I learned all my science from the back of the Economist, the late lamented Tomorrow's World, the plotlnes of Star Trek and the pages of DC Comics. That has served me well enough to bluff myself through a legal career (including a phase acting for computer scientists in Cambridge), but I have always had more of an unsatisfied holy curiosity about the subject than most arts and social sciences graduates.
I think the linked blog is going to be a useful and amusing supplement to my other sources.
This is a fun film from the ever-stimulating Ted.com. It started me thinking as to practical uses for this fascinating new tool. Can we apply it, for example to trends in political thought? Here's something I tried (click on the graph to enlarge it). Can you come up with better? I am sure you can.
BBC - BBC Four Programmes - Hammond Meets Moss. Having complained recently about the poor quality of most modern British broadcasting, let me mention an intelligent show I watched last night. I am a Top Gear fan but have always thought the Hamster (how to put this kindly...?) more charming than thoughtful. Most of his programmes apart from Top Gear have supported this theory. In this case however he surprised me.
Exchanging reminiscences with Sir Stirling Moss about their respective brain-damaging high-speed crashes, 44 years apart, he managed to shed (with the aid of a number of neurologists) a fair amount of light on the workings of the brain. It's on the iPlayer for a while and I commend it to you. I rather suspect that so personal was the subject that the production staff couldn't persuade Hammond to condescend to the viewer in Auntie's usual infuriating, Blue Petery way. Indeed, Mrs P. noticed that he didn't even have his usual laddish accent. To be precise she said, puzzled, "he sounds posh." She is more of a Hamster fan than I am, so she would know.
Ironically, since this really was - in a sense - "car crash television", I found it compelling. Listening to two interesting men intelligently discussing life-changing personal experiences in a scientific context was my idea of a good programme. What's yours?
I am reading Christopher Snowden's book, The Spirit Level Delusion, which sets out to rebut - graph by graph, statistic by statistic - the thesis of Wilkinson and Pickett's work The Spirit Level. These books are both worth a read (the latter - it seems - more for its influence than its accuracy).
The Spirit Level has been embraced by socialists of all parties as proof that equality makes everyone happier, healthier and kinder - and that redistributive taxation is therefore good for all. As someone who has lived in the former Soviet Union, it only proves to me (a) how short human memories are and (b) the truth of Paul Simon's youthful insight that;
"...a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest..."
Let me cite one paragraph from Snowden's counterblast, referring to the chart clumsily reproduced above. The further right the country, the more "unequal" it is, apparently;
"Equal and unequal countries donate part of their GDP to good causes in their own way. More egalitarian countries use money from high taxes which is given away as politicians see fit. Low tax countries allow people to give to charities and causes as they see fit. But although one system relies on compulsion and the other relies on charity, it is the voluntary system that generates the greatest sums. As shown ... the amount France gives to charity amounts to just 0.14% of GDP, twelve times less than the USA (1.73%). Even if we add the 0.39% France gives in foreign aid, it is still a quarter of the American total of 1.91%. When the contribution of individuals is combined with that of the state, it is clear that less equal countries are at least as philanthropic as the rest and often more so."
Next time you feel inclined to dismiss libertarian advocacy of volunteerism as mere camouflage for uncaring stinginess, please consider that the state is as inefficient at generosity as at everything else. These statistics don't even address how much it costs to deliver state, as opposed to voluntary aid. I am prepared to bet the wastage on administration is much, much greater; leaving even less for the deserviing recipients.
I do admire the way the Englishman thinks, not to mention the economy with which he expresses himself. I do not admire those English academics who reach distressing conclusions that one intelligent farmer plus Google can refute so quickly and so deftly.
I am an arts and (though I shudder to associate Law with such "disciplines" as Sociology) social sciences man. My interests are literature, theatre and history. I love technology, but all I know about serious science is Professor Karl Popper's* explanation of the scientific method as the postulation of hypotheses followed by the performance of rigorous experiments to falsify them, resulting in provisional "truths".
One of the first bloggers I followed was A.W. Montford, known to me until recently only as Bishop Hill. Of late he has found a new audience on the topic of climate change. I have just finished his book The Hockey Stick Illusion. I feared it would be hard going but I was wrong. Despite some necessary (and thank goodness elegant) explanations of abstruse complexities, it is a page-turner. I commend it to you.
In reading it, I have acquired a new hero - a rare event at my time of life. Steve McIntyre has something in common with one of my other heroes, John Harrison. Both were derided by the closed ranks of the scientific establishment, largely on the basis of a snobbish reaction against an unqualified** "outsider." Harrison's inventions made the modern world possible. McIntyre's work (done for intellectual curiosity and at his own expense) may yet save it.
A prize-winning mathematician as a young man in Canada, McIntyre's family circumstances dictated a remunerative practical life as a mining engineer, rather than in academia. In retirement, he became interested in climate science, his gut instincts telling him that there was something wrong with a leaflet sent to every home in Canada in 2002 to promote the Kyoto Protocol. His reading led him to the work of Professor Michael E. Mann. Mann's paper, published in Nature on 23rd April 1998, strongly influenced the IPCC's and the world's politicians' view that anthropogenic global warming (AGW, or colloquially "climate change") was a potentially apocalyptic threat. A graph from that paper, showing the Earth's temperature as steady for centuries, with a sudden up-tick post-industrialisation, became the most influential image in selling AGW theory to the world. It (in its various forms over the years) is known as "the Hockey Stick" and its scientific supporters, clustered around Mann, are known as "the Hockey Team."
Many of you will have seen the graph behind Al Gore as he presented An Inconvenient Truth. You will certainly have seen it somewhere. It's burned onto our collective consciousness and it's in our childrens' school books. It's also based on flawed science and is pretty much discredited. Yet it continues to influence policy across the world, to the possible detriment of human civilisation.
Professor Mann is a poor scientist and a weak man, but not a bad person. He's sincere, as are the vast majority of proponents of the AGW hypothesis. He foresees catastrophic peril to humanity and is frustrated by those who doubt it and therefore impede (as he sees it) the necessary solutions. I am sure he was sincere in writing the original paper and in all his subsequent (sometimes dishonest) defences of it. I even believe, sadly, that he has been sincere in trashing his "opponents" and seeking to prevent their work from being published in the journals.
I imagine he feels such means are justified by a noble end. Sadly, that is how almost all corruption begins. One way to know you are going wrong in life is to catch yourself spinning data to serve your heartfelt objectives. His enemies point out that the paper and particularly the Hockey Stick propelled him from being a 33 year old unknown who had just completed his doctorate, to being one of the most influential scientists on Earth. He has certainly benefitted from it, but few men are evil enough to condemn billions to poverty for personal gain or glory. There are some such, no doubt, but I don't believe he is among them. It seems sadly clear however that for whatever (probably noble) reason, he has betrayed his calling as a man of science.
AGW proponents denounce sceptics as conspiracy theorists; ridiculing the straw man idea that so many distinguished scientists could be induced to conspire for political ends. I have never believed in such a conspiracy. I simply believe in the human weaknesses I see every day, not least in myself. Chief among these is pride. Exalt a man for a piece of work that proves flawed and his ego-involvement will lead him astray if he is anything less than a saint. He will defend it and call in every favour from his friends to do likewise. John Harrison's enemies were sincere too. Yes, their motives were mixed. They wanted the huge prize he had so clearly earned. They wanted to maintain their respected status against the rising fame of an interloper. But they were no cartoon villains and neither are the Hockey Team. Sadly, you don't need to be Dr. Evil to hold back the advance of civilisation. You just need to be misguided and proud.
That Mann is a scientific Salieri
does not make McIntyre Mozart. He has exposed
Mann's methodological errors, but he has never purported to attempt an
alternative analysis. He has no more disproved AGW theory than Mann has
"proved" it. The Bish's excellent book merely shows that the members of the Hockey Team are (as are we all) weak humans trapped in a mesh of pride. We should not allow our distaste for their perversion of science to divert us from seeking truth. That truth will take dangerously longer to establish provisionally because of their (and their supporting politicians') unscientific interference with honest attempts to test it.
--------------- * A nice moment of my life was Professor Popper's [grand-daughter][see correction in comments] (a friend of Ms Paine the Elder) spotting his books in my home and exclaiming that she had never seen copies before. But that's a story for another post.
** McIntyre, as a cursory glance at his Wikipedia biography will confirm, is far from the uneducated autodidact that Harrison was (and neither would he claim Harrison's status as a world-changing genius) but my point still stands.
Last night I was telling a friend over dinner about the wonderful website TEDTalks. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a conference. TEDTalks shares the best ideas from TED with the world,
for free. The site speaks of;
"trusted voices and convention-breaking mavericks, icons and
geniuses, all giving the talk of their lives in 18 minutes."
It is often fascinating stuff. You can view TEDTalks at the site, on YouTube or by free subscription on iTunes).
Here is a marvellous, humorous, terrifying example to set your imaginations racing.
I have said it before and will say it again, TED is one of the best sites on the internet. I turn to it for relief from the pessimism of the political world. While politicians continue to find ways to mess up even the simplest things, some scientists not embroiled in political agendas are excitedly making the world a better place.
This talk by Neil Gershenfeld of MIT is one I will have to watch several times. He spews ideas out at high speed and in technical language, but his notion that "computer science" is one of the worst things to have happened either to computers or to science is an interesting one. It's fascinating to see how the "Fab Labs" he set up around the world liberated the creativity of people who have no interest in making pixels dance on a screen but were excited by making things in the real world. Man is a tool using thing maker. It makes perfect sense that the computer should become the modern equivalent of the flint axe. It's certainly an exciting notion that, while mechanisation brought us industrial mass production, computerisation can turn us back into craftsmen making unique things for our own family's specific needs (but of industrial quality). Given such abilities, what would you make?
Anyway, do please watch the film. It's intriguing to say the least. I promise you will enjoy it more than the post about the government's pandering to mass hysteria over paedophilia, which I feel duty bound to write next, despite all the opprobrium it will attract.