The “Talk Page” of the Wikipedia Entry on the Sokal Affair

The “Talk Page” of the Wikipedia entry on the Sokal Affair. The tone of discussion is what I imagine Usenet to have been like, back before September.

Climate Science Heretics

Kevin Kelly studies western science from a few different perspectives. He’s got a pretty good feel for it as an institution. For his regular Cool Tools newsletter, he reviewed The Deniers, a book celebrating scientists who dispute the global climate change consensus. If I get a chance I’d like to read it, but regardless of the book, Kelly’s review is worth a read in its own right.

“What should we do with the 1% who dissent about global warming? By logic, we should embrace them, but currently “deniers” of global warming have become demonized, which is a sign that global warming has become slightly religious. Which is a shame because many global warming skeptics are not crackpots or paid shills, but first-class prestigious scientists with a minority view.

Throughout its history, science usually advances from the edges. Heretics should be cherished for forcing edges to the center. The most respected scientific global warming heretics have been rounded up in this very readable book, The Deniers. Significantly, many of the eminent scientists included here don’t call themselves deniers at all. They say, “I believe global warming is evidenced in all these other fields; Except in the field that I am expert in, the evidence is totally bogus.” One by one the field-specific heretics make their case. And a number of them are rather persuasive. But at the moment there is no unified alternative theory of climate change, so the critique of global warming amounts to exposing holes in the current science. Any good scientific theory will have holes.”

I get frustrated when I hear people complain that scientists didn’t do enough to alert the world to the climate change threat. According to received wisdom, scientists aren’t supposed to be involved in the setting of social priorities at all, they’re just supposed to pump objective factual information into the mix and let civil, democratic institutions decide what to do or not do about it. So even if scientists hadn’t become activist around global warming, it wouldn’t seem totally fair to blame them. And the thing is, scientists were activist. For decades, when media and government and even environmental groups seemed to be dropping the ball on global warming, it was a cadre of research professionals who fumbled it along, and if they didn’t do a better job of it, can you really blame them? If you didn’t hear about global warming during the 90’s, it wasn’t because there wasn’t a labcoat who was trying to tell you, they just didn’t know how to do it well.

Perhaps one of the drawbacks of that breaking down of the notional firewall between science and politics is that scientific institutions subsequently aren’t dealing productively with climate change minority views, as Kevin Kelly and apparently the authors of this book think.

Vegetation Self-Patterning Presentation

I gave a presentation of my research on southwestern plant patterning yesterday–this was in fact an “oral dissertation defense”, according to the Masters Project Handbook. Below is a video, and the slides. I’ll hopefully be adding more material to the research page as I get around to it, including a NetLogo implementation of an existing vegetation model and possibly a Google Earth tour of some of the sites and data. First however I have to finish writing the non-oral part of the thesis.

Slides (6mb pdf)

Narrative summary of the talk:

Self-patterning of vegetation has been identified in dryland ecosystems worldwide, such as the “tiger striped” savanna of the African Sahel and the banded shrublands of Australia. In these water-limited systems plants are organized into consistent spatial structures by the facilitation of new growth in the organic shadow of existing plants. These landscapes are theorized to be more efficient at retaining rare rainfall, but are also expected to undergo catastrophic shifts if precipitation drops below difficult-to-predict thresholds.

No such banded systems have been identified in America, but I was curious if more subtle patterning could be happening in southwestern drylands which share many of the same ecosystem characteristics and display threshold response to changes in precipitation. If a form of emergent patterning were occurring in these ecosystems, it would have implications for predicting landscape response to pending changes in climate. Focusing on pinon-juniper woodlands in Arizona and New Mexico, I mapped the shapes of patches of vegetation from aerial photographs and measured their degree of spatial pattern. Estimates of surface water movement and distribution were developed for the same sites from digital elevation models. Testing the spatial correlation of these landscape characteristics indicated strong linkages between vegetation patch shape, vegetation density, and surface water hydrology. In sites in Arizona, these relationships were consistent with theories of self-patterning, suggesting that this previously unidentified phenomenon could be occurring in in an American dryland landscape.

Photos from Southwestern Research

2 months ago I was wandering around in rented cars, waking up to the dawn in improvised Forest Service campgrounds, cooking up bacon and eggs and coffee on camp stoves, breaking down my tent then rushing out into the piñon-juniper woodlands with a gps antenna magneted to my bandanna, a compass around my neck and a camera in my hand, documenting the landscapes that were going to become my study sites. I would drive and hike around in a rush to look at things until I decided I had to look at something in particular very slowly. Then I would stare at it. Mostly bushes and trees and soil and water courses. Also hills and valleys. I visited Sierra Vista and Tombstone and Arizona and Flagstaff and Cedar Ridge and Tuba City, and mostly places in between, like Cochise County and the San Pedro River and the Coconino forest and Waputki and the Little Colorado canyon and the rangelands of Navajo Nation. I took a train to New Mexico and did similar things there. Then I took a train home. It was a good time. There was a lot I missed because I was in a hurry to look at semi-arid vegetation, but there was a lot I saw because I was looking for semi-arid vegetation. I wrote about it a bit here.

Because I had a camera in my hand and because New Mexico and especially Arizona are so damn visual, I took a lot of photos. I’ve finally posted some of them up here.

rental car in coconino rangeland

My Standoff With the Google Earth Conference Ends Amiably

Annoyed that I apparently couldn’t attend the Scientific Applications with Google Earth Conference without registering with the “Google Checkout” financial system, I emailed to ask if there were any other payment methods available. Well, I waited for a couple of weeks for their “Contact Us” link to go live, then once I had an email address to email to, I emailed it. No response came, then a form request that I complete the sign-up by joining Google Checkout. I was worried I was going to have to show up thrusting a greasy $20 bill at whoever looked official, but I’ve now received assurance that if I just bring a check with me everything will be fine.

So that’s all good then. Not that the informational aspects of our public and private lives has ceased to be increasingly mediated and recorded by a single for-profit stockholder-beholden corporate entity. But at least you can pay for their scientific conferences by check.

The End of Drunken Email, the Dawn of Drunken Librarying

So the munificent folks at Google have spared us the trauma of drunken emailing. Thanks.

But those of us at U Michigan have a more local conundrum. Now that “7-Fast” book delivery has been experimentally enabled for graduate students, it’s possible to search for a book and have it delivered to your departmental mailbox without the penalty of actually going to a library to find it or even to pick it up from the circulation desk. Without physical costs or library hours to consider, drunken librarying becomes a too-easy option.

It’s not that I’m not enjoying The Way of Ignorance, by Wendell Berry. It’s just that I have no idea what led to it arriving in my mail folder.

Don’t drink and patronize folks. Or, heck, do. Books can never be a bad thing, right?

Future of the Localization Seminar

Some news for my comrades in the School of Natural Resources, University of Michigan:

Walking back from the radio station after our fab interview with Thom Princen, I asked him about the future of the “localization” seminar he’s currently running with Ray De Young and Jim Crofoot. He said they’re contemplating turning it into a regular affair, either as a Master’s project seminar (as it currently is) or as straight seminar.

As a Master’s project, it would be the only project I would be tempted to do instead of a thesis. As a regular seminar, it would be by far the course I would most regret having missed during my time at SNRE/U Mich.

So everybody should email him and the other teachers and encourage them to make it a part of the regularly scheduled programming. As he pointed out, it’s probably the only course of it’s kind in the country. It’s sooooo of it’s time.

Research Plan

For the curious, I’ve posted a more detailed version of my thesis research plan. Which is currently being executed.

Also, I’m nearly done developing some of my photos from my summer research trip, and that gallery will be up soon.

coconino forest from the high road

Celebrating An Ecologist I Don’t Quite Know

Chris Darimont is a wolf researcher who used to hang out with some of the people I used to hang out with in Victoria. As a wolf researcher, he claims traditional pride of place amongst the tribe of ecologists. As such, your contemporary future-looking ecologist might be tempted to disparage him as a megafauna fetishist, but I gather he actually does some interesting, post-Mowat research.

So it’s nice to see that the Government of Canada has equipped him with an NSERC grant and posted him off to Southern California. Other NSERC fellows I have known have found great success in these United States before returning to enrich the Dominion. And Chris is drawn towards the human side of the picture, so good luck with that, I’ll follow when I figure the I’m up for it.

Spring Cleaning at the Ivory Tower

First we came for the rankings. Now it’s the SATs. After a quick nap and scuttling the GREs, maybe we can finish off closed-book testing.

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