusing/frustrating things about the GOP today is its open and utter hypocrisy. Steve Benen finds yet another example:
Karl Rove is just outraged that the White House would snub a news outlet it considers partisan. He complained incessantly about the Obama team’s disdain for Fox News this morning.
"The administration is making a mistake for itself," Rove continued. "But more importantly, it is demeaning the office of the president by taking the president and moving him from a person who wants to be talking to everybody and communicating through every available channel the same, if you oppose me, you question me, if you are too tough on me, by gosh, me and my people are not going to come on, we are going to penalize you. That is just wrong, fundamentally wrong."
Now, one can debate whether the White House’s decision to treat Fox News like a partisan propaganda outlet is wise or not. I believe it’s the right call. But putting that aside, let’s pause to appreciate the comical irony of Rove’s whining.
It was, after all, George W. Bush who became the first modern president to refuse literally every interview request from the New York Times over the span of nine years. The NYT‘s Sheryl Gay Stolberg explained about a year ago, "[Bush] White House officials are quite open about the fact that we have not gotten an interview because they don’t like our coverage."
Did Rove find this decision "demeaning" to the presidency? Was Rove in the West Wing, arguing at the time that the president should be "talking to everybody and communicating through every available channel"?
For that matter, the Bush White House went after NBC News in May 2008, accusing the network of deceptive editing and blurring the lines between "news" and "opinion." Officials from the Bush team began treating NBC and MSNBC as political opponents.
Did Rove find this "fundamentally wrong"? I don’t recall him complaining at the time.
I can appreciate the fact that Karl Rove is an embarrassingly partisan hack. It’s been his role for so long, it’s entirely expected. But it’s the kind of attacks he launches that I find interesting.
Rove ran a White House that embraced a "permanent campaign," so he’s accused the Obama team of embracing a "permanent campaign." Rove embraced the politics of fear, so he’s accused Obama of embracing the politics of fear. Rove relied on "pre-packaged, organized, controlled, scripted " political events, so he’s accused Obama of relying on "pre-packaged, organized, controlled, scripted" political events. Rove looked at every policy issue "from a political perspective," so he’s accused Obama of looking at every policy issue "from a political perspective."
It’s hard to launch political attacks that are ironic, hypocritical, and examples of projection, all at the same time, but Rove is a rare talent.
One way, of course, is to minimize their motivation. Glenn Greenwald:
The New York Times‘ David Rohde writes about the seven months he was held hostage by a group of extremist Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and conveys this observation about what motivates them:
My captors harbored many delusions about Westerners. But I also saw how some of the consequences of Washington’s antiterrorism policies had galvanized the Taliban. Commanders fixated on the deaths of Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian civilians in military airstrikes, as well as the American detention of Muslim prisoners who had been held for years without being charged.
Apparently, when we drop bombs on Muslim countries — or when Israel attacks Palestinians — that fuels anti-American hatred and militarism among Muslims. The same outcomes occur when we imprison Muslims without charges in places like Guantanamo and Bagram. Imagine that. Recall, according to Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, what prompted 9/11 "ringleader" Mohammed Atta to devote himself to a suicide mission, as recounted by Juan Cole during the Israel/Gaza war:
In 1996, Israeli jets bombed a UN building where civilians had taken refuge at Cana/Qana in south Lebanon, killing 102 persons; in the place where Jesus is said to have made water into wine, Israeli bombs wrought a different sort of transformation. In the distant, picturesque port of Hamburg, a young graduate student studying traditional architecture of Aleppo saw footage like this on the news [graphic]. He was consumed with anguish and the desire for revenge. As soon as operation Grapes of Wrath had begun the week before, he had written out a martyrdom will, indicating his willingness to die avenging the victims, killed in that operation–with airplanes and bombs that were a free gift from the United States. His name was Muhammad Atta. Five years later he piloted American Airlines 11 into the World Trade Center. (Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower, p. 307: "On April 11, 1996, when Atta was twenty-seven years old, he signed a standardized will he got from the al-Quds mosque. It was the day Israel attacked Lebanon in Operation grapes of Wrath. According to one of his friends, Atta was enraged, and by filling out his last testament during the attack he was offering his life in response").
On Tuesday, the Israeli military shelled a United Nations school to which terrified Gazans had fled for refuge, killing at least 42 persons and wounding 55, virtually all of them civilians, and many of them children. The Palestinian death toll rose to 660.
You wonder if someone somewhere is writing out a will today.
One could — and should — ask that question every time the U.S. or Israel engages in another military strike that kills Muslim civilians, or for that matter, every day that goes by when we continue to wage war inside Muslim countries. Rohde adds this about what motivates these Taliban: …
Continue reading. To some extent, we’re now sowing what we shall reap in the future. (This includes global warming, of course.)
You would have to go back at least 15 million years to find carbon dioxide levels on Earth as high as they are today, a UCLA scientist and colleagues report Oct. 8 in the online edition of the journal Science.
“The last time carbon dioxide levels were apparently as high as they are today — and were sustained at those levels — global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland,” said the paper’s lead author, Aradhna Tripati, a UCLA assistant professor in the department of Earth and space sciences and the department of atmospheric and oceanic sciences.
“Carbon dioxide is a potent greenhouse gas, and geological observations that we now have for the last 20 million years lend strong support to the idea that carbon dioxide is an important agent for driving climate change throughout Earth’s history,” she said.
Yes, pumping more and more CO2 into the air is a very bad idea, as this news release from UCLA on a major new study makes clear. The study itself, “Coupling of CO2 and Ice Sheet Stability Over Major Climate Transitions of the Last 20 Million Years,” (subs. req’d) was released by Science earlier this month.
The study notes importantly, “This work may support a relatively high climate sensitivity to pCO2” [the partial pressure of CO2], which is the same conclusion that a number of major studies looking at paleoclimate data have come to:
Scientists analyzed data from a major expedition to retrieve deep marine sediments beneath the Arctic to understand the Paleocene Eocene thermal maximum, a brief period some 55 million years ago of “widespread, extreme climatic warming that was associated with massive atmospheric greenhouse gas input.” This 2006 study, published in Nature (subs. req’d), found Arctic temperatures almost beyond imagination–above 23°C (74°F)–temperatures more than 18°F warmer than current climate models had predicted when applied to this period. The three dozen authors conclude that existing climate models are missing crucial feedbacks that can significantly amplify polar warming.
A second study, published in Geophysical Research Letters (subs. req’d), looked at temperature and atmospheric changes during the Middle Ages. This 2006 study found that the effect of amplifying feedbacks in the climate system–where global warming boosts atmospheric CO2 levels–”will promote warming by an extra 15 percent to 78 percent on a century-scale” compared to typical estimates by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The study notes these results may even be “conservative” because they ignore other greenhouse gases such as methane, whose levels will likely be boosted as temperatures warm.
The third study, published in Geophysical Research Letters (subs. req’d), looked at temperature and atmospheric changes during the past 400,000 years. This study found evidence for significant increases in both CO2 and methane (CH4) levels as temperatures rise. The conclusion: If our current climate models correctly accounted for such “missing feedbacks,” then “we would be predicting a significantly greater increase in global warming than is currently forecast over the next century and beyond”–as much as 1.5°C warmer this century alone.
So we need to keep atmospheric concentrations of CO2 as low as possible — and if we do go above 450 ppm, we need to get back to under 350 ppm as rapidly as possible, preferably by century’s end, though that would be no easy feat.
Here’s more on this important study: …