David R. Henderson  

Good News about the Oil Spill

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Terry Hazen, a microbial ecologist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who published a groundbreaking study of microbial activity Tuesday in the online research journal Science Express, has had a team of researchers out in the Gulf since May 25 collecting water samples. They noticed a dramatic drop-off in the amount of oil in the Gulf immediately after the well was idled July 15, and now they can't find any oil in the ocean.
This is from an August 24 news story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "Microbes are breaking down Gulf of Mexico oil spill with unexpected speed, researcher says." The reporter is Rebecca Mowbray. This may be old news to many of you, but I just haven't seen much mention of it in the press since returning from my vacation. Whether it's old or new news, it's good news.

The news story contains even better news:

Camilli, the Woods Hole oceanographer, said that while his study and Hazen's were very different, both examined oxygen associated with the plume and corroborate the conclusion that the microbes are not using oxygen fast enough to contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf.
"Yes, the microbes are using the oxygen to biodegrade the hydrocarbons, but not at a rate that's significant enough to degrade the fisheries," Camilli said. "In both cases, our findings indicate that although there are hydrocarbons in the subsurface, the microbes aren't compounding the situation by creating a dead zone."

Think about what it means more generally. Here's a microbe that even scientists didn't seem to know much about and it comes along and saves the day. And yet many people would have us believe that we can predict the weather on Earth 100 years from now. This seems even more complicated than microbes which are only a few miles from shore because weather on Earth is determined not just by activity on Earth but also by things in outer space that we know little about. There's a lot of false certainty out there.

Interestingly, in the 7th paragraph of a 25-paragraph news story, the reporter states that the UC Berkeley-run Energy Biosciences Institute that funded the study is itself funded by a 10-year grant from BP. It's good that she tells us fairly early in the news piece and it's good that she doesn't use a sneering tone to undercut the study on that basis.

HT to Charley Hooper and Harry Watson.


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
david writes:

To cut to the chase: upon whom does the burden of proof lie in the presence of uncertainty?

There are always unknown unknowns out there, to use a Cheneyism, but we would be pretty silly not to act on what we do know. That much is obvious.

(on another note, there was an earlier report that another research team found that the plume wasn't breaking down much. It's interesting to see which sources are reporting both or only one of them - e.g., CSM's report on the Hazen team mentioned both).

David R. Henderson writes:

david (not me) asks:
"upon whom does the burden of proof lie in the presence of uncertainty?"
Me: I think it lies on anyone who makes a claim.

david says: "we would be pretty silly not to act on what we do know."
Me: I agree. So what do we know?

N. writes:
unknown unknowns out there, to use a Cheneyism

That wasn't Cheney, it was Rumsfeld and I mention it not so much out of pedantry but to comment that while he caught a lot of flack for that quote, I could never understand why. I thought he articulated a complicated concept crucial to any kind of planning or policy in a fairly pithy fashion. Here's the whole quote:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.

Exactly. Yet no matter how often performance falls short of expectations so many experts assert they have the answers, unequivocally. And most of them don't even give lip service to ceteris paribus.

fundamentalist writes:

david says: "we would be pretty silly not to act on what we do know."

Exactly! But the debate is over what we know. Some think we know a lot. Others think we know very little. To paraphrase Hayek, the purpose of environmental science is to teach how little we know about the things we think we can control.f

Jason writes:

If you can't predict the stock market next week (or economic growth over the next three months), can you predict that society will be richer in 100 years?

david writes:

@N. I have no idea too, I find the term useful and I hardly share Rumsfeld (whoops, not Cheney)'s politics.

@David R. Henderson - put it this way. I want to perform an action and announce my intention to do so. You show up and claim that it harms you. I then claim that it does not. Let's say that the existence of the harm is, ah, uncertain (any similarities to debates real or fictional is strictly coincidental...). On whom does the burden of proof lie?

Sadly, property rights bargaining doesn't work all that well here; imagine if polluters had to bargain with every individual breathing this environment for permission to pollute, even in small amounts - we have a phenomena only significant in global variables, if at all. You'd never get universal permission. Too many people are involved; we can't rely on Coasean price discipline to tame all of them.

In other situations with Coasean bargaining we can afford to disregard the assignment of harm; the result is efficient anyway. But not practically so here.

Hyena writes:

@Prof. Henderson

Absolutely: since we know that some factor might derail our predictions, we should adjust our expected costs. But the question is "by how much"?

How should we account for variance? After all, if a species goes extinct or the Earth is hit by an asteroid, it's game over. On the other side you have a wide range of exceedingly minor hardships people might be asked to endure.

Lastly, if we want a market-based solution to such things, what do you do with holdouts like myself for whom the gains from additional trade in this arena approach (or are at) zero?

Johan writes:

Not weather but climate. Anyway your comment is ridiculous. Clearly whether we understand bacteria has and ecology says nothing about our understanding of the climate.

To make an analogy astronomers have been able to predict the positions of planets and comets a 100 years into the future for a long time.

If an astronomer predicted the date of a solar eclipse a 100 years from now would you refuse to believe him/her because science does not understand bacteria? Otherwise what is the difference?

hp writes:

Johan is right about the analogy being pretty silly. Bacteria and climate are two different things entirely . . . Thinking about astronomy, however, does raise an interesting point. Predictions of solar eclipses are amazingly accurate and it would be easy to convince a skeptic that F=ma "works." Which predictions about climate are similarly accurate? Has anyone reproduced the last 100,000 years of conditions here on the earth? What about the last 10 or 20? What unanticipated things have climate models told us?

odinbearded writes:

Johan, our certainty reflects the accuracy of our models. With astronomy, our models have been proven correct time and time again.

The point of the article is to demonstrate that the predicted outcomes of the oil spill were (potentially) wrong because of a microbe. A small, unknown variable negated the validity of the model.

Climate modeling is orders of magnitude more difficult than local ecologial modeling. If our small-scale predictions are proven erroneous, how can our large-scale predictions be reliable? Especially considering that the large-scale models depend on our small-scale understanding to be correct.

John writes:

@David (not Henderson)

@David R. Henderson - put it this way. I want to perform an action and announce my intention to do so. You show up and claim that it harms you. I then claim that it does not. Let's say that the existence of the harm is, ah, uncertain (any similarities to debates real or fictional is strictly coincidental...). On whom does the burden of proof lie?

In this case it lies on him. He must prove that your action harms him. Your "claim" that it does not is more the default and simply the negation of is claim.

In short, if he can't prove harm... he's out of luck.

Hank Essay writes:

Shorter David Henderson:

BP Oil Spill saves Gulf, refutes global warming!

We have a winner!

Charley Hooper writes:

@hp

You've hit upon a very interesting topic. It is easy to build a model that matches historical data precisely but has zero predictive value. For example, I can build a model that accurately produces stock prices over the last 100 years by basically regurgitating those values. The only way to test a model's predictive value is to stop feeding it historical data and to see if its predictions come true. Unfortunately, the predictions have intervals around them and the normal stock market fluctuates, so the model must show results that are sufficiently better than chance. For climate change, we also need decades or more to show long-term trends. Have scientists done this? I haven't seen it.

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