Author Archives: admin

Soft soap and fracking

Things can go pretty far off track when science meets the press, and when we hear or read shallow generalizations based on studies inaccurately interpreted, we wonder how it could have happened.

Case in point:  Some day soon, an oil & gas industry representative will probably tell a journalist, or a politician, or a concerned parent: “Fracking water is as safe as dish soap. Check out the 2014 University of Colorado study.”

And of course that will be horribly wrong.  At best, people will chalk the difference up to the old adage:  For every PhD, there is an equal and opposite PhD.  More likely, they will just take the spin on the study at face value.

But the 2014 Colorado fracking story is an example of one of many chains of errors in the science reporting system.
Continue reading

Free speech and international law

Konrad Lorenz and his dog.

(Reposting a 2o12 article following events in Paris, Jan. 7, 2015).

Austrian psychology professor Konrad Lorenz used to tell a story about his dog.  On their regular walks, his dog would always run along a neighborhood wall and bark at another dog that was on the inside of the wall.

The two dogs continued this  behavior for years, barking and snarling at each other every day,  until — one day — an accident took out part of the wall.   That day, the two dogs raced along the wall as usual but then came to the broken spot. And  the two dogs faced each other for the first time. After a moment of confusion, they quickly returned to their respective sides of the wall  and started barking across the wall again.

So the lesson, Lorenz said in his 1955 book Man Meets Dog, is that this ability to moderate aggression is a survival skill that animals seem to have.  Could we learn something from their example that applies to our communication problems today?   Continue reading

In solidarity

I-Am-Charlie_Graphic

Folding up the Confederate flag

By Bill Kovarik 

They say that American Southerners are a lot like Japanese people – they drink a lot of tea, they eat a lot of rice, and they worship their ancestors.

Maybe that’s why the Confederate defenders today remind me of  Hiroo Onoda, who died last year in Tokyo.   Onoda was the Japanese Army officer who refused to surrender in 1945, at the end of World War II, and fought on in the remote jungles of the Philippines until 1974.

Links to Dan Smith's blog.

Confederate marchers. Roanoke. Dec. 12, 2014. Photo by Dan Smith.

The way they finally got Hiroo Onoda to surrender was to send his former commanding officer to the Philippines with a formal order telling him to cease all military activities.

Would that work, here in the former Confederate States of America?

Well, OK, here goes:

As a descendant of a Confederate colonel who perished in the Civil War, also known as the Recent Unpleasantness and the War of Northern Aggression,  I hereby order all descendants of Confederate veterans to cease all military and civic hostilities after the 150th anniversary of the surrender:  April 12, 2015.

There. That should do it.

Continue reading

Thoreau’s commute

ThoreausCommuteTwo weeks in the Maine woods, and  my morning commute is remarkable: I walk down a short gravel road to a pathway, then amble a mile to work through tall hemlocks and oaks. Mid-way, I mosey slowly across a long wooden bridge — the product of 20 years effort, I’m told.  I have to stop and watch Sandy Stream as it meanders down to the great green Atlantic, reflecting my world like lady with a liquid mirror.

Continue reading

Happy Teapot Dome day!

On this day in 1924, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall is indicted for taking bribes from the oil industry to lease government owned oil reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming.   Before Watergate (1972-74), the Teapot Dome oil scandal was considered the most sensational in American politics, although many previous scandals had involved oil and politics.

MOOC content is a faculty concern

faculty.generic

Endangered species: Virginia college faculty.

By Bill Kovarik

The advent of what the Roanoke Times calls “Higher Education for the Masses” through  Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs)  might be a hopeful sign for  colleges, as noted in this June 6th, 2003 editorial.

But there is a problem.

According to the Times, paraphrasing Larry Sabato, “universities must come up with a business model that ensures they don’t give away their intellectual [property] …”

(Ahem).   Whose  intellectual property?

Continue reading

Oil ‘scarcity': We should have known better

proved.versus2

World oil reserve comparison USGS vs US DOE proven reserves.

By Bill Kovarik

One of the more painful lessons of recent  history involves the way money and  politics can slant  scientific information.

Take the curiously sudden abundance of fossil fuels.  Not long ago we had looming shortages, certain oil scarcity, and the supposed need to go to war to protect the lifeblood of the world’s economy.

But now, seemingly out of the blue, we have an abundance of natural gas from fracking, heavy oil from Venezuela and unconventional oil from Canada’s tar sands. And much more conventional to come from the Dakotas, the Arctic, Latin America and the coasts of Africa.

How do we explain the “sudden” abundance of fossil fuels?

  • “We were wrong on peak oil,” said  George Monbiot of the Guardian in July, 2012.  “There’s enough to fry us all.”   Environmental strategies must change now because “the facts have changed,” he said.
  • The Washington Post reported that the “center of gravity” for  world oil resources has shifted to the Americas. It’s  “quickly changing the dynamics of energy geopolitics in a way that had been unforeseen just a few years ago.”
  • USA Today noted that Venezuela had become No. 1 in the world for proven oil reserves.  “Exploration of Venezuela’s 21,000-square-mile Orinoco belt shows that its oil deposits exceed the proven reserves of even Saudi Arabia.”
  • Foreign Policy published an analysis about the “new” petroleum abundance and impacts on climate change. The new golden age may indeed shake up the currently rich and powerful and create new regional forces, Steve Levine said.

Continue reading

A green Nixon doesn’t wash

Published in Environmental Health News, Jan. 9, 2013.

Richard Nixon would be 100 years old today, and on the anniversary of his birth, it’s tempting to portray the 37th U.S. president as a major environmental advocate.

That would be a mistake, for it would let modern-day politics trump an important history lesson.

Nixon did say and did things about the environment that seem courageous from today’s perspective:  “Clean air is not free, and neither is clean water,” he said in his 1970 State of the Union address. “Through our years of past carelessness we incurred a debt to nature, and now that debt is being called.”

Such rhetoric has made Nixon’s environmental legacy a source of ongoing debate among environmentalists, scholars and reporters. Not long ago, Michael Lemonick of the news site Climate Central said Nixon was “a champion of protecting the environment, like no president before him since Teddy Roosevelt and like no president since.”

But Lemonick and others holding that view displace history with politics. One of history’s first lessons is the need to understand people and events in the context of their times…

What’s the press?

Linda Greenhouse who covers the Supreme Court for the New York Times has been following a particular debate over the legal status of the press.

What, today, is “the press” anyway? It’s a question without a simple answer, either in today’s chaotic and rapidly changing media landscape or in Supreme Court doctrine.

The First Amendment prohibits Congress (and, by later interpretive expansion, the states) from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Do the dual references to speech and press amount to one and the same, or does the amendment place “the press” in a special position, with rights not accorded to other speakers? The Supreme Court has never fully resolved this question.