Friday, July 13, 2012

North Carolina tries to legislate science

(I will post on CCC 2012 next week. I am still recovering from Jet Lag and going
through 472 emails that piled up on 2.5 weeks, of which 22 were relevent.)

You may have heard the story about the state of Indiana Pi bill:
In 1897 the state of Indiana wanted to legislate a value of pi.  Before reading the true story
I had heard the following:
  1. They wanted to legislate pi=3 since the bible says that pi=3.  (The Bible does have a passage that seems to say pi=3, though that may not be the right interpretation.
    See here.)This version of the story puts them in a bad light.
  2. They wanted to legislate pi=3 since this makes calculations easier.  They didn't really say pi=3, just that when measuring wheat in silos (or some such) everyone uses pi=3 to make everyones calcuations uniform and easy. (This was in the 1880's- they didn't have Wolframs Alpha).  This version of the story puts them in a good light.

Neither version is true. Look up the link to see what really happened.  Could this happen in America today?
On two issues it certainly could: Evolution and on Climate Change.

The North Carolina House has passed a law saying HOW to predict sea level rise rates.
The method they require predict less sea level rise then... anyone else. And only the
Division of Coastal management is allowed to put out such numbers.  So Independent scientists are not allowed to use... the scientific method.  (Not sure how they will enforce that.) See here for details.

Who wins, who loses?
  1. Colbert gets a nice bit about it (which is how I learned about it): here
  2. I get a blog out of it.
  3. Scientists have to publish less, thus less trees get cut down, so the environment wins.
  4. North Carolina looks more ridiculous than Indiana did back in 1897. But there are two differences-
    (1) North Carolina understood what the bill was saying and still passed it, Indiana did not.
    (2) North Carolina's bill has actual policy consequences, Indiana's pi-bill wouldn't have.
Fortunately the North Carolina Senate did not pass the bill so its not law. Yet.


  1. This is really about money (as most things are). Scientific projections of sea level rise are bad enough that real estate developers won't want to build planned beach condos and resorts anymore. This will cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars (in future taxes, in money already spent to get those developers to the state, etc). They were hoping they could legislate the losses away, but of course that's impossible, and they end up looking ridiculous (while still losing a bunch of money).

  2. In my opinion, this (and the whole climate change/god particle/evolution) raises a bigger question as to what is and is not science. You bring up two examples where criticizing the legislation but there are examples where the scientists do as well - particularly in things like the tests trying to prove things like intellectual superiority among races. There were even articles promoting this theory in prominent journals. And "evolution" was a part of what the scientists used as their basis.

    So if we're going to criticize people for not accepting certain scientific theories, then I think we (at a minimum) need to know exactly what it is that they are/are not accepting. Otherwise, we're talking about apples and oranges and criticizing one another for seeing the same fruits.

  3. @AfterMath Actually, it's not clear who's legislating who when it comes to those racial intelligence comparison tests. Whether or not there is a difference in intelligence, it still warrants study-- the fact that studying it is politically incorrect and has become taboo is an example of science being gagged by non-science concerns. (With this comment I'm not endorsing racial intelligence difference, I'm just endorsing that if we're going to claim it doesn't exist, we should do so based on science, not ideology)

  4. @Anonymous
    Lets not focus on the racial intelligence tests - that's just an example I was using. You can easily substitute in the "big bang theory" backers who say that they can now use that to prove that God does or doesn't exist. The key question becomes how much of this is science and how much is experiment? One of the reasons that the big bang theory, evolution, carbon dating, etc. receives so much support is because there are so many other tests and experiments and predictions that agree with its assumptions. But where is the line between saying that "if we accept the big bang theory then X is true"?

    But a statistician doing a linear regression or running the Apriori Algorithm doesn't make something scientific? Or does it?

  5. Your statement "So Independent [sic] scientists are not allowed to use... the scientific method" in reference to the proposed bill is incorrect. The bill says nothing about what "Independent scientists" can use.

    Since the bill was linked to in the original article, what portion of it do you believe restricts anything an independent scientist can do?

  6. I'm pretty sure it's so we don't waste land next to the coastline, building further back in case the water rises. Science is great at many things, but using its hypotheses to create law, well that's how the North Carolina Eugenics project got started.

    At a current rate of 3.3 ± 0.4 mm per year water rising level, it would be unscrupulous to extend the current building limits. I mean the tides can vary as much as 10 meters in vertical height. The limit on the water height doesn't affect reality, but it does affect property and the construction of a building.

  7. Can you post something not stupid for a change, Bill?

  8. Anon 6:32 PM: Here is the passage I was referring to when I asserted
    (perhaps incorrectly) that the bill would not allow ind. scientists
    to do things:

    (e) The Division of Coastal Management shall be
    the only State Agency authorized to develop rates of sea-level
    rise and shall do so only at the request of the commissioner.

    Looking at it again you are correct- it does not ban ind. scientists
    from doing things.

  9. Bill, I think they are ATTEMPTING to make it seem like they ban others from doing it, but in reality they probably only ban other state agencies.

  10. At the risk of beating a dead horse, one role of a state legislature is to assign duties to different state agencies. They do this all the time. Otherwise, you would have multiple state agencies all doing the same thing and providing conflicting information.

    The quoted subsection (e) assigns one of these duties, developing rates for sea level rise, to a particular agency, the Division of Coastal Management. That seems reasonable to me. Furthermore, the language of subsection (e) seems simple, clear and unambiguous. Not sure why you and the 8:57 AM commenter suggest otherwise.

  11. You say: "The method they require predict less sea level rise then... anyone else."

    Actually, assuming that the sea level rise will be linear and 8 inches protects more land from development than assuming is will be 39 inches and exponential.

    This is not difficult to prove: