Friday, December 18, 2009

Goodbye, Gorillas

ItalicThe already threatened gorillas of Africa are likely to be wiped out by even the two degree Celsius temperature rise set in Copenhagen today as one of the goals of the world community.

Dr. Amanda Kortjens, of Bournemouth University in the UK, and her colleagues based their conclusions on studies of the need for gorillas and other leaf-eating primates to have enough time to forage, socialize, and rest. Gorillas are forced to rest when temperatures get too high, which reduces the time available for them to find food and maintain social ties.

Coupled with the intense threats gorillas already face from habitat loss and hunting as "bush meat", even this seemingly modest rise in temperature will put them at risk of extinction.

This piece of research, which will appear in Animal Behaviour, December, 2009, serves as yet one more example of how seemingly innocuous or supposedly acceptable levels of global warming can have unacceptable, even non-survivable, effects on certain populations or in certain regions.

Robert Adler
for the institute

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Vast underground ice sheet found on Mars

NASA image shows water ice fading between October, 2008 and January, 2009

I've just finished listening to a NASA press conference announcing that nearly half of Mars has a layer of nearly pure ice just under its surface.

The NASA scientists estimate that this represents about one million cubic kilometers of ice, or about twice the amount of ice that covers Greenland here on Earth.

The Martian ice was exposed to view by meteorites that blasted out small craters--a few meters in diameter and from half a meter to two-and-a-half meters deep--and, much to the scientists' surprise, revealed a layer of 99 percent pure ice that they think ranges from 1 to 10 meters (33 feet) thick.

These underground ice sheets appear to extend from the Martian poles to about 45 degrees north and south--that is, halfway from each pole to the Martian equator.

Three different instruments in orbit around Mars on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter allowed the scientists to detect five newly formed craters, photograph bright, bluish-white material in or splashed out around them, material that quickly faded away during the Martian summer, and finally identify that material as nearly pure water ice by its spectrum.

"We found a beautiful water ice signature," said Selby Cull, from the Compact Reconnaisance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars team. "Crystal-clear-no-doubt-about-it water ice."

The ice is amazingly recent--around 10,000 years old--the scientists say. It dates from a period when Mars was wetter and had much more water vapor in its atmosphere than it does today.

According to the researchers, the discovery sheds light on the recent climate history of Mars, during which water vapor has shuttled out from and back to the polar regions as the Martian climate has warmed and cooled due to changes in the amount of sunlight the planet receives.

This plus earlier studies have led scientists to conclude that Mars had far more water in the distant past--several billion years ago--but has cooled and dried out over time. Some of the water is now locked up in minerals, some has been lost to space, and some remains in the form of ice.

In contrast, Earth has managed to keep most of its water.

Mars is now too cold, and its atmosphere is too thin, to allow liquid water to exist at the surface. However, these new findings suggest that water may still percolate underground, coalescing to form these newly discovered underground ice sheets.

Ironically, the Viking II spacecraft landed in the region where this ice was found in 1976, and scraped down into the soil, but not quite deep enough to find the ice.

"If Viking II had been able to dig down a few more inches, we could have made this discovery 30 years ago," said Shane Byrne, with the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment.

The NASA scientists say they were not surprised to find ice under the surface of Mars, but were amazed to find that it was so pure. "We expected it to be a 50-50 mix of ice and dust," Byrne said. This has sent them back to their blackboards to try to explain what they found.

It may be decades or even centuries before humans set foot on Mars. The good news is that when we do get there, there will be plenty of water waiting for us just under Mars' cold and dusty surface.

Robert Adler
for the institute

Monday, September 14, 2009

An ill wind . . .

Third Roadsign Report from the institute

We sailed past yet another warning sign on our crash course towards irreversible climate change a few days ago.

As reported by the AP, two German-flagged cargo ships navigated the "northeast passage," powering their way from South Korea to Siberia (and on towards Rotterdam) via an arctic route that until now has always been blocked by ice.

Scientists cited in the AP story say that this is a clear indication of human-caused climate change, which has long been predicted to show up most dramatcally in Earth's arctic and antarctic regions.

It may be good news for shippers and other business interests who are eager to exploit the arctic, but it's not good news for the rest of us.

Earth's rapidly melting ice is thought to be one of the most likely triggers for irreversible climate change. Since ice reflects the sun's energy back into space, it helps to keep the planet cool. When ice is replaced with open ocean or terrain, solar energy is absorbed and retained. This sets up a feedback loop that melts more ice, which means more energy is absorbed--you get the idea.

At least, with President Obama rather than Bush in the White House, the U.S. is no longer actively blocking progress towards international agreements to fight climate change. However, the political will and skill to attack this enormous global problem still lag dangerously far behind the accelerating pace of global warming and climatic disruption.

Robert Adler
for the institute

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Comment: No defense to torture

In a recent letter to its 150,000 members, the American Psychological Association (APA) took its strongest stand ever against psychologist involvement in torture or other illegal forms of interrogation.

“Torture in any form, at any time, in any place, and for any reason, is unethical for psychologists and wholly inconsistent with membership in the American Psychological Association,” the association wrote. “The APA Ethics Committee will not accept any defense to torture in its adjudication of ethics complaints.”

This unequivocal stance was not achieved easily. It took years of divisive private and public debate, which culminated in a September, 2008 vote by the entire membership on a resolution forbidding psychologists from working in settings where “persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution.”

Responding to that nearly 60 percent vote in support of the resolution, the APA leadership, which for years had argued that psychologists could play valuable roles in interrogations in support of national security and even as protectors of detainees, has made a decisive about-face.

“Let’s set the record straight,” wrote APA president James H. Bray in April of this year. “It is a clear violation of professional ethics for a psychologist to have played a role in the torture of CIA detainees, as described in the recently released Bush administration memos.”

Among other revelations about the Bush-era torture practices and how the Bush administration tried to justify them, those memos, made public by the Obama administration, documented what anti-torture advocates had said for years, that some psychologists were implicated in torture.

American psychologists contributed substantially—and ethically--to the US military’s SERE (for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) program. SERE, which started in the 1950s following the Korean War and expanded during the Vietnam War, tried to prepare potential captives to cope with the kinds of abuse and torture that US military personnel had been subjected to during those conflicts.

However, under the Bush administration, SERE was “reversed engineered” to devise “softening up” and “enhanced interrogation” techniques that were inflicted on US-designated “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Base, and CIA-operated “black sites” in Afghanistan and several Eastern European countries.

A number of media reports have documented that psychologists advocated or were involved in adapting and transferring SERE techniques to Guantanamo and other US-controlled sites.

In other words, the US turned the torture techniques that had been used against their soldiers—decried at the time as brainwashing—on its own captives, and psychologists were involved.

In New Scientist of September 29, 2007, I argued that psychologists ought to find involvement in such activities particularly abhorrent. Psychologists define themselves as practitioners of a healing profession, and decades of their own research has shown how easily ordinary people can be influenced to hurt others and be corrupted by involvement in abuse seemingly sanctioned by authorities.

APA President Bray now strongly condemns such misuse of psychological expertise. “These techniques, when applied in this manner, are tantamount to torture as defined by APA and international law,” he writes. “APA stands ready to adjudicate reports that any APA member has engaged in prohibited techniques.”

Even the argument that military psychologists were simply obeying orders will not stand. “There is one ethical response to an order to torture,” Bray writes. “Disobey the order” (emphasis his).

The APA deserves praise for the exceptionally clear stance it has now taken. With an estimated 500,000 torture victims in the US alone, APA members now have the chance, if not the obligation, to try to ease the lifelong emotional pain carried by torture victims.

And, hopefully, never again will psychologists help create more victims.

President Obama likewise deserves credit for his reversal of many of the Bush-era practices and attempts to legitimize torture, announced on Obama’s second day in office.

However, the battle against torture is by no means over.

As has been widely reported, ex-Vice President Cheney continues to advocate torture—or rather, “enhanced interrogation" by the US as both necessary and useful.

New Scientist recently reported that 104 out of 150 nations studied by Amnesty International continue to practice torture. There are millions of torture victims worldwide.

It is likely that the US continueS to outsource torture—that is play an active role in abusive interrogations carried out in countries with fewer scruples about torture such as Bangladesh or Pakistan.

Despite calls for accountability from many sources, most recently the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the US is not showing any significant willingness to investigate, much less prosecute officials who instigated, developed, justified and utilized torture.

If government-sponsored torture is ever to be stopped, not only psychologists and practitioners of other healing professions, but everyone who agrees that torture is indefensible, needs to press for an end to thIS abhorrent practice and accountability for those who ordered and carried it out.

Robert Adler

for the institute

Friday, May 15, 2009

This is the second in a series of "Road Sign" commentaries designed to bring under-noticed events that may turn out to be of global significance to public attention.

Road Signs: Climate change

Kiss your coastline goodbye

Climate scientists have predicted for many years that rising sea levels caused by melting ice and warming oceans will threaten and eventually inundate low-lying islands and coastlines—including parts of Florida, the Eastern and Western seaboards of the U.S., and the Gulf coast. 

Worldwide, large coastal cities, home to hundreds of millions of people, are at risk.

Residents of Pacific islands such as Kiribati have already seen the ocean erode beaches and kill crops, and have understandably been among the most vocal advocates for global action to slow human-caused climate change.

Now, however, the Carteret Islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea have become the unfortunate poster child for climate change. As reported in The Guardian/UK, the Carteret’s 2600 inhabitants are in the process of abandoning the island, their ancestral home, to the encroaching Pacific. They are being moved, five or ten families at a time, to Bougainville, also part of Papua New Guinea.

Given that millions of people have been displaced over the centuries because of floods, droughts and famines, the inhabitants of the Carterets are not the first climate-change refugees, nor even the first to be displaced by human activities—human-caused deforestation and desertification have been taking place for centuries.

They are, however, the first community who, as a whole, are being uprooted due to one of the predicted impacts of modern, man-made climate change.

Since atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are rising more rapidly than everice in Antarctica and elsewhere is melting even faster than predicted, and atmospheric and oceanic warming are expected to create stronger and more destructive hurricanes and storm surges, the residents of the Carterets will definitely not be the last climate change refugees this century.

We ignore their plight at our peril. 

Robert Adler

for the institute

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

This is the first in a series of "Road Sign" commentaries designed to bring under-noticed events that may turn out to be of global significance to public attention.

Road Signs:  The Middle East 

Recent largely unnoticed reports of what an Associated Press source labels an “unprecedented” public rebuke of Iranian President Ahmadinejad by the country’s supreme religious  authority,  Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, over a seemingly-minor domestic dispute, may, in fact, reflect a much more significant shift underway, not only in Iran’s political leadership but in its relations with the Western world. 

 With national elections scheduled for June 13, scarcely a month away, such public disapproval of one of Ahmadinejad’s actions by the ruling clerical authorities could well have a decisive effect in undermining the President’s remaining support within the Iranian power structure.

While the global economic downturn and consequent decrease in oil revenue have stirred public discontent, further tarnishing his public image, Ahmadinejad has, until this point, managed to retain the critical backing of Iran’s religious leadership.  The current dispute over his dismissal of the chief official responsible for managing the Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, important though it may be in an Iranian domestic context, potentially provides the ruling ayatollahs the opportunity to demonstrate a new flexibility in foreign relations—the area in which Ahmadinejad has played a particularly provocative and controversial role .

What has changed most notably in recent months is the foreign policy of the United States, with strong signals being sent by the Obama Administration that it is interested in pursuing a new relationship with Iran following more than a quarter-century of mutual hostility.  In that context, Ahmadinejad, whatever his domestic virtues, is a definite liability, having positioned himself as an extreme hard-liner on relations not only with Israel—whose very legitimacy he has denied—but with the US and West whose values and policies he has repeatedly demeaned and attacked.

While the ayatollahs may share many of his opinions, and have clearly found it convenient to use him as a lightning-rod for international opprobrium, the diplomatic opening offered by the Obama Administration to initiate a new and less-rancorous relationship with the US and its Western allies may outweigh any lingering loyalty they may feel to Ahmadinejad himself.  In short, he may have outlived his usefulness.  And the upcoming election may provide the perfect opportunity to bring in new and less polarizing leadership.

Reading Iranian tea leaves is a notoriously difficult art, but in addition to this   largely unreported public scolding of Ahmadinejad, two other recent events: the announcement by Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, that the organization had stopped firing rockets at Israel for the time being; and the sudden release of Iranian-American journalist, Roxana Saberi, should be taken as serious signs that Iran is rethinking its options on multiple fronts, and carefully testing the temperature of the international waters. 

In contrast to the previous events, however, Saberi’s case did capture public, media and diplomatic attention with both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama denouncing the obviously trumped-up nature of the charges against her.  While important, and a likely further signal of Iranian interest in pursuing better relations with the United States, the Saberi case should not be seen in isolation.  Taken as one more step in the delicate diplomatic dance occurring between Iran and the United States, it is part of a much larger drama, which, if successful, may help defuse one of the world’s potentially most explosive situations.

Les Adler for The Institute

Monday, March 09, 2009

"Humans have always walked this way because that is the way we were 'designed'"

I recently wrote an online news story for New Scientist about 1.5-million-year-old footprints discovered in Kenya. I found some of the readers' comments disturbing. It took me a while to figure out why.

The research article appeared in Science on February 27, 2009. It described the discovery and study by an international team of researchers of the second oldest footprints left by human ancestors--the oldest showing unambiguous evidence of modern foot anatomy and our efficient way of walking.

Although bipedalism dates back several million years earlier, the footprints reveal that our ancestors--from foot size and shape almost certainly early Homo erectus--had evolved anatomically modern feet and a springy stride like ours by 1.5 million years ago.

At first I was pleased to see that the story generated lots of comments. It's good to know that people are reading what one writes.

The first few comments were fine, but I was unpleasantly surprised to find that the conversation quickly devolved into an exchange between creationists and supporters of evolution.

I had several reactions. The first was irritation, like finding that an uninvited guest has crashed your party. The second was frustration, even anger, at the creationists' glib dismissal of the dozen scientists who had discovered, painstakingly excavated, and carefully analyzed the footprints, not to mention a century or more of physics, geology, paleontology and, of course, evolution.

Everything was fair game, from the identification of the footprints--"The look like gorilla prints to me,"--to the dating--"1.5 million years ago? Was someone there to make a record of the date?"--to the theory of evolution as a whole--"None of which is supported by any evidence except what men decide to believe."

It was obvious that when any mere field of science got in the way of creationism, the science had to be trashed.

In the end, however, I realized that my strongest feeling was boredom. When I tried to read the creationists' comments, my attention wandered, my eyes glazed over, and I wanted to be doing anything other that trying to make sense of comments like "All features of a species have an ability to adapt to an environment . . . but that is a far cry from turning a fish into a bird."

Creationism, I realized, is God-awful boring.

Creationsim collapses the vast grandeur of the cosmos into a morality play about--you guessed it--us.

Not counting old-Earth creationists, who accept a geological time scale but still reject evolution, creationists pancake the universe's nearly 14 billion year history into a few thousand years.

Here on earth, creationists replace the chaotic creativity of more than four billion years of geological, chemical, and biological churning with six days of check-list Creation.

In the end, creationism answers every question about how we and everything we find around us got that way with, "God (excuse me, the Intelligent Designer) made it that way."

How did those footprints end up buried under layer after layer of distinct, datable sediments? God put them there.

What does it mean that, suitably measured, the ratio of argon-40 to argon-39 in the volcanic ash above the footprints is a tad lower than in the ash below them? Could it mean that the lower layer is a few hundred thousand years older? Nope. God salted those isotopes in just that way.

What can we learn by comparing these footprints to the 3.7-million-year-old Laetoli prints? Could their differences shed light on the evolution of our feet and walking style? Nah. God made the Laetoli prints smaller, wider and flatter, and these new prints longer, slimmer and more arched. Don't ask why.

What's the relationship between the increased mobility of Homo erectus that these prints confirm and the fact that it became the first hominin to leave Africa and thrive across Europe and Asia? Hmm. Must have something to do with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. Check out Genesis 1:26 through 3:24 for the details.

It's not that an omnipotent Intelligent Designer isn't a good-enough answer to such questions, it's that it is way to good an answer. It's a game ending, that's-all-she-wrote, one-size-fits-all, alpha-to-omega, end-of-story, let's-all-go-gome, hydrogen bomb answer.

By answering everything, it answers nothing.

I obvioiusly don't understand the need for capital-C Certaintly and capital-T Truth that creationists seem to share. 

I'm much more curious about what the next dig will turn up, how the next fossil or footprint of flower-strewn burial will change our understanding of our past, what a more detailed understanding of the changing geology and climate of east Africa two or three million years ago will tell us about the challenges our ancestors faced and why some of them survived and reproduced (and yes, evolved), while others faded away.

I know that I'll never get Certainty or Truth from science. What excites me is what science gives us every day--new and better answers to old questions, and answers that provoke new and better questions.

God may be The Answer, as the bumper stickers and billboards tell me. Perhaps to some people and some questions, but just not to the questions that science and scientists ask.

Robert Adler
for the institute

Monday, January 05, 2009

Economics—the infantile science

At the start of the 21st Century, it shouldn’t take a Nobel-Prize-winning mind to understand that all dynamic systems need regulation in order to function and last.

The first steam engines ran away with themselves and blew up. Physicists and engineers came up with a simple, elegant, and totally non-controversial solution. They added a governor, a device that throttled back the flow of steam into the engine when it revved up too much.

No 18th Century Ronald Reagan emerged, to my knowledge, to argue that steam engines were being over-regulated, and that the world could power more trains and ships by de-regulating their engines and pouring on more coal.

Biologists and physicians have learned that the human body is an intricate network of dynamic systems, every one of which is held closely in check by one or more “governors”—negative feedback loops.

Flexing your biceps stretches your triceps. That sends a nerve signal that keeps your biceps from contracting too much. If that feedback fails, your muscles can break your bones.

Down a sugar-laden dessert and your blood sugar level surges. In response, your pancreatic islet cells pour insulin into your bloodstream. The insulin drives your blood sugar back into a healthy range. If the feedback fails, you develop diabetes.

Did you ever wonder how it is that your body temperature stays so close to 98.6 degrees? Or how all those variables that show up on your blood test results stay in a normal range?

It doesn’t happen by accident, nor from the intervention of some “invisible hand.” It happens because every system in your body is regulated, kept within its functional range, by negative feedback loops.

Cells in your skin, your gut, your liver and your bones are constantly dying and being replaced. Those billions of reproducing cells are held in check by multiple inhibitory loops. If enough of those feedback loops fail, the result is cancer, and often, death.

Do doctors wish away these intricate regulatory pathways? Do they yearn for the days when they didn’t have to think about how the body regulates itself? Do they encourage you to eat all the sugar you want, spend unprotected hours in the sun, or dose yourself with carcinogens?

Of course not. They devote themselves to understanding and working with those vital regulatory loops. If systems are out-of-whack, they try to tweak them back into range. If they are broken, they try to replicate their functions with carefully controlled doses of medication.

Is this news to anyone? It was, when the dynamics of diabetes were first understood. That was in 1901.

Actually, you don’t need to know anything about physics, biology or medicine to understand the need for regulation.

Think about any game, from marbles to NFL football. Every game has its rules and regulations, and—beyond the elementary school playground—its referees and commissioners. Without rules, and rules that are enforced, games stop being fun or even playable. They degenerate into chaos.

So how is it that the brilliant minds that have been in charge of our markets—arguably the biggest and most important game around--over the past 30 years convinced themselves and tried their damnedest to convince the rest of us that markets not only could function without regulation and regulators, but would automatically create more and more wealth and prosperity as more and more regulatory loops were disabled?

As an aside, it’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time that experts got important things dead wrong.

Learned doctors kept bleeding patients, and supporting rivers of blood-letting with elegant arguments, for centuries.

Other leading physicians shunned the innovator Ignaz Semmelweis and his reality-based demand that they scrub their hands on the way from the autopsy table to the delivery room. By doing so, they condemned hundreds of thousands of women to needless death from “childbed fever,” a deadly disease whose occurrence they “explained” without reference to their filthy hands by a plethora of passionately defended theories.

One of America's “best and brightest,” Robert McNamara, truly believed that revving up the bombing of Vietnam would win the war. The more it didn't work, the more he believed it.

And of course we should not forget the highly experienced, Olympic Class Captain, Edward J. Smith, whose “full speed ahead” order doomed the Titanic.

Many pundits have offered “explanations” for the expert insanity of the people who have just run the global financial system into the iceberg of reality.

--Greed, for one, and short-sightedness for another. By report, the entire system was rigged to grossly reward people for any scheme they could come up with that would produce impressive short-term gains and disguise risk.

To hell with the future, and the public be damned.

--Others have noted a self-reinforcing coterie of economists pursuing the same agenda and lauding each other’s brilliance, up to and including the experts who have awarded a series of Nobel Prizes in economics for a set of abstruse theories about how markets function and how risk should be calculated, all of which were based on the assumption that market moves follow a normal distribution, like height, weight, or IQ.

Unfortunately, that fundamental assumption is blatantly wrong. As we have just seen for ourselves, market moves can be enormous, the equivalent of finding a person who is a mile tall, or has an IQ of 10,000.

The result, it seems, was a self-reinforcing system of theories and the financial instruments that flowed from them, all based on a grossly flawed assumption. Both the theory-builders and the traders who applied them were, and continue to be, more-than-amply awarded.

--Not to mention that even the scattered and tattered regulations that had survived thirty years of regulatory clear-cutting were not enforced for the biggest players, for example, Bernard Maddoff and his $50 billion Ponzi scheme.

Too bad that it was all a house of cards, and that the house collapsed, and that we all live in that house.

Although greed, short-sightedness, and institutionalized arrogance all played their role, I think that a more accurate assessment of how our economic and financial experts got all this so very wrong is that economics remains not just a dismal but an infantile science.

Infants live in a world of magical thinking. They imagine that they have unlimited power to shape reality to their will; that every wish will be fulfilled. If they were infant philosophers, they might even invent an “invisible hand” that feeds them when they are hungry, sooths them when they are upset, and will continue to do so forever.

Growing up means leaving magical thinking behind, accepting that people can’t fly (at least without building airplanes equipped with thousands of carefully designed feedback loops), that there’s no Santa Claus, no free lunch.

Growing up means living within the limits of nature and accepting the need for rules.

That’s pretty much what the great deregulator, Alan Greenspan, admitted when he told Congress on October 23, “I made a mistake.”

That mistake, by this very brilliant and remarkably wrong-headed man, and his colleagues, cost U.S. investors about $7 trillion, and investors worldwide perhaps $30 trillion, so far.

That’s almost $23,000 for each man, woman and child in the U.S., or $4,450 for every inhabitant of the world.

During the last few weeks of 2008, the S&P 500 index jittered around a 40% loss for the year.

That means that 40% of the value that almost everyone believed those stocks represented on January 1, 2008, was hot air.

If the stock market was a gleaming, 100-story tower on January 1, 2008, with more floors fully expected, on December 31 it was a smoldering wreck, with the top 40 stories pancaked into shards and dust.

And, as we saw on September 11, 2001, it will be something of a miracle if the whole tower doesn’t come crashing down.

(Note March 10, 2009) As of the stock market close yesterday, the major indexes have lost over 25% of their value so far this year. So make that 55 stories gone; 45 to go. In the crash of 1929, the market pancaked to 10% of its pre-crash peak, and took until the 1950s to climb back to that level!

If the current financial collapse teaches us anything, it’s that it is time for economists, theoretical and applied, to grow up, and fast.

Want a watch that keeps good time? Buy one with good feedback loops.

Want a car whose engine doesn’t blow up? Buy one with good feedback loops.

Want your computer to keep working? Buy a good voltage regulator.

Want traffic to keep flowing? Keep paying for those pesky traffic lights and peskier cops.

Want the world’s financial markets to work long term? 

We, voters and investors, need to grow up and not buy castles in the air.

And, to make sure that the world’s markets and the people who run them act like grownups, regulate them, regulate them well, and enforce the damn rules, especially for the biggest players.