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Archive November 2009

Climate change deniers live in glass buildings Ken Perrott Nov 30

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There seems to be a big mobilisation of climate change deniers at the moment. Someone on Twitter described selective use of stolen emails, “Climategate”, as pre-Copenhagen smears. They added a quote from Churchill which I think is very apt: “A lie is halfway round the world before the truth can get its pants on.”

Most of the local media seems to be taking a relatively balanced approach to the Climategate email issue (see for example A climate scandal, or is it just hot air?). However, we now have  a “controversy” manufactured by the local Climate Science Coalition an Climate Conversation Group. A group of climate change deniers, none of them climate scientists themselves, who attempt to cast doubt on the science produced by real climate scientists. This started with a press release (Are we feeling warmer yet?). picked up and promoted by Ian Wishart (a local conspiracy theorist and climate change denier) and some local conservative and religious apologist blogs (see for example I confess I now believe in manmade Global Warming, Climate scientists caught lying and New Zealand not warming?).

Basically, it was a manipulation of raw data from NZ weather stations to support their preconceived claim of no temperature change over time. Accompanied by a claim that NIWA has dishonestly adjusted the same data to produce a temperature change.

The issues, and the scientific facts, are well covered by Garth at Hot Topic (NZ sceptics lie about temp records, try to smear top scientist) and items at the NIWA web site. I recommend reading these.

Nature of the distortions

The scientific issues involved, and the distortions made by the deniers, are an interesting example of how scientific data can be manipulated dishonestly. The issues are well illustrated by these graphs from NIWA. The figure shows the raw temperature data from three stations in Wellington. The main Kelburn station data (green) shows what is most probably a significant increase of temperature over time. This data is consistent, taken from the same site since 1930.

However there was also data available from before 1930 from a separate station at Thorndon site (blue). This site was much closer to sea level and understandably gave higher readings.

In essence, what the climate change deniers did was combine the data from these two stations without any corrections. it produced the result they wanted because the combined raw data was skewed by the higher temperatures at the Thorndon site and hence removed the temperature trend. They simply attached the blue plot to the green one!

The figure illustrates how climate scientists deal with these sort of problems. Unfortunately there was no overlapping data for the two stations. But there were concurrent data (red) for the Airport station (at approximately the same elevation as the Thorndon station was) and the Kelburn station. This enable determination of an adjustment factor which could reasonably be applied to the raw Thorndon data.

The resulting graph after proper combination of the data from the three stations is shown in the next figure. (Here, the red and blue data have been adjusted by the factor determined fror the red and green data).

Now, of course,  the complete data made available by NIWA, and their graphical presentation of NZ temperature trends over time, are more complex than this. They contain information from more met stations. But, I think, the consideration of the Wellington station data clearly presents the issues involved.

It also clearly demonstrates the deception attempted by the NZ Climate Science Coalition.

(Sure, I am going to get deniers who wish to talk about the non-Wellington data – a tactic for prolonging the attack and divert attention away from the dishonesty of the Climate Science Coalition and the Climate Conversation Group).

Attack to divert attention

Some of the deniers have partly acknowledge their deception. Richard Treadgold, who collated the information in the press release has acknowledged that they purposely avoided proper adjustment for site differences. However, he still attempts to shift the criticism by claiming NIWA hadn’t provided details on adjustment method.  NIWA claims that they had made the Coalition aware of methodology several years ago.

But you can see the tactic. The best defense is attack – accusation of more cover ups! Similar to the way creationists react to discovery of fossils of transitional forms – by then claiming there are two “missing gaps” instead of one! Anything to prevent attention turning back to the deception of the Climate Change Coalition the Climate Conversation Group. And the climate change denial blogs have quickly taken up that chorus.

But the real question for those bloggers was asked by US blogger Deltoid: “I wonder how many of the folks accusing NIWA of cooking their data will correct their posts?” (See New Zealand Climate Science Coalition caught lying about temperature trends).

My concern about the attacks on reason, on science. While some people have been concerned about the implications of the “Climategate” emails others have resorted to extreme and emotional  attacks on integrity of scientists involved. Some are even attacking the very idea of science! Peter Griffin from the NZ Science Media Centre described it this way a few days ago: “The comment sections of some blogs have become particularly grubby places to congregate” (see Climategate brought out the worst in us).

Mind you – it would be interesting, wouldn’t it, if somebody hacked into the servers used by the Climate Change Coalition and the Climate Conversation Group. Just imagine the exchanges which probably took place over how this data should be massaged and presented. Over who could be used to release the “report.” And what blogs and newspapers could be trusted to carry their message uncritically.

Just imagine the “Deniergate” that could result!

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Richard Dawkins in Auckland next March Ken Perrott Nov 27

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This guy leads an extremely busy life. I know he is promoting his recently published books The Greatest Show on Earth and consequently gets into book tours. But his publishers certainly work him hard.

Next March (Wednesday 10th) he is speaking in Wellington during the Writers and Readers Week at the NZ International Arts Festival (see Richard Dawkins in Wellington next March). Just announced is an appearance in Auckland on Saturday 13th March. But on Sunday 14th March he will also be speaking at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne!

I am a little bit younger than him but I couldn’t stand that pace.

Anyway, details of the Auckland appearance are:

Saturday 13th, march, 2010

The University of Auckland Fisher & Paykel Auditorium, Owen G Glenn Bldg, 12 Grafton Rd, Auckland

Richard Dawkins LIVE! The Greatest Show on Earth

The University of Auckland is pleased to present one of Britain’s foremost science writers Richard Dawkins in his only Auckland appearance.

Richard Dawkins will be introduced by Brian Boyd, The University of Auckland’s Distinguished Professor of English. He teaches a course in Literature and Science that includes Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker.

About Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins will present evidence for his argument that evolution is an incontrovertible fact. In his new book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, the renowned evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist takes on creationists, including followers of “intelligent design” and all those who question evolution through natural selection.

Tickets will be available from iTicket (go to RICHARD DAWKINS LIVE! – iTICKET). The Auckland Alumni pre-sales have sold out but you can pre-register for sales to the general public starting November 30th.

I wonder where else in New Zealand he will speak?

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’Climategate’ — the smoking gun? Ken Perrott Nov 26

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Some of the more extreme climate change deniers, and others who have an anti-science agenda, continue to dredge through the domestic debris of the emails stolen by a hacker from the climatic research unit at the University of East Anglia. Their conclusions are, of course, predictable.  Meanwhile, the balanced media summary oif this fiasco is probably well represented by George Monbiot in the Guardian: “The leaked exchanges are disturbing, but it would take a conspiracy of a very different order to justify sceptics’ claims.” (see Global warming rigged? Here’s the email I’d need to see ).

I particularly liked his depiction of the email that the climate change deniers and their allies would dearly love to find. It’s a great satire and portrays some of the silliest conspiracy theories promulgated by deniers.

From:

Sent: 29 October 2009

To: The Knights Carbonic

Gentlemen, the culmination of our great plan approaches fast. What the Master called “the ordering of men’s affairs by a transcendent world state, ordained by God and answerable to no man”, which we now know as Communist World Government, advances towards its climax at Copenhagen. For 185 years since the Master, known to the laity as Joseph Fourier, launched his scheme for world domination, the entire physical science community has been working towards this moment.

The early phases of the plan worked magnificently. First the Master’s initial thesis — that the release of infrared radiation is delayed by the atmosphere — had to be accepted by the scientific establishment. I will not bother you with details of the gold paid, the threats made and the blood spilt to achieve this end. But the result was the elimination of the naysayers and the disgrace or incarceration of the Master’s rivals. Within 35 years the 3rd Warden of the Grand Temple of the Knights Carbonic (our revered prophet John Tyndall) was able to “demonstrate” the Master’s thesis. Our control of physical science was by then so tight that no major objections were sustained.

More resistance was encountered (and swiftly dispatched) when we sought to install the 6th Warden (Svante Arrhenius) first as professor of physics at Stockholm University, then as rector. From this position he was able to project the Master’s second grand law — that the infrared radiation trapped in a planet’s atmosphere increases in line with the quantity of carbon dioxide the atmosphere contains. He and his followers (led by the Junior Warden Max Planck) were then able to adapt the entire canon of physical and chemical science to sustain the second law.

Then began the most hazardous task of all: our attempt to control the instrumental record. Securing the consent of the scientific establishment was a simple matter. But thermometers had by then become widely available, and amateur meteorologists were making their own readings. We needed to show a steady rise as industrialisation proceeded, but some of these unfortunates had other ideas. The global co-option of police and coroners required unprecedented resources, but so far we have been able to cover our tracks.

The over-enthusiasm of certain of the Knights Carbonic in 1998 was most regrettable. The high reading in that year has proved impossibly costly to sustain. Those of our enemies who have yet to be silenced maintain that the lower temperatures after that date provide evidence of global cooling, even though we have ensured that eight of the 10 warmest years since 1850 have occurred since 2001. From now on we will engineer a smoother progression.

Our co-option of the physical world has been just as successful. The thinning of the Arctic ice cap was a masterstroke. The ring of secret nuclear power stations around the Arctic circle, attached to giant immersion heaters, remains undetected, as do the space-based lasers dissolving the world’s glaciers.

Altering the migratory and reproductive patterns of the world’s wildlife has proved more challenging. Though we have now asserted control over the world’s biologists, there is no accounting for the unauthorised observations of farmers, gardeners, birdwatchers and other troublemakers. We have therefore been forced to drive migrating birds, fish and insects into higher latitudes, and to release several million tonnes of plant pheromones every year to accelerate flowering and fruiting. None of this is cheap, and ever more public money, secretly diverted from national accounts by compliant governments, is required to sustain it.

The co-operation of these governments requires unflagging effort. The capture of George W Bush, a late convert to the cause of Communist World Government, was made possible only by the threatened release of footage filmed by a knight at Yale, showing the future president engaged in coitus with a Ford Mustang. Most ostensibly capitalist governments remain apprised of where their real interests lie, though I note with disappointment that we have so far failed to eliminate Vaclav Klaus. Through the offices of compliant states, the Master’s third grand law has been established: world government will be established under the guise of controlling man-made emissions of greenhouse gases.

Keeping the scientific community in line remains a challenge. The national academies are becoming ever more querulous and greedy, and require higher pay-offs each year. The inexplicable events of the past month, in which the windows of all the leading scientific institutions were broken and a horse’s head turned up in James Hansen’s bed, appear to have staved off the immediate crisis, but for how much longer can we maintain the consensus? Knights Carbonic, now that the hour of our triumph is at hand, I urge you all to redouble your efforts. In the name of the Master, go forth and terrify.

Professor Ernst Kattweizel, University of Redcar. 21st Grand Warden of the Temple of the Knights Carbonic.

Monbiot concludes: “This is the kind of conspiracy the deniers need to reveal to show that man-made climate change is a con. The hacked emails are a hard knock, but the science of global warming withstands much more than that.”

What do you think? Is he being a bit harsh?

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Appropriate thanks Ken Perrott Nov 26

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With the US Thanksgiving holiday coming up I thought it worth repeating this article from 2 years back.

There are many religious ceremonies and prayers giving thanks to a god. I often think these are rude on two grounds:

  • I many case these are imposed on people who don’t share the belief in a god (consider our parliamentary prayers, Christian prayers and ’grace’ in a mixed social situations);
  • Thanks are directed at a mythical being while the real people responsible for theDan Dennett goodness in the world are ignored.

The later point was made by Daniel C. Dennett in his article THANK GOODNESS! In this he expressed his thanks for recovery from nine hours of serious heart surgery. It’s worth reading the full article but consider this extract:

Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say ’Thank goodness!’ this is not merely a euphemism for ’Thank God!’ (We atheists don’t believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.

To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years, and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. To the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and x-ray technicians and a small army of phlebotomists so deft that you hardly know they are drawing your blood, and the people who brought the meals, kept my room clean, did the mountains of laundry generated by such a messy case, wheel-chaired me to x-ray, and so forth. These people came from Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Haiti, the Philippines, Croatia, Russia, China, Korea, India–and the United States, of course–and I have never seen more impressive mutual respect, as they helped each other out and checked each other’s work. But for all their teamwork, this local gang could not have done their jobs without the huge background of contributions from others. I remember with gratitude my late friend and Tufts colleague, physicist Allan Cormack, who shared the Nobel Prize for his invention of the c-t scanner. Allan–you have posthumously saved yet another life, but who’s counting? The world is better for the work you did. Thank goodness. Then there is the whole system of medicine, both the science and the technology, without which the best-intentioned efforts of individuals would be roughly useless. So I am grateful to the editorial boards and referees, past and present, of Science, Nature, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, and all the other institutions of science and medicine that keep churning out improvements, detecting and correcting flaws.

What a wonderful approach! It really does show how inadequate the religious ceremonies of thanks are. Next time someone tries to impose a religious prayer to ’Thank God’ for a meal I suggest replacing it with thanks to the people responsible for the meal, the production and transport of the food, the researchers who made this production possible and society in general for all the goodness that is out there.

See also
Daniel C. Dennett: Thank Goodness not God on Thanksgiving
‘In honour of Dan Dennett’ by Richard Dawkins

Related Articles:
’Let us pray . . . ’
What do we teach our children?
Religion and Schools
Atheism and religious diversity
Discrimination at school
Christian prayer problems
Destiny of Christian privilege?
Trends in religious belief in New Zealand
Religious diversity includes ’non-believers’
Religious Diversity Statement

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Awesome pictures from the Enceladus flyby Ken Perrott Nov 25

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It’s amazing how much we are finding out about other bodies in the solar system these days. And the images we get back from some of our robotic spaceships can be incredible.

Here’s one taken by Cassini during a deep swoop past Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. This is an intriguing moon because it is thought to contain an ocean of water below an ice surface. It is also very active with plumes of material shooting at least 1000 km into space. In fact, these plumes may be contributing material to Saturn’s rings.

The swoop, early this month, was the deepest yet brought the spacecraft to about 100 km from the moon’s surface. it also took the craft through the heart of a plume enabling further investigation of its compositions and density. Scientists thinks the heating and tectonic activity arises from tidal forces caused by proximity to Saturn. There is even speculation that this energy and the presence of liquid water could provide conditions for life on the moon.

Thanks to Emily Lakdawalla at The Planetary Society Blog.

Click on Enceladus flyby for a compostie animation of images of the plumes.

See also: Video compilation of still images from a previous flyby

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5PqLPU2VA4

See also:
Greetings to All You Fellow Cassini Travelers!

Enceladus Flyby – Nov. 2, 2009

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Those ’climategate’ emails Ken Perrott Nov 24

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The current “scandal” erupting around the hacking of servers at the University of East Anglias’ Climate Research Centre is rather predictable. The public release of stolen emails has been seized on by climate change deniers as evidence for their claims of manipulated data and faulty peer-review. Even more dishonestly they have been used to attack the integrity of science, and scientists, in general – quite apart form any climate change issue (see for example WarmingGate, The scientific community and self-criticism, Climate scientists caught lying and How the Global Warming Scientists Really Work at four local religious apologetics blogs). On the other hand, researchers and many newspaper commentators say the emails show nothing more than frank discussion between scientists around the world and details of their collaboration on research projects and journal articles.

Domestic debris and media comments

Anyone interested in the boredom of trawling through such domestic debris can access the stolen emails at Alleged CRU Emails. For some more balanced news media coverage have a look at:
This climate email -hacking episode is generating more heat than light
Global warming rigged? Here’s the email I’d need to see
Climate change email hacking to be looked into by University of East Anglia
Leaked emails mark dangerous shift in climate denial strategy
Climate change champion and sceptic both call for inquiry into leaked emails
Leaked email climate smear was a PR disaster for UEA

And a rather humorous take on “climategate” is available here: Newtongate: the final nail in the coffin of Renaissance and Enlightenment ‘thinking’

Predictably only the most apparently damning emails have been quoted in the media. While I think some of the language in the emails is disappointing I don’t think it is surprising for informal private communications.  The scientific institutes  involved may well  be adivsed to investigate specific comments, if only to reinforce their scientific integrity in the public mind. But I will be surprised if these comments indicate any real scientific fraud.

The NZ Science Media Centre has released a summary of reactions from UK-based scientists. It originates from their sister organisation, the Science Media Centre in London.

Dr Chris Huntingford, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), said:

“Using the very comprehensive set of temperature measurements available to us, we do know that there has been significant warming over the last hundred years. These datasets have been compiled by independent research laboratories in both the UK and the USA.”Computer model descriptions of the climate system are increasing in their predictive skill, and there are now very good reasons to believe that their output is accurate and can be trusted. These simulations provide compelling evidence of the link between global warming and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide due to the burning of fossil fuels.

“Such state-of-the-art computer models of how the climate functions do also account for natural cycles in the Earth system. However, when the additional influence of humans is not considered, they are unable to explain the rapid rate of warming that has been observed over the last Century. The implication is that to a very high level of certainty, the warming observed in the last Century is not part of a natural cycle.

“Almost all current scientific understanding of how the climate system operates suggests that humankind is having an influence on our climate system.”

Professor John Burrows, Director of the Biogeochemistry Programme, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), said:

“The peer review scientific process was created to try to avoid conspiracies from any side on an issue. Despite the adverse reaction in some quarters the current discussion is a perfect example that whilst it doesn’t always look perfect, an open debate, backed up by peer review,  is what science is all about.

“Whilst not ignoring “emailgate” we should not inadvertently move the public attention from the established scientific consensus to the attempt at character assassination being made by these climate change sceptics.

“The basic physics of global climate change has been known since Arrhenius at the end of the 19th century if not before. The four Assessment Reports from the IPCC are consistent, however, the data since 1990 seems to follow worst case scenarios. To me this is evidence that the scientific community is behaving responsibly and rather cautiously with respect to the science of climate change.”

Professor Piers Forster, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, said:

“Scientists at the Climate Research Unit are leading experts in the world’s temperature record. They do an amazingly hard job of collecting data from lots of counties, looking at errors and putting the different datasets together. They have been under increasing pressure from a few individuals to respond to multiple FOI calls. Like all us scientists they are short of man-power and stretch their resources to the maximum to do as much new science as possible. The need to respond to FOI requests are often too large to make them feasibly achievable and whilst some of the emails show scientists to be all too human, nothing I have read makes me doubt the veracity of the peer review process or the general warming trend in the global temperature record. I know that when errors in their global temperature product have previously been found (e.g. Thomson et al., 2008, Nature), they responded as all scientists should, researching the source of the error with true scientific enthusiasm.”

Dr Stephan Harrison, Associate Professor in Quaternary Science, School of Geography, University of Exeter, said:

“The emails from the Climatic Research Unit which have been published on the internet have been seized upon by climate change sceptics as evidence that scientists are involved in a global warming conspiracy, suppression of dissenting voices and making data up to support a global warming agenda.  We shouldn’t get too carried away, however. Irrespective of what may or may not have been said in some private emails, this doesn’t change the physical properties of carbon dioxide, and doesn’t change the fact that human activity is warming the planet.  There’s a lot of politics in all of this debate, but it is the science that has to drive policy.”

Kathy Maskell, Spokesperson, & Professor Rowan Sutton, Walker Institute, University of Reading, said:

“Throughout the Earth’s history there have been natural changes in climate caused by many factors, including variations in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, volcanic eruptions, and changes in greenhouse gas concentrations. The scientific evidence now shows that people are changing the global climate.

“Climate scientists look at both natural factors that cause climate to change and they look at the effect that people are having on climate. There is no doubt that human activity, such as burning fossil fuels and agriculture, is increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This increase in greenhouse gases is causing the globe to warm.

“The current warmth is unusual in the context of the last 1000 years (at least) and is not just part of a natural cycle. Past changes are also thought to have occurred much more slowly than the warming over the 20th century.

“The majority of scientists agree that much of the warming since the mid-20th century is very likely due to increasing greenhouse gases being produced by human activity. Scientists have looked at different possible causes for the warming. Natural changes (like changes in the Sun’s output) cannot explain 20th century warming. The only way to reproduce the warming over the 20th century is to include the effects that people are having on the climate.

“Over the 20th century as a whole there has been a warming trend of 0.7 degrees centigrade and the warming has accelerated since the mid-20th century. The warming has not been steady and there have been periods of cooling. This is exactly what climate scientists would expect. As well as increasing greenhouse gases, natural factors (such as volcanic eruptions and changes in sea surface temeprature in the Pacific called El Nino) are also affecting global temperature. So scientists would expect there to be short periods where there is less warming and even cooling, but overall the trend is towards higher global temperatures.”


Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science, said:

Once appropriate action has been taken over the hacking, there has to be some process to assess the substance of the e-mail messages as well. The selective disclosure and dissemination of the messages has created the impression of impropriety, and the only way of clearing the air now would be through a rigorous investigation. I have sympathy for the climate researchers at the University of East Anglia and other institutions who have been the target of an aggressive campaign by so-called ’sceptics’ over a number of years. But I fear that only a thorough investigation could now clear their names.

“There needs to be an assurance that these e-mail messages have not revealed inappropriate conduct in the preparation of journal articles and in dealing with requests from other researchers for access to data. This will probably require investigations both by the host institutions and by the relevant journals. There may also be a role for the UK Office of Research Integrity to advise on any investigation.

“The e-mail messages I have seen posted on ’sceptics” websites do not cast doubt on the basic physical fact that the Earth is warming in response to rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. ‘Sceptics’ may seek to wrongly portray these e-mail messages as a smoking gun from a worldwide conspiracy to create a global warming hoax, but that is simply a ridiculous fantasy.”

Dr Andy Challinor, lecturer in Climate Change Modelling, University of Leeds, said:

“Scientists are frequently faced with choices about methods of presenting data. The aim is to represent the underlying facts clearly, and there is rarely a single correct way of doing this. The mechanisms for anthropogenic climate change are established science that is well-understood. The idea that the many scientists across the globe working on climate change could collude in misrepresenting the fundamentals of the science is ludicrous, since it would be both counter-cultural to science and logistically impossible.”

Dr Shaun Fitzgerald, Industrial Fellow, University of Cambridge BP Institute, said:

“The evidence base for climate change continues to be debated. However, what is disappointing is that there is less debate about what we should be doing morally regardless of the strength of the case for or against climate change being driven by mankind. Even if some people want to dismiss the evidence base, what do they think we should do as responsible citizens? Clearly we should be seeking ways of reducing our impact on the planet – this is irrefutable.

“Improving energy efficiency and switching to non/low-carbon energy sources are vital. In the case of improved energy efficiency, there are strong economic arguments today as to why this should be done now. In the case of switching to non/low carbon energy sources, the economic arguments are longer-term and may involve consideration of the cost of climate change as per the Stern report. In summary, I fail to understand why people want to debate the evidence base for climate change rather than debate what we should be doing anyway to reduce our impact on the planet. The technological advances in energy efficiency need to be adopted by more people, and more quickly, before we invest more time debating climate change! “

(Further Information: To talk to any of the experts quoted above contact the Science Media Centre on tel: 04 499 5476 or email: )

I realise these comments will have no influence on the more adamant climate change deniers or those who wish to sneeringly smear and attack science and scientists for their own ideological or religious reasons. But hopefully more reasonable people will be able to see through such attacks and recognise that these stolen emails don’t indicate any widespread conspiracy to deceive.
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An Introduction to Evolution Ken Perrott Nov 23

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Book Review: The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution by Carl Zimmer

Price: US$43:16
Hardcover: 394 pages
Publisher: Roberts and Company Publishers; 1 edition (October 15, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0981519474
ISBN-13: 978-0981519470

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This Tuesday is the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Charles Darwin’s bookOn the Origin of Species“. And earlier this year we celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth.

These anniversaries have been marked by publication of books about Darwin’s life, his ideas and various aspects of evolutionary science. Most of these are aimed at the adult reader. But here is one which will appeal to school children and young adults — an important section of readers.

The Tangled Bank is an introductory text book. It will be ideal for introductory classes on evolution and biology. But it is also going to appeal to many adults, and especially to families.

More than a text book

This is no dry old text book. Carl Zimmer is a science journalist who has already published several popular science books. His communication skills are evidence here. Zimmer’s writing is lively and readable, but still very informative. This makes the book a joy to read and it will appeal especially to young adults and newcomers to this subject.

The book is richly and appropriately illustrated throughout. I liked the useful timeline on the inside front and back cover sheets. This portrays evolution of the planet and of life from 4.6 billion years ago. Many diagrams were prepared especially for the book to explain recent findings and they show attentive work by the team of artists, editors, science advisers as well as the author. This helps to make it a helpful family resource as well as a text for undergraduate introductory courses. It is a book which growing children and students will read at home for pleasure as well as for project help.

I liked the way each chapter began with depictions and descriptions of the work of named scientists. Thepersonal link does a lot to show the excitement and adventure in the scientific process. It also helps explain the rapid expansion and empirical basis of knowledge in this dynamic science. I believe involvement of personalities and their work in the narrative will help motivate young people towards a career in scientific research.

Transitional fossils

For example, Zimmer describes the work of Neil Shubin, author of “Your Inner Fish,” and his team in the discovery of transitional fossils showing evolution of tetrapods from their marine ancestors. They found fossils of the Tiktaalik which lived 375 million years ago. Transitional forms in evolution of the whale are illustrated by Hans Thewissen’s discovery of fossils of the Ambulocetus from 47 million years ago (see figure below from book). Zimmer describes these evolutionary transitions in more depth in his book At the Water’s Edge.

The Tangled Bank also explains observation of evolutionary transitions as they occur in modern-day laboratory experiments. Zimmer describes the 20-year experiment in which Richard Lenski showed microbial evolution in Eshericia coli. This illustrates how individual mutations favoured by natural selection can be identified and verified.

Carl Zimmer provides an extensive overview of evolutionary science in 370 pages. Starting with a description of what we mean by evolution, through a brief history of evolutionary ideas, geological evidence, phylogeny, molecular biology, the nature of mutation, genetic drift and selection. The role of genes, speciation extinctions and radiations, interspecies adaptions and the benefits of sex and families. He also covers evolution of behaviour in humans and other animals, emotions and society.

Attacks on evolutionary science

Maybe Zimmer could have said more about current attacks on evolutionary science. After all, few students will be unaware of what is happening at the political and social level. He does have a 2-page spread ’How Not to Study Evolution’ which summarises the essential problem of the creationist approach. And there are also other one or two page boxes on subjects like ’What is Science?’, ’The Present and the Past in Science’ and ’How do Scientists Study Evolution.’

This book is full of information without being intimidating to the non-biologist.  It has a useful glossary and, for those wanting to go further, 14 pages of references — all related to the individual chapter and section headings.

So a readable, informative and up-to-date introduction to evolutionary science. With the added benefit of being an attractive family reference book. One that children will happily read as they grow.

I reckon it would be a great Christmas present for the science-friendly family.

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NZ blogs sitemeter ranking — November ‘09 Ken Perrott Nov 20

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So far I have found 126 NZ blogs with publicly accessible sitemeter stats. This is about 20% of the total on my database.

The blogs are listed in the table below, together with daily visits and page view numbers averaged over the previous 7 days. The data was that given by by the NZ blog ranking tool on November 19th.

This can be seen at NZ blogs average daily visits

Have a look at that tool. Its a way of comparing your own blog’s performance from day to day -  a roller coaster ride which can be quite exciting!

Just be aware that it relies on spreadsheets at Googles Docs and data is not always available. If the data is missing or incomplete, wait a while and reload the page. it will eventually show up.

Meanwhile I am still keen to hear of any other blogs with publicly available sitemeter stats that I have missed. Contact me if you know of any.

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Galileo and Hollywood Ken Perrott Nov 18

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I have always enjoyed Carolyn Porco’s talks. She is the director of CICLOPS, the Cassini Imaging Science Team. Cassini is currently in orbit around Saturn.

In this talk given at the AAI 2009 Convention she covers some interesting topics (see video below). These include the question of science and atheism, can science determine if a god exists and the contribution of Galileo to the scientific method.  I think the latter subject is very important in the International Year of Astronomy. We keep being distracted from it by religious apologists whose only motive is to find excuses for the Church’s treatment of Galileo, in the process often distorting or denying Galileo’s scientific contributions. Porco also discusses problems with the modern-day public attitudes towards science.

A soap opera?

I have often though that a TV soap could be produced based on a scientific institute and showing all the normal human crises that scientists face – just like non-scientists. But at the same time portraying the satisfaction and exhilaration that comes from doing science. I am sure this could be much better than the routine soaps based at hospitals and police stations.

Carolyn Porco thinks the same way. And she has experience with Hollywood to back her up. She was a consultant for the film Contact, based on Carl Sagan’s fictional book Contact.

She includes some amazing images taken from her work on the Cassini mission. A really dramatic shot of Saturn, back lit by the sun and the small blue dot of the earth peeping through its rings.

Watch more videos from AAI 2009.

Thanks to RichardDawkins.net: ‘Science in Hollywood’ by Carolyn Porco.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGSv-uZCOyY

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Distorting Darwin Ken Perrott Nov 17

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Poor old Charles Darwin. In this year of celebration, when we mark the 200th year since his birth and the 150th year since the publication of his great work The Origin of Species, he is being subjected to a real deluge of misrepresentation. The ideological opponents of science, particularly evolutionary science, have been working overtime to quote him out of context, to cherry pick quotes, to “prove” he was a horrible person and that the “materialist” heart of science must be ripped out.

Here’s a recent local example. Those deluded souls over at Thinking Matters Talk have produced a post, Darwinism, Morality and Violence, as part of their creationist preaching. They “quote” Darwin to “prove” he had a ’toxic doctrine of racial superiority and eugenics.” And this is an inevitable result of “materialist evolution.” Oh, I should add, alongside “high-school killings by teenagers in the US and Europe.” They seem to be answering their question: “Is mass murder the corollary of belief in materialistic evolution?” with an emphatic yes!  Because it leads to “loss of objective meaning” and “eradication of an objective moral order.”

Their “evidence” is this quote from The Descent of Man:

if we ’do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has too often occurred in the history of the world.’

Of course, the “if we” at the beginning is their own addition. The actual sentence reads:

“If the various checks specified in the two last paragraphs, and perhaps others as yet unknown, do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has too often occurred in the history of the world.”

So, it’s not “we” but “the various checks specified in the two last paragraphs, and perhaps others as yet unknown.”

Sure it’s all a bit quaint. It’s the language of the times. But those two paragraphs refer to published work on the effect of poverty and marriage on the death rate amongst children and adults. What a difference a dishonest “we” makes! Actually, that quote is quote common at creationist sites, but very few actually use the word “we.”

If the Thinking Matters people actually read the book they quote from they would find it destroys their argument. In the same chapter, after describing some pro-eugenics arguments in the writings of Gregg, Wallace and Galton, Darwin makes clear that he does not endorse them. While we use artificial selection for breeding domestic animals, we don’t do that “in the case of man.”

“The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.”

Actually, if they read this book they may also get some idea of early evolutionary speculation about the development of sympathy, empathy and morality in humans and animals.

But something else these scribblers should have taken note of from their own experience.  What is their usual source of “wisdom” when the want to “prove” something or “justify” a moral action?

Think about it. If humans want to promote evil policies, justify racial superiority, war, and inhuman morality – why should they bother with a relatively unknown book like the “Descent of Man.” Why not do what humans have done for century – use the Bible! This has been used to justify about everything humans have got into – in the name of “objective moral order.” That, and the dishonest method of cherry-picking and quote mining.

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