The War On Measurement

By The Metric Maven

If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.

– W.C. Fields

There is much hype these days surrounding big data. Massive amounts of information can be sifted and searched. Large amounts of data by themselves are of little use without an organizing idea. In the case of climate data, it is generally large, complex and evaluated by specialists who study the Earth’s climate. It can be proxy data that is found in rocks or elsewhere, it can be satellite data that provides information on temperature, pressure, wind speeds and so on. To the average person, this data provides little information they can directly evaluate. In the US, it is believed that the opinion of someone as ignorant as a politician on a particular subject, has the same validity as the consensus of a scientific community, which dedicates itself full-time to the subject under discussion. As Charles Pierce points out in Idiot America “[they offer] The potent narcotic of reassuring simplicity.” It is hard to overcome that.

The fact that the scientific theory and data involved is complex, allows those who dislike a particular scientific consensus, to simply deny it is valid, offer a simple and reassuring ad hoc explanation, and bask in the glow of approval from those who want to believe the same.

Sea level rise is reported to have already begun to encroach on Venice Italy and coastal Florida, but the number of people who live within a Kilometer or two of a coastline are the only one’s who are most likely see the immediate evidence that sea level is rising. Twenty seven US states are landlocked, so their populations will not currently experience sea level rise directly. About 3.7 million Americans live within a meter or so of high tide, and have significant risk of sea level becoming a problem in the future, but with about 325 million or so people in the US one can guesstimate that only one in one 88 people are currently in danger should this eventually happen. Even then it would be possible for a large majority of the nation to simply say “why should I believe it? I’ve never seen it.” There are lots of measurements that are being taken that show that sea level is rising. Satellite data from 1993 to 2017 show a rate of sea level increase of about 3.4 millimeters per year (+/- 0.4 mm) with a total increase from 1993 to the present of 88.2 mm.

Using tidal gauge records, sea level change from 1870 to 2000 is estimated to be almost 200 mm.

A male human hand is about 100 mm wide, so the ocean has been measured to have
increased by about two male hand-widths from 1870-2000. A female human hand is about 80 mm in width for about 2.5 hand-widths. A little over a single female hand-width is how far sea level has risen from 1993 to 2017.

The majority of the US population is not involved in those measurements, and so if a politician does not like the measurement outcome computed by scientists, it is easy to just argue the researchers are just a bunch of long hairs that can be dismissed. After all, can anyone really see this change? When a person goes to the beach it looks just the same. Those scientists just aren’t as smart as they think! A regular person can clearly see that the ocean is fine, and that 80 millimeters is so small it doesn’t matter anyway. This is all so abstract, and so it is easy to rationalize that the persons involved are thought to be “alarmist” and only want to “preserve their jobs by showing there is a problem.” Very few people are directly exposed to science in this country, and so its operation is very removed from their intuition. Before Sputnik only 25% of high school students took a class in physics, now it has rocketed to about 30% or so. Seventy percent of US high school students have never even been exposed to the concepts that are used to obtain the measured data that could severely impact their future. Beyond the simple information they lack, critical thinking skills are also not encouraged in US education—or in US social interaction. This tsunami of ignorance among the US populace, makes it easy for those with a predilection to believe whatever is convenient, to do so.

About 15 years ago a new local weatherman began to host the 10 o’clock weather each night, and I noticed something interesting. He began emphasizing how many years back record highs were. One night he sort of slipped and said something on the order of “back then I’m sure President Garfield was concerned about global warming.” There it was, my weatherman was spouting off about his belief that global warming is a bunch of hot air.

Many times over the next few years, I would hear him say “and the record high for this date was way back in……” It began appearing to me that a larger number of record highs were occurring in the 21st century, and fewer and fewer were from the 19th or before the late 20th century. Of course this was just what I seemed to be seeing each night as I watched the local weather. I had not done any formal analysis, it could just have been confirmation bias on my part.

The winter of 2013-2014 saw a sudden stratospheric warming, this caused the stable polar vortex to become unstable and move southward into the US. It was bone-chillingly cold. Water pipes installed below the street in front my father’s house in 1973 froze solid. This had never happened before. For over a month he had to bring water to his house by hand. The longhairs had said that this crazy change in temperature had been the result of arctic warming! Yet again it was very easy for those who don’t have any respect for science to dismiss climate change with a quick look outside. Senator James Inhofe stated “we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record.” and then produced a snowball “It’s a snowball, and that’s just from outside here, so it’s very, very cold out, very unseasonable.” The Senator then famously tossed the snowball at the chair.

My weatherman now had a new mantra during his weather report. When record highs were shown around the same time as the early 2014 North American cold wave had taken place, he would point out that just last year a record low was set on the same date. See! they cancel each other out and so there is no such thing as global warming! This semi-regular chortling from my weatherman became a bit grating, but I had watched this channel for years, and it looked like he just might be on his way to retirement soon.

This year (2017) I began to notice a sudden quiescence. My weatherman seemed to almost skip over the record highs and lows. It appeared that a very, very large number of record highs were all well within the 21st century, and others occurred after the 1980s or so. Still, I realized that it was my perception, and I had not done any analysis. The data I viewed was for but one US city.

Then on 2017-03-09 Phil Plait provided actual data analysis. If the number of record highs and record lows were random, then they should average out to zero, which implies their ratio would be one. In other words, the number of new record highs should statistically be about the same as record lows. From Plait’s essay:

The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research collated data from 1800 stations across the US and binned the data by decade — by decade, which is a huge sample; any deviation from a 1:1 ratio would be extraordinary over that timescale. They found this:

And making this more global, a pair of Australian scientists looked at their country’s data, and found that their ratios were about even…until the 1960s.  After that, highs always outnumber lows. From 2000-2014, record highs outnumbered lows there by 12:1.”

How does one deal with eggheaded scientists who are measuring temperatures and sea levels with satellites? It’s simple, you just stop them from measuring. If you are a politician who wants to continue business as usual, then it’s simple, defund the annoying measurement devices that are being used to quantify atmospheric
information. To deal with it, you begin a war on measurement. The current administration has, so far, not made a single political appointment who is a scientist, or has a scientific background. These are the soldiers you employ for this war on measurement. These are the same people who have made war on the metric system in the past, and will continue to eschew it from political discourse, or in their ignorance, continue to make sport of it with their granfalloon praising their wishful assertions.

Long ago, temperatures in Celsius were defeated by these reactionary warriors, but information in Fahrenheit continued to remain publicly available. Temperatures are the common commodity of small talk in the US. Unlike satellite data, they are “little data.” They are not data that require esoteric instruments to make measurements. Every citizen of the US probably has a thermometer. Most new cars have a thermometer to measure the outside temperature. Those who don’t like the interpretations of everyday temperature data find themselves in a predicament, they can wage a further war on measurement, or the very idea of measurement, and expect the public to accept that even the most basic science is faulty, or they can simply state that the obviously
increasing number of record highs is natural, and somehow not caused by humans. This relies on a war on the measurements and quantification concerning the amount of CO2 that is belched into our atmosphere each year (10 Petagrams of carbon or 36.67 Pg of CO2). The use of pigfish such as millions or billions of tonnes, without a population that is numerate enough to know the difference between Mega, Giga, Tera or Peta is an extension of the US war on measurements which began with a US war on the metric system.

The Metric Maven has published a book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.


The Metric Caboose

By The Metric Maven

Mini-Bulldog Edition

As a boy, I lived less than a block from a set of railroad tracks. The report of train whistles, and the low pitched sound of each train as it passed by during the night assured me commerce was underway, and all was fine. During the day, myself and others would often watch as a train passed to see what the oldest car was. The oldest was 1909 as I recall, and those cars looked very fragile. Of course the caboose was a punctuating symbol that defined the end of the train. I don’t ever recall a caboose at the front of the train. A caboose at the front of a train, before the engines, would be seen as something out of order, that is not being used as designed. Could one hook a caboose to the front of a train and have it operate? Sure—does it make sense–perhaps—but not as expected usage.

When I first became interested in electronics, resistors were the first component I encountered. Their resistance is measured in ohms. One might have 50 ohm resistor, or 68 ohm resistor, but when the value progresses into the thousands, the metric prefix Kilo is used. A 10 000 ohm resistor is a 10 Kiloohm resistor which is generally written as 10 KΩ, when the resistance becomes large enough we use Megaohms or MΩ. As people like to speak in shorthand, and everyone knows, that on an electrical schematic, resistors are in ohms, electrical engineers generally say “that’s a 4 K resistor,” implying that the value is 4 KΩ. When people say they are going to participate in a 5K run, it’s understood that it is a 5 Km distance.

The metric prefix Kilo- is supposed to modify the unit value that follows it, but in common usage, people often appear to use it as shorthand for a set of zeros. When the prefix symbol is moved next to a numeral, 5K becomes 5000; the prefix modifier becomes a suffix modifier. When it is thought of in this way, it can be used as a sort of stealth prefix for Ye Olde English, or whatever comes along.

For instance here is an example from the web where the metric modifier is separated from Olde English as if this is a good idea:

So it reads “Spruce beetles pick up where their pine cousins left off, eating through 136 000 acres in past year” rather than “Spruce beetles pick up where their pine cousins left off, eating through 136 Kiloacres in past year.” The prefix modifier becomes a suffix modifier and metric is “compatible” with anything. Just by removing a space we modify the leading number rather than the trailing unit. By invoking this idea, we create 5K dollars, or 75K crickets, or 210K albatrosses. This space removal causes a literary switcharoo that turns a prefix into a suffix. This appears to be a practice that has happened somewhat recently and has become an accepted part of the language. If there is no space between it and a leading number, the single metric “prefix”  becomes a suffix number, and if there is a space then a metric unit must follow the prefix.

Is this usage a good idea? I’m not sure. Perhaps this is a usage that could make sense. Without a space 326K, or 326M, or 326G could be thought of as numbers. The value 326G certainly is more compact than 326 000 000 000. This distinction would have to be identified, formalized, and taught in schools, so that students would know how to use it properly. If one writes 25K they mean a number, if they write 25 K then one should expect a unit symbol to follow such as 25 Km, and 25 K would not be considered a finished statement. I can see how this usage could be useful, but currently it strikes me as the engine switched for the caboose.

Related essay:

The Elements of Bile

The Metric Maven has published a book titled The Dimensions of The Cosmos. It examines the basic quantities of the world from yocto to Yotta with a mixture of scientific anecdotes and may be purchased here.