Posts Tagged Nuclear power

Ridiculing ridiculous science commentary Ken Perrott Jun 30

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Sometimes it’s pointless to debate rationally with critics. When their approach and arguments are ridiculous it may be better to ridicule them rather than treat them seriosuly.

Simon Jenkins, Guardian columnist

It seems some British scientists have decided to do this with one of The Guardian’s columnists, Simon Jenkins. The last straw was a silly article of his Martin Rees makes a religion out of science so his bishops can gather their tithe. In this he made childish attacks on The Royal Society and its President Lord Martin Rees, the Large Hadron Collider, the BBC for running science programmes, the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, investment in science education, science advise on the H1N1 flu virus, nuclear power and “mad cow” disease, and so on.

This is how Jennifer Rohn describes Jenkins:

Those of you not immersed in the UK science media scene are missing out on a national treasure. I mean, of course, none other than the Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins who, although he claims no special expertise or experience in science, feels free to denounce it on a regular basis. No area seems exempt from his scorn: whether scientists are involved in analyzing climate change, ash clouds, BSE or swine ‘flu, they are probably up to no good.

All this was just not rational – it was ridiculous and ripe for ridicule.

So some British scientists have started to produce satirical articles parodying Jenkins style. In fact last Monday became the official “Spoof Jenks Day” when people were encouraged to produce articles and blog posts spoofing Jenkins.  This was kicked off by physicist Jon Butterworth (see A Mammoth of Research). Others soon followed and UCL cell biologist Jennifer Rohn has been aggregating them in her blog post In which evil boffins seek revenge at  Mind the Gap.

Here are a couple of intriguing titles – with short extracts:

Get over it, scientists: your cushy days are numbered by cell biologist Jennifer Rohn

People often point to journalists as being fallible, and I’d be the first to hold up my hands and admit, yes, what I write isn’t half bollocks. But ever catch a scientist criticizing one of his peer’s talks at a conference or – God forbid – recommending the rejection of one of his manuscripts in a scientific journal?

Simon Jenkins collects his tithe by science writer Brian Clegg

All over London there are “mammoths of tripe.” Costing hundreds of millions of pounds, these are “newspaper offices” whose editors pay large sums of money to “interesting” and “cutting edge” columnists. Ask not the value of the tripe these individuals pour out. The columnists jeers at the idea of value. These are outpourings of bile that are justified by the writer’s faith rather than any appeal to reason.

Urgent new priority for UK science by Imperial College structural biologist Stephen Curry

In a dramatic move today, the Government responded to an unprovoked attack on scientists from Guardian writer Simon Jenkins by announcing radical new priorities for UK science.

Revealing the policy shift, science minister David Willets said*, “We have to re-purpose the scientific effort of the country to address the urgent problem of recovering the missing half of Simon Jenkins’ arse.”

Bloody scientists think they know everything by blogger Rantarama

Y’know, someone had to come out and say it. Everyone else was too scared. But not Simon Jenkins. Oh no. He’s standing up to those bloody uppity scientists, driving around in their posh cars, wearing silk lab coats, and looking at atoms or whatever through their solid gold microscopes. No more! he cries. No more of your telling people how things work, using only facts and evidence to back up your ridiculous claims.”

Please help Simon by blogger Telescoper

Simon was quite bright as a small child, but things started to go wrong for him  early on in life. He was bullied at Public School by a vicious gang of ’nerds’ who forced him to look at their calculations. Later, a terrifying incident with a pipette in a chemistry lesson left him emotionally scarred. He started to have paranoid delusions and  nightmares about Men in White Coats and, more recently, Mammoths. He began to suspect all scientists were after his money. His behaviour became obsessive. Now, every gadget fills him with terror.  His actions are bizarre and unpredictable. He is no longer able to cope with everyday life and needs constant supervision.

Dictatorial scientists want us to marvel at their “magic” by post-doctoral astronomer Niall Deacon

This weekend scientists were again attempting to ’engage with society’ by encouraging us to see a dark smudge on the moon. This shameless attempt to co-opt the populace at large is yet the latest shallow, empty publicity stunt from the ’scientific community’.

Journalists, you are fallible. Get off the pedestal and join the common herd by statistician and Nature Network blogger Bob O’Hara

So journalists are human after all. They are no different from bankers, politicians, lawyers, estate agents and perhaps even scientists. They cheat. They make mistakes. They suppress truth and suggest falsity, especially when a cheque or a plane ticket is on offer. As for self-criticism, that is for you, not me.

There’s currently over 20 articles on the list.

An unexpected result has been activity on twitter – short, sharp parodies written in the Jenkins style. Have  search for the #spoofjenks tag.

I’m off to read more of these parodies.


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Environmental movement needs pragmatism Ken Perrott Dec 09

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Book Review: Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand

Price: US$17.153
Hardcover: 336 page
Publisher: Viking Adult (October 15, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0670021210
ISBN-13: 978-0670021215

Stewart Brand is an invigorating and challenging writer. He has a long history in the environmental movement. His green credentials are undeniable. But he is not afraid to think outside the box. To challenge current environmental thinking. And to fight against the destructive role of ideology which can be such a limitation in political movements.

This book has two clear messages for environmentalists and ’greens’:

1: Discard ideology.

2: Cities are green, nuclear energy is green, genetic engineering is green.

Brand proposes a pragmatic, non-ideological approach to the ecological and environmental problems we face today. In the process he has to critique some ideas he formerly promoted, and some of his allies still promote.

The book effectively deals with four areas. The role of cities, shanty towns and slums, the problem of anthropological contributions to climate change, the problem of energy and the role of nuclear power, and the resistance to solutions using genetic engineering.

Cities, countryside and slums

Brands discussion of the role of cities, slums and shanty towns is fascinating. It’s easily to be concerned about slums and shanty towns. But Brandt takes a positive view. He sees them as an important step in urbanisation. And urbanisation as an important step in improving the standing of living and cultural life of humanity. He opposes any romantic vision of villages which he describes as traps of ignorance and poverty.

Slums and shanty towns can be a hive of fervent commercial activity. Where people are busy making a living, carrying out a business (usually illegal or using illegal resources), educating their children and improving their income. All to enable them to make a transition to the city. To improve and incorporate technology into their own lives. ’The worlds slums are the first urban environments to shape themselves around the cellphone’.

Sure, these areas can be breeding grounds for crime. But governments should do what they can to inhibit this and encourage the positive features. Another problem is that religions play a stronger role in slums than often realised. Brand refers to Planet of Slums by Mike Davis who says that:

’Populist Islam and Pentecostal Christianity (and in Bombay, the cult of Shivaji) occupy a social space analogous to that of early-twentieth-century socialism and anarchism.’

Such groups can often be the real government and supplier of services in the slums.

Greenhouse gas emissions

On the climate change issue Brand is clear. It is a real problem that humanity must confront. Market forces cannot solve the problem for us. We do need to take action. We need to intervene.

I liked his warning that underground sequestration of CO2 is not a solution. Personally, I would like someone to argue for diversion of CO2 away from emission into other manufacturing processes as a raw material. I find it silly that we could be considering underground storage of CO2 while effectively continuing to burn natural gas to produce CO2 in the manufacture of urea and methanol.

To my surprise, he argues for consideration of geoengineering solutions to global warming. Thankfully, he doesn’t deny the huge problems with this approach, the high possibility of unforeseen outcomes. However, his point is that this shouldn’t stop research in this area. After all, despite our best attempts we may be unable to exert enough control of greenhouse gas emission to prevent unavoidable disastrous outcomes. It would be wise to have geoengineering technology we could fall back on.

Brand likens this to the fact that people often resort to abortions when all attempts at normal birth control methods fail. A necessary evil.

I loved his speculation at the end of the book where Brand puts geoenginnering into context by considering possible future ’solar system engineering.’ We may, for example, mine for raw materials outside the earth, particularly in asteroids. We could also do much of our processing of minerals off the planet.

Energy and nuclear power

Brand promotes nuclear power as an essential contributor to humanity’s energy needs. This is often a controversial issue in the environmental movement. However, more and more greens are changing their minds on this, in the face of the contribution of fossil fuel emissions to global warming. Many now see it as a ’necessary evil.’

I found Brand’s reassessment of the nuclear waste problem convincing. He criticises the fallacy of long-term planning. That we should do things today that solves every future problem. Currently we don’t have a reliable, safe way of eliminating or disposing of nuclear waste. So he recommends a policy of retrievable underground storage. This is a medium term solution. Storage until we have the technology enabling final solutions for recovery and treatment of the waste. Future solutions could include reactor processing, efficient recovery of useful components or long-term effective disposal methods. Obviously security is an issue but this new perspective does reduce the importance of the waste issue.

The possible proliferation of nuclear weapons and material is also a problem with nuclear power. Brand believes we are making progress on antiproliferation treaties. I have also been heartened by US President Obama’s willingness to make progress on nuclear disarmament — which links directly to the proliferation issue.

Development of new and safer technologies, such as microreactors also makes nuclear power more acceptable. However, I feel that Brand in this book may be playing down the health risk of radiation leaks. He argues that we may have been overestimating the harmful effects of radiation. Or that low radiation doses may even have beneficial effects. Maybe he is right, but we shouldn’t be too quick to lower standards in this area.

Genetic engineering

This is the area where Brand is the most critical of his green colleagues. He sees their fear here as based mainly on an attitude that we shouldn’t play god, we shouldn’t interfere with nature, rather than any real evidence of dangers.

This has also motivated opposition to stem cell research and use of transgenic DNA. Brand argues that while commercial and field applications of the technologies must be properly evaluated we should get past the understandable overcautious approach adopted during the early days of research in these areas. He argues that genetic engineering can play an important role in producing more sustainable agriculture products, reducing the use of agricultural chemicals, increasing production and providing much needed nutrition for the world’s population. It is a cure for environmental problems rather than a cause of them.

Brand recognises problems that have arisen through corporate control and intellectual property issues. But he can foresee a time when environmentally oriented people promote genetic engineering. For example he sees a strong possibility of farmers markets promoting GE products and organic farmers adopting this technology.

Questioning ideology

Brand summarises his book with discussion of the problem of ideological agendas in the green movement. This has been the main factor inhibiting the ability of the movement to adjust to new realities like global warming, nuclear power and genetic engineering.

He sees a problem of attitudes aimed at changing behaviours rather than solving problems. Activists who are too prone to confirmation bias. Too willing to harness science to a political agenda.

Personally I don’t think this problem is in any way isolated to the green movement. It’s a common feature of all political movements. And has similar outcomes. People naturally resort to confirmation biases. They develop loyalty to preconceived ideas and political agendas. Natural human intuitions like judgementalism and loyalty get co-opted.

Political movements easily become like religions. This is true of parts of the environmental movement. It’s also true of conservative groups, such as the climate change deniers, who come out against the environmental movement.

Brand’s point is that it is always more important to be right than consistent. One should be prepared to changes one’s previous ideas on things like nuclear energy and genetic engineering. We have to learn to question fables.

I liked Brands parable about the fox and the hedgehog.

’”How you think matters more than what you think,” says political scientist Philip Tetlock. The most important distinction in quality of judgment, he declares, was first expressed by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.” Hedgehogs have a grand theory they are happy to extend into many domains, relishing its parsimony, expressing their views with great confidence. Foxes, on the other hand, are skeptical about grand theo­ries, diffident in their forecasts, and ready to adjust their ideas based on actual events. Hedgehogs don’t notice or care when they’re wrong. Foxes learn. Hedgehogs are great proponents, but foxes are invariably better forecasters and policy makers.’

So, Brand argues that in fact — cities are green, nuclear energy is green and genetic engineering is green. He opposes cultural pessimism and believes science is imbued with optimism.

Maybe you doubt this. Maybe you already agree. Either way you will find this book a stimulating read.

For a an overview of the book have a look at the videos below.


Hello there! If you are new here, you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed for updates on this topic

See also: Another video presentation by Stewart Brand at the Q2C Festival, October 2009: The Whole Earth Discipline


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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.


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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