Saturday, July 25, 2009


An email from John A []

The history of science is rife with examples of political, social and moral fashions which not simply influence, but pervert the scientific method and corrupt the conduct of scientists. Einstein faced off the political and moral fashions of Nazism and eugenics but plenty of his colleagues happily incorporated those twin systems into their own research. Eugenics also laid the foundations for the moral crusade against alcohol in early 20th Century America which was again a supposedly scientific assessment delivered as a moral panic which must be addressed immediately lest America fall into a deep pit of moral degeneration.

The example of Trofim Lysenko and the political outlawing of Mendelian genetics in Stalinist Russia is a particularly scary example of a political fashion given to be a moral and political imperative by a dangerously unstable man who became President of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The parallels with the modern global warming scare are obvious.

Another example would be neo-Malthusianism as popularized in the 20th Century repeatedly by Paul Erlich first in the 1960s and more recently by the scarily named "Optimum Population Trust" which includes such luminaries as Dir David Attenborough calling for mandatory limits on family size to prevent near future overpopulation and mass starvation. Once again, a supposed scientific analysis is communicated as a moral imperative.

John Holdren, now President Obama's Climate Czar, co-wrote several books with Paul Erlich in the 1970s at least one of which argued argued for forced abortions, forced adoptions of illegitimate children or from mothers "who contribute to general social deterioration by overproducing children" and the introduction of chemicals into water and food that rendered people sterile. All of this to forestall a crisis of overpopulation by the year 2000! See here for the original citations.

Carl Sagan, Erlich and others began and propagated the Nuclear Winter story of the 1980s, together with scary scenarios about likely darkening of the skies due to dust from burning cities rising into the stratosphere and blocking out the Sun. All with the aid of computer models with extremely rubbery parameters and dubious simplifications. A moral imperative against nuclear weapons? You betcha. Even Richard Feynman, iconoclast as he was, while averring that the underlying theory was nonsense, could not raise his voice too loud lest people think he was in favour of nuclear proliferation. Moral panics do that to the best of scientists.

There are lots more examples, but you get the idea. These scientific fashions all in their own time held great sway in academia and mainstream media. They divided scientists into those who were credible and those who were so morally and intellectually corrupt as to actually oppose these ideas.

Modern environmentalism has most, if not all of the above ideas incorporated into the unholy fusion of science and Marxist political theory now called "ecology", but is really a manifestation of what David Henderson memorably called "Global Salvationism".

The most interesting thing about all of this is that I, as a classical liberal, can find common cause with people from a wide spectrum of political and philosophical beliefs that the lessons of history are that moral fashions in science are endemic, cyclical and a constant menace to the real business of scientists to understand how the Universe works.

Scientists don't live in a fashion-free vacuum. They dress themselves in the fashions of the day, read the latest scare stories of the day, follow the latest celebrity soap operas of the day and most of all abide by rules to not upset the funding apple-cart from which their work is done, whatever their personal and moral qualms, at least until retirement.

I am pleased to say that during my time as an active academic researcher, I spent MOST of my time attacking the intellectual fashions of my day -- although I DID have tenure! You can see some of my efforts from that time here -- JR


An email from Stephen Ashworth []

Kenneth Chang in the New York Times reports that some observations seem inconsistent with the solar magnetic field--cosmic ray--cloud formation hypothesis. He wrote:
Terry Sloan, a cosmic ray expert at the University of Lancaster in England, said if the idea were true, one would expect the cloud-generation effect to be greatest in the polar regions where the Earth's magnetic field tends to funnel cosmic rays.

"You'd expect clouds to be modulated in the same way," Dr. Sloan said. "We can't find any such behavior." Still, "I would think there could well be some effect," he said, but he thought the effect was probably small. Dr. Sloan's findings indicate that the cosmic rays could at most account for 20 percent of the warming of recent years. [sic -- he clearly means the *reduction* in cosmic ray influx to the Earth in recent decades of the more active Sun -- SA]

I am skeptical about Dr Sloan's claim. The reason is as follows.

A few years ago I read a suggestion that an interstellar space probe might be able to do a flyby of the star Sirius, and use its gravity to redirect itself to a subsequent flyby of Procyon, in the same way that Pioneer, Voyager and other probes have used the gravity of Jupiter to redirect themselves to Saturn and beyond. I have a formula for the change in direction caused by a flyby of a massive body, so I was able to check this idea numerically.

It turned out that if the interstellar probe was travelling at a speed that was a significant fraction of the speed of light, say 0.1c -- which it would have to if it was to reach Sirius in only a few decades flight time -- then the deflection of its trajectory even on a flyby which grazed the star's atmosphere was only in the region of one degree, totally insufficient to redirect it to Procyon.

The lesson was that the gravitational fields of planets and even stars (Sirius is more massive than our Sun) are almost imperceptible to a vehicle if it is travelling at such a high speed.

Cosmic ray particles come into the Solar System at a significant fraction of the speed of light. I would therefore expect them to be largely immune to our local gravitational and magnetic fields. I would not expect Earth's magnetic field to funnel them towards the poles, as it does with the lower-energy solar particle flux. (Presumably someone has already checked this numerically?)

It would seem that Svensmark's cosmic ray--cloud formation hypothesis depends on the difference in strength between the Sun's and the Earth's magnetic fields: the Sun being strong enough to modulate the cosmic ray flux in the inner Solar System over its longer-term cycles of activity, while the Earth is too weak to redistribute incoming particles geographically during their last second or so of flight before hitting the atmosphere.


A split between rich and poor nations in the run-up to climate-change talks widened on Thursday. India rejected key scientific findings on global warming, while the European Union called for more action by developing states on greenhouse gas emissions.

Jairam Ramesh, the Indian environment minister, accused the developed world of needlessly raising alarm over melting Himalayan glaciers. He dismissed scientists’ predictions that Himalayan glaciers might disappear within 40 years as a result of global warming. “We have to get out of the preconceived notion, which is based on western media, and invest our scientific research and other capacities to study Himalayan atmosphere,” he said. “Science has its limitation. You cannot substitute the knowledge that has been gained by the people living in cold deserts through everyday experience.” Mr Ramesh was also clear that India would not take on targets to cut its emissions, even though developed countries are asking only for curbs in the growth of emissions, rather than absolute cuts.

His stance was at wide variance with that of Andreas Carlgren, his Swedish counterpart. Sweden holds the European Union’s revolving presidency until a conference in Copenhagen in December at which governments will try to hammer out a successor to the Kyoto protocol on curbing greenhouse emissions – the main provisions of which expire in 2012. Mr Carlgren said in Are, Sweden, that developing countries such as India, China and Brazil must propose more ambitious plans to reduce emissions if they were to receive finance from wealthy nations.

Rich and poor countries have been squabbling over the issue of financing for months, imperilling the outcome of the Copenhagen talks. Rich countries have not agreed to provide the funding that poor nations say is necessary to help them cut their emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change.

Mr Carlgren went on the offensive on Thursday, saying poorer countries must come up with firm plans to cut emissions before financing will be forthcoming. States such as China and India have produced plans for curbing the growth in their emissions but these have not been formalised within the negotiating process. Mr Carlgren also criticised rich countries for failing to agree to cut their emissions by the amounts needed. “So far, what we have seen from other countries is too low. We expect more from developed countries,” he said.

But the Swedish environment minister said poor countries must also do more to forge an agreement. “We are prepared to put money on the table. But it should also be said that if we don’t see significant reductions that will really deviate from business as usual ... then there is no money,” Mr Carlgren said, singling out China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia. “We are also prepared to deliver financing, but we must see that there is something to pay for.”

India has taken the hardest line in the negotiations so far. Along with China, India refused at the meeting of the Group of Eight industrialised nations this month to sign up to a target of cutting global emissions by half by 2050. The countries were holding out to gain concessions from the west on financing. The claims from Mr Ramesh that Western science was wrong on the question of melting Himalayan glaciers appeared to reinforce Delhi’s recalcitrant stance. Mr Ramesh this week challenged Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, over her appeal to India to embrace a low-carbon future and not repeat the mistakes of the developed world in seeking fast industrialisation.

The consequences of depleted glaciers – sensitive to rising temperature and humidity – would be dire. Seven of the world’s greatest rivers , including the Ganges and the Yangtze, are fed by the glaciers of the Himalayas and Tibet. They supply water to about 40 per cent of the world’s population. Water supply is likely to become an increasing national security priority for both India and China as they seek to maintain high economic growth rates and sustain large populations dependent on farming. Some scientists have warned that rivers such as the Ganges, Indus and Brahmaputra could become seasonal rivers as a result of global warming.

Indians are also fearful of weakening monsoon rains. Some parts of India, including Delhi, the capital, are still waiting anxiously for this year’s rains to come in earnest. A late, or a poor, monsoon would be a drag on economic growth.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, has described melting glaciers as a “canary in the climate-change coal mine”, warning that billions of people depend on these natural water storage facilities for drinking water, power generation and agriculture.

Mr Ramesh said the rate of retreat of glaciers in the Himalayas varied from a “couple of centimetres a year to a couple of metres”, but that this was a natural process that had taken place occurred over the centuries. Some were, in fact, growing, he said. The glaciers – estimated by India’s space agency to number about 15,000 – had also been affected by debris and the large number of tourists, he said. [In some parts of the Himalayas, the glaciers have actually been growing. A British study published in 2005 by the American Meteorological Society found that glaciers are only shrinking in the eastern Himalayas. Further west, in the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram, glaciers are "thickening and expanding".]



The mutt was too thick to allow for Asian politeness

At the end of his trip to China in May, Senator Kerry was feeling positively giddy about the prospects of a deal with China at Copenhagen: “Based on these meetings, I am very optimistic at the possibility of producing a successful outcome in Copenhagen,” said Kerry. He described his talks in Beijing as the “most constructive and productive” climate change talks he had ever had with China.

He’s sounding down right desperate these days. In a report released on Thursday (but apparently not yet available online) by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Kerry chairs, we are reminded that neither the US or China “has been willing to take the dramatic actions that many experts deem necessary to achieve critical mass for a global effort. . . .Many in the United States frankly doubt China’s commitment to reduce emissions.”

It also notes that “the absence of specific emissions reduction commitments from China has stoked fears of an unfair economic advantage for China, a hobbled U.S. economy and an insufficient response to the threat of global climate change.”

Commitments from China you say? It’s looking like Congressman Sensenbrenner (R-WI) formed the clearest perception of China’s climate change position after his own trip here in May. At the news conference which ended his visit (as part of a Congressional delegation headed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi), he stated that from his perspective: "It’s business as usual for China. The message that I received was that China was going to do it their way regardless of what the rest of the world negotiates in Copenhagen."

The Congressman’s motives for such statements may be suspect (he voted against Waxman-Markey, for instance), but he seems to have been quite prescient. Were the authors of yesterday’s opinion piece in the Shanghai Daily entitled “China fights climate change in its own way” determined to prove the Wisconsin Congressman correct? Here’s the essence of the article: "Vice Premier Li Keqiang, told Secretary Chu, a Nobel laureate who is a strong promoter of clean energy, that China adhered to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” as it actively responds to global climate change. “Common but differentiated responsibilities” refers to the responsibilities of both developed and developing countries in reducing their carbon footprints respective to their developmental abilities."

This language is, of course, climate change code for “we don’t have the slightest intention of signing up at Copenhagen for any absolute carbon caps or carbon growth limit reductions.”



“Academics, like teenagers, sometimes don’t have any sense regarding the degree to which they are conformists.” So says Thomas Bouchard, the Minnesota psychologist known for his study of twins raised apart, in a retirement interview with Constance Holden in the journal Science

Journalists, of course, are conformists too. So are most other professions. There’s a powerful human urge to belong inside the group, to think like the majority, to lick the boss’s shoes, and to win the group’s approval by trashing dissenters.

The strength of this urge to conform can silence even those who have good reason to think the majority is wrong. You’re an expert because all your peers recognize you as such. But if you start to get too far out of line with what your peers believe, they will look at you askance and start to withdraw the informal title of “expert” they have implicitly bestowed on you. Then you’ll bear the less comfortable label of “maverick,” which is only a few stops short of “scapegoat” or “pariah.”

A remarkable first-hand description of this phenomenon was provided a few months ago by the economist Robert Shiller, co-inventor of the Case-Shiller house price index. Dr. Shiller was concerned about what he saw as an impending house price bubble when he served as an adviser to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York up until 2004.

So why didn’t he burst his lungs warning about the impending collapse of the housing market? “In my position on the panel, I felt the need to use restraint,” he relates. “While I warned about the bubbles I believed were developing in the stock and housing markets, I did so very gently, and felt vulnerable expressing such quirky views. Deviating too far from consensus leaves one feeling potentially ostracized from the group, with the risk that one may be terminated.”

Conformity and group-think are attitudes of particular danger in science, an endeavor that is inherently revolutionary because progress often depends on overturning established wisdom. It’s obvious that least 100 genes must be needed to convert a human or animal cell back to its embryonic state. Or at least it was obvious to almost everyone until Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University showed it could be done with just 4.

The academic monocultures referred to by Dr. Bouchard are the kind of thing that sabotages scientific creativity. Though they sprout up in every country, they may be a particular problem in Confucian-influenced cultures that prize conformity and respect for elders. It’s curious that Japan, for example, despite having all the ingredients of a first rate scientific power – a rich economy, heavy investment in R&D, a highly educated population and a talented scientific workforce – has never posed a serious challenge to American scientific leadership. Young American scientists can make their name by showing their professor is dead wrong; in Tokyo or Kyoto, that’s a little harder to do.

If the brightest minds on Wall Street got suckered by group-think into believing house prices would never fall, what other policies founded on consensus wisdom could be waiting to come unraveled? Global warming, you say? You mean it might be harder to model climate change 20 years ahead than house prices 5 years ahead? Surely not – how could so many climatologists be wrong?

What’s wrong with consensuses is not the establishment of a majority view, which is necessary and legitimate, but the silencing of skeptics. “We still have whole domains we can’t talk about,” Dr. Bouchard said, referring to the psychology of differences between races and sexes.


Blunt warning about Greens under the bed

Once the lure of communism seduced the idealistic. Today’s environmental ideologues risk becoming just as dangerous

Britain is, thankfully, an ideologically barren land. The split between Right and Left is no longer ideological, but tribal. Are you a nice social liberal who believes in markets, or a nasty social liberal who believes in markets? Anthony Blunt’s memoirs, published this week, reveal a different age, one in which fascism and communism were locked in a seemingly definitive battle for souls.

Blunt talks of “the religious quality” of the enthusiasm for the Left among the students of Cambridge. There is only one ideology in today’s developed world that exercises a similar grip. If Blunt were young today, he would not be red; he would be green.

His band of angry young men would find Gore where once they found Marx. Blunt evokes a febrile atmosphere in which each student felt his own decision had the power to shape the future. Where once they raged about the fleecing of the proletariat and quaked at the march of fascism, Blunt and his circle, transposed to today’s college bar, would rage about the fleecing of the planet and quake at its imminent destruction. If you squint, red and green look disarmingly similar.

Both identify an end utopia that is difficult to dispute. The diktat “from each according to his ability, to each according to his means” sounds lovely on paper. Greens promise a world in which we actually survive a coming ecological apocalypse. A desirable outcome, undoubtedly.

But the means to these ends seem similarly insurmountable. Both routes demand an immediate suspension of human nature.

Ideologies often credit man with either more nobility or more venality than he deserves. In reality he is a mundane creature. He wants a home for himself and those he loves, stocked with food. And he wants to have the right to control his own destiny, own his own stuff, and to acquire more if he can without interference or fear of imminent death. Such low-level acquisitive desires support high concepts: property rights and the rule of law, without which there would be no foundation for democracy.

My desire to live a free, mundane life is a fundamental cog in our messy, glorious, capitalist democracy. It is built on millions of such small entrenched postitions. Red-filtered, my desires are despicable and bourgeois and must be beaten out of me with indoctrination or force. Green-filtered, my small desires are despicable acts of ecological vandalism. My house is a carbon factory. My desire to travel, to own stuff, to eat meat, to procreate, to heat my house, to shower for a really, really long time; all are evil.

The word evil is used advisedly. Both the green and red positions are infused with overpowering religiosity. Dissenters from the consensus are shunned apostates. Professor Ian Pilmer, the Australian geologist and climate change sceptic, could not find a publisher for his book Heaven and Earth, which questions the orthodoxy about global warming. He is the subject of hate mail and demonstrations. It is entirely immaterial whether he is right or wrong. An environment that stifles his right to a voice is worse than one that is overheating.

Even within the convinced camp, dissent from certain party lines is frowned upon. Nuclear power is the cheapest, greenest alternative to fossil fuels that we possess, yet it is anathema to advocate its proliferation at the expense of wind and sun. Fans of nuclear are the Trotskys of the movement, subject to batterings by verbal ice pick.

The great ecological timebomb is population growth. By 2050 the United Nations’ demographers expect the world’s population to reach 9.2 billion, compared with 6.8 billion today. That’s 2.4 billion extra carbon footprints. Half measures seem futile. We all hope for some new technology to rescue us. But what if it never materialises? The logical position is to be a cheerleader for swine flu, but not in my backyard. Do we have to pray for swine flu to ravage foreign children, to save our own from frying in the future?

We are at the early stage of the green movement. A time akin to pre-Bolshevik socialism, when all believed in the destruction of the capitalist system, but were still relatively moderate about the means of getting there. We are at the stage of naive dreamers and fantasists. Russia was home to the late 19th-century Narodnik movement, in which rich sons of the aristocracy headed into the countryside to tell the peasants it was their moral imperative to become a revolutionary class. They retreated, baffled, to their riches when the patronised peasants didn’t want to revolt. Zac Goldsmith and Prince Charles look like modern Narodniks, talking glib green from the safety of their gilded lives.

Indulge me in some historical determinism. We, the peasants, are failing to rise up and embrace the need to change. We will not choose to give up modern life, with all its polluting seductions. Our intransigent refusal to choose green will be met by a new militancy from those who believe we must be saved from ourselves. Ultra-green states cannot arise without some form of forced switch to autocracy; the dictatorship of the environmentalists.

The old two-cow analogy is a useful one. You have two cows. The communist steals both your cows, and may give you some milk, if you’re not bourgeois scum. The fascist lets you keep the cows but seizes the milk and sells it back to you. Today’s Green says you can keep the cows, but should choose to give them up as their methane-rich farts will unleash hell at some unspecified point in the future. You say, sod it, I’ll keep my cows thanks. Tomorrow’s green, the Bolshevik green, shoots the cows and makes you forage for nuts.

If the choice is between ecological meltdown, or a more immediate curtailment of our freedom, where do those of us who are neither red nor green, but a recalcitrant grey, turn? Back to those small desires, and a blinkered hope that the choice never becomes so stark. If it does, I’ll take my chances with Armageddon.



For more postings from me, see DISSECTING LEFTISM, TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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