Tag Archives: science

Abbott’s Davos Disaster

By Alan Austin                                                                                                      [h/t IA]

AUSTRALIANS WATCHED TONY ABBOTT fly off to Switzerland this week to deliver an important speech to world leaders with muted anticipation. Commentary in advance ranged between frank pessimism and outright dismay.

It is clear now the PM failed to live up to those expectations.

Fortunately, the damage done to Australia’s reputation was limited by most media declining even to mention the Abbott embarrassment.

The New York Times has extensive coverage of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, with a dedicated web page and many feature articles exploring the key themes and major players. None mentions Abbott — who, by virtue of the high regard for his predecessor, finds himself the accidental president of the G20 for 2014.

Le TélégrammeL’Humanité  and Le Parisien in France published stories from the WEF but completely ignored Abbott. L’Agence France-Presse filed multiple reports profiling the contributors, but excluding Abbott.

Le Figaro focussed on the speech by International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde who addressed constructively the new dangers – nouveaux risques – threatening global recovery. These are, she said, deflation in Europe, tapering of US monetary policy and distortions in global financial markets.

With an embarrassed cough, Le Figaro noted Abbott’s address as a footnote, quoting him as calling for more free trade, an idea that was a long way from the agenda – très loin de la thématique – of earlier gatherings.

Les Echos did mention the keynote speech, reporting that the thrust of Australia’s G20 presidency will be free trade. It noted it was odd Abbott didn’t mention the World Trade Organisation.

The Guardian in Britain headlined its piece “Does Tony Abbott always make the same speech?” andreported that it “struck a familiar tone and was criticised for being inappropriately partisan.”

Indeed, Abbott’s reputation as a buffoon appears to have preceded him to Davos.

The Financial Times UK’s economics editor, Chris Giles, tweeted:

‘Sign of the times. [Iran's President Hassan]Rouhani packed out the hall. Everyone is leaving before Tony Abbott explains Australia’s ambitions for the G20 in 2014.’

Abbott’s speech confirmed the nagging suspicions many have had since he assumed the prime ministership, following one of the most manipulated media campaigns in any democracy in living memory.

It repeated all the trite slogans that worked in Western Sydney:

“You can’t spend what you haven’t got.”

“Markets are the proven answer to the problem of scarcity.”

“No country has ever taxed or subsidised its way to prosperity.”

“People trade with each other because it’s in their interest to do so.”

“Progress usually comes one step at a time.”

Unfortunately, I am not making this up.

Riddled with indicators of ignorance, the speech confirmed Abbott knows little about contemporary economics.

He quoted, for example, statistical measures from China:

“China’s growth is moderating, but likely to remain over seven per cent.”

He seems quite unaware that economists no longer trust statistics from China.

All economies today use strategic borrowings, at different levels, from different sources and for different purposes. Managing borrowings is a major challenge. Abbott’s glib admonition “You don’t address debt and deficit with yet more debt and deficit” displayed a dismissive attitude to this complex reality.

There was no sense of understanding the challenges the WEF faces in 2014, let alone having insights into ways forward.

What little strategy Abbott advocated seemed contradictory. He asserted that the global financial crisis (GFC) “was not a crisis of markets but one of governance.”

And then boasted of Australia,

“To boost private sector growth and employment, the new government is cutting red tape …”

Okay. That makes sense.

The prize blunders arrived, however, when Abbott directly attacked the stimulus packages of the Rudd/Gillard administrations:

“In the decade prior to the Crisis, consistent surpluses and a preference for business helped my country, Australia, to become one of the world’s best-performing economies.”

Partly correct.

In 1996, Australia was the 6th-ranked economy in the world. But by 2007, after 11 years of a Coalition government, it had slipped back to 10th place. Still, that is one of the best.

Abbott continued:

All economies today use strategic borrowings, at different levels, from different sources and for different purposes. Managing borrowings is a major challenge. Abbott’s glib admonition “You don’t address debt and deficit with yet more debt and deficit” displayed a dismissive attitude to this complex reality.

There was no sense of understanding the challenges the WEF faces in 2014, let alone having insights into ways forward.

What little strategy Abbott advocated seemed contradictory. He asserted that the global financial crisis (GFC) “was not a crisis of markets but one of governance.”

And then boasted of Australia,

“To boost private sector growth and employment, the new government is cutting red tape …”

Okay. That makes sense.

The prize blunders arrived, however, when Abbott directly attacked the stimulus packages of the Rudd/Gillard administrations:

“In the decade prior to the Crisis, consistent surpluses and a preference for business helped my country, Australia, to become one of the world’s best-performing economies.”

Partly correct.

In 1996, Australia was the 6th-ranked economy in the world. But by 2007, after 11 years of a Coalition government, it had slipped back to 10th place. Still, that is one of the best.

Abbott continued:

“Then, a subsequent government decided that the Crisis had changed the rules and that we should spend our way to prosperity. The reason for spending soon passed but the spending didn’t stop because, when it comes to spending, governments can be like addicts in search of a fix. But after the recent election, Australia is under new management and open for business.”

Two stupidities.

First, it was precisely that extensive rapid spendingthrough the GFC which saw Australia rise from 10th-ranked economy in 2007 to the world’s top ranking by 2012, a reality all those present with an awareness of the G20 economies would have known.

Secondly, attacks on domestic opponents are never acceptable abroad.

In New York last October, Abbott was roundly condemned for a political attack on Kevin Rudd.

American Academic Clinton Fernandes said he created an image of

“… coarseness, amateurishness and viciousness.”

Political scientist Norman Ornstein surmised:

“Perhaps you can chalk it up to a rookie mistake. But it is a pretty big one.”

Clearly, Abbott has learned nothing from that humiliation three months ago.

Abbott then continued to spruik domestic politics — the commission of audit, paid parental leave, cutting the numbers of pensioners, and infrastructure, especially roads:

“… because time spent in traffic jams is time lost from work and family.”

He concluded with a final hypocrisy — following his attack on Labor for spending so much on infrastructure during the GFC.

He gobsmacked anyone still listening with this:

“Then, there’s the worldwide ‘infrastructure deficit’, with the OECD estimating that over 50 trillion dollars in infrastructure investment is needed by 2030.”

Several questions arise.

Why such an appalling performance? Where are his advisers? Does he think he needs no advice? Or is the whole Coalition this amateurish and oafish — or worse?

And why, as ABC News highlighted, is he still battling Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard?

Does this reflect self-doubt about his capacity in the role? They had a vision for the nation; he does not. They had plans to improve the prospects for pensioners, students and people with disabilities; he does not. They nurtured the economy; he cannot. They had character, integrity and authority; he simply does not.

Perhaps it confirms that Abbott knows deep down that the 2013 ‘win’ was illegitimate — that it was secured only by deception and dishonesty.

Perhaps it is time for his party to consider the matter of leader.

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Hobbling Australian Universities

He was a small man. At 5’8″ I’m no giant myself, but even I looked down on this lanky character. Yet, a decade on, I still remember that smug leer he would wear in response to my stress. He was the manager of another department, a life long friend of the store manager and my tormentor as a retail trainee.

If I knew then the career trajectory I would later take, his bullying would have had less of an impact.

As a trainee, I reported to the head office with frequent reviews of my traineeship. My experience was far from unique, talking with other trainees from other stores when we had our theory lessons.

Anonymously, I decided to report this back where it would be on record and could be audited.

However, as inappropriate as it was, eventually, by my handwriting, I was discovered. In the proceeding conversation, I was informed that my report would be seen by the independent auditors (which was my intention) and that I was risking the possibility of others enjoying this excellent opportunity I currently had.

And so, in that small oppressive room in the basement of my store (the door closed, of course), with two people from the head office looking at sternly at my from across the table, I took it back…

To go on and enjoy that smug leer.

Is it really possible to discuss uncomfortable criticisms about a boss in front of them? Arguably answering this question has been one of the hallmarks to the success of any religion; with the pretext of some invisible Big Brother overhead, capable of unthinkable punishment, why challenge the orthodoxy?

Gagging the free agent

The new government closed the Climate Commission. Of all the discussions relating to that, what interests me most is in response to the governments claim that Australian universities and the CSIRO are enough to provide the scientific evidence regarding climate change.

The response to this questions their ability to do so with the various political pressures placed on such institutes.

I don’t doubt the reality of this concern. Funding being a major concern, for one thing. Budget cuts seem forever on the horizon… Why would an institute want to be very vocal on a topic that the current boss seems at odds with? Especially when this boss is willing to close down vocal scientific organisations?

Politically correcting reality?

This is a real concern. Can we really have much confidence in the potency of Australian universities if their contribution to scientific endeavour and communication are, at least in part, stunted by political favour?

Micheal Mann once noted that a glacier was neither a Democrat or Republican, it just melts. Science is about precision and accuracy of our interpretation of the universe, regardless of its emotional or political ramifications.

How can a scientific institute possibly hope to function if it needs to place emotional or political pressures before precision and accuracy? It may as well offer Bachelors of Science in “Everything is okay” and “Don’t worry, you’re immortal”.

The school of good feelings and bad jokes

As it stands, it seems that Australia finds many of its so-called prime research institutes at the table, expected to respond to an emotional position before power brokers. For many reasons, I can’t help but feel they are stepping away, even if only a little, from uncomfortable conclusions opposing the position of these power brokers.

The smug leer is, as it was for me in retrospect, the least of anyone’s concern. We threaten to lose all respect in ourselves and our research if we allow political or emotional pressures to undermine the process. Research cannot be expected to place politics or emotions before rigour and still command respect.


About Moth
Situated in Victoria, Australia, I have a background in ecology, atmospheric / meteorological monitoring and analysis as well as web / graphic design. On New Anthropocene, my main interest is scientific accuracy and arguing for sound policies so that we can hope to obtain the best quality lives for our species. My work is entirely my own and does not reflect that of my employer nor does it endorse a particular political party. Please read my full statement for further information.

How Not to ‘Save the World’

Some months ago, a senior academic and I talked as we drove the many hours to the project site. He was informing me on his views regarding invasive species, some of which I thought were questionable.

To clarify, I bluntly asked, “What do you think we should do with weeds?”

He replied, with all the authority that he could muster, “Get rid of them.”

I didn’t pursue the conversation any further at that point. I knew from experience that the tone was one baiting me into a debate. I’m usually all for a debate, where I see value. In this case however, the individual is one who likes the fight more than a resolution and I’m not really one for that.

It’s a nice idea to remove weeds and certainly not impossible… as long as you throw enough money at the problem. This is where the environmental debate fails all the time.

It could be in discussions regarding invasive species management, limiting the impact of pollution or even climate change. Whatever the subject, for the most part, we can eventually achieve the currently unthinkable if only we wish to drain enough resources into it.

Those who fall prey to sci-fi resolution to problems, starting the discussion not unlike an Arthur C. Clark story, imagining the problem is soon to be resolve and the discussion should be about what this means for us, just like the environmental romantic, are victims to the results, without object rational on how to reach them.

An excellent example in Australia is the olive. How much money should we spend on managing olives in natural landscapes when the recruitment of these comes from dedicated plantation? I once refused to buy Australian olives for this reason, but is such a protest of any value?

Am I giving up?

This isn’t to be confused with environmental defeatism that Bjørn Lomborg tries to pass off as realism.

Let’s put it this way; it’s not impossible to rebuild your house to correct all the problems, but can you really afford to do so, or does it make more sense to allocate some of your money to repair what you have?

The olive is an assimilated immigrant to Australia. It has its place now in the local culture and environment (is that cringing I hear?).

To this realisation we have two general options that have their relative expenses; we could “get rid of it”, which would close down the industry and outlaw all trees in backyards and public parks as well; or, we give it a citizenship, acknowledging it as a productive food source well suited to Australia in a warming climate.

The former would require a major PR campaign and many years of eradication and monitoring. The latter would likely see us not managing it as a weed, but rather as new competition to endemic species with the aim of promoting biodiversity which would include this new “local”. This would require effort and research.

Paved in good intentions

Environmental discourse has been plagued with romanticism or an unrealistic impression of “indestructibility” ever since the notion that it was a topic worth discussing became established.

The worst part is not that those who discuss environmental management most passionately are the most likely to fall into such a trap while those least likely will typically reject concern altogether, but rather that there is this line drawn in the sand between both extremes.

Either your hopelessly infatuated with a resilient (or fragile) Earth or concede that such musings are little more than a “liberal conspiracy”.

Where is the possibility to even start to discuss the place of the “Australian olive” for instance, in such an absurd and naïve situation?

To Get rid of it?

Over the last century, the Australian government and landholders has spent countless hours and dollars in management of the rabbit. This has included a 1700km rabbit-proof fence (build between 1901-07), two different viruses, warren destruction, chemical control and even explosives (read more here). Even while the most recent virus was having its greatest impact (1998-2003) the management cost for feral rabbits was estimated to be around $1 million (more here).

Yet, I see bunnies throughout Melbourne and right up to central NSW on a daily basis.

Yes, something must be done and our efforts have had an impact, but how much really? We can’t rebuild the house, but equally, electrical tape over the tap isn’t going to stop the leak.

Out with the old

The olive and the rabbit are not good comparisons. Olives will forever spread while they are being farmed where ol’ bugs just has a thing for breeding prolifically.

The point is that the current attitudes and strategies do not reflect the realistic capacities of management options and beneficial outcomes. I’m tired of the blanket eradication message where the reality continually fails to meet the target. I’m just as tired of the dismissal scoffs of the other side of the discussion.

We need approach species management with fresh eyes and very likely, different goals. The promotion of biodiversity would be an excellent target. The promotion of productive ecosystems which thrive while providing services to urban landscapes would be another one.

In short, there is nothing ignoble in rethinking our relationship with other life and in designing ecosystems with which our landscapes actively interact. To be absolutely frank, there is no other multi-cellular organism as invasive as ourselves, but at least we have the capacity to promote ecosystems, rather than out compete all else until we are the last one standing should we choose to.

We need a new dialogue willing to step back, compromise or actively engage where it is needed, without unrealistic ideation or denial. This will start with an internal look on ourselves and our place within ecosystems.


About Moth
Situated in Victoria, Australia, I have a background in ecology, atmospheric / meteorological monitoring and analysis as well as web / graphic design. On New Anthropocene, my main interest is scientific accuracy and arguing for sound policies so that we can hope to obtain the best quality lives for our species. My work is entirely my own and does not reflect that of my employer nor does it endorse a particular political party. Please read my full statement for further information.

All Terrain Gas Analyser System (A.T.G.A.S.)

A little something I finished putting together for a PhD student. We borrowed the chamber, but if I were to build one from scratch, I’d make the chamber a little differently, minimising the production further.

Coalition’s carbon policy based on failed Labor scheme

By Penny van Oosterzee, James Cook University

 

The government and the Coalition both want to manage land to reduce greenhouse emissions. But it’s not working. Flickr/Indigo Skies Photography

Australia’s two major parties have promised to reduce the country’s emissions by 5% by 2020, with two different approaches. Labor has used carbon farming as part of its approach; the Coalition is making it a centrepiece. But analysis of Labor’s approach shows it is likely to fail, whoever pursues it.

The Coalition has promised to tackle carbon emissions through Direct Action, and without a price on carbon or an emissions trading scheme. The plan hinges on reducing emissions at the lowest cost, which may include managing soils, forests and farming, energy efficiency, carbon sequestration or cleaning up power stations.

Direct Action will use and expand the current government’s Carbon Farming Initiative to achieve these emissions cuts, using the initiative as a platform to deliver an Emissions Reductions Fund.

But the initiative hasn’t come under scrutiny in its current role, let alone as a centrepiece for delivering Australia’s climate commitments. So, what is the Carbon Farming Initiative, and is it ready to take a starring role?

The Carbon Farming Initiative is the first national offset scheme in the world to include carbon credits derived broadly from natural resource management. It includes avoiding greenhouse gas emissions such as methane and nitrous oxides from managing livestock, crops and savanna burning, and sequestering carbon from reforestation and avoided deforestation.

It also includes planting trees to encourage carbon sequestration. At a landscape scale the scheme could transform regional Australia and provide major biodiversity and conservation benefits.

Farmers and foresters generate carbon credits for emissions reductions. Polluters can then buy these credits, known as Australian Carbon Credit Units. Presumably, the Coalition would purchase these credits under Direct Action.

That’s how it’s meant to work. Let’s have a look at whether it’s actually working.

The success of carbon farming depends on uptake. Treasury provides two scenarios for uptake of carbon farming based on two global action scenarios. The first is based on medium global action for stabilising greenhouse gases at 550 parts per million by 2100. The second is an ambitious global action scenario aiming to stabilise at 450 parts per million. The ambitious scenario is what Australia, and the world, agreed at Copenhagen in 2009 would avoid dangerous climate change.

Under the medium ambition scenario Treasury projected the carbon price to start at around A$23 per tonne in 2012-2013, with carbon farming delivering 6 Mt CO2-e (carbon dioxide equivalent, which allows us to account for other greenhouse gases).

The ambitious scenario fetches a carbon price starting at A$47 per tonne with 9 Mt CO2-e delivered by the land. Avoiding deforestation and reforestation makes up about two thirds of land sector abatement in both cases.

Carbon farming has now been running for nearly two years. What has it delivered? The answer is astonishing: virtually nothing.

Around 46,000 carbon units (each equivalent to a tonne of CO2-e) have been issued. This covers a little less than 1% of reductions needed for the year 2012-2013 under a medium ambition scenario, and about 0.5% of the ambitious scenario.

Why has carbon farming failed to achieve anything? One of the main reasons for this situation is that it’s not cheap to create offsets. In fact the idea that the land sector can provide low cost abatement is a bit of a furphy.

Under carbon farming, offsets are generated by developing a baseline level of emissions and crediting reductions from the baseline. The process is complex. Steps include:

  • becoming a recognised offset entity
  • opening a registry account
  • undertaking a project according to approved methodologies
  • submitting regular audit reports
  • applying for carbon credits and having them issued.

Rigorous “integrity standards” are required including permanence obligations, which guarantee sequestration of greenhouse gases for 100 years. Australia is one of the few in the world to have such a stringent rule and it is one of the major obstacles to investment. Others use tried and true risk-based approaches such as insurance, which allow for shorter contracts.

Also, carbon credits are considered financial instruments. This triggers policy frameworks established Australia’s Corporations Act and other legislation.

Even before you step on the carbon farming treadmill there are costs associated with registering legal rights to carbon. In Queensland, for instance, you need to contract a surveyor to map and register one stand of forest. This might cost in the order of A$500-$10,000 or more depending on the complexity of the forest stand and whether you are registering the whole property or not.

At year three after planting (based on the wet tropics forests which have high sequestration rates) you might have sequestered 10 tonnes of CO2-e per hectare. Your cumulative return might be in the order of A$230 (or about A$76 per year) per hectare. This return would not cover the costs of registering legal rights to the carbon, let alone the cost of survey and plan preparation or the costs of establishing the forest.

If it is high-environmental-value forest, surveying and planning might be in the order of A$25,000 to A$67,000 per hectare.

With the government bringing forward a floating carbon price that links the European Union’s carbon price, currently at around A$6, you can expect enough from carbon farming for lunch (one good lunch, or three sandwiches).

Ultimately to invest in carbon farming requires two things: an ambitious global action agenda, and certainty of the investment environment for decades. Both the government and Coalition have committed to a 5% reduction of greenhouse emissions below 2000 levels by 2020. This correlates more or less to the medium ambition scenario (and an acceptance of dangerous climate change).

Certainty might be guaranteed under an emissions trading scheme that has global links in a world of high ambition. Under the Direct Action policy, however, the first round of money to purchase lowest cost abatement would be July 2014. And this would be a year before the policy would up for review.

Given this, the chances of carbon farming delivering effective abatement from the land might be about zero.

Penny van Oosterzee is a director of a company that receives funding from the Biodiversity Fund for a rainforest restoration project.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Infographs: 2013 Australian Federal Election -The Direct Action Plan in 2020

I have a new page devoted to my media on the upcoming federal election.

Over the coming day’s I’ll be adding a number of infographs to this page that I have been working on over the past month. Please feel free to download these infographs and repost them elsewhere. The same goes for the posts (link or repost).

DAP-1

Anti-science arguments: How do we respond?

I’ve been very interesting with the problem of responding to anti-science. This is mostly due to the frustration that arises from taking them seriously only to be subjected to a cheap magic show rich with fallacious arguments. Diethelm and McKee (2009) provide excellent examples, including;

“The normal academic response to an opposing argument is to engage with it, testing the strengths and weaknesses of the differing views, in the expectations that the truth will emerge through a process of debate. However, this requires that both parties obey certain ground rules, such as a willingness to look at the evidence as a whole, to reject deliberate distortions and to accept principles of logic. A meaningful discourse is impossible when one party rejects these rules.”

In seeking out certainty in reality, this objection to the best developed tools for obtaining high quality empirical data remains baffling. Moreover, anti-science provides no serious alternative, but instead dynamite to the dam walled placed up against the baseless ideation popular prior to the enlightenment.

Of course ignoring anti-science outright is not the answer as the anti-fluoridation campaign illustrates; while in essence it is fringe and largely based upon “Nazi chemical mind control” fears, packaged right, it has the power to infiltrate communities, leading to a decrease in dental health with no additional benefits, as has been witnessed in various towns in Queensland, Portland, Oregon and elsewhere.

We need to respond.

However, as Christopher Monckton illustrated with climate change, taking them seriously comes with the inherent risk of lending undue credit; he is now regarded as an “expert” in some quarters due solely to the fact that he has publicly debated with scientists and seemed to have won. That his waves failed to reach the shores of scientific endeavour is telling nonetheless.

What to do?

Recently, I analysed the components of an anti-science speech to show how it does not aligned within the same arena of critical thought to scientific methodology and thus presents a sideshow distraction rather than a rebuttal. Yet, what to do with a wordplay debate?

I provided the following basic questions to use to assess the quality of someone’s argument;

  1. Does the article in question refer solely to genuine scientific material?
  2. Does this material genuinely bring into question the validity of given conclusions held in the highest certainty within the scientific community?
  3. What have other genuine scientific material made of this conclusion?

Here, I will look at the comments of “Dan” who is an individual I’ve spotted haunting both NewAnthro and Watching the Deniers of late to give some suggestions.

Dan’s Stand

Dan takes an anti-science approach to climate science. This is not to poison the well, but a factual stances he must admit to simply because his position rejects the standing position held with high confidence within the scientific community, namely, he rejects the conclusion that CO2 can impact on the global climate.

His argument hinges on looking at the global temperature anomaly and atmospheric concentration of CO2 since 1800 to today. He claims that no warming in the global temperature anomaly exists beyond 2001 while concentrations of CO2 continue to increase, which he uses to base his position.

His argument against the standing position within the expert community of climate science hinges on a quote he found on Wikipedia by, Richard Horten, editor of the Lancet, which is critical of the peer review process.

The Analysis

To answer the three questions above;

  1. No; Dan refers to Wikipedia and his own blog posts.

It fails on step one. Furthermore, rather than illustrating how the conclusions drawn within climate science are wrong, he instead attacks the review process. Yet, if the science is wrong and he knows it is, he should be able to illustrate as much, for the validity of a conclusion does not sit on the opinions of people, but on the merit of the finding. His argument does not challenge the the scientific conclusion itself.

Mainly, he relies on three fallacies; the single cause, composition and authority.

Eddy Covariance: one way to obtain data on latent energy. My old site at Calperum, SA

Eddy Covariance: one way to obtain data on latent heat. My old site at Calperum, SA

Just as you wouldn’t attempt to measure the volume of a pool by a sole measurement of the depth of the shallow end, it is a failure of understanding to assume that climate change is restricted to the temperature anomaly.

Add energy to a pot of water and the temperature will increase. Eventually, around 100°C, the rate of temperature will reduce, even if the energy input continues. This is because the energy is now going into a physical process not measured by a thermometer; the conversion of liquid to gas.

Climate change is dynamic, with energy going into the atmosphere, but also the oceans and ice, leading to latent heat; ice melt and water vapour, both ignored by thermometers, but measured by other methodologies, such as physical measuring and eddy covariance measurements respectively.

His quote also assumes that, as one person in a health journal is critical of peer review, we have evidence enough that the entire process is flawed. The quote itself is somewhat fallacious – ad populum – and how it is applied is fallacious through authority and composition.

As previously noted, rather than fault the conclusions, he attempts to fault the entire scientific process with this one small quote.

How to respond?

I know first-hand that pointing out these faults do nothing to the argument being presented – shifting goalposts may be applied or semantics may come into the debate, alongside repetition of the same fallacious claims. Eventually, the moral high ground will come up and your efforts will have been a waste as the individual goes on to continue the same debunked claims elsewhere unmoved by your exchange.

It may be useful to respond concisely;

Do the following claims by Dan seriously challenge climate science?

“No warming over the past decade while CO2 levels increase…” – No; warming is only one part of climate change, with energy also being taken up in processes not measured by thermometers, eg. latent heat.

“Richard Horten says peer review doesn’t work…” – No; in no way does this even critique the empirical evidence base for anthropogenic climate change, but is a fallacy of composition based upon appeals to authority, serving no purpose but to subvert critical reflection of the evidence base at hand.

Otherwise, praise the commentator on their prowess and let them know how much you’re looking forward to their radical findings overturning modern science as we know it – surely they will receive their much owed Nobel Prize once their ground breaking research is published in a respected science journal. After that, walk on.

You can waste your life replying to nonsense – fiction is limited only by imagination and our species is capable of many generations worth of imagination. Or less eloquently put;

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Climate discussions flat-line where they should be thriving

The climate science news, in reality, has waned in recent months, perhaps over the bulk of 2013.

Sure, the science is still trickling in but within the general media it’s really pretty much flat lined. Monckton’s last Aussie tour was a flop; a hopeful sign that his crackpot star is burning out. The “final nails” are rusted and forgotten…

Climate change is more or less left to the enthusiasts. The tone on the anti-science climate media is increasingly batty and fringe and arguably as drama soaked as any other conspiracy theory one may stumble upon for a chuckle. The lines in the sand have washed away and far fewer are selecting supposed “sides”.

Most people admit that anthropogenic climate change is real, but for the most part, the threat is trivialized by how intangible and far off it seems to the individual right here and now in a given city. The only real fight that seems to persist within the public eye is the rather extraordinary lengths we are going to, to find fossil fuels, be it fracking, offshore drilling or tar pits.

At the same time, the US president has finally joined the true dialogue of climate response policies, China is ever ramping up its activities in response to climate change and little Australia, with its massive per capita climate debt, seriously contemplates over two potential candidates for leadership; one of which goes from calling climate change “crap” to carbon trading “a so-called market, in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no one”.

As an observer, I can’t help but sit back perplexed.

Does being the lucky country also mean the wilfully ignorant country as well? Are we so scared that changing our behaviour must mean degrading our quality of life? Of course, the longer we take to begin meaningful change the more dramatic and thus uncomfortable change will be. Being honest, this is what motivates me more than anything – I simply do not wish to impose avoidable hardship on those I care about.

Small steps earlier rather than big steps later to catch up.

Globally, financial concerns have only increased over the past five years, leaving many policy makers focused entirely on growth, with the long term impacts of climate change placed on the back-burner for future discussions. Hope and Hope (2013) have illustrated that this may be short sighted as this low growth is likely to lead to a poorer future population, thus less able to match the social costs due to additional CO2 emissions. Under the current global economic pressures, there is even more reason to attempt to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, not less, than if economies were healthier.

There  really is no justifiable reason for the lull. While anti-science groups may be giving communicators less material to respond to (I’ve argued before that this should be done sparingly in any case), we still need strong discussions on what we do now to curtail future emissions to ensure we provide our grandchildren and theirs a climate akin to that we have prospered within. There are many concerns that need to be addressed, to be sure, but climate change is still a high priority.

Furthermore, it presents opportunity for new markets and community-based behaviours that in turn could lead to financial benefits. If we simply get on with the task and demonstrate positives in changing behaviour, we will also erode the platform on which many anti-science communicators stand upon; it will be increasingly untenable to insist anthropogenic climate change is not real, uncertain or exaggerated when communities are progressing and thriving in low-carbon economies.

We never needed the momentum we drew from rebuking anti-science propaganda, but we have been doing it for so long that we have convinced ourselves otherwise. The dialogue belongs to science communicators now and we are not doing our part to assist with the necessary behavioural changes.

Ignoratio elenchi: when anti-science argues that 2+2=5

It’s a trick that works wonderfully on an uncritical mind. In the analysis of anti-science communication, we saw how much of the case brought against fluoride was irrelevant to its safe or ability to reduce tooth decay.

Over the past few days of silence, I’ve noticed a lot of traffic towards fluoride and so searched the news for the latest activity in the anti-fluoridation world only to spot a few new cases ignoratio elenchi; that is, making one case and insisting another conclusion.

A faceless sleight of hand

One article in the North West Star, Water board worker’s fluoride fears, paints the entire discussion in Mt Isa regarding water fluoridation inappropriately… “safety concerns surrounding the substance continue to grow.”

In essence the article is bias. It is not an argument against the safety of fluoride in water (it dissolved completely, with fluoride becoming free ionic fluoride), nor is it anything related to how well fluoride works to prevent tooth decay. The main argument against fluoridation is about safe handling!

There are numerous industries where workers face hazards – in fact most jobs have need for Operational Health and Safety policies (OH&S) and risk assessments. I’ve have to create a number myself for my roles. This doesn’t automatically deem to job better left undone – imagine what would happen if we deems sewerage plants too unsafe – but rather that safe measures need to be in place to ensure safe working environments for all involved.

This unnamed employee at best argues that more rigorous OH&S and risk assessments need to be undertaken if current practices are not good enough. Take a leaf out of the book of any given water authority in the capitals cities of the other states, which have all safely administered fluoride to water supplies for decades!

Interestingly, the vote in Mt Isa drew less than 10% of the locals out, most of which chose “no”. While the anti-fluoride campaign would consider this a success, I see it differently. I think the only people who voted are those who have strong opinions on the subject. The rest reflect disinterest or simply being unaware of the subject. With such bad reporting and the high level of public engagement by anti-fluoride groups in Qld, sprout bogus claims to incite fear, it’s not surprising that “no” was the majority call from such a small group.

White with… sugar?

I also noticed a spike in articles, with a tabloid “shock” flair to them, reporting on fluoride levels in tea – as those this was something new.

I can refer to a paper that’s 17yrs old that illustrates these reporters are pretty slow to catch on.

Furthermore, this does not question the safety or efficacy of water fluoridation. It raises valid concerns about the quality of a product that in turn may lead to a consumer having higher than recommended intakes of fluoride. The cheap product may not be living up to desired consumer safety guidelines in Australia and so merits further discussions, but not water fluoridation itself.

_____

Just as with climate change denial, the argument is never really challenging the science that these anti-science communicators pretend to challenge, but rather confuse, distort and attempt to win an argument on ignorance and typical fallacies.

Three simple questions are useful when presented with such arguments;

      1. Does the article in question refer solely to genuine scientific material? (if so – check the source).
      2. Does this material genuinely bring into question the validity of given conclusions held in the highest certainty within the scientific community? (this is not, as seen above, to take the report’s “word of it” but to look at the source in relation to the key points – eg, fluoride; safe and effective in current practices in affluent communities / climate change; happening and due to human activity etc)*
      3. What have other genuine scientific material made of this conclusion? (ie. check where the paper has been cited and how it was cited)

Quality information is only sourced through scientific investigation, just as much as you learn mechanics from engineers, not in a pastry kitchen. If the report fails to cite scientific literature, ignore it. If the literature doesn’t back up the claims, ignore the claims. If the paper is old and/or brought into question on its methodologies / results and/or in a little known paper and not cited elsewhere, ignore it.

Quick and simple steps to avoid the woolly blindfold.

Read more: Anti-Science Communication: It does not deserve to be placed with non-fiction

* Two examples of checking what the actual scientific literature says can be provided in reply to the osteosarcoma claim and IQ claim which I have previously debunked.

How does anti-science communication stand up to analysis?

In the post, Anti-science communication: It does not deserve to be place with non-fiction, I discussed the three distinct levels to science communication:

    • Science journals within the expert community who are able to critique methodology and data to assign appropriate certainty to a given conclusion; ie. the peer-review process; that is, “define it?”
    • Specific science communication which comes from writers with some level of understanding of the given topic and are able to translate that so that the basics are understood by a wider audience, without opinion; that is, “what is it?”
    • Lastly general science communication which tends to attract communicators with understanding in other fields who provide commentary and opinion on this knowledge into a broader context; that is, “how does it understanding affect me?”

Anti-science can only fit on the third level, because they 1) focus on opinion and values, 2) by their sheer nature, challenge the science (so clearly cannot be translating it) and, 3) do not present their “evidence” within the peer-review process (so obviously not at the top level).

Yet every single one of them pretend to sit in the middle level and try to suggest they in fact challenge to upper level! If you doubt me, just read the posts and comments on such blogs as WUWT, where you will find over-confident assertions regarding the science and how it actually competes with the expert based certainty the public is provided from scientific methodology.

So here, I wish to present an actual example of this behaviour within anti-science communication, from the sub-species, Chemica m. fluoride, to show not only that it is focused on values and opinions, but also how it differs from pro-science communication on the third level of science communication.

Luckily the creators of Fire Water have provided a transcript of the Merilyn Haines interview, which I have previously discussed.

This, I downloaded to analyse.

Results

There were roughly 250 sentences spoken in reply to the interviewer by Ms Haines which I was able to separate into the following three categories; neutral, opinion and scientific.

Neutral

These were sentences that in themselves presented no real arguments for or against fluoridation. These include her own background information, the story of her sister’s experience in Townsville (excluding the conclusions Ms Haines drew to this story), her discussion of the production process of fluoridation chemicals and fumigation of foods with fluoride.

The latter two may initially seem part of her case, however, how the chemicals are produced does not question whether or not fluoridation is effective or safe to use, nor does the fumigation process. They are provided to “poison the well” and so could be placed into the opinion category, but due to the fact they are really do not add anything to the core argument they must be considered neutral.

Equally, the story of her sister’s experience may seem part of her argument, but it is in fact irrelevant. It is dressed up as anecdotal evidence, which does not in itself provide a case at all, however it proves nothing other than her sister experiences a skin irritation when she moved to a different city / climate and seeing as she has been exposed to fluoride throughout her life through other sources, it is unlikely to be the cause. Therefore it is neutral.

Opinion

These sentences covered a broad range, including;

  • Begging the question; eg. “What is it doing in the rest of the body?”
  • Argumentum ad populum; eg. “I think there are so many people out there who are now becoming aware of the harm of water fluoridation.”
  • Fallacy of the single cause; eg. “there is a tiny amount of fluoride in breast milk. So, nature’s actually trying to keep babies away from fluoride.”
  • Conspiracy theory ideation; eg. “…what the government was trying to do to us…” “…the Australian public have been deliberately misled…” and “…I wonder what the real agenda is…”
  • As well as relevant incidents of poisoning the well; eg. beginning with, “I very quickly realised what a con it was. It didn’t work, it’s a poison.”

Apart from these fallacies, conclusions, statements and suggestions based on the belief that the argument is sounds must also be placed as opinion, as the argument is not actually made. Thus stating that fluoridation is ineffective repeatedly and suggesting actions that people should take to avoid it must be considered opinion based.

Equally, the sentences criticizing the NHMRC report must also be opinion as she offers no faults in the findings of the report, only what she felt it lacked.

Scientific

This covered sentences where Ms Haines discussed genuine scientific material and surveys; Bassin et al. (2006), Australian adult and children dental health surveys and a statement from ADA in 2006 regarding infants and fluoridated water.

Which found her presentation to consist of;

anti-science-graph

More importantly, of the roughly 7% that was dedicated to the science, it represented the science poorly.

As I have discussed previously, Bassin et al (2006) found an interesting result in one test group and suggested that it would be worth further exploration to tease out whether or not this was the result of the various noted biases mentioned the study or a real result… 7 years later and we’re still waiting…

As for the surveys, the 2007 NSW children dental health survey in fact found that an additional 13% of children were completely free from caries in fluoridated areas as opposed to non-fluoridated areas and on adult cases of osteosarcoma, the reason as to why there were such large grouping was due to the very low rates of this form of cancer. I know first hand in my attempts to acquire state level data that it could only be provided where values were above 5 people to protect against identification. One needs to group age, or gender, to analyse this data.

Obtaining the coarse, but easily accessible data, I explored this data and found that Queensland was not on the lower end of osteosarcoma rates in Australia in 2000 (with <5% having access to fluoridated water) but in fact slightly above average.

Lastly, while the advice provided by ADA in 2006 regarding reconstituted baby formula is now only available in paraphrases on anti-fluoridation websites, looking at up-to-date information from ADA, the advice does not seem as strict as is implied in this interview. They recommend exclusive breast-feeding until 6 months and if this is not possible, being mindful of the potential for developing mild fluorosis, which they state “does not affect the health of your child or the health of your child’s teeth.” (see here and here).

Of course, as the goal of anti-science media is to challenge standing scientific understanding, it can never accurately translate the body of scientific knowledge.

Conclusion

Pure scientific communication within the peer-review process is obviously as close to 100% within the scientific category as is humanly possible, with expert critics reviewing this media.

Equally, the second level in specific scientific communication must also aspire to close to 100% within the scientific category, yet allowing for some expert opinion where suitable (clearly identifiable in the report).

Yet, the general scientific communication is far more relaxed and with the focus on “what does it mean to me?” it allows for far greater room to be assigned to opinion and values.

Anti-science communication is restricted to this classification as it attempts to assess the third level question, typically by misinterpreting what science it refers to and expressing fear of what the alternative to their given conclusion will lead to.

In the case of the analysed interview, fear included claims of disease and disorder that are not supported by the scientific literature as well as fear of suppression of a supposed “truth” which would counter the standing scientific understanding, yet this latter fear was based entirely upon begging the question fallacies (ie. how do we know it’s bad if they won’t test it – yet what testing has been done is rejected because it did not find the desired result).

Here, I have attempted to explain why such media does not actually challenge the science and is a few steps removed from the level of scientific investigation that critically analyses data. I have done this to illuminate as to why anti-science can be rightly ignored unless it presents evidence for critical investigation within the peer-review process, and this stands up to cross-examination and that it is then translated into the second and third steps accordingly.

Otherwise, it has completely avoided the best process we have for quality control of information and ought to be weighted with appropriate, that is, little, credibility.