Scare Pic Of Earth Water Visual Framing Or Global Warming Wake Up Call
By Sascha Vongehr | May 24th 2012 12:57 AM | 14 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
About Sascha

Dr. Sascha Vongehr [风洒沙] studied phil/math/chem/phys in Germany, obtained a BSc in theoretical physics (electro-mag) & MSc (stringtheory)...

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The following, scary pictures are making it around the net at present:

And here separating the fresh water:

If we were to do similar with the air we breathe, say putting the earth’s atmosphere into a little ball that is throughout at normal standard pressure, looking at it would make you literally choke. But is this more than scaremongering? What do these pictures tell us? Let me first criticize this visual framing and then add a thought about how perhaps one may recover some justification for visualizing water resources like that.

The pictures are supposed to scare us about the scarcity of water and warn us not to poison that little drop we have. Here is a comment that is spot on (I especially like “This is the visual equivalent of that trick”, which made me create the phrase “visual framing”, perhaps because I am not sure about what framing really means):

If you want to make something sound big, you describe it in terms of area or length. If you want to make something sound small, you describe it in terms of volume. So, when someone tells you how many times all the X’s would stretch from the earth to the moon and back, they’re almost always trying to make X sound very abundant. In contrast, when someone tells you the dimensions of a swimming pool that would hold all the X’s, they’re usually trying to make X sound scarce.

This is the visual equivalent of that trick. We see the earth’s crust stretched over a huge sphere of other stuff (as in reality), but we see the water forming a 100%-water sphere, with nothing else inside it (unlike reality). As a result, the water looks woefully inadequate to give the earth what it needs. – John Cohen, via Metafilter

Spot on! This somewhat arbitrary 'cherry picking' of the most 'convenient' dimensionality (here area versus volume, 2D vs 3D) is something scientists use very effectively when creating false knowledge. If you are curious about what the heck this may mean, see for example “Pop Physics free Nanotech Scientific Journal Article Generator” and “More usual Cheating in Science”, where there are hands on descriptions for how to accomplish dimensional cheating.

HOWEVER – I think these pictures may visualize something else. In the second picture, the little drop of fresh water, 74.5% of that is in ice caps and glaciers. The water in the drops, although it is so little, that is the message I take from the first picture, is enough to cover almost the whole earth, all the oceans, although they are so damn deep. This being fact, it should certainly not surprise us that if 3/4 of the smaller drop is added, there can be a big problem with quite a height of water that covers a lot more of the low lying area that is now dry. (Enrico calculated the height but did not take into account that the water will swamp a lot of the dry area. Also, heating of the water, which makes the ball even bigger, comes on top. Scary indeed.)

Well, this shall be my only contribution to “global warming alarmism”. Those who know me also know that this is quite untypical. I do not think we will care about under how many meters of water the polar bears rot once the robots take our families to be collateral damage. Robots will also be able to swim and work under water, so, perhaps actually nice and reasonable life forms will go on without us, probably better than with us, no problem. ;-)

## Comments

Your article More usual Cheating in Science and the comments that followed are a reminder that it's worth probing into old Science 2.0 articles, just like it's worth taking a second and third critical look at what's published in journals.

For me, it's also reminiscent of how high school kids get part of their uniform stuck in the gears of the mark-gathering machine and struggle to remain afloat in a sea of excess subjects and extracurricular activities. As a result, they rarely double check and /or further explore what we're feeding them.

The fact that science and education represent loftier ideals is far from a guarantee that they will materialize against the flow of other forces that are at work in all social realms.
On dimensions: As an astrophysicist I'd say that the entire Earth isn't even noise.... ;-)

I am not a big fan of these kind of communication techniques that you describe in your article. They tend to backfire.
Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
This reminds me of the polar ice melt scare studies that usually appear in the media just before some climate conference gets underway somewhere every year. They always say the estimated polar ice melt measured in billions of tons, a very large a scary number. I think last year they claimed that the Antarctic lost 150 billion tons of ice that year, a huge scary number, everyone went nuts with fear. But of course a billion tons of ice is roughly 1 cubic km of ice, and the Antarctic is composed of 30 million cubic km of ice. So 150 cubic km of ice is actually entirely insignificant, I’m not sure that an amount that small can be measured with confidence. Perhaps the error bars are larger than the estimate.

Like the images you show above, it’s just another way the greenies like to scare the public. And now it has backfired, almost no one believes them anymore.

Did somebody mention "global warming"?

I give you that the over selling in the end always backfires especially with controversial topics where it is mostly done, simply because the opponent is infuriated and will point it out, and yes, credibility on all sides goes down, that is why people do not trust science and all that - nothing to do with "greenies"; certain other camps, to which you would not belong now, or would you, are just as bad.

That being said, a significant change over one year, even if it is small relative to the whole, of something that we may like to be stable over thousands of years, especially if one should assume it to be accelerating and it is a non-linear system with positive feed-back loops kicking in, is not "entirely insignificant". (And no, I am not interested in studies that show how those numbers are a natural variation.)
"nothing to do with "greenies"; certain other camps, to which you would not belong now, or would you, are just as bad."

Exactly, I used to be in the greenie climate alarmist camp. I once agreed with the IPCC that anthropogenic climate change was unequivocal, until I read the AR4 report and discovered the IPCC was employing an alternate definition of the term.

Now I’m in another camp, and I am not interested in studies that show how those numbers are not a natural variation.

cheers

Hi Sascha. I don't like getting involved in the ridiculously over-hyped "climate change" drama either, but I sometimes can't resist. The first and most profound stupidity of this statement is that all thermodynamic systems (outside equilibrium) change. The statement is therefore trivially self-evident. If people mean to imply "global warming", then this is perhaps more informative although no less emotional. The second silliness is found by a closer examination of the word "climate". The Earth's climate is a dynamical system, which to some implies beating butterfly wings, but more rationally and simply means it generates nonlinear noise. Does the IPCC, for example account for enough of this noise in its findings? According to table 11.3 of the third IPCC report, it seems that the answer is unclear; for example, factors such as coastal topography and erosion do not seem to be taken into consideration in the models. It is reasonable to me that the oceanic coast is far less like a glass cylinder (as the models assume) and more like a crumbling pile of mashed potatoes encircled by an ever-threatening sea of delicious gravy... I guess what I am trying to say is I missed dinner and I am angry that I did so because I wanted to write how frustrating I find such attempts to politicize scientific issues. We may tacitly accept such things as a necessary evil, but I see no greater good arising from the use of such misleading representations and accompanying language.

Yep I thought you were sick of the topic after on Mi Cro's blog:
"And this is the last I will say about climate change or vaccines. ;-)"

Its not only pics that are used to distort things, numbers are probably even more horribly abused.
That point is made well here
http://www.withouthotair.com/

Pretty much any number relating to climate or energy is crafted to mislead, scare or confuse. Corporate sustainability consultants (everyone else is guilty too) say things as stupid as "If everyone turned the light off to cut their toenails then over 50 years that would save x million tonnes of CO2", and they are probably right. "x million" tonnes is just a meaningless number, if it was x hundred million it would have the same effect on the audience. Unless you know what percentage of the total of mankind's output then it doesn't mean anything.

If I was in desalination I could easily interpret your picture to mean that we had heaps of salt water compared to fresh water and spin it as an imperative to build reverse osmosis desalination plants because the existing fresh water was too precious to use up and should be left to nature.

Similarly for finance and politicians of course. Last election we had a deficit that was a few % of GDP, less than most developed countries. One politician expressed it as x million per week which had the great benefit of being meaningless but scary sounding for 99.x% of the population. It is just a meaningless number unless you

1. Multiply by 52 to get the amount per year
2. Know the GDP of your country to within 50% (Almost no-one knows this)
3. Divide to get the percentage
4. Know what this means.

Thor Russell
Aren't you also assuming that GDP is a meaningful metric?
It is with regards to deficit
Thor Russell
Sure, if you think that a metric that can only go up reflects a country's economic state.
Certainly good point about the metric, which is always quite arbitrary. Please explain to us why the GDP cannot go down.
I suppose I should have been more specific.  Unless the general economy shrinks, the GDP will stay the same or get larger.  A nation's debt increases, also increases the GDP.  The problem is that there are never any terms that are subtracted from the GDP except for exports.

It's like assessing progress by having someone dig a hole, fill it in again, and dig it again, every day.  It's certainly a lot of activity, but it doesn't actually get anyone anywhere.  In a situation like that the GDP would reflect continuous growth, since each action (digging, filling in, digging) would reflect continued positive activity.  So, there's no assessment as to whether the activity is positive or negative.

What would all the people look like in this view? All the arable soil? All the coal reserves? The volume necessary to sequester the CO2 from the coal reserves?

Funny, it didn't occur to me that this was supposed to be scary. (And it is indeed supposed to be scary, exactly according to the volume vs surface explanation you provide.) I simply thought
t it was a beautiful graphic, which it still is.