Saturday, July 21, 2012

Post-normal Science?

Recently the Liberal-National Party came out again in favour of teaching Climate Denialism in schools, and I wrote in Google plus about how this policy came directly from the Heartland Institute - a USA neocon policy institute.  LNP declared that climate science is "post-normal science" and thus should not be counted as real science.

Huh?  There's a new science?  What does "post normal" even mean?

This bogus tag of "post-normal" has been constructed from incoherent ramblings in the name of philosophy of science by writers including Jerome Ravetz, whose writing can be seen on notorious climate denialist blog "Watts Up With That".  According to Watts, vociferous climate denier, author of the blog, and recipient of funding from the Heartland Institutes coffers, Ravetz is an honoured guest.  Wonder what I mean by incoherent?  See if you can make any sense out of the gibberish at the post normal science blog referred to in the Watts article.  It reads like the worst excesses of post-modernist philosophy, or like something from computer generated post-modernist satire the Da-Da engine.  (hint: if you go to that link, refresh the page and each time you'll get a nonsensical pile of computer generated post-modern drivel).  Here's a sample of post-modern as generated by the dada engine:

1. Stone and conceptual socialism
“Society is dead,” says Sartre; however, according to Brophy[1] , it is not so much society that is dead, but rather the meaninglessness, and some would say the rubicon, of society. Several narratives concerning precapitalist theory exist. The characteristic theme of Cameron’s[2] analysis of dialectic narrative is a posttextual whole. Therefore, Sontag uses the term ‘postsemiotic Marxism’ to denote the difference between class and sexual identity. The main theme of the works of Stone is the role of the observer as writer. If one examines precapitalist theory, one is faced with a choice: either accept Batailleist `powerful communication’ or conclude that language may be used to exploit minorities, given that the premise of dialectic precultural theory is invalid. Thus, the subject is contextualised into a conceptualist theory that includes truth as a totality. Baudrillard uses the term ‘precapitalist theory’ to denote the fatal flaw, and therefore the absurdity, of subdialectic culture.
Just to make it crystal clear - that quoted paragraph was not written by a human - it was generated by a computer algorithm programmed to produce crazy.  And here is Ravetz explaining post-normal science:

1. Introduction
Post-Normal Science (PNS) is a new conception of the management of complex science-related issues.  It focuses on aspects of problem solving that tend to be neglected in traditional accounts of scientific practice: uncertainty, value loading, and a plurality of legitimate perspectives.  PNS considers these elements as integral to science. By their inclusion in the framing of complex issues, PNS is able to provide a  coherent framework for an extended participation in decision-making, based on the new tasks of quality assurance.  The shift to a post-normal mode is a critical change. The approach used by normal science to manage complex social and biophysical systems as if the were simple scientific exercises has  brought us to our present mixture of intellectual triumph and socio-ecological peril.
Notice a similarity?  :-)

I'm being a bit tongue-in-cheek here, but the sort of stuff that Ravetz is on about is exactly what the programmers who built the dada engine were satirising.

So what is Ravetz on about then?

Its origins are in the media storm about emails published from the Climate Research Unit in East Anglia, England.  There's not room to go into it here, but a massive archive of emails and other material were published by a journalist, and items cherry-picked from it purported to show ill-intent and unethical conduct on the part of climate scientists there.  In the event there was no smoking gun, no-one owned up to stealing the emails from CRU, and  the CRU scientists were shown to be innocent of the claims.

However during the fracas the likes of Ravetz turned up claiming (in his almost inaccessible prose) that the CRU emails meant that scientists must all open up everything they do, and in particular that unqualified people should be able to get in on the peer review process - Hulme, the co-author is a climate scientist at CRU, and author of the book Why We Disagree About Climate Science.  It reached a huge audience when published in a much referenced article by the BBC.  So how is that the denialists are fete-ing Ravetz as a champion of their cause, when he was launched to fame at the side of a prominent climate scientist?

When the issue with climate change became urgent enough for governments to see that action was needed they called on a dream-team of their best scientists in the field to report on what could be done about it.  Not hearing the danger music of the trap that was waiting for them the scientists did their job, produced the facts and summed it up in the IPCC reports.

The problem is that scientists are no good at politics, and they are not PR experts.  Hulme saw that the opponents of action on pollution and climate change would do anything - including stealing and cherry-picking their private email communications - to impugn the reputation of the scientists, and try to undermine their work.  Maybe Hulme thought that democratizing science would mean that less heat would come on scientists themselves for unpopular conclusions.

This confusing blog article discusses the idea further in classic post-normal science prose, so difficult to follow that its not easy to determine whose viewpoint it supports, who its author is, or what claims it is actually making.  In my view the idea of post-normal science is ridiculous and I can't imagine anyone in their right mind seriously promoting it as a way to better obtain scientific knowledge.

Regardless of what these proponents of PNT are actually saying, the way you actually obtain scientific knowledge is for scientists in research centers and laboratories to do work, collect data, analyse it and present their findings in peer-reviewed journals of high-standing.  Those scientists share their data with their peers, and discuss their methods to allow verification and replication of their results.

Allowing in amateurs, commentators and provocateurs is not democracry.  You don't vote for the truth.  Science is not a committee decision.  Also it allows for the likes of Stephen McIntyre on of who demands scientific data from researchers so that he can go hunting for anything that supports his denialist agenda.  Note that word "audit" - a key idea from the post-normal manifesto.

So is post-normal science good or bad then?

That is like asking are vampires or witches good or bad.  Post-normal science is a fiction.  There are no post-normal scientists.  There are only commentators and philosophers wishing they were post-normal "scientists" - like Stephanie Meyers vampire wannabes; and actors like McIntyre dressing up like it.

On the one hand, it's a name-calling tool of the denialist industry, trying to make out that the IPCC scientists are part of some socialist conspiracy.  On the other hand its a way for people like McIntyre to legitimise his amateur science work.  McIntyre is a retired mining executive and coal-industry consultant who is on the payroll of the Heartland Institute, and is desperate to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

So sleep easy LNP - you don't have to worry about post-normal science taking over.  Its just a piece of bad supernatural fiction.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Diesel Fumes and Cancer. Buy EV instead!

The World Health Organisation has concluded in a recent panel ruling, as reported by the Guardian that fumes from diesel engines cause cancer, at about the same rate as standing in a cigarette smoke-filled room, or copping too much sunburn.

This is interesting to me, because diesel cars are something I hear put forward as environmentally sound motoring choices.  [edit] In 2009 according to Wired's Autopia car site, Green Car Journal named a diesel as its Green Car of the Year.  I say interesting because that was 2009, now we have electric vehicles (EV's) and I struggle to see how those diesels are green by comparison.  Another article says forget about "black plumes of smoke, noisy engines" because diesels are clean and green now.  Maybe when they are brand new - but I see plenty of 5-10 year old "modern diesels" on the road producing black smoke.  It doesn't matter how old an EV is it is never going to produce smoky fumes.

Also, when I talk to people about Electric Vehicles I still get this recycled FUD about the long tailpipe, which is basically this idea that EV's "emit pollution" from the power stations that they draw electricity from.

The WHO panel ruling shows how bogus this is - what the actual vehicle itself is emitting is important. If you are on the footpath going for a cappuccino, and you find yourself next to several lanes of traffic in the city then each vehicle that is emitting pollution from its tailpipe is damaging you.  For children playing in the schoolyard next to a busy major road then they are being exposed to carcinogens from diesel exhausts of vehicles on that road.

EV's have no tailpipe, and no exhaust fumes.  Even if they were charged the previous evening from the most fiendishly polluting power source, when they drive on the road no pollution is being emitted from those EV's into the busy urban and suburban environments that we live in, work in, and send our kids to school in.

Getting back to the diesel thing, when I drove a Prius, before getting the Nissan Leaf, I would also hear quite often an argument that diesel cars were a good environmental alternative because they did a better mileage than the Prius in some cases.

If you look at popular diesel hatchbacks like the Ford Focus, or Peugot 308 they are in the same league as the Prius for consumption figures:

CarEmissions gm/kmConsumption ltrs/100km
Prius 1.8 Hybrid T3 2009923.3
Peugot 3081194.0
Ford Focus TDci diesel1574.8

Now the first thing to notice is that emissions is not consumption.  The Peugot for example does pretty well on consumption, using 1.2 times as much fuel per distance as the Prius.  However its emissions are 1.3 times that of the Prius.  For the Ford Focus the fuel usage is 1.45 times that of the Prius, but its emissions are 1.7 times worse!

How can this be?  Isn't the petrol here the source of the emissions?  Surely if you burn 1 litre of fuel, you create some fixed amount of pollution?  A moments thought shows that this is wrong, because engines ain't engines: some are more emissions efficient, not just mileage efficient.  The Prius has an Atkinson cycle engine, which can take advantage of its electric hybrid transmission to operate in an optimum range, meaning that it produces less emissions for a given amount of fuel burnt.  The Prius engine is very mileage efficient, but that is almost just a side effect of the engineering put into making it very very emissions efficient.

So, getting back to the argument above - diesels are good environmentally because they do better mileage - you can see that this is just plain wrong.  Better mileage does not equal better emissions.

And now we know from the WHO study that those diesel emissions are carcinogenic, as well as being a greenhouse gas pollutant.

The thing with electric vehicles, is that not only do they produce no tailpipe pollution emissions at all - they can also use clean, greenhouse-gas free electricity from sources like solar and wind.  You could cover Australia in solar panels and the diesel and petrol cars on the road are still going to be producing just as much pollution as they always did.  In fact it doesn't matter how far science advances, in cleaning up our local Australian-grown energy production, if you stick to fossil-fuel powered cars none of those advances can help our pollution problems at all.

Electric Vehicles can take advantage of home-grown energy solutions, instead of costing us in expensive oil imports in many cases from countries that none of us want to be beholden to.  Diesel cars, no matter how mileage efficient still get their fuel from foreign oil.  Think about it: where do you want your motoring dollar going to; the Middle East or to buying Australian?

Now I hear some people say that they have to drive to Sydney or, as we say in Australia when talking about long distances "to the back of Bourke".  Because of these long trip requirements they just can't buy an Electric Vehicle.  Really?

There's lots of things that people expect of their vehicles - it must be able to take me fishing on the beach at Stradbroke Island, or I must be able to load the surfboards, wetsuits and a Esky full of beer into the back.  Or it has to be able to do zero-to-sixty in 4.2 seconds.  Now add to that list of expectations this idea that a car has to be able to drive interstate on a tank of gas.

Realistically I think for 95% of us, those requirements are just not logical criteria to use for choosing the car you drive every day.  For many cars are an emotional thing.  We want a ute or pickup; or we want an SUV or 4WD, or a sports car.  A big full tank of gas equals freedom and self-determination.  But think about it, the 100th time you're trying to back that thing into a parking spot in the supermarket, or navigate city traffic, or stretching to afford the best part of $100 to fill the tank up to full.  Was that really the best decision you made on a vehicle?

For some of us, those emotional things; they're deal-breakers - OK.  If for some reason you have to drive to Sydney, or your commute is hundreds of miles then go and buy a Prius.  The Prius is a great car, with loads of room in the back, and it goes places that any other road car can, and further besides.

But if, like me you can take advantage of an Electric Vehicle for emissions free motoring, never ever having to buy gas, just go ahead and do it.

Your lungs will thank you.

Monday, July 2, 2012

T-Shirt Underworld

Some time ago I made a little joke, and I so amused myself with it that I decided to draw a picture to go with it.  Well, I still thought I was funny - so I posted it on G+ and Twitter - and guess what, my sense of humour is kind of perverse and the result was more of your "groan..." than LOL.

Thing is, this is the internet, and no matter how perverse, there's going to be someone out there that thinks this is hilarious.  So you know what - I'm going to put it on a T-Shirt (thanks to Zazzle) and see if my true brilliance is recognised.

Or if they still stay away in droves then - well - OK, I was only funny to myself. That much gritty self-analysis I can handle.  Ahh, the struggle of the artist.  No-one knows my pain.

Either that or Kate Beckinsale fan-boys and movie studio moguls will band together to sue me.

Maybe, if that doesn't happen, this was kind of fun, so I might make some more T-Shirts.  Let's see!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Leaf: the car evolves

Since 2007 I have been researching, writing about and advocating for electric cars.

These cars produce no emissions.  Since they do not need fossil fuels like oil or petrol, they are cheap and efficient to run, and provide energy security.

Now for me, finally, electric cars are real.  In Australia, this forgotten corner of the world where we are still digging coal out of the ground and shipping and burning it at a crazy rate, EV's are not just a dream.

Can you remember when mobile phones were just something that rich people in limousines used?  When they were a prop for Wall Street types, looking stylish while they flipped out their Motorola StarTac phones?

Back then we said things like "Oh, do you have a normal phone number?  I don't want to make an expensive mobile call!"

Now the idea of having to go anywhere, let alone a phone booth, to make a call is ridiculous.  Want to make a call?  You just pull your phone out right there, and call anyone.  All your friends numbers are stored right there in your phone.  Looking up a phone number in a book?  Weird!!

Cell phones.  It's the way phones should be.  Ask any teenager.  Try to explain to them how phones used to be and they'll look at you like you're a freak.

In 20 years time that's how it will be with cars powered by fossil fuels.  The teenagers of 2032 will tell you that the only people who use petrol cars are old people, cranks and freaks.

You had to drive your car to some special place - what's it called?  A gas station?  And they had these pumps where you had to queue up and pump fuel actually into your car?  No way - that's medieval.  Like lamp oil and stuff.

It's true!  And you know what?  When electric cars first came out people said they'd never catch on because you can't drive half-way across the state on one battery charge.  There was a name for it - they called it "range anxiety".

Why would anyone ever want to drive for hours and hours!  That's nuts.  If you're going to another city just catch a train or a plane and micro-rent when you get there.  You old people are hilarious.

But those old cars where you put petrol in them, they had big tanks, and so it turns out that they could go for 500 miles on one fill of gas.  People felt that gave them independence.

Independence, when you're chained to getting this gas stuff from some shop you have to find on the side of the road?  That's as weird as those phone booth things you were telling me about!!

But you know what, most of the time what it actually meant is that you were always worrying about when your gas would run out.  Because in fact you never really went for 500 mile road trips.  What you really always did was drive to work, and on the day when you absolutely did not want to be late, you'd jump in your car only to find you didn't have enough gas to get to work.  And you'd have to go to a gas station, instead.

You know what I think?  This range anxiety?  That is where its really from, right there.  I never worry about how far my car can go because its always charged up and ready to go.  Yeah - I love you old people and your funny stories.

Well I'm happy to be one of the first dinosaurs to evolve.  Why don't you join me?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Scientific embarrassment

I'm listening to a Ted talk by a chap who says we don't always know what we think we know. To prove it he says, he asks 4 questions of science educators, producers of science TV shows and even of 7 year old children.

I've stopped the video of his talk at 1:55m where the 4 questions are displayed and I'm going to try my hand at answering them. I'm not going to refer to Google, or the internet in anyway - I'm going to draw purely on what I already know (or think I know).

If you want to follow along - stop reading here, click the link above and prepare your own answers to the "Science Pop Quiz" and see how you do.

Don't scroll down if you are following along!



So here goes:

1. A little seed weighs next to nothing but a tree weighs a lot. From where does the tree get the stuff that makes up a wooden desk?

My answer: from the air. Specifically the tree-stuff is mostly cellulose and that is a complex molecule which the tree gets by binding carbon from CO2 in the atmosphere using photosynthesis. The tree knows how to do this due to the genetic codes stored in the seed.

2. Can you light a little torch-bulb with a battery, a bulb and one piece of wire?

My answer: you can. You touch one pole of the battery to the terminal on the base of the bulb, and use the wire to connect the other pole of the battery to the conductive housing of the bulb. This question seems to talk about 2 bulbs - if that is not a mistake, then you might be able to connect them in series by touching the terminal to the housing.

3. Why is it hotter in summer than in winter?

My answer: Because the axis of rotation of the earth is tilted with respect to the plane of its orbit around the sun. In the height of the southern hemisphere summer, the south pole is partly pointed toward the sun by this tilt, exposing a lot more of the earths southern aspect to the sun for longer.

4. Could you scribble a plan diagram of the solar system showing the shape of the planet's orbits?

My answer: Hmm tough one. I drew elliptical orbits with the planets around the sun, starting from Mercury (closest), then Mars, Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto (furthest away). I don't think the elliptical orbits all lie in the same plane.

How sure am I about my answers?

I'm most unsure about the planets one, but I think I probably got it about 80% right.

Ok. Now to click "Publish" and embarrass myself, by playing the rest of the video and seeing how I did.