The Diary of an Inexact Scientist

A haphazard review of philosophy, politics, economics and science

Month: March, 2011

The Perils of Pop Sci

By Alfred Burdett

NASA Study Acknowledges Solar Cycle, Not Man, Responsible for Past Warming” is the headline claim of a Daily Tech story. Reading the finer print, however, one learns that a Goddard Space Flight Center report concluded, merely, “that solar variation has made a significant impact on the Earth’s climate.”

This more specific information does not quite confirm the impression given by the heading that solar variation “Not Man, Responsible for Past Warming,” but the article’s penultimate paragraph leaves no doubt that the implication of the heading was intended:

While the NASA study acknowledged the sun’s influence on warming and cooling patterns, it then went badly off the tracks. Ignoring its own evidence, it returned to an argument that man had replaced the sun as the cause current warming patterns. Like many studies, this conclusion was based less on hard data and more on questionable correlations and inaccurate modeling techniques.

But is this so?

Not according to Science Daily, an online publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which in an article referenced in the Daily Tech story, states:

…scientists have learned that about 1,361 watts per square meter of solar energy reaches Earth’s outermost atmosphere during the sun’s quietest period. But when the sun is active, 1.3 watts per square meter (0.1 percent) more energy reaches Earth. …

… Over the past century, Earth’s average temperature has increased by approximately 0.6 degrees Celsius (1.1 degrees Fahrenheit). Solar heating accounts for about 0.15 C, or 25 percent, of this change, according to computer modeling results published by NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies …

So who are you going to believe?

Daily Tech has an ethics policy that …”prevents external forces from influencing the website’s content and keeps articles unbiased and accurate,” a statement of such absurd epistemic self-confidence that I’m inclined to go with the Triple-A S. But in any case, this seems a good time to review Bertrand Russell’s rules of scepticism:

The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this:

(1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain;

(2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and

(3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

These propositions may seem mild, yet, if accepted, they would absolutely revolutionize human life.

Here, of course, we are not dealing directly with the opinions of experts but with what science journalists would like one to believe are the opinions of experts, something that Russell would surely have urged one to discount altogether.


The UK Rejects First Ever Sensible EU Proposal

The UK has rejected proposals from the EU which call for a ban on petrol and diesel cars from city centres by 2050.

The European Commission said phasing out “conventionally fuelled” cars from urban areas would cut reliance on oil and help cut carbon emissions by 60%. …

The idea that it requires a noisy, pollution-creating, ton-and-a-half mobile living room with leather arm-chairs and a 200-horse-power motor to haul some commuter’s arse across town at an average speed of about eight miles an hour is simply insane.

It is time for the developed nations to redesign and rebuild their cities and transportation infrastructure to provide a safer, healthier, more beautiful, and vastly more energy efficient human habitat.

City thoroughfares need to be multi-leveled. A belowground service tunnel should accommodate — and provide immediate access to — not only water, gas, electricity, sewers, and telecommunications, but rubbish disposal and parcel delivery services.

The sewer will have multiple channels, including a storm sewer, a septic sewer and an industrial sewer. All sewer access points will have electronic sensors and shut-off valves to prevent illicit dumping of toxic materials, thus allowing efficient recycling of water and industrial waste products.

All items purchased will be bar-coded or chipped, allowing automatic sorting of rubbish according to the appropriate mode of disposal or recycling.

Transportation, either by underground tunnel or at the surface will be by small electric vehicles, robot controlled and powered by induction from cables embedded in the roadway. Travelers will select their destination from a touch screen map, then sit back and enjoy the ride. Vehicles may be privately owned or coin-operated rentals.

Population density will be comparable to that in Hong Kong: 30,000 per square kilometre. At 33 square metres per inhabitant, there will be a residential floor space to ground area ratio of one. Assuming that average building height is six stories, that would mean a residential building ground coverage of only 16%, leaving plenty of room for tree-line avenues, parks, playing fields, as well as commercial and industrial buildings.

All residential buildings would be cited conveniently in relation to business services, recreational facilities and places of employment. Intelligent placement of residential and service buildings relative to one another, the compactness of the city, and the use of light electric vehicles for transportation would mean a reduction of something like tenfold in the energy cost of personal transport.

Buildings will be properly insulated so that a home can be heated with a hair-dryer. Well insulated and properly designed to reject excess summer heat, air-conditioning would rarely, if ever, be necessity.

With twenty percent of the workforce unemployed or only partially employed, the reconstruction of Britain can begin without delay. The government should expropriate hundreds of square miles of derelict industrial land around such dismal industrial towns as Wolverhampton or Burnley for immediate urban reconstruction. It should then launch an international competition for the design of at least a dozen new towns. The competition should offer huge prizes and be open to all comers throughout the World including architects, university departments of Geography, Design, Planning or Architecture, construction and engineering firms and consortia. Winning proposals should then be financed through the capital markets.

Is an asteroid impact America’s only hope?

Fred Reed believes that short of the total destruction of Washington, DC, America is doomed. In a piece entitled “Why we need an asteroid strike” he writes … societies are like people in that they get old, clot, lose flexibility, and then croak. They can’t get better. Like most things, they just get worse. A rule of thermodynamics says that rivers don’t flow backwards, plaque does not voluntarily leave arteries, and governments do not become more reasonable, efficient, or interested in the well-being of their populations.

Carroll Quigley, Bill Clinton’s history mentor, said pretty much the same thing about the inevitable decay of complex societies in his book The Evolution of Civilizations. But Reed’s account is shorter.

Where these authors differ is in the end game. Reed thinks that The best hope is that a patriot will learn how to impel some unused interplanetary object, Phobos or Deimos or Ganymede maybe, into Washington at ninety percent of the speed of light.

Quigley acknowledged the certain eventual death of every civilization, but by conquest, not an extraterrestrial impactor. However, he was optimistic enough to believe that a declining civilization can sometimes be revitalized through either the invention of a new method of wealth creation, which leads to a new phase of productive social development, or the formation of new institutions to fulfill the functions of those that have become corrupt beyond the possibility of reform.

Today, in America, can be seen many efforts to bypass corrupt institutions by creating new institutions that serve the same purposes as the old: for example, home schooling, state immigration laws to deal with the Federal government’s failure to implement national immigration laws, and the creation of local money systems and systems for payment with precious metals, while the Fed turns the dollar to worthless paper.

Overall, though, Reed’s pessimism about the US being long able to evade the doleful consequences of the second law of thermodynamics is hard to dispel.