Thursday, December 20, 2007

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

This is hard to believe. The EPA has denied California the opportunity to set tougher emission standards than the federal government. Here's what EPA head Stephen Johnson said:

"The Bush administration is moving forward with a clear national solution — not a confusing patchwork of state rules," Mr. Johnson told reporters on a conference call. "I believe this is a better approach than if individual states were to act alone."

Um. What? What 'clear national solution' is he talking about? I've been watching the environmental idiocies of this presidency for the past 7 years, and I haven't seen a "clear national solution" for anything this administration has done. Is the solution "Do nothing."?

I can't help but wonder if this is the beginning of an attempt by the Bush administration to override the KDHE's decision to deny a permit for a new coal plant. I mean, really, isn't the KDHE's rejection of the permit on the basis of CO2 emissions essentially the same thing as California independently reducing car emissions?

The actions of the EPA and the government on this issue have, over the past 7 years, bordered on absolute lunacy. This appears to be a continuation of that trend.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Some more fallout from the coal plant denial

My thoughts on the KDHE denial of the coal plant near Holcomb have been previously identified. Hell, I even got into it with Greg Laden when he criticized Kansas without mentioning the denial.

Well, one of the big idiocies the pro-coal plant advocates have been promoting is the idea that without the coal plant all other alternative energy strategies in the region will be stymied. They've made this claim based on the understanding that without the coal plant investment money, there will be no attempt to build the high-energy wires that are needed to get wind power hooked into the grid.

I think this is a bogus argument on a number of fronts.

1. If the electricity is needed, the power lines will get built. The approval for their construction has already gone through state agencies, so one of the big hurdles is cleared already.

2. The power lines are/were being built by a consortia of power producers, government agencies, and other entities. I'm not convinced all those organizations are going to shut it down just because the coal plant won't be built (I could be wrong about that).

3. In Sunflower's own documentation on this plant, they cite a 15% increase in the power consumption over the next 25-50 years in SW Kansas. Even without high power transmission lines, it would appear the best way for SW Kansas to meet that increasing demand is through wind farms.

In conclusion, I don't think there's any way wind and solar power won't continue to grow within Kansas. If anything, I think the coal plant would have stymied the further development of wind power. Apparently that was the conclusion at the Dole Institute of Politics for the Kansas Electric Transmission Summit (what a name!) as reported by the Lawrence Journal World and In fact, the members of that conference pointed out that wind farms are increasing exponentially. If that continues, the power lines will be built, coal plant or not.

(Hat tip to Diane Silver's excellent blog In this Moment)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Explanations: The difference between belief and evidence

(Update: Greg Laden pointed out in an email that the term "special knowledge" which I use extensively here, is similar to the term "received knowledge" in the social sciences)

I am occasionally asked what I think about the whole “Creationism” issue. Considering the typically caustic nature of this issue, I have often wrestled with how to approach it. Here’s what I try to say:

Imagine a painting of a man. Let’s just assume the man is older, say, in his 50s. You can tell he is in his 50s by the color of his hair and the wrinkles on his face (EDIT: I'm being told men in their 50s don't have wrinkles..sorry!). The man is wearing a certain set of clothes, which may also indicate his age or his profession or his socio-economic status. By examining the painting carefully, you can construct a plausible understanding about the man’s life.

Of course, all of those clues were put there by an artist who wanted to cultivate a certain perception within your mind about the man in the painting. The painting itself may not be 50 years old, it may be 10 or 500 years old.

Now imagine, instead of a painting, you were looking at a humanoid robot. The robot looks and talks and moves like a man. There is no visible clue that this robot is anything but a perfectly ordinary man. Even a detailed medical examination would reveal nothing that indicates the robot is not a human. In fact, all of the possible evidence indicates that the robot is human. Only those with a special knowledge realize the robot is not human. No one can independently verify that knowledge, because all the evidence indicates the robot is human. That special knowledge must have been given by either the creator of the robot, or one who was present when the robot was created.

The Bible is special knowledge, as are all other religious texts. Those texts purport to be written by an agent of the creator, who was present when the universe was created. If you have faith in the source of such special knowledge, then you need no evidence to support that belief. Simply put: independent verification is irrelevant to special knowledge.

Science, on the other hand, is constructed solely from evidence. That evidence must be of a form that anyone could reproduce. In a philosophical sense, this severely limits the scope of science. Science is based on some assumptions, but the primary assumption is that an objective reality exists. No such assumptions are necessary to believe in special knowledge.

The frequent and misguided attacks on science by believers in special knowledge seem to assume that science ought to support special knowledge. This simply isn’t the case. Science may support that special knowledge, or it may not, but the only requirement of science is that all the evidence be independently verifiable.

Now, interestingly enough, this does not necessarily mean the results of science are correct. To go back to the example of the robot: Even if all the evidence points to the robot being a human, that doesn’t make it so. Similarly, even though all the evidence points to a billions-year-old universe, evolutionarily-derived biodiversity, and mankind descending from apes, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that some omni-potent agent created the universe…but that omni-potent agent must have made the universe look like it works this way.

Based upon this understanding, I do not believe a person is an idiot just because they have a literal belief in a creation story. On the other hand, saying that the evidence supports such a belief indicates idiocy or ignorance. Any individual can believe anything they want to believe, but that doesn’t change the fact that science must be based on independently verified evidence. If that independent verification isn’t available, then it isn’t science, and therefore it shouldn’t be in a science class.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Plains Leopard Frog

A few months ago a good friend of mine noticed that his little garden pond had attracted some frogs. He ended up taking the following picture and sending it to me. As it turns out, these are Plains Leopard Frogs:

The picture is shrunk a little to fit in this space, but there are at least 5 frogs visible there (click to enlarge). The Plains Leopard Frog (Rana blairi) is named after Frank Blair, a fairly famous Texas herpetologist. Leopard frogs, in general, are present all over North America, but generally seem intolerant of pollution and habitat disturbance. There are actually several species of leopard frog, but there appears to be hybridization occurring between those species as the geographic and habitat barriers that had separated them are being removed by humans.

Leopard frogs sing for mates for a long time each year. According to Collins (1995) they may begin as early as February and continue throughout the summer. I can't think of a good way to describe their call in'll just have to go find a pond and listen. The species is a water obligate, although they appear to forage on primarily terrestrial species. Habitat destruction and the widespread use of pesticides appear to be causing a wide-spread decline in this species.

I've found that garden ponds are generally readily used by amphibians as breeding sites, especially in Western Kansas where water is increasingly unavailable. My in-laws little pond (maybe 10 square feet surface area), attracts lots of Great Plains Toads that would otherwise remain hibernating through what has been an extended drought in the area. I'm sure the population density of those toads has increased dramatically since they built the pond. I wonder whether the leopard frogs will use my friend's garden pond in a similar manner. Unlike toads, which are often toxic, the Leopard frog tadpoles are highly susceptible to fish predation, but my friend doesn't keep any fish in his pond.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Species Profile: The Neosho Madtom

Let's go looking for Neosho Madtoms!
(I look silly in waders)

The Neosho Madtom is a state and federally listed threatened species. The species occurs only within the Neosho River basin. Individuals are usually small (1-2 inches as adults) and often only live one year. They are primarily consumers of benthic invertebrates.

The species first got listed back in 1990, and it has been the subject of some fairly testy back and forth between regulators and gravel harvesters ever since. KDWP suspended all gravel harvesting options for a while, then allowed them to continue within some limits. Needless to say, this ticked off the gravel harvesters, one of whom successfully sued KDWP for the lost income. Some of these guys are extremely bitter about the whole thing. For some reason I've had three requests to do these gravel harvesting operations in the past month, saturating all the available permits for the Neosho River.

Unfortunately, below is the best picture I have of the fish, since we were largely unsuccessful in finding the little guys.

Back in the mid-90s the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS; the federal agency tasked with enforcing the Endangered Species Act) issued an opinion about gravel-harvesting options in the Neosho and Cottonwood Rivers. In essence, they said that the gravel harvesting was possibly damaging the Neosho Madtom populations. As a result, a large, long-term study by FWS and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks has been occurring since then to figure out whether or not gravel harvesting is harming the Neosho Madtom.

The kinda non-intuitive part of this is that the gravel harvesters aren't even getting into the water. That picture above is of a gravel bar in early November. The gravel harvesters are pulling gravel out from above the waterline. So why might these operations be a problem? Basically, when the river floods, the madtoms may be moving up onto the flooded gravel bars and using them as a site for reproduction. What happens when gravel is being removed? The answer is we don't know. But we will.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Photos: SETAC in Milwuakee

For some reason my pictures of catching Neosho Madtoms are not coming up on this computer, but I wanted to put some pictures up anyway. So here's some pics from my recent trip to SETAC in Milwaukee. (captions below the pic)

Yes. I'm wearing shorts in Milwaukee. In November. Has anyone heard of this whole 'climate change' thing?
This is the Milwaukee River (I think). There's a nice river-walk behind a bunch of buildings in the downtown. The first part of the week was so nice we walked along here a couple of times during lunch. Later in the week it got extremely cold and windy, so I guess we haven't gotten to the point where it is warm all year yet.

Apparently there's a duck theme to the riverwalk.

Unfortunately the closest thing we saw to an actual duck was this chair floating down the river. I also have pictures of traffic cones in the water. Beautiful.

This is recovered treasure from a sunken Spanish ship. The weight of the silver block is supposed to be so great that you can't run away with it, but there were still two guards with tasers there.

This was the beer line just before 5 30 when the open bar opened.

What? That doesn't look like a scientific conference! How'd that get in here?