The Diary of an Inexact Scientist

A haphazard review of philosophy, politics, economics and science

Month: February, 2012

When Science and Politics Mix

Politics has to do with appearances without regard for reality. Science has to do with reality without regard for appearances. When science and politics mix the results can be remarkable. Politicians prove to be ignoramuses, scientists prove to be liars. Climate science provides a wonderful example. Nobel Peace Prize winner, Al Gore, intent on making science serve political ends, proves himself to be an ass and the Nobel Peace Prize a joke. Dr. Peter Gleick, member of the US National Academy of Sciences, McArthur Foundation Genius Award winner, intent on shaping public opinion, proves himself a thief and liar, and those who backed him gullible dupes.

Those who care about the perversion of science and wish to avoid being themselves duped by scientists behaving as politicians or politicians falsely claiming scientific expertise should apply to every argument about science the following questions.

Does the argument rest upon observational data?

Are the data disputed by those with expertise to make a plausible judgement?

Do those who advance the argument deal honestly with those who question the data or the logic of the analysis?

On that basis, Al Gore’s claim that past increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration were associated with increases in global temperature is an observable fact, and the data are not, as far as I am aware, disputed by qualified experts. However, what the experts do assert is that Gore has the timing wrong, and that the rise in temperature always came before, not after, the rise in carbon dioxide concentration.

Did Al Gore, openly acknowledge this criticism and revise his argument accordingly? Apparently not, and it is this failure that confirms that Gore does not seek to reveal the reality of climate change, but to manipulate public perception of climate change for political reasons.

In addition, it is essential to determine whether the data presented in support of an argument are comprehensive or cherry picked.

In his Forbes blog, the above-mentioned Peter Gleick assails those who claim that global temperature is not rising in a piece entitled “Global Warming Has Stopped”? How to Fool People Using “Cherry-Picked” Climate Data.

The current favorite argument of those who argue that climate changes isn’t happening, or a problem, or worth dealing with, is that global warming has stopped. Therefore (they conclude) scientists must be wrong when they say that climate change is caused by humans, worsening, and ultimately a serious environmental problem that must be addressed by policy makers.

The problem with this argument is that it is false: global warming has not stopped and those who repeat this claim over and over are either lying, ignorant, or exhibiting a blatant disregard for the truth.

These liars, ignoramuses and blatant disregarders of the truth Dr. Gleick fails to mention by name, but he aims to refute them with a series of graphs showing in every case, so he claims, a rising trend in global temperature.
In fact, for the past decade, there seems no discernible trend, but Gleick assures the reader that:

The linear trend (the blue line) over the past decade is relatively flat, but in fact it still exhibited a warming trend, despite the temporary cooling forces that are masking the overall warming.

which seems something of a contradiction in terms. If the line is flat it is flat. To talk about a warming trend masked by “temporary cooling forces” appears to be sheer sophistry.

And note that the issue of the past decade is central to Gleick’s case, for he has set out to refute those who say that despite the current rapid increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, global temperature is not rising.

But if Gleick’s argument about the last decade is dodgy, what about the rest of his evidence?

Four other graphs all show a rise in global temperature or global heat over varying time scales going back to 1880.

So do those graphs clinch his argument? Hardly.

As can be seen in the adjacent image, over the last 130 years, global temperature has been quite variable, falling between 1880 and 1910, then rising more or less continuously until 1945, after which it fell slightly before flattening out for 30 years, then rising until around 2000, since when it has been flat.

Does this reflect a close correlation with atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration? No.

Does it show, as Gleick asserts, that those who claim global warming has stopped “are either lying, ignorant, or exhibiting a blatant disregard for the truth”? No.

What it does show is that global temperature varies, sometimes rising sometimes falling, and that while the overall trend since 1880 is upward, the trend since 2000, when atmospheric carbon dioxide was rising quite rapidly, has been flat.

Does this prove that human activity has no effect on climate? Absolutely not. It merely shows that global temperature fluctuates for reasons we do not fully understand.

But if global temperature has, for now, stopped rising, despite the continued and increasing human-caused rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, does that prove that human activity cannot harm the planet? Far from it.

Neither the climate “warmists” nor the warming “skeptics” know enough about the vagaries of the Earth’s climate to make any definite statement. All that one can reasonably say is that changing the chemical composition and spectral properties of the atmosphere in an uncontrolled way, as we have been doing with increasing effect, does not seem like a very good idea, and could eventually have clearly apparent and seriously harmful environmental consequences. On the other hand, we cannot simply shut down the fossil-fueled economy overnight, without wiping out most of humanity.

What then to do? The answer is simple, though not easily accepted. Leave climate science to the scientists, and be very skeptical of everything the politicians, including those in white coats, have to tell you about the environmental, social and economic implications of the science.

But we have to act, many will assert. That is true, but we have to act in a state of uncertainty. There are risks whatever course is taken. We must hope for intelligent political decisions base on first-rate, unbiased science, not panic-driven actions serving ulterior political motives.

For now, neither the physical evidence nor the theoretical considerations suggest imminent danger. Viewed in the long-term, we are currently in a pleasantly warm and perhaps all too brief interglacial and seem in greatest danger not of harmful warming but of catastrophic cooling.


Global Warming Swindle?

The Global Warming Swindle is a video produced by Britain’s publicly owned, not-for-profit, supposedly “public service” broadcaster, Channel Four television Corporation.

When someone tells you, by implication, that they are about to expose a swindle, you’d expect them to tell you in what it is the swindle consists. In the case of human-activity-induced global warming, you might expect them to explain the theory behind the alleged looming human-caused disaster.

This, however, the Channel 4 Swindle documentary makers entirely fail to do. Instead, they tell you what Al Gore said in his absurd movie “An Inconvenient Truth”.

In particular, they have Al Gore pointing to the similarity in the pattern of variation in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and in global mean temperature over the last 650,000 years, from which the audience (Al Gore’s audience, that is) is supposed to infer that carbon dioxide concentration controls temperature. (Interestingly, perhaps, the YouTube clip from Gore’s “Truth” movie that we linked to in an earlier post has now been pulled.)

Channel 4’s Swindle team correctly point out that changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide have generally followed, not led, temperature changes: the lag being about 800 years. That means that if there is a cause and effect relationship it must be the opposite of the one Al Gore suggests.

So the Channel 4 production effectively debunks Al Gore, and at the same time leaves the viewer to believe that Al Gore’s presentation is all there is to climate change science. A piece of misdirection at least as pernicious as Gores’s.

It is not my intention to remedy the deficiency in Channel 4’s documentary by providing a disquisition on the postulated role of carbon dioxide in climate change, but it needs to be pointed out that there is a vast difference between, on the one hand, saying that small natural changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration did not, in the past, drive the major observed changes in global mean temperature, and on the other hand, saying that an abrupt artificial doubling in atmospheric carbon dioxide due to fossil fuel combustion will have no effect on global climate.

In fact, everyone seen in the Swindle documentary, Richard Lindzen and Dr. Wunsch of MIT, the people from NASA, and even, with a little persuasion, the Eeyore-like Nigel Calder, the one-time editor of pop-sci mag, The New Scientist, would agree that doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration will, all other things being equal, raise global temperature by a small but significant amount.

The real scientific argument, as we have discussed elsewhere, is about all other things that will not be equal. And sorting that out is an interesting and challenging scientific question. So if you want to know what the theory of human-induced climate change is all about, be warned: you’ll learn nothing from C4’s production.

But the Swindle documentary not only misinforms about what it claims to debunk, it makes the absurd claim that the theory of human-induced climate warming is preventing development in poor countries. As evidence, they show an African mother, with a child strapped to her back, cooking in a hut over an open fire. Such smoke exposure, C4 tells us, kills millions of women and children, and is one of the evil consequences of denying Africans coal-fired electricity generating stations.

This is total bunk. I was raised in a house without electricity. Until just over 100 years ago the entire human race was raised without electricity. What those of us in the more developed world had, until recently, was not electricity but chimneys. Yeah, those concerned about Africans breathing too much smoke should introduce them to the technology of the stove pipe.

If later on, more Africans want air conditioning and TV and are in a position to pay for it, then by all means let them burn coal. There’s nothing to stop them except their own poverty and the Swindle team have nothing to say about alleviating that.

There is one other thing the Swindle team failed to mention. While asserting that carbon dioxide comprises a tiny, practically negligible, fraction of the atmosphere, they neglect to mention the impact that doubling the concentration will have on the biosphere quite independently of any climatic effect. Here’s how it works.

Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produce sugar and every other organic tissue constituent from it. Carbon dioxide enters the tissues of a plant by diffusion. But if there is a path for carbon dioxide to diffuse into the tissue, there must be a path for water vapor to diffuse out of the tissue.

What that means is that plants exchange water extracted from the soil for carbon from the atmosphere. But the supply of water available to most plants is limited. When that supply is used up, plants simply close the diffusion channel by which water and carbon are exchanged and photosynthesis comes to a halt. That means plant production is water-limited.

Now consider what happens if you double the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide will diffuse into the tissues of a plant more quickly because there is now a steeper concentration gradient (photosynthesis in the leaf removes carbon dioxide causing the tissue carbon dioxide concentration to approach zero). And if carbon dioxide diffuses into the tissue faster, that improves the rate at which plants exchange water for carbon dioxide.

So if you double the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration you will more or less double plant production on all but most well-watered soils. Greater plant productivity means greater crop yields, greater crop yields mean more people. Ready for a 12-billion-person planet? Personally, I incline to a more-the-merrier view, but how about you?

That won’t be all of it. Species composition of forests and other ecosystems will change as some species take advantage of the increased carbon dioxide concentration more effectively than others. Changing the composition of plant communities will likely mean mass extinctions of organisms dependent on existing plant communities.

So anyone who tells you that doubling the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is unimportant, is almost certainly wrong and if that’s what you’re being told by a well-endowed broadcaster, I’d say you have been targeted as the victim of a swindle.

First published at the Canadian Spectator, March 12, 2007

Greening the Sahara


To vegetate the Sahara one need only add water. The difficulty is to add enough water over a large enough area in a way that makes economic sense.

Qattara Depression, North West Egypt

A number of approaches have been considered. One idea, originally proposed as the basis for a hydro-electric scheme, is to flood the Qattara Depression, an area of about 19,500 square kilometers in North Western Egypt that lies at depths to 133 meters below sea level. Water would be delivered by canal and tunnel from the Mediterranean Sea or the Nile River, the flow of water to match the rate of evaporation from the lake thus created.

Evaporation from this large body of water would generate sufficient precipitation downwind to support a band of vegetation comparable to that along Africa’s Mediterranean coast. The effect, however, would be regional, impacting only a small portion of the Sahara’s ten-million-square-kilometers.


Eucalyptus forest

A recent proposal for sequestering billions of tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide envisages desalinating seawater by reverse osmosis and pumping the fresh water inland to irrigate desert-spanning plantations of Eucalyptus and other heat tolerant tree species. Climate simulations indicate that the forest would lower the desert temperature by around 8C and increase rainfall by 700 to 1200 millimeters.

The drawback to such a scheme is the astronomical cost. To support even a sparse arid forest, a yearly supply of at least 750 mm of water would be required, or a minimum of 750,000 cubic meters per square kilometer (m3 km-2). With a current cost of US$0.80 m-3 the water alone would cost $2 trillion per year to irrigate the entire Sahara.

Fukushima nuclear reactors

Nuclear reactors at Fukushima Japan before the 2011 tsunami.

The energy for seawater desalination, at 1.5 kwh per m-3, would be over 120 TW or the output of more than 4800 nuclear reactors comparable in size to the four destroyed last year by a tsunami at the Fukushima Daichi plant in Japan.

Pumping water over the Tehachapi Mountains.

California State Water Project delivers water from Northern to Southern California over the Tehachapi Mountains, accounting for 2 to 3% of the State's total electricity consumption.

Energy to lift the water from sea level to a mean height of approximately 200 m would approach that required for desalination, creating a total power requirement equal to three-quarters of present-day global generating capacity. At US$0.05 per kwh, the annual cost would be approximately $0.4 trillion. In addition would be the capital cost of the aquaducts, the pipes and the pumps to deliver the water to the place of use.

The Sahara Foreest Project

The Sahara Foreest Project

The Sahara Forest Project, though visually and architecturally exciting, is an even more hugely capital intensive approach to desert afforestation. Reliant on a greenhouse solar distillation system. A pilot project at an undisclosed cost is planned for a two square kilometer location in Jordan. Although the project may make sense as an intensive horticultural production system with some local environmental benefit, it does not, despite the name, offer an economically feasible approach to greening the world’s largest desert.

Here I propose a new approach to vegetating the Sahara, powered entirely by the sun, suitable for incremental implementation within the confines of any of the desert nations bordering either the Mediterranean Sea or the Atlantic Ocean, and capable of providing an acceptable return on the capital invested.

Emulating Nature

Each year, nature transports approximately 105 km3; of  water from the ocean to the land by way of the atmosphere, the process entirely powered by the energy of the sun. Might it not then be possible to control the movement of packets of water-laden air and cause them to deliver their load of moisture where required?

Geodesic sphere (Cloud Containment Structure, CCS)

Tensegrity sphere (Cloud Containment Structure, CCS)

To this end, I propose the use of rigid hot air balloons with a spherical geodesic frame, what Buckminster Fuller called a tensegrity spheres, as cloud containment structures (CCS). Fuller believed that the mass of a mile-wide geodesic sphere would be so slight compared to the mass of the air trapped within it that heating the air by as little as one degree above ambient would sufficient to make the structure buoyant in air.

A CCS would be floated on the sea adjacent to either the Atlantic or Mediterranean coast of the Sahara. At dawn, as temperature within the CCS rose relative to ambient air temperature due to the greenhouse effect, it would be ballasted with seawater to prevent it becoming airborne. At the same time, seawater would be sprayed into the sphere to humidify the air.

Mean, year-round solar radiation in the dry tropics averages 0.35 kw m2 on a horizontal surface. On a surface at right angles to the solar beam, which a sphere always presents, the mean year-round radiation intercepted per unit area will be 30 to 50% larger, or about 0.5 kw. With a diameter of 1.6 km, a CCS will have a cross section of almost exactly 8 km2 and will thus intercept 8 TW, or 96 TWh per day.

With a volume of just over 2 km3 the CCS contains 2.5 million tons (Mg) of air at 25 C. To raise the temperature of this mass of air by 1 C requires approximately, 0.6 TWh, so that the sun will warm the air within the CCS 20 C in about 1.5 hours, allowing for some convective heat loss at the surface.

At 45 C, the water content of air at saturation is about 65 g kg-1, or 105,000 Mg in 2 km3. If the initial water content of air in the CCS is 23 g kg-1 (i.e., saturated at 25 C), the energy required to saturate the air at 45 C is 66 Twh, or about 8 hours of sunshine.

Once fully charged with water vapor, the ballast water would be pumped out and the CCS allowed to rise into the air where it will drift with the breeze. Normally, during daylight hours there is a sea breeze, caused by a low pressure over the warm land surface, which causes an inflow of the denser and cooler air over the water. Thus the CCS would travel inland, until nightfall when it would be tethered as the air within cooled and the water vapor would condense to form mist, which could be seeded to produced rain, which would be delivered by sprinklers to the ground below. Having delivered its load, the CCS would be towed back to the coast, where vents would release the still relatively warm air within, thus allowing the sphere to settle once again on the ocean surface.

Is “Bad Science” an Oxymoron

Is “Bad Science” an Oxymoron

Having written on occasion about scientific fraud, scientific data manipulation and outright scientific nonsense, I was invited by its creators to comment on a poster entitled Bad Science, the psychology behind bad research, offered as a resource on the website.

“Scientists,” states an introduction to the poster, “are some of our most trusted members of society … [but] many scientists are not as trustworthy as we would like to believe. By engaging in various kinds of scientific misconduct, such as falsifying or fabricating data, scientists are getting the results they want without the honesty and integrity that we expect of the scientific institution.”

As a scientist of almost 50 years standing, it’s news to me that scientists are among the most trusted members of the community. Personally, I would trust a scientists no more and no less than I would trust a banker or a politician. And that is surely not being unduly cynical, for as everyone knows, when their work impinges on important economic or political questions, scientists can be remarkably responsive to the interests of those funding their work, whether it be the tobacco industry, the drug industry, the arms industry or a government with an agenda on climate change, HIV/AIDS, the psychiatric treatment of political dissidents, or the use of tactical nuclear weapons in populated areas. So it seems to me that the people at are proceeding on the basis of a questionable assumption.

There is no question, however, that data falsification (are falsified data, truly data at all in the scientific sense?) and data fabrication are not activities to be encouraged, so when tells us to read their “infographic” to find out how to fix the problem, we are prepared to read on.

However, what we find is little in the way of the promised account of the “psychology behind bad science” or effective means to “fix the problem,” but mainly a series of assertions about the prevalence of scientific fraud. “Shady scientific research is rampant” we are told, which sounds bad, but what does it mean. Well for one thing, “One in three scientists admit to using questionable research practices,” which include “dropping data points based on gut feeling,” and “changing the results or design of a study due to pressure from a funding source.”

So now we begin to have some idea what they are talking about, but it nevertheless remains vague. What, for example, does it mean to drop a data point “based on gut feeling”? Presumably it means that the scientist believes that they have a plausible justification for dropping the data point in question: “I noticed some crud in that tube when I was adding the reagents,” or “the rat that died looked sick before we began feeding it GM corn.” Adoption of such rationalizations for the selection of data is not considered acceptable practice but it has a venerable history in science, and while few would condone it, the question of whether it constitutes “bad science” is less clear than many might suppose.

Scientific knowledge is not a collection of facts, it is a system of laws, principles and patterns which allow us to infer from a given set of facts another heretofore unknown set of facts, including facts about past, present or  future. Thus science as a process of discovery is concerned, primarily, not with any specific facts, but with ideas about the relationships among facts in the observable world. Because there is uncertainty about all particular observed facts, there is no overwhelming reason to reject a good idea because it is inconsistent with some observation that “gut feeling”, i.e., some plausible argument, suggests is false.

So whether rejecting data based on “gut feeling” is “bad science” depends, I would say, on circumstances. A scientist with an interesting hypothesis who rejects a contradictory observation on plausible, or even implausible, grounds is doing no more than scientists of the greatest fame, Newton, Galileo, Einstein, for example, had not hesitation in doing.

The critical factor that determines whether overlooking or concealing evidence that contradicts one’s hypothesis is to be condemned depends on both the motive and the competence of the individual concerned.

Anyone who fakes data to produce apparent support for a proposition favorable to the entity funding the research, is in my view, not guilty of “bad science”, because what they are doing is not science at all. It is merely part of a conspiracy to deceive the public for financial gain. It would be best to deal with such people like any other fraudsters, whether swindling financiers or vendors of quack cancer cures.

However, when a scientist says, and more importantly believes, that things must be this way rather than that whatever the experimental data may show, then they are following a grand tradition in science. Thus, for example, when Einstein was asked by a student what he would have done if Sir Arthur Eddington’s famous 1919 gravitational lensing experiment, which confirmed relativity, had instead disproved it, he replied “Then I would have felt sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct.”

And that example of scientific arrogance clarifies the importance of competence when it comes to judging data. If you are a Nobel prize winner, potential or actual, you may need a good deal of arrogance to force your ideas into the mainstream, and you may well be justified in ignoring data that in the light of present knowledge are seemingly incongruent with your ideas. But if you are a novice or a hack, you’d be very much wiser to stick with the data you have whatever they seem to show, and leave it to those more perceptive than yourself to rationalize away whatever fails to fit the divine plan, assuming that God got it right.

Various other supposed facts about the trickiness of scientists are offered, the claims supported by a reference list comprising merely a set of unclickable URLS without description of the content to which they point and no means of examining that content other than by laboriously typing the URL into a browser navigation window, which is something very few people will bother to do. So for example, the first reference:,

is one heck of a line to type accurately, and gives no idea that it leads to a paper by John P. A. Ioannidis in PLoS Medicine, titled: Why Most Published Research Findings Are False

It is not immediately apparent what to make of a scientific paper claiming that (virtually) all scientific papers are false. No doubt it would have amused Epimenides, the Cretan philosopher immortalized for the paradoxical claim that “all Cretans are liars.”

What, on examination, Ioannidis appears to be saying is that most published scientists don’t understand the statistical methods they are using, which may be correct but is largely irrelevant. Statistics are not as important as many people seem to think. Scientists such as Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin got along perfectly well without statistics and most scientists, today, use statistics only because there is a rather pointless tradition that insists that they do so. In fact, common sense is often a better guide to the scientific significance of a set of data than statistics. That P < 0.05 does not mean that the result is of any scientific importance. Thus, as Yonatan Loewenstein comments on the Ioannidis paper it is probably closer to the truth to say that most scientific papers are true but useless.

The other references seem to be of rather trivial significance or totally irrelevant, but having been compelled for the purpose of this review to look them up, I have listed them below with clickable links for the convenience of any who may wish to examine them.

Carey, B. 2011. Fraud Case Seen as a Red Flag for Psychology Research. NY Times.
Fanelli, D. 2009. How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5738.
Roche, T. 2011. OMG ALIENS!!1!! Or is it Just More Fake Science News? Techyum.
Goldacre, B. 2011. I foresee that nobody will do anything about this problem. Bad Science Blog.
Pinto. N. 2011. Women’s Funding Network sex trafficking study is junk science. CityPages
Van Guyt, M. 2011. What to Do About Scientific Fraud in Psychology? Psychology Today.
Corbyn, Z. 2011. Researchers failing to make raw data public Nature.
Petroc, P. et al. Riot control: How can we stop newspapers distorting science? Guardian
Martin, B. 1992. Scientific fraud and the power structure of science. Prometheus, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 83-98.

But what is it that we are given to understand will make scientists more trustworthy? Three recommendations are offered.

1. Make raw data available to other scientists.
2. Hold journalists accountable.
3. Introduce anonymous publication.

Making raw data available to other scientists would allow others to perform their own analysis of the data, but it won’t stop people fiddling the so-called raw data. Furthermore, the demand for publication of raw data is opposed for some valid reasons. For example, a scientist might spend years gathering data that they will then analyze in a series of publications. But if they are required to release the raw data with their first publication, then it is open to anyone to make use of the data and thus take credit for what has been largely the work of another. So although publishing raw data is I believe highly desirable in some cases, e.g., global weather data, it does not seem reasonable to demand this in all cases.

In fact, many scientists already publish their raw data, and when scientists withhold raw data without adequate reason, others can draw their own conclusions.

Holding journalists accountable is an excellent idea, but what that has to do with science more than anything else I am not sure.

The idea of anonymous publication is a new one on me, but it looks like a non-starter. I cannot imagine any scientist bothering to publish anything f it was not to have their name on it.

Overall, I have to say that the poster on “Bad Science, the psychology behind bad research” delivers less than it promises and unhelpfully promotes a poorly defined concept of “bad science” that obscures rather than clarifies thought about the scientific method. I would say that anything that does or might advance understanding of reality is science and that anything that obscures understanding of reality is not “bad science” but something altogether different: careerism, perhaps, or politics, PR, and many other things of which we certainly have far too much. But to call such activities “bad science” is not only to coin an apparent oxymoron but to suggest that what is essentially detrimental to the pursuit of knowledge could with some tweaking be made useful and productive. This I do not believe. Institutionalized science in the West is now deeply corrupt. We are, I believe, past peak science. As universities expand and fill their ranks with second- third- and fourth-rate faculty engaging increasing numbers of graduate students of minimal talent in the scientific enterprise, the prospect for a great 21st century for Western science dims in proportion. Which is not to say the Western nations do not have first-rate scientists still. But the environment is not favorable to creating new generations of committed scientists of genius. For one thing, that would be elitist and intellectualist and other things that we now apparently cannot tolerate.

Nevertheless, I believe’s poster will prompt any thoughtful person to speculation and reflection that can clarify their understanding of the scientific process and its relation to society and the political and economic forces that shape society. Perhaps these and other comments on the poster will prompt further reflection by its creators leading to a deeper examination of the interesting questions raised.

To those who may find my somewhat unorthodox view of the scientific process of interest, I recommend Paul Feyerabend’s fascinating study Against Method.