Limitations to Open Online Courses: Talking Outside the Field of Expertise

Earlier this week, I undertook an induction for my new position. There, one of the speakers talked about Massive open online courses (MOOCS). As my focus has swayed a little from rich ecological science and analytical chemistry, towards more social science topics, this was of interest.

One of the topics I enrolled in within Udemy, was Energy Economics and the Environment, presented by Ben Ho.

He didn’t get off to a good start.

In his introduction lecture, he makes the following points;

  • Yes, climate change is real, but economists have been doing a lot of work on the subject too.
  • Climate change (presented mainly as sea level rise in his lecture) is small, linear and seeing as we have dealt with such change to date, we can deal with such small changes into the future.
  • These small changes amount, at best, to a few precent, while the US power supply generates trillions of dollars.
  • He also mentions that we won’t run out of oil.

It’s not hard to see where his lectures are heading.

Of course, he’s wrong on the science and not only that, I can think of a very good economist whom would disagree with Ben’s conclusions; Nicholas Stern. Why on earth would anyone turn to economists in relation to science? If I was diagnosed with cancer, I’d seek out the science which would give me the best chance of survival, not the local economist (regardless of how much work they’ve done on the subject) to tell me how much different options will cost me.

To further the cancer analogy; the small effect – only a few percent of change – is like stating that, as a malignant tumour only grows by a few millimetres a year, and the individual has dealt with it fine to date, the cancerous growth will not eventually become too large to overwhelm the individual. Sure, you might be talking about a couple millimetres of sea rise in a year, but what about a metre, three metres, seven metres decades from now?

Bangladesh knows all too wellalready – what modest rises in sea level can impact and are planning for the worst.

Moreover, I’ve discussed that a few degrees of change, while it sounds small, is large. 2°C amounts to 14% increase in the global temperature anomaly, 3°C, more than 20%!

Pre-industrial levels of CO2 were around 280ppm. While our contribution to the carbon cycle as a whole seems small, it has been above and beyond the ability of this global carbon cycle to absorb (which too is reduced due to land clearing), so much so, human activity has raised the concentration until it is now over 390ppm – that is around a 40% increase!

Further, it is not linear. Ben could figure as much out by simply visiting NOAA’s website. Rates of change are likely to increase with time.

As for the money in fossil fuel consumption, I would ask in return; if storm surges are likely to increase in frequency and/or intensity with time, how much did hurricane Sandy cost? This doesn’t seem like a very cost effective approach. Returning to Bangladesh, massive storms in lowlands kill hundreds of thousands of people when they hit. Does Ben Ho write this off as minor loss compared to financial gains made by fossil fuel industries?

Give me a break!

Ben also doesn’t seem to be too familiar with Hubbert’s peak or The Limits to Growth (which has been supported by thirty years of real world data since the initial report, see here and here). Oil may get a second, third of forth wind through coal conversion, unconventional source extraction or through some other mechanism, but who cares?

Do we really want to drive CO2 concentrations so high that the only way we can manage our atmospheric heat load is by radical (and expensive) terraforming methods yet to be invented?

I guess it goes to show, open source learning has its limitations and one must be careful to critically analyse even their potential teacher.

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2 responses to “Limitations to Open Online Courses: Talking Outside the Field of Expertise

  1. Yes, that’s sad but not surprising. The problem is how to get people’s attention in a world hypnotized by marketing and locked into “virtual” reality before the major power outages accompanying extreme weather accelerate Until then, they’ll just throw tantrums and say they want their America back, while arming themselves to the teeth in a paranoid frenzy.

  2. Don’t know if you have the same conservative obstinacy down under; I’m not immune to thinking I’m at the center of the universe!

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