Dentistry & Glaciers

Unless you are that rare person who has exceptionally hard tooth enamel, and also brushes and flosses as enthusiastically as the IRS inspects 1040‘s, you know a few things about Dentistry. The things we know are mostly superficial. The average dental patient knows that there are anaesthesia, x-rays, drills, fillings, and crowns. That average dental patient doesn’t know about the neurobiology of anaesthesia, electromagnetic theory of x-rays, special materials and mechanics of dental drills, or materials and mechanical interactions of fillings and crowns with teeth.

Such a state of minimal knowledge is ok. We don’t need to know much, because we have many very good Dentists – experts, all – to handle the difficulties. They do this for us because they enjoy their profession, and because we pay them.

Let’s have a show of hands:

If you think that the general public should sit in on meetings of Dental associations, and comment on, influence, or even over-rule the findings of dentists about their profession, raise your hand.

If you think that the prior question was kinda nutty, and you wouldn’t dream of sticking your nose into something that you are not trained to understand professionally, and you realize that interfering with dentistry could, ultimately, be painful – pull down the other folks’ hands.

Now, you can all relax again.

The ‘nutty’ scenario of my question is a common reality. There are certain professional subjects which the lay public has become interested in influencing. One such subject, with a long pedigree of public meddling, is environmental policy.

There can be a great distance between the practice of a scientific profession and public policy. In some cases, the distance is modest and not very detrimental. When people who are minimally and errantly knowledgeable become actively involved, the distance between science and public policy increases.

I read a good examplar of those minimally and errantly knowledgeable people: 12 more glaciers that haven’t heard the news about global warming  [www.ihatethemedia.com/12-more-glaciers-that-havent-heard-the-news-about-global-warming].

“Turns out the IPCC’s chicken little story that all the Himalayan glaciers are melting is just another exaggeration. Or fraud. Take your choice.”

Steigletscher Glacier in Switzerland - 1994This might be a really big deal, because dramatic melting of glaciers has been cited as visible evidence of the exacting temperature measurements recorded by scientists. The statement above says that (1) The IPCC – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – is causing alarm without justification (2) glacial melting has been exaggerated, or (3) scientists are lying about it. These scientists must be either stupid, or just bad folks, dontcha think? Be glad they didn’t become dentists!

OK, that was a side trip into Bizarro World. In fact, scientists are neither less intelligent nor more nefarious than your dentist. This exemplar overtly announces a you-can’t-trust-them-like-you-trust-your-dentist bias. What is not overt, unless you are one of my nerdly friends, is that it conveys huge exaggerations (or fraud) about the reality-based world we are dealing with.

If you get your groove on to a reality-based tune, you will enjoy the facts:

1. Citations of specific examples do not support generalization. Scientists examine the glacier-mass database in whole (It’s a much bigger database than 12 glaciers). It does not matter how good the logic of an argument is, if extrapolation from specifics to generalities contradicts the actual data of those generalities.

2. The effect of (any type of) climate change will generally not be of the same magnitude or direction in every area globally. That is, global temperature change may produce the opposite change in specific areas. A global warming example: the American wheat belt is expected to develop weather that produces lower harvests, while Siberia is expected to experience the opposite.

3. Much anti-global-warming reporting in lay forums has been incorrect, or even deceptive, about citations. Such sloppiness or overt lying would ruin a scientist’s career, while lay forums merely enjoy higher Google rankings. Scientists cite their sources, because NO OTHER SCIENTIST will accept their work without being able to read the sources.

4. Anti-global-warming reporting in lay forums is void of any consideration of climate sensitivity. Sensitivity to changes in the equilibrium line on glaciers is highly variable. Reporting confounding growth in a glacier without noting that it is a very insensitive glacier results in exaggeration of variances – looking at the noise in data. It’s the same thing that those geeeeenius stock market analysts do when they use chaotic market fluctuations to predict stock prices.

5. Scientists do a lot of work on error-band estimates in addition to analyses of sensitivities. It is important to know the comparison between a piece of data and the possible range of errors in that data. Scientists analyse data for its confidence factors (ask your local statistician), another topic which anti-global-warming reporting in lay forums omits.

6. The actual data, for all glaciers that are monitored:  World Glacier Monitoring Service  [www.wgms.ch/index.html]. There are many items you can review. I recommend (in NEWS list): FLUCTUATIONS OF GLACIERS Vol. IX (2000–2005).

Steigletscher Glacier in Switzerland - 2006This is a forum for informed and thoughtful commentary. You are invited to consider the references that I suggest. Many other informative sources of substantive information (that is, NOT speculation, naked opinion, or emotional ploys) are easy to find.

If you can’t plow through the actual science which some polemicists criticise, then simply think about your dentist and how to trust scientists in the same way. They are simply working hard, enjoying their profession, and occasionally getting paid for it.

5 Responses to “Dentistry & Glaciers”

  1. 1 ansonburlingame
    February 6, 2010 at 1:25 pm


    Good discussion in my view. Now for a major subject change. You said “Both ( 3 and 6 degree temperature changes) are severe and represent the world’s largest developing hazard.”

    Now please read my blog Cataclysmic Events posted Friday. It is about priorities and consequences.

    I look forward to your comments.


  2. 2 Jim
    February 6, 2010 at 1:00 am

    Anson, sorry to be slow responding. I am somewhat disoriented by life’s travails.

    Your comment, “I believe the agenda has been politically radicalized …” gives me an opportunity to illustrate a misconception that I hope people learn to avoid. Some people confabulate the scientific approach to environmental findings with the public approach. They don’t realize that “I believe the public agenda has been politically radicalized …” is very different from “I believe the scientific agenda has been politically radicalized …”.

    Scientists have different motives than they are often portrayed as having. Some scientists support aggressive policies in certain areas, while other scientists support passive policies. Both categories of scientists have broad agreement on the status of those areas of science. The disagreements which reach public reporting are often merely ‘denominational’ differences, without substantial disagreement on the science itself.

    ‘Overwhelming evidence’ is only a partial criteria. When playing Russian Roulette, the risk-to-confidence ratio is a major criteria. The very high risk of deciding incorrectly to ‘pull’ places greater priority on the low confidence regarding information on the bullet location. The low risk of deciding incorrectly to ‘not pull’ also places greater priority on low-confidence information.

    That is somewhat like the status of global warming research. There are uncertainties which have huge risk if we ‘don’t pull’, and much more manageable risks if we ‘pull’.

    Those uncertainties are very low for the existence of a significant and urgent problem. The uncertainties of global warming are mostly about its magnitude: 3 degrees C is very different from 6 degrees C (per 100 years). Both are severe and represent the world’s largest developing hazard.

    Our current economic crisis will be (oh, please) short-term. The economics of confronting global warming are long term and will not initiate before our expected recovery.

    We share the same concern about the electorate. One problem can block a solution to another problem. – Jim

  3. 3 ansonburlingame
    February 4, 2010 at 9:32 am


    OK. let’s take the climate change debate. No, I have not read the article that you reference and have not done any meaningful study of the issue. Because of my education and background I can however speak with significant authority on Yucca Mountain and base my conclusion on my education and experience that is directly applical

    Thus you will find me writing to some degree on Yucca and nuclear issues, generally in support of that source of engery. I have never written on climate change other than one sarcastic Voices letter in response to a letter calling for shutting down NASA space rockets out of environmental concerns.

    So where do I stand politically on climate change. It is a wait and see view. I believe the agenda has been politically radicalized with the real extremes of European Communists and U.S. environmental “nuts” taking one side and “fat, greedy, pigs” taking the other.

    Now take it one step deeper trying to stay away from the political extremes. I support Clean Energy, part of which in the short term in nuclear energy. Thus open Yucca Mtn. I support a reasonable Cap and Trade Bill with one very big caveat. All the money collected by such new taxes should go ONLY to research and development of new technoloies, including power generation AND transmission (modernize the “grid”)

    Exactly how much of a tax increase and who should pay it I await more specific ideas to judge.

    For sure I totally refect the “overwhelming evidence” argument and jumping over a fiscal cliff to adhere to that evidence. It may well be an elephant but a much smaller one for now than our current fiscal crisis. I will spend my time and energy on that bigger elephant for the time being and watch how the smaller one grows or founders for the time being.

    And I still think the much bigger issue is how to govern in a democracy with a less than informed and thinking electorate. Anytime 90% of any group votes consistentlyh one way, I am deeply suspicous. Life is more complicated than that.


  4. 4 Jim
    February 3, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    Anson – it’s GREAT for the public to get involved with science-related policy! However, there is a Luddite faction which puts sand in the gears of responsible citizenship. They need to find a different hobby.

    Folks who read stuff like the WGMS & IPCC reports have something to contribute. Folks who aren’t up to reading thick scientific verbiage can take a short cut: look at the pictures. Really! Scientists are sometimes very good at making voluminous and tedious data easy to comprehend. A short Google search led to an article from which I got the WGMS link for the post. That article [www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/01/a-global-glacier-index-update] has a chart that screams ‘MOST GLACIERS ARE SHRINKING FAST’.

    The public has other resources to be informed without becoming (eechhh!) nerds. National Geographic, Popular Science, and other general-reading magazines present environmental science accurately and informatively.

    Politicians have special resources. The federal government gets much assistance from the Congressional Research Service, the President’s Science Advisory Panel, and many more non-partisan agencies. They have done tremendous work in helping pols and bureaucrats of all stripes be informed in their public duties. Yes, this is part of the ‘my staff wrote that part of the bill’. Some jobs must be collaborative, and Congressmen trust their staffs, who trust the expert advisors (most of the time?).

    There are many aspects of science-related policy which are not science. The public is often the ‘expert’ in these areas. The Yucca Mountain Repository has such aspects.

    Our trust and loyalty must be, at least to some degree, informed by reality. I do worry about the influence of votes by people who curtailed their education. I worry more about the influence of people who seek, as their preferred authority, rabble-rousers and propagandists playing upon anxieties and insecurities. – Jim

    PS – If you avoided reading that WGMS link, I understand. I DIDN’T READ ALL OF IT. The news article in this comment is much more readable.

  5. 5 ansonburlingame
    February 3, 2010 at 9:27 am


    I have to think about this one. How should the public enter the debate on issues related to science, specifically environmental issues. Global warming or climate change, which is it now by the way, is one such issue. How about nuclear energy? Should the public have a say in that issue which is certainly complex when considering nuclear safety and waste disposal concerns. How do you take a position pro or con on Yucca Mountain for example?

    I do know this. If I go to a dentist and my tooth or mouth hurts a lot after the visit and the problem is not corrected, I pick another dentist. To hell with that last guy. I don’t need to be a dentist to know that my mouth hurts, unscientific as I may be on the details.

    How about a politician with little or no scientific background? How can they possibly take a pro or con position on climate change or nuclear energy given your blog? Hell, they don’t even read the bills upon which they vote in many cases much less the “science” behind them.

    Let’s take the CONDUCT of a war, not the decision to enter it. Take the surge for example in Iraq. Lord knows the public had many opinions on that military tactic. What was their real understanding of how to fight a war, tactically? Should they all have gone to West Point or studied a lifetime reading military history in detail before taking a position.

    Your challenge is a good one, in my view, and goes to the root of a democracy. Ultimately the “people” govern. How can the “people” govern if they do not understand the fundamental basis in science, technology, history, political science, etc to make literally life and death decisions in some cases?

    The Founders had an answer to that issue. The “people” that voted and thus governed were strictly limited to “men (usually only white ones of European desent) of property”. The “rabble” including women were left out of the picture entirely with no vote.

    No, I am not espousing a return to that historical standard, even constitutional standard. Iagree with the amendments giving electoral power to essentially all Americans. I think that is called Freedom in this case to vote, speak, write, say anything you like whether scientifically based or not.

    BUT, the question remains when the “people” vote with little or no idea for whom or what they are voting. That is a real danger to democracy. When our vote is cast out of simple loyalty (to a dentist that makes our mouth hurt now and in the future) to a person or a party, we are in trouble. Why for example do 90% of black voters always support the Democrat Party all the time?

    A sound and functioning democracy needs a thinking electorate, not a knee jerk, reactionary one. Now how do we achieve that worthy goal. Note, I suggest, the 25% of the kids that drop out of high school locally before graduating. Do you “trust” their vote, if they even choose to cast one?

    Good topic. Thanks


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All original material Copyright James R. Stone 2010, except where specifically noted. Some images licensed under Creative Commons, or GNU Free Documentation License, or unlicensed and public domain.

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