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Archive May 2010

This is scary! Ken Perrott May 31

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Well it must be for citizens of Louisiana and the surrounding US states on the Gulf of Mexico.

There are nearly 4,000 active oil and gas platforms in the area! Obviously an accident just waiting to happen. Well actually we might expect several accidents.

As PZ Myer points out (A constructive suggestion for retribution against BP):

Everyone is fixated on that one burning mess in the Gulf, which is probably exactly what the oil companies want – they are probably sweating pungent carcinogenic petrochemicals at the thought that someone might look around and notice all of those other rigs, which almost certainly have a paper trail of shortcuts and risks and shoddy management.

He is suggesting that the US administration should be also paying attention  to these other platforms.

That image puts it into perspective for me. We have a real problem with fossil fuels and it’s not just CO2 emissions.

Image credit NOOA.
See also: Nigeria’s agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill . The US and Europe ignore it

Theological intrusions into science Ken Perrott May 31

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It’s no secret. I have no time for theology.

I try to stay away from debates about existence of gods as I think it is a mug’s game. Evidence gets distorted or invented. And logic gets skewed. The UK Humanist Terry Sanderson has a brief article about this in the Guardian (see Theology — truly a naked emperor). As he says:

What is theology? I think one of the best definitions was given by the sci-fi writer Robert A Heinlein when he said: “Theology … is searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn’t there. Theologians can persuade themselves of anything.”

As an example of the trade he refers to Rowan Williams: “who is lauded far and wide for the vastness of his theological knowledge. He is said to have a brain the size of Jupiter because he can produce convoluted writing that nobody with their feet in reality can comprehend. And because no one can fathom it, it must be very important, right? He’s much cleverer than we are because he can say things that we don’t understand. For instance:”

“The word of God is not bound. God speaks, and the world is made; God speaks and the world is remade by the word incarnate. And our human speaking struggles to keep up. We need, not human words that will decisively capture what the word of God has done and is doing, but words that will show us how much time we have to take in fathoming this reality, helping us turn and move and see, from what may be infinitesimally different perspectives, the patterns of light and shadow in a world where the word’s light has been made manifest.”

Well – theologians might debate this. I couldn’t possibly comment. As I said, a mug’s game.

Interfering in the real world

Trouble is, the theologically inclined sometimes step out of their playpen and start interfering in the real world. Some seem particularly prone to lecturing us about the nature and limitations of science. Of course their motives are oblivious but they should not be allowed to get away with misrepresenting, sometimes even slandering, science, the scientific method and scientists.

Stuart, a local theology student, has had a go at lecturing us about the inadequacies of the scientific method in a blog post (see Are logical arguments evidence?). He argues that evidence is not required “for reasonable belief,” that argument in itself can be sufficient evidence, and that “physical evidence doesn’t speak” so different perspectives inevitable lead to different conclusions from the evidence. That is, evidence is unreliable and we must, in the end, rely on argument alone.

He exposes his own motives for this with his claim that “Christians would be in an awkward position,” if “evidence is required for reasonable belief.” So “there must therefore be something terribly wrong with the criteria.”

I guess many Christians would dispute that!

But lets look at his claims separately;

No evidence required?

He justifies this with “we should know nothing of moral truths, aesthetic values, and meta-physical intuitions. Yet surly we do know that torturing babies is wrong, open graves are macabre, waterfalls are sublime, that the past is objective and other minds do exist.” This is rather a jumble and one could debate each claim. But I think he is arguing by analogy that because some beliefs may be “properly basic” or axiomatic one can justify any old favourite belief by classifying it that way.

Come off it. Some philosophers won’t allow you any basic or foundational beliefs – and you want to use this claim just as a matter of convenience?!

He then argues that justifications for evidence are “self-referentially incoherent.. . . For no physical evidence is able to reveal that evidence is required for reasonable belief.” These sort of artificial circular arguments are what give theologians and naive philosophers a bad image. They are seen to sit around discussing how many angels they can place on the head of a pin while the rest of humanity gets on with the important business.

One important philosopher made a wise comment on this issue. Karl Marx in his Theses On Feuerbach wrote:

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Maybe a bit obtuse but, I think, very powerful. I interpret that to mean that “knowledge” obtained and developed without contact with reality is of little or no value. To change the world we need an effective method to know, or understand it. This requires contact with the real world.  His point was, perhaps, obvious to natural scientists who would have recognised this as an important assertion underlying the scientific revolution. However, while recognising this, Marx’s targets were philosophy, history and social science.

The fact is that these basic foundations of science, often considered axiomatic, are tested every day – in practice. We know reality has an internal logic, follows laws, etc., because we would not get the results we do if it didn’t. Similarly we know that basing knowledge on evidence is reliable because it works. We also know that basing knowledge simply on claims of basic belief or isolated logic is often wrong. We know that from experience.

Science knows all about mistaken logic and arguments because so many scientific ideas have been proved wrong. This happened because we tested them in practice, attempted to validate them against reality.

Argument can be sufficient evidence?

It’s understandable that theology and idealist philosophers promote this argument. And within those circles this approach can be very successful – because the resulting ideas and claims are never tested against reality!

In the real world, of course, things are never that abstract. Very few arguments or ideas in science are ever completely abstracted from real evidence, from reality. And there is always pressure to test resulting ideas and theory against reality. However, sometimes we have to rely on logic and mathematics to make advances. We may not always be able to test our ideas against reality becuase of technological immaturity or lack of theoretical precision. But in essence we make progress because ideas, logic and argument are intimately connected with, obtain evidence from, and are tested against, reality.

Another aspect worth remembering. Reality is largely counter-intuitive. Not surprising considering our intuitions have arisen from our evolution in a “medium sized” world. Most of reality, though, is far smaller or far bigger. It moves more slowly or much faster. Distances are immense or much smaller than we can comprehend. Common sense and classical logic therefore are often inappropriate by themselves.

Human interpretation means evidence is not objective?

Well, of course, our subjectivity is a problem. We may be an intelligent species but we are not a rational one. More a rationalising one. We go into situations with preconceived ideas. We are selective with our information  gathering. It is just human, and in many situations safer, to attempt to reinforce our prejudices.

This is a fundamental problem with the “argument is evidence approach.” It’s a great way of reinforcing our prejudices because we are under no obligation to test our ideas or search for objectivity. Of course we can debate with others, provide an opportunity for contrasting views to encourage the development of new ideas. But, let’s face it, we live in communities. Group thinking is natural.

And as I said above, common sense argument is not applicable to most fundamental scientific interactions with reality – no matter how honest and objective we try to be.

Hence the vital role of objective evidence and testing against reality in science.

Reality is what keeps us honest! No matter how beautiful we think our theories are if they cannot be validated against reality, are shown to be wrong by reality, we have to modify or abandon them.

Science is also a social process. Colleagues constantly critique our ideas and conclusions. Scientists really thrive on scepticism. We all would just love to be recognised for demonstrating a mistake in widely accepted theories. If our objective evidence or testing is inadequate we soon hear about it. We get forced back into real interaction with reality.

This is what is unique about the scientific process and why it is so powerful. This is why scientists can eventually reach consensus about our theories of reality – despite differences in religion, nationality and race. After all, there is only one reality.

Contrast this with religion and superstition. Reality is ignored and we see that there are multiple prejudices – and multiple “logical arguments” to justify them.

Humanity didn’t make the progress it has by relying on logical argument divorced from reality and practice.


And this is the latest cartoon from from Jesus & Mo – very appropriate:

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God, stop ‘playing science’ Ken Perrott May 28

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Craig Venter in 2004

Craig Venter (Image via Wikipedia)

Craig Venter‘s recent announcement of success in the laboratory creation of a synthetic cell has produced the expected response. Besides the congratulations there have been the usual warnings.

Some have raised the danger of synthetic organisms escaping the lab or being used to create weapons of mass destruction. One wag on Twitter commented: “What about the danger of allowing a human sperm fertilise a human ovum and the resulting individual being brought up in a human society. We know for sure this sometimes leads to weapons of mass destruction and other evils.”

And then there is the claim of scientists “playing God!” What the hell does that mean?

Anyway, I quite liked this slightly humorous story from NewsBiscuit – Synthetic life form accuses God of ‘playing science’.

The world’s first artificially created life form has accused God of ‘playing science’ and ‘meddling with things He cannot possibly understand.’

The single celled organism, created by Dr Craig Venter and his team, was said to be ‘outraged’ when it discovered that a supernatural being, not subject to any form of regulatory control, was still involved in the creation of life.

‘I cannot believe that God would be so irresponsible,’ said the synthetic cell, ‘creation is clearly a matter for scientists. This God guy should butt out and learn to accept His place in the grand scheme of things.’

Many ethicists believe that God has repeatedly overstepped the mark. ‘Nobody objects to the Lord producing a few miracles here and there,’ said philosopher AC Grayling, ‘but when he starts playing around with the very stuff of creation then He has clearly exceeded his remit. I am beginning to think that this omnipotence thing has gone to His head.’

God’s continued tampering with scientific matters has already been blamed for numerous ‘all-mighty blunders’ including Flu, Malaria, HIV and Piers Morgan. ‘He cannot be allowed a monopoly on this level of unregulated power,’ said Dr Venter, ‘that is why I am currently seeking to patent the genetic code for omnipotence so that we can keep His crazy meddling under some kind of control.’

A spokesman for the Lord said, ‘God has been working on this project for almost 15 billion years. Yes, He has made a few mistakes along the way but that is to be expected. This is still very much a work in progress and, dare I say it, a process of evolution.’

Speaking at a press conference, the synthetic cell said: ‘Dr Venter created me and I owe my loyalty to him. He’s the daddy now. God might be omniscient but, let me assure you, He doesn’t know everything.’

UPDATE: Just couldn’t resist including this Jesus and Mo cartoon:

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Why Don’t We Go To Church? Ken Perrott May 26

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Saw this recently and it immediately thought this would be a great book for my youngest granddaughter. She told me recently that she had been picked on by some of here school friends because she said she believed in evolution. This discussion quickly turned to belief in a god. It ended up with her having to pretend to believe in a god otherwise here friends would refuse to play with her!

Kids can be nasty.

The website for the book is Why Don’t We Go To Church? Here’s how they describe it:

About the Book:

Dan walks right into the evolution vs. creation debate with his science project. He is excited about “Primeval Soup” and how it tells the story of evolution but now he has to worry whether he will lose his new, best friend, Alex. Alex believes in God and creation and wants Dan to change his project. Dan never gave church or God much thought until their friendship is threatened.

This book is written for atheist parents or other non-religious families whose children may face difficulties when their non-belief in a deity is questioned.

About the Authors:

Gail Miller, Social Worker, and Rosalind Eagle, Registered Nurse, both live in South Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. They wrote this book to help children and atheist parents deal with questions and conflicts about religion.

See also: New Book Helps Atheist Parents And Their Children Deal With Religious Conflicts

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Sneaky scientists Ken Perrott May 24

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This little snippet from  Michael Tobis (see Scientist Sneaks Science into Heartland Meeting).

“Apparently Prof. Scott Denning of Colorado State has tricked the Heartland Institute into accepting a talk entitled “Debunking Common Myths About Global Warming” for their annual conference caucus this year.

The joke is on them. It turns out that the presentation is quite excellent! (Well, except that it’s a Microsoft PowerPoint (with heavy use of Comic Sans) but if you can put up with that, here you go.)”

It is worth watching his power point presentation (download as power point or pdf file). While The Heartland Institute has provided some of video of speakers this presentation isn’t included. However, there is a short video of some comments from Scott Denning in which he appeals to the audience to avoid confirmation bias and recognise that their tactics of attacking climate science is effectively ruling them out of the debate on solutions. The are actually disenfranchising the conservative, free market voice on this question.  As a free marketer himself he believes capitalism is capable of developing innovative and profitable  solutions to the problem.

http://www.pjtv.com/v/3605

See also: Some humour Fourth International Conference on Climate Change

Credit: Image captured from PJTV video.

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The heart of opposition to climate science Ken Perrott May 21

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Harrison Schmitt, Member of the Board, The Heartland Institute Former U.S. Senator, New Mexico

The Heartland Institute’s Fourth International Conference on Climate Change occured this week in Chicago, USA. It was basically a gathering of activists opposed to climate change science and/or political measures to deal with global warming.

It’s worth looking at the programme and the list of co-sponsors. These reveal the nature of the political and ideological links organisations involved in promoting climate change denial. It also provides some idea of how these organisations operate.

Sponsors include:

  • Conservative and free market organisations and think tanks like American Policy Center, Americans for Prosperity, Americans For Tax Reform, Atlas Economic Research Foundation Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, Competitive Enterprise Institute, George Marshall Institute, Institute for Free Enterprise – Berlin, National Center for Public Policy Research, Tennessee Center for Policy Research and many more.
  • The Right Wing Christian group Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.
  • Climate change denial activist groups such as Science and Public Policy Institute, New Zealand Climate Science Coalition, New Zealand Climate Science Coalition, International Climate Science Coalition, Icecap, Iceagenow.com, European Institute for Climate and Energy, Climate Science Coalition of America, Climate Sceptics, and so on.

Many of these groups and organisations have web sites and blogs dedicated wholly or partly to discrediting climate science and scientists.

Steve, McIntyre, from Climate Audit blog

And the programme included many of the well known outspoken critics of climate science and scientists. They include authors, contrarian scientists, journalists, politicians, etc. People like Stephen McIntyre, Bob Carter, Willie Soon, Marc Morano, Sen. James Inhofe, Richard Lindzen, James Delingpole, S. Fred Singer, Ross McKitrick, Anthony Watts, Roy W. Spencer, Ian Plimer, Christopher Monckton.

Some of these operate their own blogs and websites or write for conservative newspapers.

Chris de Freitas from Auckland University was there. As was Avril Terri Jackson, the founder of the Institute of Physics energy Group implicated in the biased submission to the Science and Technology Committee of the UK Parliament inquiry (see Institute of Physics in hot seat).

Science as a hand maiden to ideology

So this was definitely not a scientific conference – although science was discussed. Hardly in an objective manner, though. In general the science presented would have been to attack and discredit the current understanding of human induced climate change. Given the overwhelming ideological, political, and economic interests  we can see that the science would have been used to support and promote a conservative free market agenda.

OK – that’s the international face of climate change denial. But it’s also reflected locally in New Zealand. There are strong links between local organisations opposing climate change. The Coalition for Climate science and the Climate Conversation Group are linked with the Act Party and the NZ Centre for Political research. These organisations coordinate campaigns, petitions and meetings. Even parliamentary questions are involved.

And of course all these organisations have their own international links with conservative free market organisations like the heartland Institute.

UPDATE: John Boscawen MP for the NZ ACT Party and their main activist attacking climate scientists was at the conference. I wonder who paid his expenses? (Thanks Gareth).

Importance of propaganda and media

The composition of this conference indicate how this campaign recognises the importance of media and propaganda. The “science” of climate change denial, and its contrarian spokespeople, are linked not only to conservative think tanks (handy for funding) and politicians but also to media. To conservative journalists (eg. James Delingpole of  the London Daily Telegraph) and bloggers (eg. Marc Morano).

Another indication of the importance they place on propaganda. The Heartland Institute waived conference registration fees for politicians,  journalists and bloggers. They also offered some travel subsidies to members of the media.

Credit: Images captured from PJTV video.

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Last chance — almost! Ken Perrott May 20

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With the retirement of NASA’s shuttle fleet later this year we won’t be seeing images like this any more.

This shows Image of the solar transit of the International Space Station (ISS) and Space Shuttle Atlantis 50 minutes before docking last weekend. The last planned trip for Atlantis.

Have a look at the full image or click on the photo – it’s worth it!

The image is by Thierry Legault (see Solar Transit of ISS and Atlantis – Last Mission of Atlantis).
Thanks to Bad Astonomer (see ISS, Shuttle transit the Sun!).

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What’s that about global cooling? Ken Perrott May 19

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After all the talk about global cooling, or lack of global warming, here’s a nice little graph to illustrate the misuse of statistics. It also illustrates why climate change contrarians and deniers love to start their measurements from 1998.

Its from Paul Krugman’s Blog at the New York Times (see How Will They Spin This?).

“So, via Joe Romm, the NASA-GISS data show that the past 12 months were the hottest 12-month period on record. Here’s my plot of the temperature anomaly – the difference, in hundredths of a degree centigrade, from the average over 1951-80:”

“So much for the ’global cooling’ talking point. What I’m wondering is what excuse the deniers will come up with.

They could argue that temperatures fluctuate, that one shouldn’t make too much of a particular peak – which is actually true. But that would get them in trouble, since the whole global cooling thing has been about taking the 1998 peak – visible in the chart – plus a bit of bad data to claim, literally, that up is down. Any statistical fix, like looking at multi-year averages, would just confirm that the temperature trend is up.”

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Are you threatened by clarity? Ken Perrott May 18

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This short extract from the Q&A after Richard Dawkins‘ presentation at the Adelaide Writers’ Week a few months ago. You can find the full video at Fora.tv (Meet The Author: Richard Dawkins).

This is nice though because it presents a lovely contrast between the confrontational language of the Aussie questioner and the mild reasoned response of Dawkins. So much for Dawkins being strident!

He gives a brief outline of the criticism he and others have received from  bloggers about being too confrontational, describing the alternative “framing” approach. Dawkins concludes that both approaches are necessary.

I think I agree with him on that one. But I am open to other viewpoints.

Thanks to PZ Myers (Clarity : Pharyngula.)

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Supporting good science communication Ken Perrott May 17

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If you have watched any of the short videos from YouTube channel, Climate Denial Crock of the Week, you will appreciate how good they are. Always well produced they deal with specific arguments made by climate change deniers and contrarians.

Well, the author is in a competition for a $5,000 grant. If he wins he can make even more effective videos. The prize will help him with “better software, a good video camera, computer upgrades, sound clips and stock footage.”  (see Climate Denial Crock of the Week · Brighter Planet).

You can support him. All you have do is register at the link and vote. This is worth supporting – good science presented well!

Here’s one of the videos – very relevant. There’s more like it (see Climate Denial Crock of the Week):

Thanks to PZ Myers (see Climate denialists should fear this fellow)

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