Topic: Energy and Environment

The Spin Cycle: Accelerating Sea Level Rise

The Spin Cycle is a reoccurring feature based upon just how much the latest weather or climate story, policy pronouncement, or simply poo-bah blather spins the truth. Statements are given a rating between 1-5 spin cycles, with less cycles meaning less spin. For a more in-depth description, visit the inaugural edition.

A popular media story of the week was that sea level rise was accelerating and that this was worse than we thought. The stories were based on a new paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change by an author team led by the University of Tasmania’s Christopher Watson.

Watson and colleagues re-examined the satellite-based observations of sea level rise (available since the early 1990s) using a new methodology that supposedly better accounts for changes in the orbital altitude of the satellites—obviously a key factor when assessing sea levels by determining the height difference between the ocean’s surface and the satellites, the basic idea behind altimetry-based sea level measurements.

So far so good.

Their research produced two major findings, 1) their new adjusted measurements produced a lower rate of sea level rise than the old measurements (for the period 1993 to mid-2014), but 2) the rate of sea level rise was accelerating.

It was the latter that got all of the press.

But, it turns out, that in neither case, were the findings statistically significant at even the most basic levels used in scientific studies. Generally speaking, scientists report a findings as being “significant” if there is a less than 1-in-20 chance that the same result could have been produced by random (i.e., unexplained) processes. In some fields, the bar is set even higher (like 1 in 3.5 million). We can’t think of any scientific field that accepts a lower than a 1-in-20 threshold (although occasional individual papers do try to get away with applying a slightly lower standard).

You Ought to Have a Look: The Case Against Modern Science

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger. While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

In this issue of You Ought to Have a Look, we focus on what we think is an extremely important article, written by Richard Horton, long-time editor of The Lancet—a British medical journal considered to be one of the world’s most prestigious.

Horton addresses what is increasingly becoming recognized as the biggest problem in modern science: an incentive system that promotes style (i.e., “attention grabbing”) over substance. The headlong pursuit of headlines is leading not only to sloppy science, but selective science. The result is that the course of human knowledge is being perturbed, and not for the better.

Horton’s comments are particularly salient as this week witnessed the retraction of another headline-grabbing paper in a prestigious journal.

Here, we reproduce the bulk of Horton’s essay in which he addresses “the idea that something has gone fundamentally wrong with one of our greatest human creations”:

The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”.The Academy of Medical Sciences, Medical Research Council, and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have now put their reputational weight behind an investigation into these questionable research practices.The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data.Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours. Our acquiescence to the impact factor fuels an unhealthy competition to win a place in a select few journals. Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations. Journals are not the only miscreants. Universities are in a perpetual struggle for money and talent, endpoints that foster reductive metrics, such as high-impact publication. National assessment procedures, such as the Research Excellence Framework, incentivize bad practices. And individual scientists, including their most senior leaders, do little to alter a research culture that occasionally veers close to misconduct.

Can bad scientific practices be fixed? Part of the problem is that no-one is incentivised to be right. Instead, scientists are incentivised to be productive and innovative. Would a Hippocratic Oath for science help? Certainly don’t add more layers of research redtape. Instead of changing incentives, perhaps one could remove incentives altogether. Or insist on replicability statements in grant applications and research papers. Or emphasise collaboration, not competition. Or insist on preregistration of protocols. Or reward better pre- and post-publication peer review. Or improve research training and mentorship. Or implement the recommendations from our Series on increasing research value, published last year.One of the most convincing proposals came from outside the biomedical community. Tony Weidberg is a Professor of Particle Physics at Oxford. Following several high-profile errors, the particle physics community now invests great effort into intensive checking and rechecking of data prior to publication. By filtering results through independent working groups, physicists are encouraged to criticise. Good criticism is rewarded. The goal is a reliable result, and the incentives for scientists are aligned around this goal. Weidberg worried we set the bar for results in biomedicine far too low. In particle physics, significance is set at 5 sigma—a p value of 3 × 10–7 or 1 in 3.5 million (if the result is not true, this is the probability that the data would have been as extreme as they are). The conclusion of the symposium was that something must be done. Indeed, all seemed to agree that it was within our power to do that something. But as to precisely what to do or how to do it, there were no firm answers. Those who have the power to act seem to think somebody else should act first. And every positive action (eg, funding well-powered replications) has a counterargument (science will become less creative). The good news is that science is beginning to take some of its worst failings very seriously. The bad news is that nobody is ready to take the first step to clean up the system.

This issue is especially near and dear to our hearts at the Center for the Study of Science. For those interested in more on this topic (and we hope that is most of you), please see our recent Working Paper and various other writings and presentations.

This is an extremely important issue that is far from receiving the level of attention that it deserves.

Two-Month Extension for Federal Highway and Transit Funding

The House of Representatives voted yesterday to extend federal funding for highways and transit for two months. The Senate is expected to pass similar legislation later this week. While transportation bills normally last for six years, this short-term action, which followed a ten-month extension last fall and a two-year extension in 2012, has proven necessary because no one has been able to rustle up a majority agreement on the federal role in transportation.

For those who haven’t followed the issue, the federal government collects about $34 billion a year in gas taxes and related highway user fees. Once dedicated to highways, an increasing share has gone for transit and other uses since the early 1980s. A 1998 decision to mandate that spending equal the projected growth in fuel taxes compounded the problem. When fuel tax revenues stopped growing in 2007, spending did not and thus annual spending is now about $13 billion more than revenues.

Under Congressional rules, Congress must find a revenue source to cover that deficit. My colleague at the Cato Institute, Chris Edwards, thinks that the simple solution is for Congress to just reduce spending by $13 billion a year. That may be arithmetically simple, but politically it is not. Too many powerful interest groups count on that spending who have persuaded many (falsely, in my opinion) that we need to spend more on supposedly crumbling highways.

You Ought to Have a Look: Human Progress Linked to Better Environment

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.


A scattering of stories this week addressed the well-known, but perhaps not widely-recognized, fact that with human progress comes a more protected environment.

First up is a piece called “The Return of Nature: How Technology Liberates the Environment” posted at the Breakthrough Journal by Jesse Ausubel. This article makes a strong companion to the Ecomodernist Manifesto, that we commented on a few weeks ago.

The main premise is that human technology, as it develops and matures, actually decreases our negative impact on the environment.  This is something that we have been fond of saying—the richer and more developed a country becomes, the more it protects its environment. Instead of measures to restrict human progress (such as artificially limiting energy choice) we should be supporting efforts to further it.

Ausubel’s essay is packed with interesting nuggets of information—a comparison of amount of corn fed to people vs. that fed to cars, mpg of farm animals, peak demand of materials, etc.—some of which may be new to even ardent followers of human progress. Here is the article’s teaser:

Despite predictions of runaway ecological destruction, beginning in the 1970s, Americans began to consume less and tread more lightly on the planet. Over the past several decades, through technological innovation, Americans now grow more food on less acres, eat more sources of meat that are less land-intrusive, and used water more efficiently so that water use is lower than in 1970. The result: lands that were once used for farms and logging operations are now returning as forests and grasslands, along with wildlife, such as the return of humpback whales off the shores of New York City. As Jesse Ausubel elucidates in a new essay for Breakthrough Journal, as humans depend less on nature for the well-being, the more nature they have returned.

Ausubel’s full article is really well-worth a detailed look.

The Lax Kw’alaams and Why Property Rights Matter

The New York Times recently reported that the Lax Kw’alaams Band, an indigenous tribe in a remote part of British Columbia, has rejected a $1 billion offer for their consent to the construction of a natural gas processing facility that would service a nearby liquefied natural gas terminal. The group, which has about 3,600 members, would have received the equivalent of about $277,000 per person to allow the plant. The leader of the group explained their decision by saying, “Hopefully, the public will recognize that unanimous consensus in communities (and where unanimity is the exception) against a project where those communities are offered in excess of a billion dollars, sends an unequivocal message this is not a money issue: this is environmental and cultural.”

In normal market transactions, resources flow to those who value them the most regardless of who owns them initially. In this case, that would imply the decision to build the facility (whether now or in the future) does not depend on whether the Lax Kw’alaams Band or the gas company owns the land. Ownership simply determines who has to pay whom in order to develop the land or leave it undeveloped. If the gas company owned the land, they would not have to pay the tribe in order to develop the plant, but the tribe could purchase the land (or, at least, an anti-development easement) from the gas company in order to keep it undeveloped. If the tribe owns the land, the gas company would have to pay or the land would stay undeveloped. In both cases, development would occur if the gas company values the land more than the tribe.

That’s the general theory, but in this particular case the facts suggest that initial property rights do matter. In the case of the Lax Kw’alaams, the group places great value on keeping the land from being despoiled by a natural gas plant. A decade or so ago, the Canadian Supreme Court determined that tribes like the Lax Kw’alaams must be consulted and accommodated if projects cross their land. The tribe clearly has strong preferences for a pristine environment, and has made the choice to forgo a windfall to maintain it.

But what would have happened if the property rights belonged to someone else? If the party given the right had weaker environmental preferences, the terminal would likely be built; it’s doubtful the Lax Kw’alaams would win (or perhaps even enter) a bidding war with the gas company over control of the land. Because participants in environmental policy disputes “know” that property rights matter in this way, they fight politically over who has the current property rights rather than allow rights to exist and be traded.

This Is Why Amtrak Should Get More of Your Money?

An Amtrak locomotive caught fire yesterday on its way from Chicago to Milwaukee. Fortunately, all 51 passengers were safely evacuated from the six-car train.

At about the time the locomotive was burning, a reporter was telling me that “everyone” in Washington was saying that the Philadelphia accident proves that Amtrak needs more money. No doubt the Wisconsin incident will add to those calls for more funding.

But go back and read the first paragraph: There were only 51 passengers on that train. All of them could have fit on one motorcoach, many of which have 52 or more seats. The Horizon coaches used on this train typically have 60 seats, which means the train was less than one-sixth full. According to Amtrak’s performance report for fiscal year 2014, the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha trains filled an average of 36 percent of their seats in 2014, or about two-and-one-half buses worth.

Amtrak fares for its seven daily trains each way between Chicago and Milwaukee start at $24. According to Busbud, Greyhound and Megabus together offer 13 trips per day each way between Chicago and Milwaukee, and their fares are often as low as $7 and never higher than $10.

While intercity bus operators pay a discounted fuel tax, the buses otherwise operate without subsidy. Amtrak’s Hiawatha trains produced $16.8 million in ticket revenues in 2014 against $24.5 million in operating costs, for a net loss of $5.7 million (not counting amortized capital costs). The trains carried slightly less than 800,000 riders, for an average subsidy of slightly more than $7 per trip.

In other words, the subsidy alone would have been enough to give every single Hiawatha rider a free trip on Greyhound or Megabus (at the low cost of $7 per trip).

Too Much Money Going to the Wrong Places

It appears that the Amtrak crash that killed seven people Tuesday resulted from speeding, but big-government advocates are already using this accident to make their case for more infrastructure spending. In fact, the problem is not too little money, but too much money going to the wrong places.

In 2008, President George Bush signed a law mandating that most railroads, including Amtrak, install positive train control (PTC) by December of 2015. PTC would force trains to slow or stop if the operator ignored signals or speed limits.

In 2009 and 2010, President Obama asked a Democratic Congress to give him $10 billion to spend on high-speed trains, and Congress agreed. Not one cent of that money went to installing PTC in Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

PTC would have prevented this accident. There was plenty of money available to install it, but the Obama administration, in its infinite wisdom, chose to spend it elsewhere. Two days ago, it would have been embarrassing to think that the government-run Amtrak hadn’t yet completed installation of PTC on its highest-speed corridor. Today, it’s a tragedy. But how is it the fault of fiscal conservatives?

This accident is just one more example of a political fact of life: Politicians are more likely to put dollars into new construction, such as high-speed rail, than to spend them on safety and maintenance of existing infrastructure. As John Nolte says on Breitbart, “Amtrak is not underfunded; it is criminally mismanaged.”

Transportation journalist Don Phillips presents one example of Amtrak mismanagement in the June issue of Trains magazine: instead of promoting a culture of safety, Amtrak has a culture of don’t care. Phillips points to a February report from Amtrak’s Inspector General that found that Amtrak has the least-safe working environment of any major railroad. Amtrak employees are more than three times as likely to be injured or killed on the job as employees of BNSF, CSX, Norfolk Southern, or Union Pacific.

This poor record, says the report, is a direct result of a lack of accountability “at all levels.” Employee injuries in 2013 were only one-twelfth as likely to result in disciplinary action as in 2009, resulting in employees who believe today that they “can ignore rules and safe practices with impunity.” Safety is of so little importance in the organization that three out of four of the employees interviewed by the inspector general believed that Amtrak’s safety record was better, not worse, than other railroads.

One reason why Amtrak has a poor safety culture may be that Congress has legally limited Amtrak’s liability for any single crash to $200 million. Imagine the outrage if Congress limited the liability of oil companies, pipeline companies, Monsanto, or other private corporations. Yet the progressives who wrote Amtrak legislation considered such a liability limit perfectly acceptable.

If Congress were to respond to this crash by increasing federal infrastructure spending, it is all too likely that much if not most of that money would go for useless new projects such as new high-speed rail lines, light rail, and bridges to nowhere. We don’t need intercity trains that cost several times as much but go less than half as fast as flying; we don’t need urban trains that cost 50 times as much but can’t carry as many people per hour as buses; we don’t need new bridges if bridge users themselves aren’t willing to pay for them.

As I’ve documented elsewhere, infrastructure that is funded out of user fees tends to be better maintained than infrastructure that is funded out of tax dollars. User fees also give transportation managers signals for where new infrastructure is really needed; if people won’t pay for it out of user fees, it probably isn’t necessary.

Before 1970, America’s transportation system was almost entirely funded out of user fees and it was the best in the world. Since then, funding decisions have increasingly been made by politicians who are more interested in getting their pictures taken cutting ribbons than in making sure our transportation systems run safely and smoothly.

This country doesn’t need more infrastructure that it can’t afford to maintain. Instead, it needs a more reliable system of transport funding, and that means one based on user fees and not tax subsidies or federal deficit spending.

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