Science, and antiscience, in action

It’s a familiar story. A striking, though minor, scientific finding, is used to illustrate a well-established scientific theory, and becomes the target of those opposed to the theory, and to science in general, for political or religious reasons. Minor errors in and procedural criticisms of the work supporting the finding are conflated into accusations of fraudulent conspiracy that are then used to attack the theory as a whole. Distorted versions of the whole story circulate around the parallel universe of antiscientific thinktanks, blogs and commentators, rapidly being taken as established fact.

This time, the story looks set to have a happy ending. The case of industrial melanism in the peppered moth was long used as a textbook example of evolution (I remember it from high school). Before the Industrial Revolution, the peppered moth was mostly found in a light gray form with little black speckled spots. The light-bodied moths were able to blend in with the light-colored lichens and tree bark, and the less common black moth was more likely to be eaten by birds. As industrial pollution increased, blackening trees, black forms became more prevalent. With more recent declines in pollution, the process is set to be reversed.

But in the late 90s, it turned out that some of the experimental work used to establish the bird predation hypothesis had been unacceptably sloppy, at least by modern standards. Under ferocious attack from creationists, some textbooks stopped mentioning the peppered moth. Claims of fraud proliferated, and the creationists celebrated a famous victory.

Now for the happy ending (which I found via New Scientist (unfortunately paywalled).

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New government, old tricks

Coming back from a very lazy Christmas, I find the comments threads full of hyperventilation about “jackboots” and “communist roots”. While this was a bit OTT, this SMH story about a message from the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research requiring that all press releases from CSIRO and other organizations be vetted at ministerial (or maybe Prime Ministerial) level certainly suggested that the new government was already up to the tricks of old governments.

I had hoped we would have had a bit more of the reformist phase before this kind of thing started and indeed it appears that there has been at least a partial backdown. With any luck, this misbegotten idea will be buried as a product of the silly season.

But the central point is clear. If we are going to get any moves towards open government and transparent processes out of the Rudd government, we need to demand them now, while the criticisms they made of the last government are still fresh. All longstanding governments seek to centralise power, which is one of the reasons why changing government every now and then is a good idea.

End of year reflections

It’s the end of the working year for me, and I’ll be taking a break in January, so posting will be unpredictable (probably light, but maybe I’ll get bored and produce a mammoth post or two). Anyway, this thread will be open for a while, so post away. No real length constraint, but I’d appreciate it everybody would get into the spirit of goodwill towards all, and particularly fellow-members of this little community.

A lot or a little?

A dollar is not very much money. A billion dollars is a lot of money. Twenty billion dollars is an awful lot of money.

For most people reading this (though not for Bill Gates or for the billion or so people living on a dollar a day or less), these statements should seem pretty obvious.

But all of these can be (and have been used as) different ways of measuring the same thing. If every Australian receives, or pays, a dollar a week, the total amount is very close to a billion dollars a year. And if you have a cash flow of a billion dollars a year, and your interest rate is 5 per cent, the present value of that cash flow (the amount of extra wealth you would need to generate the flow) is twenty billion dollars.

It’s easy to stretch this gap even further. A dollar a week is about fourteen cents a day. And, if we looked at the US (about 300 million people), or the entire developed world (around a billion people, depending on your definition), the total would be that much larger. Fourteen cents a day for everyone in the developed world has a present value of one trillion dollars.

The fact that the same flow of money can be presented in such radically different ways, and that each of them is appropriate in certain contexts, is one reason public policy debates get confused.

Having posed the problem, I’ll leave it for discussion, and hope to come back with some relevant examples and suggestions on how to improve our understanding of these things.

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Waiting for the tsunami

The sudden collapse of shares in the Centro group following the announcement that they were having trouble refinancing their debt (there’s been a partial recovery today) reminds us that no-one really knows what is going on in global credit markets. Bad debts have been buried under layers of collateralised debt obligations, and seemingly sound companies may (or may not) have all kinds of off-balance sheet obligations, liable to be called in at short notice.

Given that we are collectively among the most indebted people on earth, we probably ought to be more worried than we are. But, as Costello and Howard found during the election campaign, it’s hard to stir up concern about a possible crash when we’re still worrying about whether strong growth will overheat the economy.

Individually, the only real preparation for a possible jam in credit markets is to make sure that we are not relying on the availability of credit on easy terms in the near future. For example, if you are planning on refinancing a home loan and locking in a fixed rate, you might think about doing so sooner rather than later (note: I’m not a financial adviser, and this isn’t financial advice – if you’re actually in this, or a similar, situation, consult a professional).

Pons asinorum – CIS edition

The scientific debate regarding global warming has been over for some time, and the Australian policy debate has moved beyond the point where delusional pseudoscience has any impact. What remains of the scientific debate is a screening device in which individuals and institutions identify themselves as so lacking in intelligence, judgement or honesty as to cast doubt on their contributions on any topic. As with Euclid’s fifth proposition failure on this test distinguishes the donkeys.

The latest to self-identify as a donkey is Barry Maley of the Centre for Independent Studies whose latest piece in the Oz states, among other pieces of nonsense scooped up from teh intertubes

Beyond a relatively small concentration, the effect of additional carbon dioxide decreases logarithmically, almost to vanishing point.

As Wolfgang Pauli would have said, this is not even wrong, since “decreases logarithmically” is a contradiction in terms.

Maley identifies himself as a “former academic” and his CIS bio describes him as a former senior lecturer in Behavioural Science who has worked on family and social policy. It’s a safe bet that he wouldn’t know a logarithm if it bit him, and that the simple exercise in logarithmic differentiation required to convert the claim above into something that can be assessed and refuted (here’s a good post that covers several more of Maley’s talking points) would be utterly beyond him.

Clearly he’s scrambled together a bunch of nonsense from delusionist Internet sites, and published it along with his “research” on family issues. Since he invites us to treat the two as being equally credible, I’m happy to accept. And since the CIS invites us to treat Maley as a serious researcher, the same goes for them.

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The culture war: time to mop up

Both before and since the election, commentators of the centre-left, including me, have pronounced the end of the culture wars that have dominated a large stream of Australian political commentary for the past fifteen years or so (for a further sample, here’s Polemica and LP). These pronouncements have not been well received. Rather, in the manner of this (according to family legend) distant relation of mine, those on the losing side have taken the view that news of their defeat is a deceitful ruse de guerre.

In a tactical sense, this is all to the good. With no share of political power anywhere in the country, the culture warriors can’t do any actual harm, except to the conservative side of politics. So, there’s an argument that they should be encouraged, rather than persuaded to give up the struggle. But it doesn’t seem like a good idea to encourage vitriolic debate about side issues, while letting the big questions be settled by default. In relation to climate change, for example, as long as the delusionist and do-nothingist culture warriors dominate one side of the debate, serious discussion about questions like how best to combine adaption and mitigation will be drowned out.

So, it seems like a good idea to survey the culture war and consider what can be done about it.

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A big win for the planet, and others

The outcome of the international climate talks in Bali has been a huge win for the planet. Given the participation of the Bush Administration, we were never going to get firm short-term targets in the agreement of this round of negotiations (except as the result of a US walkout, and a deal struck by the rest of the world). But on just about every other score, the outcome has been better than anyone could reasonably have expected, including:

* Agreement in principle on a 2050 target of halving emissions
* Agreement to negotiate a binding deal in 2009, when Bush will be gone, and short-term targets back on the table
* Agreement to provide assistance to developing countries for both mitigation and adaptation
* Agreement by China to pursue emissions-cutting actions that are “measurable, reportable and verifiable.�

There are of course, some individual winners too, of whom the most notable is undoubtedly Al Gore. His intervention, correctly blaming the US Administration for the lack of progress at the talks, and putting effective pressure on its remaining allies, the governments of Canada and Japan, made it clear that the political price for a failure would be paid by the US, and that those who backed Bush now would find themselves alone in the near future.

Kevin Rudd has also been a big winner. Until his election, Australia, as the only other significant country not to ratify Kyoto, was Bush’s most important supporter. After the switch, Australia was able to pursue a negotiating strategy which sometimes seemed to accommodating to the US, but ultimately produced an excellent outcome.

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