What is This?

I created this blog (though I shudder to call it that) with the idea of it being an online journal in which I could document aspects of the world I believe indicate the world is insane. I never thought of it as a "blog" or site in which I'd try to have influence people. I just wanted a place where I could put my thoughts down, and if people wanted to read them, maybe there could be some interesting discussions.

I drift from that focus at times. It is the primary motivation for me writing here, but it is one that doesn't come through like I wish it would. In light of that, I'd like to take a little time today to go back to my roots and just say: "What."

The lack of a question mark there is intentional. Sometimes I see something so crazy I can't form a rational response and have to just ask, "What?" On some occasions, what I see is even crazier. In those cases, my mind starts malfunctioning so much I can't even do that thing where you make your voice go up in pitch at the end to indicate you're asking a question.

Today I'd like to share an example of the sort of thing which breaks my mind like that.

It all started with a stupid thing I saw on Twitter:

I see plenty of stupid things on Twitter. I ignore most. Some I comment on. If you think about what the image in this tweet shows, I think you can guess why I chose to say something about it. Here's the image:

12_5_wildfires

A person was mocking the idea global warming is causing wildfires to become a more serious concern. In doing so, he posted an image showing wildfire (in the United States) have been burning less area lately than ~100 years ago. This is pretty stupid given technological and other limitations 100 years ago meant the primary response to wildfires in many cases was, "We can't stop it, let it burn."

That technology and fire-fighting practices have evolved over the last 100 years doesn't do anything to address whether or not global warming is influencing wildfires. We would expect the falling trend that chart shows simply because humans have gotten better at managing fire fighters. The only "surprising" thing that chart tells us is wildfires have burned more area overall in the last two decades than they had for about half a century.

In other words, it was dumb for the person who posted this chart to use it as an argument against the idea global warming is influencing wildfires. The point he was making is stupid and easy to see through, and once one does, it becomes apparent the chart supports the very idea he was mocking.

That's irrelevant though. As dumb as that was, I wouldn't write a post about it. I'm writing this post only because I decided to look at the article he was mocking. The article says meaningful things like:

The 2015 wildfire season in the United States broke records, with more than 10 million acres burned—about 4 million acres more than the annual average. Researchers from Columbia University and the University of Idaho published a study this year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that directly linked climate change to increases in intensity and frequency of wildfires in the western United States. “We demonstrate that human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984,” the researchers noted.

Which shows the concern some people have about global warming regarding wild fires isn't that the total acreage burned by wildfires is growing, but rather, that global warming is (in their view) making it easier for wildfires to become a problem. That concern would remain even if mankind's ability to fight wildfires improved.

But again, that's irrelevant. A person on Twitter being stupid isn't news (except when it is). The relevant thing is something else entirely. It has basically nothing to do with the subject matter of the article. It's that the second paragraph of this article is... well, you have to see it for yourself. Here is it and the first paragraph:

Wildfires at the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee have forced thousands to evacuate the area. More than 15,000 acres in the park and neighboring Gatlinburg, Tennessee, have been scorched by the historically unprecedented fire. Extremely dry conditions due to drought, and high-gust winds contributed to the large scale of the wildfire. Several hundred buildings in the area have been destroyed, with several injuries reported, including at least four deaths so far.

“I’ve been in federal service for 25 years, and I’ve fought fires on the West Coast and the East Coast and been with the Forest Service as well,” Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash told Fox News in an interview. “Nothing that we’ve experienced in the 24 hours has prepared for what we’ve experienced here in the last 24 hours. [It’s] been just unbelievable what we’ve experienced here.”

What.

Seriously, what...?

We're told This guy has "been in federal service for 25 years." That's cool. Hopefully that means he has a good medical plan. I mean, he clearly needs to see a doctor about the stroke he must have had while talking to whoever interviewed him. He explains:

Nothing that we’ve experienced in the 24 hours has prepared for what we’ve experienced here in the last 24 hours.

Please either get this man to a doctor or cut him off. My mind can't handle the absurdity of this sentence. First, this guy says nothing "we've experienced in the 24 hours" without any indication of what 24 hours he's talking about. A person might think he was meaning to reference the "25 years" he's been in federal service, but then why would he say "we"? Why would anyone think his personal experience over 25 years:

has prepared for what we’ve experienced

For that matter, who wasn't prepared? And if "the 24 hours" didn't prepare who or whatever for this, then what does this guy mean when he says:

for what we’ve experienced here in the last 24 hours

So nothing they've experienced in "the 24 hours" prepared them for what they've experienced "in the last 24 hours"? What was going on with this man? Did the person interviewing him just let him talk for a bit, get this quote then say, "Look Cassius Cash, that's cool. It's really cool. I just have two questions. First, is that your real name, and second, how much LSD have you consumed today?"

Of course not. I apologize to Mr. Cash. I didn't mean to call him out by name. It's just... Cassius Cash. I wish I could have been born with an awesome name like that. Heck, I wish i could just get to be called, "Mr. Cash."

If I had to guess, I would guess Mr. Cash was just tired and stressed from having a difficult job during a time of crisis. I bet if I had been there, I wouldn't have thought poorly of him at all. I bet I would have thought, "This guy is tired and stressed out, but I get what he means." That's because a spoken conversation is nothing like a written article.

Everyone knows people misspeak at times. Everyone has said one word when they meant another or lost their train of thought mid-sentence and had things come out strangely. Reporters understand that. They deal with it all the time. They understand a good quotation isn't just about the idea being expressed but also how the idea is expressed. Reporters understand a person's point may have been clear when he said it out loud but would come across differently if transcribed verbatim. That's why reporters are usually cautious about how they quote people so as not to paint a person in a negative light by drawing undue attention to normal hiccups in speech.

I don't know what happened here. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Cash. In fact, I sympathize with the likely probability he was inappropriately portrayed in a negative light by the authors of this Observer piece. I think the authors of that piece, Chelsea Skojec and Michael Sainato. owe an explanation as to why they used this quotation when they must have realized it made Cassius Cash sound like he had been punched in the face by Cassius Clay.

I hope that joke lands. I also hope people will stop promulgating that quote because I'm sure a few weeks from now Mr. Cash will look back on what he said and wish he had phrased things more clearly.

In the meantime, Cassius Cash, you're awesome even though you broke my mind.

11 comments

  1. The problem here Brandon is obvious. There are so many confounding factors affecting wildfires that it is very difficult if not impossible to separate out some of the small influences and probably global warming is a small influence. Certainly smaller than land use patterns and other human effects. The main point here is that activists try to torture the data to show things are getting worse and we need to act. This is always how activists on any issue try to scare people. Extraordinary claims require strong evidence.

  2. David Young, that may be your "main point," but that is not a point that was conveyed by the tweet I highlighted in this post. If people want to complain about how activists supposedly distort things, they should try not to distort things in such obvious ways themselves. It interferes with their message.

  3. Brandon, you wrote "Which shows the concern some people have about global warming regarding wild fires isn't that the total acreage burned by wildfires is growing..." The Observer article specifically mentions a claim that "climate change ... doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984" which certainly refers to total acreage.

    "The only "surprising" thing that chart tells us is wildfires have burned more area overall in the last two decades than they had for about half a century." You're undoubtedly correct that the pre-WWII portion of the fire area graph is higher due to fewer resources being available, but the past two decades may be higher due to non-AGW factors (as well as to AGW). One of the factors in that increase may be the realization that the previous policy of fighting all fires was counter-productive in that fuel accumulated, later contributing to more intense fires. Allowing small fires to consume some of the fuel is more prudent. The cited paper (Abatzoglou & Williams) -- the PNAS link wasn't working for me this morning, but I found it on researchgate -- assumes that recent increases in fire area are caused entirely by AGW.

    I also note in the final paragraph the Observer writes, "By releasing more carbon into the atmosphere, the intense wildfires further accelerate climate change." But burning wood pellets is considered to be carbon-neutral. I fail to see the difference; in both cases the trees will grow back.

  4. HaroldW, I believe you've misread some things. You say:

    Brandon, you wrote "Which shows the concern some people have about global warming regarding wild fires isn't that the total acreage burned by wildfires is growing..." The Observer article specifically mentions a claim that "climate change ... doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984" which certainly refers to total acreage.

    Yet you cut out part of this quotation which helps identify what it is referring to. It's also worth noting the article doesn't say this itself, but rather, quotes a report as saying:

    “We demonstrate that human-caused climate change caused over half of the documented increases in fuel aridity since the 1970s and doubled the cumulative forest fire area since 1984,”

    The phrase "fuel aridity" is a reference to the fact warmer temperatures tend to cause things in these areas to be drier, making them more suitable to be fuel for a wildfire. The "wildfire area" this quotation refers to areas considered at risk for burning. That is in line with the portion of the sentence of mine you didn't quote: "but rather, that global warming is (in their view) making it easier for wildfires to become a problem." Saying a larger area is not the same as saying more area has in fact burned.

    "The only "surprising" thing that chart tells us is wildfires have burned more area overall in the last two decades than they had for about half a century." You're undoubtedly correct that the pre-WWII portion of the fire area graph is higher due to fewer resources being available, but the past two decades may be higher due to non-AGW factors (as well as to AGW).

    This may be true. I don't attribute the rise in recent area burned to anything. I don't know what the cause is. I simply observed a chart showing more acreage is burning as of late does in fact support the idea global warming is causing wildfires to burn more. It could support other ideas as well (or instead).

    The cited paper (Abatzoglou & Williams) -- the PNAS link wasn't working for me this morning, but I found it on researchgate -- assumes that recent increases in fire area are caused entirely by AGW.

    I don't know how you reach this conclusion about that paper. The paper performs an analysis to draw conclusions about how humans have influenced things. I struggle to see how you conclude that means it "assumes that recent increases in fire area are cuased entirely by AGW." Not only are you portraying an analysis as simply an assumption, but you're clearly misrepresenting what the authors repeatedly say things like:

    Since the 1970s, human-caused increases in temperature and vapor pressure deficit have enhanced fuel aridity across western continental US forests, accounting for approximately over half of the observed increases in fuel aridity during this period. These anthropogenic increases in fuel aridity approximately doubled the western US forest fire area beyond that expected from natural climate variability alone during 1984–2015.

    Which explicitly quantify the human component as less than 100%. A quick skim of the paper shows the authors place the human contribution at more like ~60%. There is nothing in the paper which remotely supports your claim.

    I also note in the final paragraph the Observer writes, "By releasing more carbon into the atmosphere, the intense wildfires further accelerate climate change." But burning wood pellets is considered to be carbon-neutral. I fail to see the difference; in both cases the trees will grow back.

    This would only be true if the burned area does in fact grow back (sometimes it won't) and grows back with a similar makeup as before. Given the not-so distant history of fire suppression, that is highly unlikely as fire suppression cause more carbon dioxide to be sequestered in forests than would have been otherwise.

    By the way, the authors of that paper actually discuss the effect fire suppression has had on cumulative forest fire area. So, you know, yet another reason you saying it "assumes that recent increases in fire area are caused entirely by AGW" is bizarre.

  5. Brandon:
    I may well have misread; it was a fairly quick scan of the paper. (Well, the paper wasn't that long either.)

    (1) You wrote, "The "wildfire area" this quotation refers to areas considered at risk for burning."
    That's not the way I read the paper. Everything seems to point to actual burned area. If you can point me to a line where they say (or imply) that they're talking about areas at risk, not actual areas burned, it would help.

    (2) I omitted the reference to aridity from the quotation, because aridity is an intermediate variable in their analysis; their main point -- possibly because aridity indices in and of themselves have little significance to people -- concerned the more accessible metric of fire area. Their logical path -- AGW increases aridity which increases fire danger which increases actual fire area -- is certainly plausible.

    (3) The reason I argue that the authors consider only AGW is that although they mention (e.g.) prior fire suppression practices as a factor, they don't include it in their analysis. As you point out, the authors compute an anthropogenic contribution to aridity, and correlate that to area burned. However -- and here's where the quick read may have failed me -- as far as I could tell, they defined the anthopogenic component to be the entire change in climatic variables since 1901. That doesn't sound reasonable as an operational definition of anthropogenic component. Again, I'd appreciate a correction if you've made a more thorough reading.

  6. We are better at fighting fires because we now use machinery powered by fossil fuels to fight them. If we stop using fossil fuels, as the greens advocate, wild fires are more likely to burn out of control.

  7. HaroldW, are you sure you're looking at the right paper? Three of the five figures in this one show the reader the authors estimate of the non-AGW component.

    Barnes, I sometimes feel the bigger threat is from all the poor men of straw we burn at the altar of expedience. I've seen enough horror movies to know that can't end well.

  8. Hi Brandon,
    Definitely looking at the same paper. The authors break down their graphs into actual observations and "No ACC [anthropogenic climate change]" extrapolations.

    Here's what they say about their method: "This approach defines the ACC signal for any given location as the multimodel mean (27 CMIP5 models) 50-y low-pass-filtered record of monthly temperature and vapor pressure anomalies relative to a 1901 baseline." I read this as an attribution of *all* changes since 1901 as anthropogenic in nature. Unless one is of the Humpty Dumpty school -- “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” -- the "No ACC" curve would be more fairly labeled "extrapolation of 1901 conditions".

  9. HaroldW, you may feel referencing Alice and Wonderland adds some value to your comment, but all it actually does is distract one from the very basic error you've made. You say:

    Here's what they say about their method: "This approach defines the ACC signal for any given location as the multimodel mean (27 CMIP5 models) 50-y low-pass-filtered record of monthly temperature and vapor pressure anomalies relative to a 1901 baseline." I read this as an attribution of *all* changes since 1901 as anthropogenic in nature. Unless one is of the Humpty Dumpty school -- “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” -- the "No ACC" curve would be more fairly labeled "extrapolation of 1901 conditions".

    When one removes the fluff, your argument is very simple. And very wrong: 1) Anthropogenic climate change is defined as all changes in temperature and vapor pressure levels since 1901 therefore the authors attribute *all* changes since 1901 to human influence. Your reference to nonsensical logic is appropriate as this argument is in fact nonsensical. To wit, how dry an area is determined by many factors, not just vapor pressure levels. How much area might burn to fires is determined by many things, not just temperatures.

    The fact the authors assume all changes in temperature and water vapor levels are due to human influence in no way indicates they think *all* changes are due to human influence. Your argument would work just as well to say, "Therefore the authors assume all changes in infant mortality are due to global warming" as all you've done is take the authors' attribution of changes in two variables as indicating an attribution of changes in other variables.

    Not only is the logic of your argument nonsensical, but the paper clearly contradicts you on many occasions. I quoted one such example above, which you've somehow ignored. A more telling example would be the figures you now refer to, figures which clearly show trends in the "No ACC" results. That would be impossible if the authors were simply extrapolating the 1901 baseline like you claim. Even if one somehow failed to note or believe that, even the abstract of the paper says:

    Anthropogenic increases in temperature and vapor pressure deficit significantly enhanced fuel aridity across western US forests over the past several decades and, during 2000-2015, contributed to 75% more forested area experiencing high (>1 σ) fire-season fuel aridity and an average of nine additional days per year of high fire potential. Anthropogenic climate change accounted for ∼55% of observed increases in fuel aridity from 1979 to 2015 across western US forests...

    That's clearly not quantifying the entire change as being due to anthropogenic global warming. I don't know how the authors could have made it more clear they do not believe humans are the only cause in these changes than repeatedly quantifying the contribution of AGW to as less than 100% while providing charts which clearly show a non-AGW influence. Perhaps they should have drawn you a pretty picture with crayons.

    And see, that is what I meant when I spoke in another recent thread about how I mix rhetoric and substance rather than just relying on rhetoric. I quoted your words, explained your position and discussed what was wrong with... and also mixed in a bit of rhetoric to emphasize the significance of what I was saying. That is very different from your comment which simply quoted the study and used rhetoric to paper over the lack of any substantive argument. I have no problem with the former. In fact, I encourage it. The latter is just a waste of everybody's time though.

  10. First, Brandon, I think you're right that the world seems to be insane.

    It might be the cats.
    http://bfy.tw/5VzB

    However, I think you're being a bit uncharitable to Mr. Cash. What he almost certainly meant, and what he might have actually said, was, "nothing in those 25 years," rather than "nothing in the 24 hours."

    If you've ever been interviewed by a reporter, and then [mis]quoted in the resulting news article, you should be able to appreciate that they don't always get it right. In fact, sometimes they don't even try to get it right. I've been interviewed on camera, by a TV reporter, and seen myself on the evening news, with my lips moving but my voice replaced by a newscasters's voice-over summarizing what I was supposedly saying -- and saying exactly the opposite.

    But even if the quote of Mr. Cash was accurate, it sounds like he was utterly exhausted from the ordeal of the preceding 24 hours. He was probably severely sleep-deprived. So it would not be surprising if he got his tongue tangled.

    I also think you were a bit unfair to Tom Nelson. His point, obviously, was to refute Naomi Oreskes' claim that anthropogenic climate change might make such big forest fires "the New Normal."

    Focus on her use of the word "new." Tom Nelson's graph proves his point: it is obvious that Oreskes is wrong, because there's nothing "new" about big wildfires.

    You assumed that he was saying CO2 can't affect wildfires. But he didn't actually say that. The problem with Twitter is that tweets are so short that we sometimes have to guess at the details of people's meaning, and sometimes we guess wrong.

    My own guess is that the reason for the increase in acreage lost to wildfires lately in the U.S. is that that the Obama Administration crippled the USFS's aerial firefighting capability. In fact, it appears that President Obama has been doing his best to worsen the wildfire problem.

    That sounds like a joke, but it's not. In the summer of 2011 the Obama Administration abruptly canceled the contract for the U.S. Forest Service's use of P-3 Orion firefighting planes, "the backbone of the aerial firefighting arsenal." That irresponsible action gutted the U.S. Forest Service's aerial firefighting capability.

    The Administration's reasons are mysterious. They claimed it was due to safety concerns, but the planes, though old, had excellent safety records, they were up-to-date on their maintenance and inspections, and they were much cheaper than getting new planes.

    The USFS was left with eleven smaller P-2 Neptunes. They went shopping for other planes, mostly BAe-146 jets, but the Orions are still sorely missed.

    The company which operated the Orions was called Aero Union. The Obama Administration's action put them out of business. Their six big four-engine P-3 Orion tankers (plus a 7th that was scheduled to enter service on the very day the contract was cancelled) were the core of America's aerial firefighting capabilities. They were the "big boys," with about twice the payload of the two-engine P-2 Neptunes, and 1.5x the payload of the new BAe-146 jets. I think the USFS also has access to a few Canadian CV-580s, but they're smaller yet.

    Putting Aero Union out of business not only deprived the USFS of most of the large firefighting planes they used, it also jeopardizes the maintenance of the MAFFS systems that Aero Union built, which are used on other firefighting planes.

    The loss of the P-3 Orions drastically reduced the aerial firefighting capability of the USFS, and increased the risks faced by firefighters on the ground. It is not surprising that the problems with wildfires have also worsened.

  11. David Burton:

    However, I think you're being a bit uncharitable to Mr. Cash. What he almost certainly meant, and what he might have actually said, was, "nothing in those 25 years," rather than "nothing in the 24 hours."

    That change wouldn't fix what he said as he said nothing "we've experienced" (in whatever period of time). If he was referring to his personal experience over 25 years, "we've" wouldn't make sense. Then again, he did say nothing in that time had 'prepared for what we've experienced," which leaves it unstated who (or what) wasn't prepared.

    If you've ever been interviewed by a reporter, and then [mis]quoted in the resulting news article, you should be able to appreciate that they don't always get it right. In fact, sometimes they don't even try to get it right. I've been interviewed on camera, by a TV reporter, and seen myself on the evening news, with my lips moving but my voice replaced by a newscasters's voice-over summarizing what I was supposedly saying -- and saying exactly the opposite.

    But even if the quote of Mr. Cash was accurate, it sounds like he was utterly exhausted from the ordeal of the preceding 24 hours. He was probably severely sleep-deprived. So it would not be surprising if he got his tongue tangled.

    I've never been interviewed before. I don't expect I will be. Part of that is I decided a long time ago if I give any interview, I must be provided a full copy of what was said by all parties. If it's on video, I'll be given a copy of the raw footage. If it's verbal, it'll be recorded with me being provided a complete copy. I won't demand any sort of copy approval of any stories, but I will maintain complete documentation of what gets said so misrepresentations can be identified.

    That said, I found a copy of this interview. It was on television, and you can find it online. I know you say you think I've been uncharitable to Mr. Cash, but I discussed the same thing you discuss in this post: "I would guess Mr. Cash was just tired and stressed from having a difficult job during a time of crisis. I bet if I had been there, I wouldn't have thought poorly of him at all." It turns out, that's all this was. Watching him, I think even Mr. Cash realized he had misspoken (after one misstatement, you see him smile and kind of chuckle).

    I also think you were a bit unfair to Tom Nelson. His point, obviously, was to refute Naomi Oreskes' claim that anthropogenic climate change might make such big forest fires "the New Normal."

    Focus on her use of the word "new." Tom Nelson's graph proves his point: it is obvious that Oreskes is wrong, because there's nothing "new" about big wildfires.

    That you might be able to go back to a time color television didn't exist and find a parallel doesn't make something not new. New trends in fashion or art are often re-hashes of old ones with a bit of a twist/change. Moreover, Oresekes wasn't just talking about "big wildfires." It's "big wildfires" in an age where we actually have the technology and infrastructure to try to combat them. Comparing that to a time where we lacked such technology and infrastructure is entirely inappropriate.

    You assumed that he was saying CO2 can't affect wildfires. But he didn't actually say that. The problem with Twitter is that tweets are so short that we sometimes have to guess at the details of people's meaning, and sometimes we guess wrong.

    Leaving aside I didn't actually say that what you suggest, you seem to be ignoring half of the chart. The chart plots CO2 emissions agaist wildfires. The only time you plot two variables together on a chart is to highlight the relationship (or lack thereof) between them. The purpose of the chart is to show CO2 emissions do not correlate with wildfires. That you could come up with a different conclusion by ignoring half of what the chart shows doesn't make anything I said inaccurate.

    My own guess is that the reason for the increase in acreage lost to wildfires lately in the U.S. is that that the Obama Administration crippled the USFS's aerial firefighting capability. In fact, it appears that President Obama has been doing his best to worsen the wildfire problem.

    That sounds like a joke, but it's not.

    I think I will stop my response here.

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