Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Good science isn't about consensus

Below is an edited extract from a paper recently presented to the Planning Institute of Australia by Professor Don Aitkin, a historian and political scientist. Don is a very smart guy. He has navigated his way to the top of the Australian academic tree (He has been a university President) yet even in my discussions with him when we both at Macquarie univerity many years ago, I was impressed by his realism and honesty -- neither of which are conspicuous academic virtues in my experience, with notable exceptions, of course

AUSTRALIA is faced, over the next generation at least and almost certainly much longer, with two environmental problems of great significance. They are, first, how to manage water and, second, how to find acceptable alternatives to oil-based energy. Global warming is not one of those two issues, at least for me, and I see it as a distraction.

I am going against conventional wisdom in doing so. But Western societies have the standard of living, the longevity and the creativity we have because we have learned that conventional wisdom has no absolute status and that progress often comes when it is successfully challenged. If you listen hard to the global warming debate you will hear people at every level tell us that they don't want to hear any more talk, they want action. I feel that the actions I have seen proposed, such as carbon caps and carbon trading, are likely to be unnecessary, expensive and futile unless there is much stronger evidence that we are facing a global environmental crisis, whether or not we have brought it about ourselves.

The story about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) doesn't seem to stack up as the best science, despite the supposed consensus about it among "thousands of scientists". Indeed, the insistent use of the word consensus should cause those who are knowledgeable about research to raise their eyebrows, because research and science aren't about consensus, they are about testing theories against data.

In any case, there exists vigorous debate throughout the climate change domain. For example, there is disagreement about whether 2007 was a notably warm year (it had a hot start but a downward cool trend). And all that is simply about measurement. In climate science I see no consensus, only a pretence at a contrived one.

Despite all the hype and the models and the catastrophic predictions, it seems to me that we human beings barely understand climate. It is too vast a domain. Though satellites have given us a sense of the movement of weather systems across the planet, portrayed every night on television, we still know little about the oceans, one of the crucial elements in climate processes, not much more about the atmosphere, another such element, a little about solar energy and the effect of the sun's magnetic field on Earth, and only a little about the land. The Earth is a big place.

One of the yardsticks of the debate is average global temperature. We can all imagine what it might mean: an average of the temperatures taken in a multitude of carefully plotted points across the globe, measured the same way, providing a single figure that could be measured over time to show trends. The actuality is much less. NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Science, the National Climate Data Centre and the Hadley Climate Research Centre in Britain produce the data. All use temperature data recorded 1.3m to 2m above Earth's surface and obtain an arithmetic average of the maximum and minimum temperatures over 24 hours. None covers the entire planet, and the southern hemisphere is not as well measured as the northern.

A recent study of one-third of the sites in what is arguably the best temperature measuring system, that of the US, showed that in a majority of the sites surveyed the instruments were inappropriately located: close to buildings, on asphalt or concrete, next to parking areas, on top of roofs, and so on. Common sense tells us that if our knowledge of climate and weather cannot provide forecasts with much accuracy past 24 hours, we don't know enough about the inter-relationships inside the model, no matter how much data we have, even supposing it to be perfect data. Models are models: they are highly simplified versions of reality and cannot provide evidence of anything.

What I see, rather, is something that political theorist Paul Feyerabend wrote about a long time ago in Against Method (1975): the tendency of scholars to protect their theories by building defences around them, rather than being the first to try to demolish their own proposition. We seem to be caught up in what a pair of social scientists has called an "availability cascade": we judge whether or not something is true by how many examples of it we see reported. Fires, storms, apparently trapped polar bears, floods, cold, undue heat: if these are authoritatively linked to a single attributed cause, then almost anything in that domain will seem to be an example of the cause, and we become worried. I should say at once that climate change has become the offered cause of so many diverse incidents that, for me at any rate, it ceases to be a likely cause of any.

Greens and environmentalists generally welcome the AGW proposition because it fits in with their own world-view, and they have helped to popularise it. Governments that depend on green support have found themselves, however willingly or unwillingly, trapped in AGW policies, as is plainly the case with the Rudd Government. The hardheads may not buy the story, but they do want to be elected or re-elected. In short, AGW is now orthodoxy, and orthodoxy always has strong latent support. Because AGW is supposedly science, even well-educated people think it will be too hard for them.

David Henderson, a respected British economist and former Treasury official, has called the orthodoxy in climate change a case of "heightened milieu consensus", in which prime ministers and other leaders tell us that nothing could be more serious than this issue. These are not statements of fact; they are no more than conjecture. But they have become, in his phrase, "widely accepted presuppositions of policy". Intellectually, AGW is what is known in politics as a done deal. But on the evidence that is available, I think it has to be said that the assertion that the increase in carbon dioxide has caused the temperature to rise is no more than an assertion, however attractive or worrying the association may be. There is simply no evidence that this causal relationship exists.

Earth's atmosphere may be warming but, if so, not by much and not in an alarming or unprecedented way. It is possible that the warming has a "significant human influence", to use the term of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and I do not dismiss the possibility. But there are other powerful possible causes that have nothing to do with us. If this were simply an example of scientists arguing among themselves, we might recognise that this is how science proceeds and move on.

But if there is no true causal link between CO2 and rising temperatures, then all the talk about carbon caps and carbon trading is simply futile. But it is worse than futile, because one consequence of developing policies in this area will be to reduce not only our own standard of living, but the standard of living of the world's poorest countries. As someone who has worked closely with ministers in the past, I cannot imagine that I could have advised a minister to go down the AGW path on the evidence available, given the expense involved, the burden on everyone and the possible futility of the outcome.

Some readers of drafts of this paper have raised the precautionary principle as an indication that we should, even in the face of the uncertainty about the science, take AGW seriously. Unfortunately, as I see it, the precautionary principle here is very similar to Pascal's wager. Pascal argued that it made good sense to believe in God: if God existed you could gain an eternity of bliss, and if he didn't exist you were no worse off. Alas, Pascal didn't allow for the possibility that God was in fact Allah, and you had opted for belief in the wrong religion.

The IPCC's account of things seems to me only one possibility, and the evidence for it is not very strong. For that reason, I would counsel that we accept that climate changes, and learn, as indeed human beings have learned for thousands of years, to adapt to that change as rationally and sensibly as we can.


Good for Kevvy!

Kevin Rudd refuses to retract comments on Tibet

KEVIN Rudd flew into a diplomatic storm as he landed in Beijing today with the Chinese Government making a formal complaint over his comments on Tibet. While in Washington on his world tour, Mr Rudd told a press conference he was concerned about the abuse of human rights in Tibet. "It's absolutely clear there are human rights abuses in Tibet. we shouldn't shilly-shally about it," he said. A spokesperson for the Australian Government said Mr Rudd would not be retracting the comments - even though Chinese officials have made formal complaints over them.

Officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) said they had have spoken to officials from Beijing, but a the "strong and firmly held views" of the Federal Government over Tibet had not changed. A DFAT spokeswoman said Chinese diplomats in Canberra and Beijing expressed concern over the comments - but the department had not received a written complaint. "Australian and Chinese officials have discussed the comments and our differences over Tibet. in Beijing and Canberra," the spokeswoman said. "The Australian Government stands by its comments on Tibet, which reflect our strong and firmly held views."

Mr Rudd will meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao today for the first time as Prime Minister.

Back in Australia, federal Liberal frontbencher George Brandis called on the Prime Minister to boycott the Beijing Olympics in protest over China's poor human rights record. Mr Brandis said that while he didn't support an athletes' boycott of the games, there was no need for the prime minister or senior ministers to attend....


Boys in blue say ditch 'small, scared' girls

A bit of realism about the dickless Tracys is long overdue

The feminising of Victoria's police force has been listed as one of its three biggest problems in a survey of serving officers. The survey - done by the Herald Sun - found two in three officers had considered leaving the force in the past year. Many respondents lashed out at the number of women in the force. "Get more males into the academy, not more females," one officer said.

More women than men graduated from the police academy last year, the first time the boys in blue had ever been outnumbered by female recruits. The percentage of women in the force has jumped from 15 per cent to almost 23 per cent in the seven years since Christine Nixon became Victoria's first female chief. That's still below the national average of 31 per cent. Victoria Police has said it intends continuing to encourage female recruits so it can reach that figure.

But frontline police are not happy with the strategy. "There are too many females who put male members at risk out on the street," one said. "I have been injured three times in the past 12 months fighting drunken idiots and getting no backup from my female partner, who is too small or too scared to help."

Another said there were too many promotions of women based on gender rather than ability. "We have this emphasis on promoting females through non-operational positions and putting them in operational supervisory positions with minimal operational experience," the officer said.

Many police also regretted there was no longer a minimum height requirement for recruits, and that the force had scrapped some aspects of the physical training to make it easier for women to pass. "They have dropped relevant components to allow below-standard persons in," one officer said. "I'm tired of carrying the workload of incompetent people. Also, bring back the physical component. Even as a female, I'm embarrassed."

A force spokeswoman defended recruiting women and their performance. She said only one other state had a lower percentage of female officers, and an Auditor-General's report in 2006 recommended attracting and retaining women should be a priority. She said of 20 police service areas with 25 per cent or higher female representation, 14 were in the top-performing half of all police service areas. On average, 77 women (0.6 per cent of the force) were on maternity leave each financial year. Men averaged more carer and personal leave.


Profoundly thuggish Polynesians

Polynesians (Maoris and Pacific islanders) have a high rate of criminality in Australia but that is normally kept from public consciousness by the customary media reluctance to make ethnic identifications. The group below seem mostly to be of Tongan origin. More background on them here. Anybody who knows Maoris well from personal experience (as I do) will be aware of their different ethical system. The whole idea of personal private property seems to be alien to most of them. If something is accessible to them they usually seem to think that they are entitled to have it

They were arrested at gunpoint but that was not enough to put fear into five teenage boys who allegedly rampaged through a school armed with baseball bats, machetes and samurai swords. The boys, aged 14 to 16, treated their arrest as a joke and even plotted further crimes while in police custody, a court was told yesterday. The allegations were made in documents tendered in Parramatta Children's Court outlining why the teenagers were refused police bail over an attack at Merrylands High School on Monday morning.

The teenagers refused to appear before a magistrate yesterday and were formally refused bail. They will face court again on May 22. A 14-year-old from Auburn, two 15-year-olds from Carramar and Merrylands, and two 16-year-olds from Merrylands and Seven Hills, face a total of 101 charges, including assault, affray, causing malicious damage of property worth more than $15,000, and participating in a criminal group. The teenagers allegedly stormed the school while an assembly was being held at 8.50am, forcing the school into lockdown before smashing their way into classrooms and assaulting students and teachers.

In the case of four of the boys - bail documents regarding a fifth were missing - police alleged each offender had treated police with contempt. "The young person has shown no remorse," police wrote on a bail form. "While in custody he treated the matter as a joke and used his time in custody to plan further criminal enterprises."

The documents alleged the teenagers showed "contempt" towards the community and police. "The premeditated actions of the the young persons were an attack on one of the rights and freedoms enjoyed by Australians on a daily basis - to attend school in an atmosphere of safety and security. "The damage inflicted by the young persons will take years to repair." While the boys were being taken from the court complex, one of them gave a rude gesture to waiting media.

As authorities yesterday began a review of security at Merrylands High School, the State Government moved to shore up laws against school invaders. Premier Morris Iemma said he had asked Attorney-General John Hatzistergos to consider a new offence of damaging property "in company" in schools, carrying a much stiffer penalty.


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