Sunday, February 27, 2005

Jurassic Westworld

OK I've made one post about lacerated nads and another having a pop at John Prescott. I think I can indulge myself with a heavy, longish one now; for variety's sake if nothing else.

Here's an interesting read for anyone interested in the role played by science in politics today …
It's a speech by Michael Crichton and though on the long side it is rather good and worth ten minutes of any thinking person's time.
The speech was made a couple of years ago and received a mixed reception, particularly as it implied that a lot of the supposed science surrounding such hot current issues as Global Warming is not really science. Much of the criticism went along the lines of 'anyone who speaks out against the reality of global warming must be in league with the oil companies'. Maybe he is, I don’t know, but I have never been a great fan of shooting, or smearing, the messenger. Better to read the message and decide if it makes sense or not.
Michael Crichton does have some Green credentials however. He clearly supports recycling, as evidenced by him using exactly the same story line for both Westworld and Jurassic Park; Cowboys AND Dinosaurs, this man is one shrewd dude.
Once upon a time I was a great fan of modern science. Thirteen years of Catholic schooling will do that to you. I remember the reaction from the priest who ran my secondary school when I told him that I was off to start a geology degree. He wasn't that impressed. All those fossils and extended timescales tend to get in the way of a literal belief in the Bible. But, hey, I thought I was an atheist at the time, so what the f*ck.
Since then I have learned a few things. Or rather I learned to interpret a few things in a different way. For the sake of keeping this post brief(ish) I'll restrict myself to a few bullet points:
  • Science and religion are completely compatible
  • Most scientific discoveries are accidental and often come as quite a surprise to the people making them as they are normally looking for something else. And that's why you can spend forty years and countless billions on, say, atomic fusion research and come up with, erm, no practical applications for atomic fusion.
  • The scientific method, in its pure form, is indeed a noble thing
  • However, scientists are people and are subject to exactly the same vices as the rest of us; jealously, ambition, pride, greed, insecurity, mendacity ...
To cap it all, much popular science has been hijacked by individuals who are just as dogmatic and narrow minded as the most extreme religious fundamentalists. Instead of liberating us from the supposed restrictions of religion they've just replaced them with new ones
  • Belief in God = Belief in chance / probability
  • Priests = Scientists
  • Sacred objects = fossils, particularly of human ancestors
  • Saints = Darwin / Einstein / Newton etc.
  • Rituals = The experimental method
  • Sacred Books = Scientific Journals
  • Churches = Museums
  • Cathedrals = BIG Science research sites e.g. CERN
  • Seminaries = Universities
  • Sacred Vestments = White Coats
  • Prophecy = Modelling
  • Sacred Dogma = BIG theories such as Evolution / Big Bang
  • Superstitions = Smaller theories such as Global Warming / Extraterrestrial Life
And so on. I could make the list more comprehensive but I hope I've made my point. Science is a religion.
What makes this all so ludicrous is just how inadequate a tool modern science has become. We kid ourselves that we understand how the universe works yet we truly haven’t the faintest idea. If this seems harsh, ask yourself a few test questions:
  • Given the choice would you be the first passenger on a rocket plane a) built solely on the basis of scientific theory with no practical testing, or b) built solely on a practical trial and error basis, by someone with no scientific background whatsoever?
  • Do you believe that scientists conducting genetic experiments are a) formulating experiments based on a thorough understanding of genetics, or b) just doing lots of sick twisted shit at random and seeing what comes out
  • Do you have the faintest idea what electricity is? Or light? Do you really think anyone else does?
  • Hand on heart, and head, do you really believe that you, your own self-awareness, is merely the product of instinct, acquired behaviour, a little chemistry and gene-powered self delusion?
A critical understanding of the limitations of science is more important today than it ever was. Scientists, as well as politicians, are increasingly aware that it is much easier to manipulate us with fear than dreams. They tried dreams for a while but fear pays better.
A good contemporary example is the whole Global Warming issue. I am old enough to remember the days before Global Warming. Back then we were told to be scared of other things; Global Freezing, over population, resource depletion. You don’t hear much about those kiddies these days. Global Freezing didn’t work out as planned, resource depletion is a nonsense because we just find other ways of doing things, and human population will level off long before we run out of ways to make food production more efficient. In Europe we're actually paying farmers NOT to grow food. People are starving, sure, but that's 100% to do with politics and nothing to do with carrying capacity.
So, all these chimeras were quietly dropped and Global Warming was edged to centre stage. This post is too long already to launch a polemic on that particular scientific superstition; let's just say the case for a human impact on global temperature isn't as cast iron as many people would have us believe. I will however chuck out a few parting thoughts on the subject
  • Peak global oil production is likely to take place within 10-20 years, so how can those models that talk about the impact of fossil fuel usage in 50 to 100 years time make any sense? Or the whole Kyoto thing, come to think of it.
  • I can’t even get an accurate weather forecast for tomorrow morning so why should I have any faith in models that reach out 10, 20, 50, 100 years?
  • Variation in climate occurs naturally anyway. Londoners held markets and fairs on the frozen Thames 500 years ago. The Romans were growing Mediterranean crops in England 2,000 years ago. Desert regions in the Middle East were fertile 10,000 years ago. It happens.
  • We all avoid thinking about the the realities of our existence, pretty much on a constant basis but, for the record, we are sitting on a spinning ball of molten rock, hurtling through space at thousands of miles an hour. Our planet is constantly bathed by deadly radiation given off by an enormous nuclear furnace. The space around our planet is filled with thousands of chunks of rock, all capable of stripping our world of its wafer thin atmosphere. Countless millions of species of defunct life forms have already existed on this planet before passing into extinction.
    You've got two choices on this issue; either we're here as a fluke and could get snuffed out at any moment in the blink of an eye, or someone or something is looking after us. Either way, do you really think sorting out your rubbish into separate piles is going to change anything?


Anonymous said...

Actually, sorting rubish into separate piles was a solution to yesterday's problems. ;-)

If global warming is real (and I think it is, link), then all of a sudden landfills are good.

They accomplish extremely long-term carbon incarceration link to pdf.

Stef said...

Global Warming may very well be real. Actually, given that we live as part of a natural system, it would be foolish to expect Earth's temperature not to vary over time. And maybe we're having an effect on the temperature. It's possible. But where's the evidence of the link?

Am not a great fan of CSICOP but I'll read through the link you've posted with an open mind, which is more than many of those characters would do (thanks for the link BTW)

Re. carbon incineration. I agree 100% and almost referred to it in the post. If we were really worried about the amount of carbon in the atmosphere we should be using as many wood products as possible and then burying them afterwards. I tried explaining this to someone from the Local Council Recycling Unit a few months ago and she didn't have a clue what I was talking about. She'd already been programmed and was not accepting any more data ...
Landfills ARE good. Provided you weed out all the soft stuff and just fill the holes with inert material such as wood, glass and metal. The organic material should be composted and the nasty chemicals shouldn't be put into the things we use in the first place, rather than worrying about what to do with them afterwards. Perversely, we're working hard to do the exact opposite of all this.

Anonymous said...

I liked the link because it used (in the center paragraphs) opposition to global warming as an example of the "Abuses of Skepticism"

It seems to carry more weight when they are trying to explain (proper or improper) skepicism, and use global warming as an illustration, than had they begun with a global warming agenda.

And I've always appreciated having the Skeptical Inquirer around all these years.

Anonymous said...

BTW, I'm not sure composting is _always_ good. As a gardener I appreciate the usefulness of a good compost, but ..

Well, we've got the plants that are very effectively pulling CO2 from the air, and if we simply compost-recycle, we achieve steady state. Old plants help grow new plants, but IIRC CO2 escapes back to the atmosphere in a few decades.

I'd say make enough compost for good gardens, and cart the rest off to the landfill (while still green).

Stef said...

I was always a Fortean Times man myself, till it went rubbish ...

The CSICOP article refers to 'scientific consensus' which is one of things Crichton takes issue with. And I agree with the point Crichton is making.

Consensus it completely irrelevant to true science. In science, a statement is either provable or not provable. In fact most of science's greatest advances were made by people working against the established consensus.

So when I see lines like this

'In early 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body comprised of over 2,500 scientists that's the world's leading authority on global warming, released its third major assessment of the issue. The IPCC concluded that humans are responsible for global warming and that this poses serious future risks.'

followed shortly by this

'Given this, anyone wishing to challenge the heavily reviewed conclusions of the IPCC and NAS has to overcome a rather staggering burden of proof.'

I can conclude that the author is an utter tool, masquerading as someone with an open mind. On one hand he is saying Global Warming is supported by consensus yet, on the other hand, he is demanding that sceptics of Global Warming deliver a staggering burden of proof; as if consensus and hard facts are in any way equivalent. That is not objective or scientific and precisely the sort of dogmatic, completelly unscientific twonk I have so much contempt for

Stef said...

Re. composting - I'd agree with that but would worry about it when we reach a steady state (some way to go yet)

Interestingly, by accident or design, the Earth has all sorts of buffering mechanisms at work. So, for example, if there's an excess of carbon in the biosphere, plant life grows at a faster rate and dinky little sea shells in the ocean thrive because more raw materials are available.

Whether you believe that this is by accident or by design it's still pretty cool

Anonymous said...

I listened to Crichton on CSPAN, as he talked at the American Enterprise Institute, and NOT at a scientific conference of any kind.

I was struck that he said some very sensible things, but then seemed to leap from those to "so we shouldn't do anything about global warming."

Maybe if I wasn't used to reading a little closer to the science, I wouldn't have noticed each leap.

I'm afraid his consensus thing is like that. There have been consensus that were wrong, so we don't have to listen to this consensus. A leap, and a perverse one at that.

Some people seem to enjoy so much deflating "consensus" that they almost take the hard work of 2000+ scientists as a DISPROOF of global warming.

Look at yourself. We have the National Accademy of Science upholding all that work, and you reject it as mere "concensus."

I say, look how low we have descended in this country when we disbelieve so many scientists in so many places, just becase their conclusions are inconvenient.

and with a smear that "they agree, so they must be wrong!"

Anonymous said...

In a related qoute, I see Crichton as part of this problem, as much as he claims to be the solution:

"For much of the 20th century it was about science and technology. The heyday was the Second World War, when we had not just the Manhattan Project but also the Radiation Lab at MIT and a large cryptology industry all cooking along at the same time. The war led into the nuclear arms race and the space race, which led in turn to the revolution in electronics, computers, the Internet, etc. If the emblematic figures of earlier eras were the pioneer with his Kentucky rifle, or the Gilded Age plutocrat, then for the era from, say, 1940 to 2000 it was the engineer, the geek, the scientist. It’s no coincidence that this era is also when science fiction has flourished, and in which the whole idea of the Future became current. After all, if you’re living in a technocratic society, it seems perfectly reasonable to try to predict the future by extrapolating trends in science and engineering.

It is quite obvious to me that the U.S. is turning away from all of this. It has been the case for quite a while that the cultural left distrusted geeks and their works; the depiction of technical sorts in popular culture has been overwhelmingly negative for at least a generation now. More recently, the cultural right has apparently decided that it doesn’t care for some of what scientists have to say. So the technical class is caught in a pincer between these two wings of the so-called culture war. Of course the broad mass of people don’t belong to one wing or the other. But science is all about diligence, hard sustained work over long stretches of time, sweating the details, and abstract thinking, none of which is really being fostered by mainstream culture."

Stef said...

Did I imply Crichton was speaking at a scientific conference? If so, I apologise. He certainly wasn't. He could have been speaking blind drunk in an empty bar for all I'm concerned. I refer to my comment about confusing the message with the messanger.

I agree entirely that to leap from what he was saying to concluding that Global Warming is NOT happening would be pisspor logic. As I've mentioned in my comments, Climate Change undoubtedly occurs naturally, so it would be foolish to deny it. Now, whether man has a hand in that change or not is entirely a different question ...

And finally, no, consensus is not a reason to deny something. I didn't say that and nor did Crichton. Where's the merit of building a straw man then knocking it down, unless the intention is to fog the debate? Consensus is irrelevant and should not, in itself, be a reason to accept or reject a scientific statement. I thought I was clear on that.

Good science IS a noble thing. Self-serving scientists promoting fear and superstition as a means of snagging grant money and status is not a good thing. If science is falling into disrepute who's the blame? Most science dreams turned out to be nonsense. Most science fears will go the same way.

Having said all that, I will ponder these comments but not just now, the Sunday night roast is burning ;-)

Anonymous said...

This consensus thing strikes me as being like ... some huge majority of dentists telling us to brush every day ... and someone saying "well, that's just the dentists, what do they know?"

Sure, it is possible that there is some systematic error in the training of all the world's climate scientists, but let's name it. Let's not just go to "Enterprise Institutes" to complain about what those dentists ... I mean climatalogists, are saying.

That is just too transparent.

Stef said...

... but only if what those scientists are saying is backed up by hard evidence. Consensus, in itself is not hard evidence.

Anyway, do you really believe 9/10 dentists ('who expressed a preference') brush with Colgate?

Anonymous said...

Don't we know that the NAS reviewed the IPCC data, process, and conclusions?

That is the scientific process. That is what the NAS checked. If we reject their reivew, we reject science.


Stef said...

This has turned into one of those discussions where everyone is talking over the other guy's shoulder ...

I'm not rejecting science. I'm rejecting the politicisation of science. Global Warming has now becoming extremely political.

Without repeat myself, and sticking with the Global Warming example, here's a straightforward question:

What's the evidence that unequivocally connects human activity with significant global temperature change?

Anonymous said...

It has been very slow to get through to blogger's comment system this morning. So I won't take a chance on Preview and will go straight for Publish. With my semi-dyslexic proofreading problem, that will be interesting....

OK, I've got to be direct. I think science solidly supports the idea that there is an anthroprogenic component to global warming.

I think that people like Crichton are right to say "science, not politics" but that they don't walk their talk.

A case in point would be when the demand certainty. Certainty (or "What's the evidence that unequivocally connects...") isn't really part of science. In science we are supposed to say things like "the theory of X is broadly supported by available data" or even "a compelling case against X has not been made."

Correct? I mean, this demand (which Crichtion frequently makes) for certainty before action, really demands that science give up the "measured acceptance" which is at its core.

Stef said...

Reasonable stuff and I would never hold up Crichton as any kind of poster child. But, whatever the faults of the man, his speech does raise some interesting issues that have troubled me for some time now.

back to the thrust of the comments ...

First off, clearly there are anthroprogenic components to global climate change, but my question is do they make any real difference? Every time I strike a match, rub my hands together or break wind I'm having an impact but does it make any real difference to anyone, other than people in the room at the same time as me?

Second off, I stand by the maxim that if a statement is not falsifiable then it's not science. If a scientific opinion does not make claims that are open to testing how can it be a scientific statement? It is a key responsibility of scientists to ensure that their claims are phrased in such a way that they can be tested. Good scientists know that but some choose to forget that principle for the sake of a perceived 'greater good'.

Popular science is moving increasingly towards non falsifiable statements and, most tellingly, falsifiable statements about bad things that may or may not come to pass. Think about the similarities between, say, the Global Warming debate and the b*llshit War on Terror. The same processes are at work.

My concerns are not based or political or religious ideology. I genuinely believe that good science, good religion and good politics are totally compatible and honourable.

However, bad religion, politics and science are not and all share the same characteristics; particularly their emphasis on the negative side of life, especially fear. Look around, think about what I saying for a few moments and try and understand where I'm coming from. The World may seem a lot different as a consequence.

... then again, it might not ;-)

Anonymous said...

One of my frustrations is that GW is often associated with a pair of positions and action plans:

"no global warming" / "do nothing"

"global warming" / "spend trillions"

It might be unfair to center on Crichton as a person, but his message plays very well with the "Enterprise Institute" crowd. That is, "global warming is not certain, so we don't have to ruin the economy, we can do nothing."

I think the reasonable thing would be to take the simple, easy, cheap, steps we can now, and ratchet up our action plans as GW evidence accumulates.

As far as the "falsifiable" thing, I think that is just confusion between what is "falsifiable", and what is "conveniently falsifiable."

GW (broadly speaking) will certainly be falsified, the easy way or the hard way.

Finnaly on Fear, I think it cuts both ways. One group fears climate change, and one group fears economic change. The spectre of heat-death battles the spectre of economic ruin ... which brings us back to the all-or-nothing mentality, trillions or zero.

Stef said...

How could I argue against someone advocating a reasoned approach? Yes, what you are suggesting is sensible. The bottom line is that we're going to run out of hydrocarbons anyway and should be moving away from their use as a matter of expediency, regardless of any other issues.

Re. the falsifiable thing though, conveniently falsifiable or not. The reason why we should all smell a rat with the current portrayal of GW is the conspicuous absence of any falsifiable statements, of any flavour, whatsoever.

Also, re. the politics of GW. I promise you that the neocons and the forces behind them WILL get on the GW bandwagon when it suits them. That will be in about 5-10 years time when they've finished with the Middle East and are looking for an excuse to batter India and China; fast-developing countries that will be portrayed as eco threats.

Whilst interesting in itself, and I'm grateful to people who've commented, this thread has largely focused on the GW issue. However, the point I was trying to make was about the increased politicisation of science, how it is being warped into a bad kind of religion and, as such, finds common ground with bad politics. Both of which choose to motivate people through generation of exaggerated degrees of fear. Whatever the merits of the GW debate, I'll stand by my broader thesis.

Anonymous said...

As regards "not falsifiable," my understanding is that many groups are actively testing their models against new time periods.

The idea is simple. You develop a model using (say) 1960's data, and then feed in 1970's data to see how it performs.

It's obvious, and certainly every incremental year gives us more data to confirm or undermine any existing model.

And on the politicisation of science, I'll stick with it being a rejection of science, by the politically motivated.


Stef said...

Agree 100% with the last line. The issue, then, is how prevalent each of us believe this abuse to be. My conviction is that the answer is 'a lot'

Quote from John Christy who recently served as a Lead Author of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ...

'Will increases in CO2 affect the climate significantly? Are significant changes occurring now? Climate models suggest the answer is yes, real data suggests otherwise.'

Quote from Prof Richard Lindzen at MIT: "The temperature is always changing for the earth, so it has only two choices – going up or going down. It has done both, and that doesn't say it's due to CO2; it doesn't say it's going to continue; it doesn't say anything beyond that."

Re. modelling. We could spark off a whole new thread on that subject. Personally, I'm not a fan. Modelling, as widely practiced today, is way too open to subjective influences, ommissions and 'adjustment'. You can always tweak a model to yield the results you want or need. Models are increasingly used as a substitute, rather than an enhancement, for hard data.

If models worked the global economy and stock markets would be stable and predictable. Let's just say I would never risk my life solely on the predictions of a GW style model.

Anonymous said...

We are back to abuses of skepticism. You have a short list of skeptics, and choose them in preference to all others.

I've got to tell you, what I think I see as I surf sites is a kind of hit-and-run set of counter arguments to GW.

I think the key difference here, stepping back, is that GW stands.

People make weak attacks on consensus, and on testiblity, and on modeling ... but when you ask them to actually look closely at those things they step back.

My favorite answer to someone who says they don't trust models is "so, do you fly on large airplanes?" Most people do, and if they are informed, they know they are trusting their lives to machines almost completely based on modeling.

Or here in the US I ask about the Social Security debate ... should we push it aside as "no one can know the future" or do we calcuate (model) where it is going?

With the Social Security thing, the "guessed" parameters like unemployment, death rates, birth rates, disability rates, are very similar actually to certain key numbers in future co2/climate models - future economic growth, etc.

Stef said...

My intention wasn't to start playing a Battle of the Quotes type game here but I can see that I gave the impression. Bad Stef. Mea culpa. What I was getting at is that model results are open to interpretation and as such are subject to the bias of the people interpreting them, and developing them. Then we get back to the point in the original post that scientists are just as fallable as anyone else.

Sticking with the abuse of scepticism article, CSICOP go to very great lengths to remove any possibility of human influence on their testing of paranormal claims, yet the same hostile scepticism is generally not directed towards scientists. They are the priests of our age and to call their motivations into question a mortal sin. Bugger that. It's been a while since I spent time in University but back then I don't recall people there being any more ethical or trustworthy than anyone else I might meet on the street.

Interesting that you use aircraft as you example to support the validity of modelling. I do the very opposite. Manned flight is actually is decent example of the strength of the empirical versus the purely theoretical. I would never get into a plane that hasn't been subjected to vigorous flight testing by a pilot and a parachute. Models are used in aviation design, sure enough, but they are based on a lot of hard data gathered over the years. Passengers dropping out the skies in De Havilland Comets because nobody had thought about the consequences of metal fatigue back in the 1950s comes to mind. Generally speaking much of the theory of flight came after hard, physical lessons were learned. I would suggest that the exact opposite is taking place with GW modelling. Mother Earth is an awesomely complex system and undoubtedly packed with undreamt of 'metal fatigue' like factors. Arrogance is never an attractive quality and never more so than when practiced by scientists.

People working in the field of GW have families to support and bills to pay. The current consensus (hate that word) is that human sourced CO2 emissions are causing a damaging rise in temperature levels. It would be a very brave researcher who didn't go with the flow. Having said that, one day a brave researcher might very well do so but only if a pile of anomalous data builds up to a point where it can't be ignored any more. I don't have much of a problem with that. That's how science is done. My issue is with the increasing number of scientists who gleefully feed the fear machine to suit their own ambitions or because they believe the end justifies the means. The parallels with the spin applied to intelligence information, produced by hard-working responsible people, to justify the recent war are strong.

I am just old enough to have witnessed a signficiant change in the presentation of science by the media, and scientists. Over the last 25 years the message of science has changed from 'Trust science, we'll make the world a better place' to 'Trust science, science is the only thing that will save you from catastrophe'. Instead of being treated to TV shows about a future filled with personal robots and a life of leisure, kids are now pounded with science trauma. What's changed here? Has the World suddenly become a more dangerous place? Or is it the presentation of science that has changed?

I'm getting way too repetitive here.

Anonymous said...

LOL, I don't think Boeing 787 test pilots wear parachutes.

Think about it, modern aircraft factories are purpose-built machines, wrapped around a single design. The design modeling occurs at the front end, then the factories (with building-size assembly jigs) are built, and then finally comes the airplane.

I don't doubt that the first men to fly them are brave, but I expect the changes that come after, if any, are minor. Heck, they are probably firmware changes at this point.

And I'm not surprised to see you go to " families to support and bills to pay."

Have you no shame? That is another one of the standard weak anti-GW attacks, and one with a glaring double standard.

If you really believed in the corrupting influence of paid science (grant paid science), you'd ask to stop it everywhre.

No more national institutes of health.

Bye. I'm tired of this pattern.