Video of the day

Yes, this is real:

WSJ and CO2

Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a ludicrous Op-Ed about how more carbon dioxide is good for the planet.  Here’s a snippet:

Contrary to what some would have us believe, increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will benefit the increasing population on the planet by increasing agricultural productivity.

The cessation of observed global warming for the past decade or so has shown how exaggerated NASA’s and most other computer predictions of human-caused warming have been—and how little correlation warming has with concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. As many scientists have pointed out, variations in global temperature correlate much better with solar activity and with complicated cycles of the oceans and atmosphere. There isn’t the slightest evidence that more carbon dioxide has caused more extreme weather.


Wow.  For starters, I really wonder about the “many scientists” but even more so, one has to wonder if the authors know the meaning of “slightest” “evidence,” “extreme” or “weather.”

Most of the piece, though, is dedicated to an overly scientific explanation of CO2 in the plant life-cycle:

Using energy from sunlight—together with the catalytic action of an ancient enzyme called rubisco, the most abundant protein on earth—plants convert carbon dioxide from the air into carbohydrates and other useful molecules. Rubisco catalyzes the attachment of a carbon-dioxide molecule to another five-carbon molecule to make two three-carbon molecules, which are subsequently converted into carbohydrates. (Since the useful product from the carbon dioxide capture consists of three-carbon molecules, plants that use this simple process are called C3 plants.) C3 plants, such as wheat, rice, soybeans, cotton and many forage crops, evolved when there was much more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than today. So these agricultural staples are actually undernourished in carbon dioxide relative to their original design.


At the time I read and and looked around for a takedown, and was surprised not to find one.  Patience was rewarded as Slate’s Phil Plait rose to the task:

After reading dozens, hundreds, of such mind-numbing articles, I think we’ve found a winner. One that is so sweepingly wrong and based on such a ridiculous premise that it’s weapons-grade denial. Unsurprisingly, it was published in the Wall Street Journal, which has a lengthy history of printing reality-free OpEds about climate change. Perhaps surprisingly, it was penned by two actual scientists, William Happer and Harrison Schmitt. I’ll have more about them later.

I present to you the article, titled—seriously—“In Defense of Carbon Dioxide”. At least the title isn’t misleading; it really is an article that is saying, “Sure, we’re dumping vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, but don’t worry, because plants love it! We had lots more CO2in the air millions of years ago and everything was fantastic!”

If you think I’m being unfair or mischaracterizing the article in any way, then please go read it. You’ll see that is precisely what the article is stating. It is a piece of—if you’ll pardon the expression—breath-taking illogic and intellectual legerdemain.

However, it boils down to two basic and overwhelming problems: global effects of more CO2 in the air, and the rate of increase.

Read more from Plait for the details.  Needless to say, the summary of “sweepingly wrong” pretty much gets it.  What intrigued me, though, was the way in which this was presented so skillfully to fool the WSJ’s presumably educated (though, not scientifically so) readers.  Lots of precise scientific detail to make it sound like the authors really know what they are talking about.  And when it comes to how plants use CO2, I assume they actually do.  And then they just completely ignore the larger global implications.

I was trying to think about an analogy for this and I think I came up with a pretty decent one.  Presumably you are familiar with the use of corticosteroids, e.g., predisone, etc., in medical treatment.  They are amazing for treating all sorts of inflammation  (and even cancer), but have a huge downside– they suppress your immune system.  Obviously, that’s why they are always used on a strictly short-term basis.  Great local benefit, but longer term leads to a huge cost for the global system (i.e., your whole body).  It would be as if the authors penned an Op-Ed arguing that everybody should just be taking lots of predisone, providing a careful scientific explanation on the mechanism of action for anti-inflammation, etc., and then completely ignoring the fact that your body is going to be horribly compromised by your weakened immune system.

Sadly, this is just par for the course for the WSJ Op-Ed pages and the world of climate change denialism.

Americans support gay marriage; don’t believe Americans support gay marriage

The latest Gallup poll on gay marriage does not have many surprises– again, a majority of the public supports gay marriage.  Actually no increase from last year, but looking at the ongoing trends, it’s hard to believe support will not continue to increase.

Trend: Do you think marriages between same-sex couples should or should not be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages?

Among a number of additional analyses, I thought what was most interesting is just how much the support of the youngest Americans has jumped (52% to 70% in just three years) in such a short time span (though, I suppose part of this could be an artifact of small sub-samples):

Support for Legal Same-Sex Marriage by Age, 1996, 2010, and 2013

And, finally, to get to the headline of the post, most Americans actually think the opponents of gay marriage are still the majority:

What is your impression of how most Americans feel about same-sex marriage -- do you think most Americans are in favor of same-sex marriage or opposed to same-sex marriage? May 2013 results

Surely, that’s telling us something– other than the fact that public opinion is a pretty bad guide– I’m not exactly sure what.  I do wonder, though, if this is a crude indicator for the fact that those opposed to gay marriage are “louder” about it and thus have more influence on what people think about “most Americans.”

Photo of the day

From the Telegraph:

An image from Nasa's Cassini mission of the spinning vortex of Saturn's north polar storm resembling a deep red rose of giant proportions surrounded by green foliage. Measurements have sized the eye at a staggering 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) across with cloud speeds as fast as 330 miles per hour (150 meters per second).
An image from Nasa’s Cassini mission of the spinning vortex of Saturn’s north polar storm resembling a deep red rose of giant proportions surrounded by green foliage. Measurements have sized the eye at a staggering 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) across with cloud speeds as fast as 330 miles per hour (150 meters per second).Picture: AFP


College as economic investment

Really nice piece by Dylan Matthews last week in Wonkblog about a report focusing on college as “Return on Investment.”  Yglesias made the important point that this analysis totally left off graduation rates.  A lot of universities have much lower graduation rates than others and investing in some college, but not a degree, is a really bad investment.  Anyway, not surprisingly, your major matters.  The good news is any major is not better than going to college:

Screen Shot 2013 05 09 at 3 30 23 PM

And I’d like to say I’m very pleased to see Social Science among the higher-earning majors, but some of this seems suspect to me.  I.e., since when is Psychology not a social science?!  And how much of this is a feature of the fact that the higher-earning majors are dominated by men?   I’ve already written a lot about the pay gap here, so I’m not going to go back into it (clearly some very real discrimination, but a lot of this is the different choices women and men make about where they work and how much they work), but because of this fact, any field that has more men in it is going to, ceteris paribus, have higher earnings than a field with a lot of women.  Would be very curious to see how statistical control for gender might have affected this.

Naturally, I was curious to go to the PayScale data and check out the ROI for the universities that are and have been a part of my life. I’ve told a number of people that as much as I loved my time at Duke, no way is it worth the additional amount of money that it costs over a place like UNC or NCSU for a in-state student.  It’s worth more, but not that much more.   According to this data, though, I’m wrong.  As expensive as Duke is, over a lifetime of earnings, it more than pays for itself and comes in at 38, well above the NC state schools.  I was talking about this with my little little sister while at by big little sister’s law school graduation on Saturday:

(and here I am with big sister– also an attorney– big little sister, and little little sister).

And in the conversation what hit me was that there’s a huge  effect for selection bias here that is entirely uncontrolled.  An amazing amount of Duke undergraduates go onto careers in medicine and law (it’s a little ridiculous at the reunions).  Very few go into social work, teaching, etc.  I suspect that if you took this into account, things would like quite different.  I suspect that a lot of what’s going in in Duke’s great ROI is not that the Duke education (and networking) led to such a lucrative career, but 1) people who graduate from Duke are among the most intelligent, ambitious, and disciplined college graduates out there, and 2) they disproportionately choose to go into high paying careers.  Duke is great, but I suspect if you put all these same Duke graduates and sent them to East Carolina, you’d find that ECU had an absolutely unbelievable ROI.  But in reality, ECU (or UNC, NCSU) draw a very different set of undergraduates, on average.

In the end, this is a neat analysis and fun to think about, but one should be very careful in trying to draw too many meaningful conclusions about the relative value of an education at these various colleges.  Without a doubt, a college education is a great investment, but to say whether one college is truly a better investment than other– for any given student– is a much more fraught and questionable endeavor.

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