A couple of really bad “science” stories have hit the media recently. One involves liability and the other dishes out mostly propaganda.
Perhaps you already heard about this one involving the liability of scientists. Seismologists in Italy were found guily of manslaughter for inaccurately predicting when an eartquake would strike. They were found guilty even though there was credible evidence that these scientists were pressured by superiors to produce a specific forecast and thousands of scientists around the world wrote letters of support on their behalf. First of all, earthquake forecasting is just that – it is forecasting – much like weather forecasting. Scientists look at the data, calculate what might happen, and issue a forecast that represents or indicates some level of confidence. This is a terrible legal precedent and going forward I would not want to be involved in any forecasting of anything in Italy.
Lawsuits of this nature have been tried a couple of times in regards to weather forecasting – a couple of times here in the U.S. and in some foreign countries. In those cases, the lawsuits were thrown out, thankfully, because it was understood that there is no guarantee that comes with the forecast. It reminds me of the snarky comment I sometimes hear that meteorologists are the only people who “can be wrong 50% of the time” (some people say “most of the time”) and still have a job. First of all, broadcast meteorologists do get fired if they do a poor job. It is just an old wives tale that meteorologists can be “wrong most of the time” and still keep their job. Secondly, everyone is wrong some of the time. Whether in our daily lives or any job one might be doing, we have to deal with uncertainty. We all make little “forecasts” everyday in order to plan for the future, whether it be figuring the best route to work through heavy traffic or deciding the direction a business might take. We are all wrong some of the time and every errant forecast has some sort-of negative side effect, yet we are not fired for every little misstep. If we were all right all the time, we would all be billionaires or would be ruling the world. The IPCC is not held criminally accountable for poor climate forecasts. Military planners are sent to the Brigg for every error on the battlefield. These Italian seismologists should not be guilty of manslaughter.
Drilling For Oil
The other ”media release” was centered around the oil and gas industry. The Union of Concerned Scientists (although maybe this time around they should be called political scientists), produced a puff piece about how 66% of the money you pay at the pump “goes into the pockets of the oil companies”. They rely upon the economic ignorance and natural envy of people in order to try to make some environmental point. You are supposed to read their
press release study and be hopping mad at the oil companies. I think they deliberately did not talk about the difference between profits and revenue in order to confuse people and make them angry. In the oil business, Exxon might be the most valuable company in the world right now (essentially, because they produce the most valuable product in the world…right now), but they are not the most profitable. Their profit margin was only a little over 7% in 2012. Most of Exxon’s profits come from refining and making specialized petroleum products. It is typical that the big oil companies only make 2 to 4 cents PROFIT per gallon of gas. It costs a lot of money to get your gas from the ground to the pump. If it was easy and cheap, we would all just drill for our own oil. So 66% of what you pay at the pump goes into the “pockets of the oil companies” but Exxon only makes a profit of 1% or less on gas and a bit over 7% overall (last year)
Compare Exxon to Apple. Apple had a HUGE profit margin between 25 and 30% during 2012. Apple’s products are over-priced yet people willingly pay. Apple uses sophisticated methods to avoid paying U.S. taxes, yet they are not considered “evil” like the oil companies. Apple could cut the price of their (very high quality) products by 25% and still make a profit. Wouldn’t that be nice. Complaining about paying money for gas is like complaining about paying money for your phone, or for your car, or a refrigerator. All of the companies that make the products we use to live, charge money for their products and they need to make a profit. This basic economic fact seems to have escaped the Union of Concerned Scientists.
If you don’t want to pay the high price of gas, either go drill your own oil (and refine it), or don’t buy it. After hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast in 2005, the price of gas shot up to $4 per gallon (as commodities generally should during times of shortage). Many people I know started to complain loudly. I didn’t. I bought a bike. I have been riding my bike to work for 6 or 7 (warm) months out of the year for 7 years and been saving money the whole time. Don’t live close to work? Move closer. As I have pointed out before, there are tens of millions of empty homes in the U.S. right now just waiting for a buyer. I am suspect that most people could find one near their work. By moving, you can save money and “stick it to the oil companies” at the same time! Complaining about the fact that oil companies charge money for their product is probably counter productive. Besides that, in order implement cleaner alternatives at scale, we might need the expertise of some of the world’s largest energy companies. Maybe the Union of Concerned Scientists should focus more on developing such partnerships or work harder at educating people on ways to save more (which they only touched upon in their recent press release).
Before anyone chimes in with a comment, yes, I am aware that different companies have been involved in illegal activities in the past, and I definitely agree that they should be prosecuted for those crimes. The economic issues presented here are mostly distinct from the legal issues.
While I am on the subject of bad science, how about a couple studies that are less bad, but still leave something to be desired.
Coal Power Plant
The first one is a wind power study out of Australia. It is really good news. Using wind power in Australia is now cheaper than building new coal or natural gas fired power plants (and another take on the study). So what happened in the last few years? Were new more efficient wind turbines invented? Not really. Did coal become a lot more expensive? Yes. Is Australia running out of coal? No. The price of coal has gone up because of a new carbon tax. That is part of the reason why wind power is calculated to now be cheaper than coal power. The other reasons are also not related so much to the science of energy production but on political considerations. According to the article, many banks who might help fund new coal power plants in Australia would include a risk premium that would jack up the price. The risk premium would have to be built in to the up front costs because the carbon tax could go up in future years and coal power plants might get sued by various, people, environmental organizations, or even entire nations in future years. It is also important to note that current coal and gas plants do produce electricity more cheaply than wind turbines. This study only calculates prices for future construction. I can’t help but wonder if there are some other flaws in this study such as not including new transmission line costs, battery back-up costs, or de-comissioning costs associated with wind turbine power. If wind power was cheaper that coal or gas on a stand alone basis (without political manipulation), it wouldn’t need to be promoted. Companies would be putting them up everywhere in order to save money. (Aside: I am neutral on wind power, it is a nice option for clean energy, but turbines do come with a handful of downsides).
Lastly, a study that smells of confirmation bias. Remember back when I kept the big list of bad things that are happening or were going to happen because of AGW. I finally had to stop because the list got too big and included everything from more obesity and more starvation on up to the destruction of the planet. Let us hearken back to those days. What about the flu? A recent study “proves” that severe flu outbreaks are linked with AGW (anthropogenic global warming). The study comes to the conclusion that flu outbreaks will be worse after a warm winter. People don’t get ill during a warm winter – it is theorized – and then they are more vulnerable to infection during the next winter. I am sure you are wondering, “what about a warm winter followed by another warm winter?” That is what is expected if AGW comes to pass as predicted by the IPCC. Less cold winters should mean less flu overall, not more severe flu outbreaks – as theorized by the study. Cold and flu viruses spread more effectively when here is cold dry air around. If the world warms up and continues to turn more humid, one would think just the opposite (of what this study proclaims) would happen. Another deficiency with this study is that it only used data since the winter of 1997-98. That is a rather short chunk of time on which to base a study of influenza. It is a unique time in earth’s climate history (very warm) which is not representative of the climate history through which the flu has affected humans. The study could draw more robust conclusions if they could find a way to include data from prior years. As of now, I am not worried that flu outbreaks are going to get worse because of AGW.
Have a pleasant Wednesday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.
Posted under AGW, Alternative Energy, Climate Change, Natural Disasters, Nature, Science
This post was written by jloew on February 13, 2013