Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York Principle 3: Baloney Asymmetry Principle

This is one of the principles that that describe my pragmatic environmentalist beliefs.

I updated this on May 8, 2017 to add references for the lake effect snowstorm example and lake temperature data.

Alberto Brandolini: “The amount of energy necessary to refute BS is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”

Brandolini’s link is to a presentation on the problem and includes recommendations for dealing with it in the context of the managerial leadership. However it is directly relevant to environmental issues as well.

Consider this example of global warming causing severe weather. In November 2014 there was a massive lake-effect snow storm in Western New York. New York’s Attorney General said the snowstorm was evidence of needed action on climate change. Slate followed the event with an article “proving” the claim.

In order to repudiate the global warming trigger claim the lake effect mechanism has to be explained and the relevant data from the event compiled. The Slate article explained that lake effect snow is caused by a temperature difference between a body of water and the air over the lake. The BS claim is that because the water is warmer then the storm was worse. However the alignment of the wind with the lake, the depth of the cold air layer, and the change of wind direction with height all contribute to the severity of a lake effect snowstorm.

To repudiate the BS claim these other factors have to be explained and the necessary data to show how they affected the storm compiled and presented. It turns out that the primary factor causing the extraordinary snow amounts with this particular storm was that the wind direction stayed constant for much longer than normal. That being the case how did global warming contribute to constant winds? Moreover, when I checked the actual lake temperature with the average lake temperature it was more or less the same as the average. The Slate article relied on average temperature data but not the data from the event.   If global warming were the cause then why wasn’t the lake warmer than average during the event?

Update May 8, 2017: References for the lake effect snowstorm example and lake temperature

Lake Effect Snowstorm November 17 – 19, 2014

Average Lake Erie Temperature Period of Record 1992 – 2016

  • November 19: 9.7 deg. C
  • November 20: 9.5 deg. C
  • November 21: 9.4 deg. C

Actual Lake Erie Temperature during the event – All three days were colder than average!

  • November 19, 2014: 8.9 deg. C
  • November 20, 2014: 8.2 deg. C
  • November 21, 2014: 7.5 deg. C


Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York Principle 2: Sound Bite Environmental Issue Descriptions

This is one of the principles that that describe my pragmatic environmentalist beliefs.

Sound bite descriptions necessarily only tell one side of the story because they have to fit space available. As a result they frequently are mis-leading, not nuanced, or flat out wrong.

Sound bites are brief recorded statements (as by a public figure) broadcast especially on a television news program or a brief catchy comment or saying. In this principle, I would expand the definition to include the core information that “everyone knows” about a particular topic. In today’s society they unfortunately represent an inordinate share of the public’s knowledge of an environmental issue.

In my, admittedly limited, experience trying to describe a technical issue or project to the press or a public relations person the interview often led to innocent mis-characterizations. If the audience does not have relevant background and you are not experienced talking to that kind of audience to include appropriate background information, the resulting sound bite can be mis-leading.

Because there are space and time constraints there is no room for the background caveats to explain the nuances of the issue. This limitation also can be primarily innocent.

However, there can be more sinister implications to the sound bite when the story is politically motivated or fits the agenda of an organization. In these cases noble cause corruption can lead the author of the sound bite to deliberately characterize the issue incorrectly by selectively choosing the information included and not including key caveats.

Whatever the cause, the problem for pragmatic environmentalists is that correcting the record won’t be a sound bite so the audience that only has the patience to hear the sound bite may ignore the correction or lose interest in the complete story. Moreover space or time may not even be available to provide the clarifying information.

Pragmatic Environmentalist of New York Principle 1: Environmental Issues are Binary

This is one of the principles that that describe my pragmatic environmentalist beliefs.

In almost all environmental issues there are two legitimate sides. Pragmatic environmentalism is all about balancing the risks and benefits of both sides of the issue. In order to do that you have to show your work.

While this might seem patently obvious presented in this fashion consider how often the public discourse on an environmental issue is just a long list of environmental impacts that “everyone knows” and suggestions that those impacts will be catastrophic.

Consider this example: “For decades, power plants in our communities here in Western Queens have strongly contributed to increased asthma rates and increases in hospitalizations and ER visits that exceed the average in Queens,” said Councilman Costa Constantinides.

It is generally accepted that asthma rates have been increasing but the problem is that over the same period where they are increasing ambient pollution levels have been going down. Consider the EPA Air Quality Trends at New York City information that shows that from 2000 to 2015 ozone is down 16.7%, inhalable particulate matter is down 31.7% and sulfur dioxide is down 85.1%. These data suggest that increasing asthma rates are not the result of increasing pollution rates contradicting the environmental impact that “everyone knows” causes increasing asthma rates. For a comprehensive evaluation of the EPA science related to particulate matter health impacts I recommend “Scare Pollution: Why and How to Fix the EPA”.

Pragmatic environmentalists recognize that air pollution causes health impacts. However the risk that additional societal investments for increased pollution control could not provide the intended benefits has to be considered. In particular, if society spends money to reduce power plant emissions below the rates that have contributed to the lower observed pollution levels it may not improve asthma rates and worse may divert money that more appropriately should be invested into research determining why asthma rates are increasing so that the actual causes can be addressed.