Hard Decisions, Easy Targets

Just back from a day trip to London – at the Institute of Physics to be precise – to wrap up the proceedings of this years protracted STFC Astronomy Grants Panel (AGP) business. The grant letters have already gone out, so no real decisions were made relating to the current round, but we did get the chance to look at a fairly detailed breakdown of the winners and losers. Perhaps more significantly we also discussed issues relating to the implementation of the brand new system which will be in place for 2011/12.

I’m not exactly sure at the moment how much of what we discussed is in the public domain, so I won’t write anything about the meeting here. Tomorrow there is a meeting of the RAS Astronomy Forum at which department representatives will also be briefed about these issues. I will, however, in due course, on as much information as I can through this blog in case there is anyone out there who doesn’t hear it via the Forum.

Not being able to blog about AGP business, I thought I’d comment briefly on a couple of recent things that sprang to mind on the train journey into London. Last night there was a programme in the BBC series Horizon called Science under Attack, presented by Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse. I didn’t watch all of it, but I was fortunate (?) enough to catch a segment featuring a chap called James Delingpole, whom I’d never heard of before, but who apparently writes for the Daily Torygraph.

My immediate reaction to his appearance on the small screen was to take an instant dislike to him. This is apparently not an uncommon response, judging by the review of the programme in today’s Guardian. I wouldn’t have bothered blogging about this at all had I wanted to indulge in an ad hominem attack on this person, but he backed up his “unfortunate manner” by saying some amazing things, such as

It’s not my job to sit down and read peer-reviewed papers, because I don’t have the time; I don’t have the expertise

Yet he feels qualified to spout off on the subject nevertheless. The subject, by the way, was climate change. I’m sure not even the most hardened climate skeptic would want Mr Delingpole on their side judging by his performance last night or, apparently, his track-record.

Anyway, this episode reminded me of another egregious example of uninformed drivel that appeared in last week’s Times Higher. This was a piece purporting to be about the limits of mathematical reasoning by another person who is quite new to me, Chris Ormell, who appears to have some academic credentials, if only in the field of philosophy.

Ormell’s piece includes a rant about cosmology which is on a par with Delingpole’s scribblings about climate change, in that he has absolutely no idea what he is talking about. Jon Butterworth and Sean Carroll have already had a go at pointing out the basic misunderstandings, so I won’t repeat the hatchet job here. If I had blogged about this at the weekend – which I might have done had my rodent visitor not intervened – I would have been considerably less polite than either of them. Ormell clearly hasn’t even read a wikipedia article on cosmology, never mind studied it to a level sufficiently deep to justify him commenting on it in a serious magazine.

I’m still amazed that such a pisspoor article could have made it through the Times Higher’s editorial procedures but more worrying still is the ract that Ormell is himself the editor of a journal, called Prospero, which is “a journal of new thinking of philosophy for education”. The last thing education needs is a journal edited by someone so sloppy that he can’t even be bothered to acquire a basic understanding of his subject matter.

What’s in common between these stories is, however, in my opinion, much more important than the inadequate scientific understanding of the personalities involved. Rubbishing the obviously idiotic, which is quite easy to do, may blind us to the fact that, behind all the errors, however badly expressed it may be, people like this may just have a point. Too often the scientific consensus is portrayed as fact when there are clearly big gaps missing in our understanding. Of course falsehoods should be corrected, but what science really needs to go forward is for bona fide scientists to be prepared to look at the technical arguments openly and responsibly and be candid about the unknowns and uncertainties. Big-name scientists should themselves be questioning the established paradigms and be actively exploring alternative hypotheses. That’s their job. Closing ranks and stamping on outsiders is what makes the public suspicious, not reasoned argument.

In both climatology and cosmology there are consensus views. Based on what knowledge I have, which is less in the former case than in the latter, both these views are reasonable inferences but not absolute truths. In neither case am I a denier, but in both cases I am a skeptic. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that’s what a scientist should be.


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58 Responses to “Hard Decisions, Easy Targets”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bewildered and Jonathan Butterworth, Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: Hard Decisions, Easy Targets: http://wp.me/pko9D-2jN [...]

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Not a promising quote from Delingpole, but I’d want to see more of what he said rather than a Guardian review of it before wading in. Neither would I trust the words of George Monbiot.

    Ormell makes some interesting points about the way that maths has been taught since trendy educationalists got hold of it, but it is truly astonishing to see him blame mathematics for the failures of various ontological models which use mathematics, rather than blame the models or their creators. How can you blame 2+2=4 for anything?

    I think the main reasons why scientists are not trusted are (1) a tiny minority of scientists who push their public statements for the sake of publicity; (2) a large systematic distortion by scientific journalists toward gee-whizz material; and (3) the claim made a couple of generations ago – seldom by scientists – that science “would solve all our problems”. Given the age of the claim and the state of the world today, the claim is obviously false, and science wrongly gets the blame.

    At this point there is a division over what *should* get the blame for the world’s problems. Secular people generally reckon that the problem is ignorance, followers of the West’s historical religion reckon the problem is moral. I do find it hard to suppose that ignorance is the problem when for the first time in history many countries have had education systems in place which for decades have catered for the entire population.

    To return to the post, scientists are amateurs at invective compared to historians. I recently re-read Hugh Trevor-Roper’s assault on Toynbee, titled “Arnold Toynbee’s Millennium” and published almost exactly when I was born, and found the level of sustained intellectual invective most impressive.

    Anton

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    A continual error made by critics of the scientific process is to believe that an incorrect establishment scientific interpretation could be sustained indefinitely when that interpretation is convenient or serves vested interests within the scientific community.

    The reality is that the competitive character of scientific research produces an iconoclastic attitude. Scientists achieve prominence and (in principle) career advancement by being correct in their analyses and by discrediting research by other scientists that is not correct – correct here means that results stand up to independent, sceptical, destructive assessment by other scientists. It is this continual process of scepticism, competitive rechecking and improvement that weeds out results that are not supported by solid evidence.

    The big prizes in science (in terms of long-term reputation) have gone to people who have overturned established opinions and whose new interpretations have stood the assault of independent checking and attempts to disprove them over decades. Copernicus is celebrated because he overturned the established view that the Earth is immovable at the centre of the Universe, and because the central part of his theory has withstood critical tests through the centuries. Galileo overthrew the views that the Moon is a smooth sphere, that Venus should not show crescent phases and Jupiter could not be a centre of the orbital motion of other bodies. Newton overturned the mechanics of Descartes and the establishment view of the character of light. Darwin overthrew the standard opinion on the unchanging character of biological species.

    A conspiracy among scientists to maintain a view that anthropogenic climate change is occurring against available evidence could not survive. There would be tremendous career advantage for scientists to stand against this consensus, were there to be a conspiracy, if they could show a contrary interpretation to be correct instead. Challenging the consensus, if correct in the analysis, might produce short-term unpopularity, but would bring strong long-term praise. Indeed, I am confident that thousands of competent climate scientists will have independently, sceptically, rechecked the evidence for anthropogenic climate change, hoping unsuccessfully that they could disprove some aspect of the consensus. That the consensus endures illustrates its solidity in the face of the available evidence, and the weakness of other theories.

    I have only once seen this critical point made in the context of public debate over climate change. The point was made by George Monbiot in a broader article about a poor understanding of science among the general population (see the 9th paragraph).

    All the climate change deniers appear wholly ignorant of how science works, as well as being igorant of the details of science. They appear little different when discussing science from loud buffoons.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Bryn,

      Your first two paragraphs are spot-on. In the next I don’t understand what you mean by Descartes’ mechanics, as there is scarcely a gap between the dates of his work and Newton’s; didn’t Newton build on Galileo to overthrow the Aristotelian view that F=mv, and replace it by F=ma? I rememmber my own teenage moment of comprehension of that change, having previously assumed that F=mv because the harder you push horizontally on a matchbox sitting on a carpet, the faster it moves…

      I also agree that claims of anthropogenic climate change could not be maintained indefinitely if it were false. But, unlike the transitions in thought initiated by Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein, we are still in the middle of this controversy. When you say that “All the climate change deniers appear wholly ignorant of how science works, as well as being igorant of the details of science”, would you apply that to Richard Lindzen, who was widely seen as the world’s leading climate scientist until he questioned the certainty of AGW? In the link which I provided above, he gives both scientifc and political reasons for doubt.

      Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      I can’t comment on the scientific standing of Richard Lindzen, but the logic seems to me that since there’s only a one-in-six chance of dying at Russian Roulette why not just keep pulling the trigger?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Peter: A few people wondered if the LHC switch-on would do a lot worse to the world than AGW, but the probabilities were deemed so small that it went ahead (rightly, IMHO). What is your 1:6 probability conditioned on, and what AGW-induced human calamity is it the probability of?
      Anton

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Anton,

      Descartes lived between 1596 and 1650 and published his Principia Philosophiae in 1644 (Newton of course lived from 1642 to 1727). Newton cetainly did build a lot on the work of Descartes, and the First Law of Motion was essentially absorbed from Descartes. But Newton’s analysis differed from that of Descartes in a number of ways, with the explanation of acceleration as being due to a proportional relation to force being among the most obvious. Perhaps Newton’s mechanics were a building on many of the principles of Descartes as well as an overturning of some of them. It may not be such a clean example of an up-ending of conventional opinion in that respect.

      I certainly do not regard Lindzen as a climate change denier. Indeed, he is somebody who does believe that human activity can affect climate as I understand things, but believes that the human effects are smaller than do a very large majority of climate scientists. He is scientifically informed, understands the scientific principles and literature, but has a contrary opinion to most other informed scientists. That makes him rational, but very much a minority view among informed people. The strong consensus among climate scientists that athropogenic climate change is real is very telling.

      Bryn.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      (I’ve just noticed that Sean Carroll made similar points to me about the scientific process in his demolition of Ormell’s bizarre article in the Times Higher Education magazine that Peter referred to earlier. Apologies for not reading Sean Carroll’s article earlier.)

  4. I haven’t got time to watch the video posted above, but I did watch the programme. I seem to recall that you are neglecting to mention that Mr. Delingpole pronounced himself an ‘Interpreter Of Interpretations’, which does in fact give him the authority to come to definitive conclusions about complex scientific questions without reading scientific papers, having any expertise, talking to other experts, being objective, or have any other motive than to gain personal fame, unwarranted recognition… and sell papers.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The same abuse exists in the social ‘sciences’, in a statistical technique called meta-analysis.

      Not many people are going to turn down a good fee and the chance to appear in people’s living rooms; the fault is with Horizon more than Delingpole.

    • To be fair to Horizon, I think the point of the programme was to show that in the current media environment (which includes self-published blogs/tweets), deniers without any expertise are able to gain prominence and possibly worldwide recognition, without any form of peer review.

      I believe Paul Nurse (the programme’s author) showed Delingpole’s interview to demonstrate that he is one of these supremely uninformed people. (And because he seems to discredit himself without help from anyone else, just by allowing him to speak).

      It was the newspapers who were at fault, by drawing hugely disproportionate conclusions (with matching headlines) from Delingpole’s article about the scandal at University of East Anglia, without fully considering his claims and weighing them against the greater body of evidence supporting AGW.

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    Sir Paul Nurse quoted in the programme, with some surprise, that half of the American and a third of the British public believe that global warming is exaggerated, if I recall his figures correctly. He appeared to consider this as evidence for a scepticism about modern science among the general population.

    I did ask myself how I would answer such a poll question. I believe that there is considerable overstatement of the scale of anthropogenic global warming from some people in public debate, alongside other people who greatly understate it or deny it is occurring. The people who overstate global warming are enthusiastic environmental campaigners. It is my opinion that the only people worth believing on the issue are climate scientists. I ignore the scare stories of some environmentalists, and ignore the complacency of the global warming denialists. The truth is in the middle, demonstrated by the careful work of climate modellers who show that the changes in temperature and rainfall will cause crop failures over parts of the world.

  6. Agree with your points. Do you think that the climate argument is damaged by people coming out with statements such as ‘the planet is being destroyed’ or ‘we have to save the planet’?

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I do believe that the public argument is being damaged by overstatement of the dangers of man-made global warming. The dangers of anthropogenic global warming are real and great, but overstating them can discredit the people making unbelievable claims, and by extension, discredit in the eyes of the public those people who stick to science and stick to the facts. We need an informed debate and one that embraces the science.

  7. telescoper Says:

    I’d like to see the scientists spell out precisely what the best available predictions are for the various warming scenarios rather than using dramatic language. There have been significant changes in climate over recorded history and they certainly caused serious problems, but one could argue that we’re in better shape to deal with those problems now than humans were a thousand years ago. Zealots do no good to either side of an argument.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      In principle I’d like to see that too, but even if you could educate people to accept a probability distribution as the answer to a question, the distribution seems to be pretty wide, and there is not even agreement as to what physics should go in the model.

      As for us being in better shape today, unhappily I’m not convinced, because nowadays we have iron national borders, whereas 2000 years ago people could simply trek north (in the northern hemisphere) and occupy land that was itself being vacated by others moving further north. Overall, warming actually facilitates a *larger* global population, but that’s no use to people on the edge of the Sahara because they can’t move to the newly arable regions in Canada and Siberia. Please don’t tell me that the solution is a world government!

  8. Huw Jones Says:

    Whenever I read most blogosphere climate-change denialists, I’m reminded of the ‘Kruger-Denning’ syndrome. In a 1999 paper (with the brilliant title “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognising One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessment”) Justin Kruger and David Denning argued that “…the skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain.” They provide lots of supporting l data which shows that it is the most incompetent who (over)estimate their abilities the most with (rather perversely) the most competent being likely to under-estimate their competence when compared with others. Wiki it for more info – it’s fascinating (and depressing) stuff.

    Delingpole and (presumably) Ormell seem to be classic Kruger-Denning sufferers, lacking the competence to recognise that the only things that are incompetent are their own claims that the work of others is incompetent. In particular, Delingpole’s blog posts on climate scientists are shot through with condescending and arrogant comments, despite the fact that, as he freely admitted, he has no scientific qualifications and never reads peer-reviewed papers. In the interview with Paul Nurse he launched into a criticism of some work by Phil Jones at UEA (which touched on the divergence problem in tree-ring data) and claimed that it was something that “scientists never, ever do.” How on Earth could he possibly know?

    BTW Pete – great blog – you may remember me as one of the clutch of Masters students back at Sussex. My abiding memory of being there was an ‘end of course’ meal with all of the postgrad students; you got the best laugh of the evening by correcting my pronunciation of ‘pronunciation’!

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Let’s have some symmetry please! If scientifically unqualified AGW skeptics who have a media platform are to be criticised in this way -and it’s not a bad criticism – then so too should be scientifically unqualified AGW zealots who have a media platform, such as Monbiot.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      When I complained about an exaggeration of anthropic global warming by certain environmental campaigners warning of instant catastrophe, I certainly didn’t mean George Monbiot. I would say that Mr. Monbiot does take a pessimistic view of the science, but I am confident that he has studied detailed scientific reviews of the likely consequences of human activities on the global climate.

    • Not fundamentally disagreeing with you Anton. In fact this was in part Paul Nurse’s pitch – that scientists should become more involved in the public debate and not abandon it to uninformed bloggers (of any persuasion). I would say though that if pro-AGW commentators are in fact ‘merely’ reflecting the consensus view of climate scientists, then there shouldn’t be a problem. That’s a big ‘if’ though, as the gap between research and policy formation (and hence lobbying) in climate change is so critical. I can accept it as an inevitable part of political life though, and separating the tentative claims of scientists from the more exaggerated claims made by lobbyists is not actually so hard.

      Many denialist blogs however, attempt to ‘disprove’ the science (often in the most condescending manner imaginable), hence my reference to Kruger-Denning. In doing so incompetently, to an audience consisting of people (mostly) not competent to judge the arguments, real harm can be done. When you’ve tried to get someone to accept that something that they’ve read on the internet may not in fact be true, only to be labelled part of the ‘warmist conspiracy’ (and global warming is often described as a global conspiracy, especially in the US) that you begin to wonder whether black might not be white after all. Denialism is most toxic when it undermines the very notion of ‘expertise’, and that James Delingpoles rants might be just as significant as the products of peer-reviewed research. I would argue that’s what some deniers want – merely to spread doubt and confusion for political or economic reasons. For them the scientific content of the debate is virtually irrelevant.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Bryn: Thanks for your comments above on Descartes. Re Monbiot, I beg to differ. He is a political campaigner who once asserted that large-scale changes of sea level are due mainly to thermal expansion or contraction of sea water, when the main cause is ice melting or precipitation freezing on land masses.

    • Steve Jones Says:

      Anton,

      re. monbiot. The one thing that has always impressed me about George Monbiot is that he always gives references on his website (http://www.monbiot.com/) for anything he says in his articles. So if one disagrees at least you know where he got his information from.

      If you are talking about current and projected future sea level rise then thermal expansion is an extremely important contributor.

      For the CONSENSUS view on this subject IPCC FAQ “Is the sea level rising”

      https://www.ipcc.unibe.ch/publications/wg1-ar4/faq/wg1_faq-5.1.html

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Steve,
      Yes I agree that thermal expansion is significant (although I regard the IPCC as a political propaganda organisation run by a railway engineer, and consensus in science has never impressed me in my own field of probability theory – truth is not determined by democratic vote). It seemed clear to me at the time that Monbiot was talking about situations in which ice ages end and/or ice caps melt; I took the trouble to contact him via the ‘net, which I don’t do without a careful read, but I never got a reply.
      Anton

  9. …. Such as Al Gore ??

  10. telescoper Says:

    I should perhaps also add that I think we need more realistic assessments of the claimed negative economic and social effects of us acting to thwart anthropogenic global warming. I think these are also drastically overstated. As a person who doesn’t own a car, I’m more than sceptical of anything that comes out of the Top Gear fraternity!

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Me too, but who is ‘us’ – include China and India who are opening a coal powered power station every week?

      One thing I hope we can all agree on is PLEASE put more money fast into all avenues of research into nuclear fusion power.

  11. [...] article has been attacked and dissected by a number of scientists: I advise reading Sean Carroll, Peter Coles and John Butterworth. Carroll especially goes through the article paragraph by paragraph [...]

  12. Dave Carter Says:

    I found Paul Nurse’s programme interesting, in that it sought to examine why it is that some people will simply not believe science even when the evidence is overwhelming. Much more interesting than Delingpole (who seemed much like a naughty schoolboy making rude gestures to teacher when their back was turned) was the chap with AIDS who was convinced that it was not caused by HIV, and had constructed a fairly coherent intellectual position to argue from, involving “disregulation of intestinal microflora” of which HIV is a symptom. It doesn’t stand up against the evidence of course, but it is at least a coherent starting point.

    On the other hand I believe it is dangerous for scientists to rely upon consensus rather than seeking more evidence. I am a dark matter skeptic, and see parallels between the state of extragalactic astronomy today and the state of physics at the end of the 19th century. I dont have the answers of course, but I would not buy into the consensus just because of the numbers of people rather than the weight of evidence supporting it.

    Nurse’s excellent programme can be seen here:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00y4yql/Horizon_20102011_Science_Under_Attack/

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I don’t wish to get into the dark matter issue specifically, but as a general point it seems to me that part of the problem with all of these questions is a reluctance of people to say the simple phrase “At this point in time we simply don’t know” or even (pared down) “I don’t know.” Certainly there are some regions of the research frontier where I find the competing hyoptheses so bizarre that I’d rather say “None of the above.”

  13. Dave Carter Says:

    Peter’s link to the programme goes to the same file actually, so you don’t need mine.

  14. telescoper Says:

    Sorry for the delay in posting some of the comments on this item.

    Comments containing hyperlinks tend to get trapped by the spam filter until I get around to checking them.

  15. “In both climatology and cosmology there are consensus views. Based on what knowledge I have, which is less in the former case than in the latter, both these views are reasonable inferences but not absolute truths. In neither case am I a denier, but in both cases I am a skeptic. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that’s what a scientist should be.”

    I would also say I have more knowledge of cosmology than climatology, but I did actually work in climatology for a couple of years. I would say that the degree of confidence in, say, a positive cosmological constant is about the same as that in AGW, at least among people who actively work in the respective fields, not commentators from the sidelines. In other words, pretty secure, but it is thinkable (though unlikely) that there is a better explanation for the observations.

    There are two important differences, though.

    First, almost all AGW deniers have a conservative, “drill, baby, drill” outlook, while among those who believe AGW is real, the fraction of conservatives is about the same as it is in similar fields of science.

    Second, it doesn’t matter much as far as most of humanity is concerned if we are right or wrong about cosmology. If we go with the AGW deniers, we are taking a big risk which might severely impact billions of people. If I am swimming in the ocean and I see a dorsal fin, I might be less sure that it is a shark than I am about the value of the cosmological constant, but my opinion on this matter will have a much higher priority in determining what action I am going to take. And even if I am wrong, there is no harm done.

    Let’s consider all 4 possibilities: AGW is real, and we don’t take steps to stop it. Result: catastrophe. AGW is real, and we take steps to stop it. Result: future generations will thank us. AGW is not real, and we don’t take steps designed to stop it. Result: no effect. AGW is not real and we take steps designed to stop it. Result: no effect (if the argument is true that AGW is a small part of GW, then stopping AGW will have a negligible effect). (Of course, some deny not only AGW but any GW. Even in that case, though, the result is no effect.)

    • Phillip, although there are plenty of AGW deniers, I think there are also a fair number pf people who believe the problem is exaggerated. More like AGW sitters-on-the-fence.

      From their point of view, saying that AGW is real and that if we don’t take steps to stop it the result will be catastrophic is over he top (e.g. the Earth will be destroyed). Also, from their point of view its not true to say that if AGW is not real and we take steps to stop it there is no effect, because there is the cost of stopping it in terms of impact on economy etc.

      Someone made the point earlier is that its important to listen to the facts (as well as we know them) put forward by scientists and give less weight to the lobbyists on both sides.

      A good rule of thumb I think is when someone tells you something, ask if its in that person’s interest – financial or otherwise – for you to believe them. This applies e.g. to astrologers and UFO-ologists.

    • “From their point of view, saying that AGW is real and that if we don’t take steps to stop it the result will be catastrophic is over he top (e.g. the Earth will be destroyed).”

      No serious scientist says AGW will destroy the Earth. It won’t even make the Earth hotter than it has been at other times in its history. Compared to other events in the history of the Earth and their effect on life, the effect is very small. But that’s not the point. The point is that most people live in low-lying coastal regions so just a small change in sea level will have disastrous consequences (for these people, not for life in general and certainly not for the planet). (It’s not just melting ice but also the thermal expansion of sea water. The latter effect depends on the total volume of seawater in that the larger the volume, the larger the absolute rise in sea level for a given fractional increase in that volume. The former effect depends only on the volume of ice which melts, regardless of how deep the ocean is.)

      “Also, from their point of view its not true to say that if AGW is not real and we take steps to stop it there is no effect, because there is the cost of stopping it in terms of impact on economy etc.”

      Actually, some so-called AGW deniers actually believe it is real and will have a noticeable effect, but say that, for a given amount of money, more good could be done by fighting malaria, say. While this might be true, both are small costs compared to the total amount of money spent, so it is not a question of one or the other. Second, we know that fossil fuels are limited anyway, and alternative energies will be needed sooner or later, so we wouldn’t be expending additional effort, merely expending it a bit sooner than otherwise.

    • telescoper Says:

      Francis

      What do you consider to be the main economic damage likely to be caused by taking action against global warming? Is there any reason to believe it would be any worse than the recent banking crisis?

      Peter

    • “What do you consider to be the main economic damage likely to be caused by taking action against global warming? Is there any reason to believe it would be any worse than the recent banking crisis?”

      It might even be an economic stimulus, like, say, the Apollo programme.

    • Peter – hope this appears in the right place as I have not posted much on your blog (although read it a lot).

      In response to your question – I don’t know enough to judge what the economic damage might be, but have heard the argument made (and not just by AGW deniers) that AGW actions could have negative impacts. Economic damage was probably the wrong term – impact on quality of life would have been better. For example, limiting the energy generation in the 3rd world due to AGW concerns.

      I believe that AGW does need to be addressed. However i also believe when you look at the evidence that the only medium and long term solution is nuclear (fission and then fusion) – renewables have a role to play but are not the answer to our energy needs. This is unacceptable to many environmentalists who completely oppose nuclear in any shape or form. I think they are wrong.

    • “Economic damage was probably the wrong term – impact on quality of life would have been better. For example, limiting the energy generation in the 3rd world due to AGW concerns.”

      No-one says that the energy generation needs to be limited. (And even if that were to be the case, why in the 3rd world and not elsewhere, especially since the third world doesn’t consume that much (China is a big consumer of energy, but not per capita)?) But even if one can somehow say that forbidding the Chinese from driving around in SUVs is limiting their quality of life (personally, I think it would improve it), this is incredibly short-sighted if Shanghai will be under water 50 years from now.

      I believe that AGW does need to be addressed. However i also believe when you look at the evidence that the only medium and long term solution is nuclear (fission and then fusion) – renewables have a role to play but are not the answer to our energy needs. This is unacceptable to many environmentalists who completely oppose nuclear in any shape or form. I think they are wrong.”

      The supply of fissionable materials is also limited. Yes, fusion is the answer, and will be commercially viable in 20 years (we’ve been hearing that for 60 years). However, one shouldn’t underestimate the potential of renewable energy sources, especially since recent technological developments have increased their efficiency. And we shouldn’t forget solar-power stations in space.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      “we shouldn’t forget solar-power stations in space.”

      Sure, it makes the ultimate death ray capable of fryling an entire city if the beam-it-down-Scotty software goes wrong (or goes right, once the military get their hands on it).

    • First, the military can already destroy humanity many times over, so potential military (ab)use is a weak argument for not implementing some sort of otherwise useful technology. Second, the energy doesn’t have to be beamed down; one could bring it down on a cable or use it to produce some material which can be used as fuel (hydrogen, say) and bring that down (and the “waste” products back up, for recycling). I’m thinking of a tower between the Earth and a geosynchronous satellite. (Once this is in place, the costs of moving stuff up and down by some sort of lift are negligible. A rocket is so inefficient because, in addition to the payload, it has to carry fuel to lift the payload, and more fuel to lift the fuel etc etc ad infinitum (though it does converge).)

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Phillip: Best of luck building a tower 20,000 miles high.

    • Arthur C. Clarke literally wrote the book on the subject: a novel called The Fountains of Paradise. He’s the guy who proposed the idea of a geosynchronous communications satellite back in the 1940s (and forgot to patent it). It has been investigated by many people and is a viable option. Note that it’s not literally a tower, but rather a cable suspended from the satellite (with a counter-weight on the other side). Materials science might need to advance a bit, but some of the new carbon substances would probably be strong enough. There is now a bridge between Denmark and Sweden and one between Germany and Denmark is about to be built.

      Daily dose of “the way the future was”: in a novel, Clarke later explored the ramifications of the geosynchronous communications satellite. It included a manned (or womanned) switchboard. :-)

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The article you cite appears to go beyond my scepticism and states that this cannot be done with presentday technology. Are you arguing against me or yourself?

      At least we can agree about nuclear fusion. Greens need to learn the difference between this and fission.

    • Maybe not with present-day technology, but then again one couldn’t have gone to the Moon with 1960 technology.

    • “At least we can agree about nuclear fusion. Greens need to learn the difference between this and fission.”

      I agree. There is, among some Greens, a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to nuclear technology. Brains are needed on all sides. As Isaac Asimov once quipped: “I know some people who are opposed to all types of technology—except electric guitars.”

  16. “First, almost all AGW deniers have a conservative, “drill, baby, drill” outlook, while among those who believe AGW is real, the fraction of conservatives is about the same as it is in similar fields of science.”

    In case the meaning isn’t clear: it is obvious that these folks have an axe to grind. Of all the interesting problems in science, they speak out loudly only on those which are in danger of undercutting their political agenda. This doesn’t inspire confidence. Not taking this into account would be neglecting available information, which is not scientific.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Suppose it emerges that the earth *is* getting warmer enough to cause major human problems, but it turns out to be a natural effect rather than one caused by the industries of America, China, Europe. Woulod you advocate any difference in response?

    • Obviously, if the main effect in GW is not AGW, then taking action to reduce AGW will have little if any effect.

      I think it rather unlikely that the fastest period of GW in the last few thousand years just happens to occur at the time when there seems a viable mechanism for AGW, thus I am rather sceptical concerning this possibility. But, assuming it could be shown to be the case, then a) I would advocate a response and b) for the reason mentioned above of course it would be a different response.

      If the GW is not AGW, then it might be too difficult to effectively combat it, but assuming it could be done, then I would advocate doing it, unless of course the side effects of the cure are worse than the disease. Perhaps some sort of umbrella at L1.

    • Make that a parasol instead of an umbrella. :-)

  17. [...] thought I’d take the opportunity to add a little postscript to some comments I made in a post earlier this week on the subject of misguided criticisms of science. Where I (sometimes) tend to [...]

  18. Anton Garrett Says:

    Here’s an interesting take on the distortions in that Horizon programme:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/christopherbooker/8290469/How-BBC-warmists-abuse-the-science.html

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Anton,

      That is an individualistic view of the Horizon programme, although I wouldn’t regard the newsreader Peter Sissons as much of an authority on climate science.

      I’m not sure the people who wrote Mr. Booker’s Wikipedia article regard him as much of an authority on science either. Of course, Wikipedia could be wrong, but it could just as well be correct.

      Bryn.

  19. Anton Garrett Says:

    Hi Bryn, nice to know someone else is equally obsessive as to visit Peter’s back pages…

    “That is an individualistic view of the Horizon programme”

    Well yes, since it was written by one man…

    Peter Sissons’ point was about the climate (sorry) at the BBC, and it is not necessary to be an expert in order to comment on that. Christopher Booker probably knows as much/little about climate change as the scientist who presented the programme – a distinguished geneticist. Reminds me of the IPCC itself, which is run by a railway engineer…

    Anton

  20. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Just saw this from a NASA colleague

    http://www.space.com/10804-nasa-science-funds-human-spaceflight.html

    So, some US lawmakers think NASA shouldn’t spend any of its money on monitoring climate change. Not surprisingly, the politicians advocating this are Republicans. Why are climate change denialists/skeptics nearly always conservatives?
    He works for NASA (well, USRA to be precise, but he’s based at NASA Ames). According to Sean, Climate change is 7.5% of NASA’s budget. I’m guessing it’s the main source of funding in the US for monitoring climate change.

  21. Anton Garrett Says:

    “Why are climate change denialists/skeptics nearly always conservatives?”

    One might equally well ask why climate alarmists are nearly always liberals. The polemics are (is?) symmetrical.

    I’s generally worth looking at what reasons people give for their stance. I don’t know what those Republicans say (as far as I’m concerned te opposite of a Republican is a Monarchist), but I’m all in favour of climate monitoring from space.

    Anton

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