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Butterflies, Brexit & Brits

I attended an inspiring talk by Chris Packham in Stroud at the launch of Stroud Nature’s season of events. Chris was there to show his photographs but naturally ranged over many topics close to his heart.

The catastrophic drop in species numbers in the UK was one which he has recently written about. The 97% reduction in hedgehogs since the 1950s, and the Heath Fritillary has fallen by 82% in just a decade 

These are just two stats in a long list that attest to this catastrophe.

Chris talked about how brilliant amateur naturalists are in the UK – better than in any other country – in the recording of flora and fauna. They are amateur only in the sense that they do not get paid, but highly professional in the quality of their work. That is why we know about the drop in species numbers in such comprehensive detail. It appears that this love of data is not a new phenomenon.

I have been a lover of butterflies since very young. I came into possession of  a family heirloom when I was just 7 years old which gave a complete record of the natural history butterflies and moths in Great Britain in the 1870s. Part of what made this book so glorious was the intimate accounts of amateur scientists who meticulously recorded sightings and corresponded though letters and journals.

IMG_3828

The Brits it seems are crazy about nature, and have this ability to record and document. We love our tick boxes and lists, and documenting things. It’s part of our culture.

I remember once doing a consultancy for a German car manufacturer who got a little irritated by our British team’s insistence on recording all meetings and then reminding the client of agreed points later, when they tried to change the requirements late in the project: “you Brits do love to write things down, don’t you!”.

Yes we do.

But there is a puzzling contradiction here. We love nature, we love recording data, but somehow have allowed species to be harmed, and have failed to stop this? Is this a naive trust in institutions to act on our behalf, or lack of knowledge in the wider population as to the scale of the loss?

I heard it said once (but struggle to find the appropriate reference) that the Normans were delighted after conquering Britain in 1066 to find that unlike most of Europe, the British had a highly organised administration and people paid their dues. Has anything changed?

But we have our limits. Thatcher’s poll tax demonstrated her lack of understanding of the British character. We will riot when pushed too hard – and I don’t know what you think, but by god they frighten me (as someone might have said). Mind you, I can imagine British rioters forming an orderly queue to collect their Molotov Cocktails. Queue jumping is the ultimate sin. Rules must be obeyed.

I have a friend in the finance sector, and we were having a chat about regulations. I asked if it was true in his sector if Brussels ‘dictated’ unreasonable regulations – “Not at all he said. For one thing, Brits are the rule writers par excellence, and the Brits will often gold-plate a regulation from Brussels.”

Now, I am sure some will argue that yes, we Brits are rule followers and love a good rule, but would prefer it if it is always our rules, and solely our rules. Great idea except that it is a total illusion to imagine that we can trade in high value goods and services without agreeing on rules with other countries. 

In sectors like Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals where the UK excels, there are not only European regulations (concerning safety, licensing, event reporting, etc. – all very reasonable and obvious regulations by the way) but International ones. In Pharma, the ICH.org has Harmonization in its title for a reason, and is increasingly global in nature.

Innovation should be about developing the best medicines, not reinventing protocols for drug trials or the design of a drug dossier used for multi-country licensing applications. One can develop an economy on a level playing field.

The complete freedom the hard-right Brexiteers dream of rather highlights their complete lack of knowledge of how the world works. 

Do we really think we can tear up regulations such as REACH and still trade in in Chemicals, in Europe or even elsewhere? 

And are we really going to tear up the Bathing Water Directive?

Maybe Jacob Rees-Mogg fancies going to the beach and rediscovering the delights of going through the motions, but I suspect the Great British Public might well riot at the suggestion, or at least, get very cross. 

Richard Erskine, 10th July 2018

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Experiments in Art & Science

My wife and I were on our annual week-end trip to Cambridge to meet up with my old Darwinian friend Chris and his wife, for the usual round of reminiscing, punting and all that. On the Saturday (12th May) we decided to go to Kettle’s Yard to see the house and its exhibition and take in a light lunch.

As we were about to get our (free) tickets for the house visit, we saw people in T-shirts publicising a Gurdon Institute special event in partnership with Kettle’s Yard that we had been unaware of:

Experiments in Art & Science

A new collaboration between three contemporary artists 

and scientists from the Gurdon Institute, 

in partnership with Kettle’s Yard

The three artists in question were Rachel Pimm, David Blandy and Laura Wilson, looking at work being done at the labs, respectively, on:

This immediately grabbed our attention and we changed tack, and went to the presentation and discussion panel, intrigued to learn more about the project.

The Gurdon Institute do research exploring the relationship between human disease and development, through all stages of life.  They use the tools of molecular biology, including model systems that share a lot of their genetic make-up with humans. There were fascinating insights into how the environment can influence creatures, in ways that force us to relax Crick’s famous ‘Central Dogma’. But I am jumping into the science of what I saw, and the purpose of this essay is to explore the relationship between art and science.

I was interested to learn if this project was about making the science more accessible – to draw in those who may be overwhelmed by the complexities of scientific methods – and to provide at least some insight into the work of scientists. Or maybe something deeper, that might be more of an equal partnership between art and science, in a two-way exchange of insights.

I was particularly intrigued by Rachel’s exploration of the memory of trauma, and the deep past revealed in the behaviour of worms, and their role as custodians of nature; of Turing’s morphogenesis, fractals and the emergence of self-similarity at many scales. A heady mix of ideas in the early stages of seeking expression.

David’s exploratory animations of moving through neural networks was also captivating.

As the scientists there noted, the purpose of the art may not be so much as to precisely articulate new questions, but rather to help them to stand back and see their science through fresh eyes, and maybe find unexpected connections.

In our modern world it has almost become an article of faith that science and art occupy two entirely distinct ways of seeing the world, but there was a time, as my friend Chris pointed out, when this distinction would not have been recognised.

Even within a particular department – be it mathematics or molecular biology – the division and sub-division of specialities makes it harder and harder for scientists to comprehend even what is happening in the next room. The funding of science demands a kind of determinism in the production of results which promotes this specialisation. It is a worrying trend because it is something of an anathema when it comes to playfulness or inter-disciplinary collaboration. 

This makes the Wellcome Trust’s support for the Gurdon Institute and for this Science-Art collaboration all the more refreshing. 

Some mathematicians have noted that even within the arcane world of number theory, group theory and the rest, it will only be through the combining of mathematical disciplines that some of the long-standing unresolved questions of mathematics be solved.

In areas such as climate change it was recognised in the lated 1950s that we needed to bring together a diverse range of disciplines to get to grips with the causes and consequences of man-made global warming: meteorologists, atmospheric chemists, glaciologists, marine biologists, and so many more.

We see through complex questions such as land-use and human civilisation how we must broaden this even further to embrace geography, culture and even history, to really understand how to frame solutions to climate change.

In many ways those (in my days) unloved disciplines such as geography, show their true colours as great integrators of knowledge – from human geography to history, from glaciology to food production – and we begin to understand that a little humility is no bad thing when we come to try to understand complex problems. Inter-disciplinary working is not just a fad; it could be the key to unlock complex problems that no single discipline can resolve.

Leonardo da Vinci was both artist and scientist. Ok, so not a scientist in the modern sense that David Wootton explores in his book The Invention of Science that was heralded in by the Enlightenment, but surely a scientist in the sense of his ability to forensically observe the world and try to make sense of it. His art was part of his method in exploring the world, be it the sinews of the human body or birds in flight, art and science were indivisible.

Since my retirement I have started to take up painting seriously. At school I chose science over art, but over the years have dabbled in painting but never quite made progress. Now, under the watchful eye of a great teacher, Alison Vickery, I feel I am beginning to find a voice. What she tells me hasn’t really changed, but I am finally hearing her. ‘Observe the scene, more than look at the paper’; ‘Experiment and don’t be afraid of accidents, because often they are happy ones’; the list of helpful aphorisms never leaves me.

A palette knife loaded with pigment scrapped across a surface can give just the right level of variegation if not too wet and not too dry; there is a kind of science to it. The effect is to produce a kind of complexity that the human eye seems to be drawn to: imperfect symmetries of the kind we find alluring in nature even while in mathematics we seek perfection.

Scientists and artists share many attributes.

At the meeting hosted by Kettle’s Yard, there was a discussion on what was common between artists and scientists. My list adapts what was said on the day: 

  • a curiosity and playfulness in exploring the world around them; 
  • ability to acutely observe the world; 
  • a fascination with patterns;
  • not afraid of failure;
  • dedication to keep going; 
  • searching for truth; 
  • deep respect for the accumulated knowledge and tools of their ‘art’; 
  • ability to experiment with new methods or innovative ways of using old methods.

How then are art and science different?  

Well, of course, the key reason is that they are asking different questions and seeking different kinds of answers.

In art, the question is often simply ‘How do I see, how do I frame what I see. and how do I make sense of it?’ , and ‘How do I express this in a way that is interesting and compelling?’. If I see a tree, I see the sinews of the trunk and branches, and how the dappled light reveals fragmentary hints as to the form of the tree.  I observe the patterns of dark and light in the canopy. A true rendering of colour is of secondary interest (this is not a photograph), except in as much as it helps reveal the complexity of tree: making different greens by playing with mixtures of 2 yellows and 2 blues offers an infinity of greens which is much more interesting than having tubes of green paint (I hardly ever buy green).

Artists do not have definite answers to unambiguous questions. It is OK for me to argue that J M W Turner was the greatest painter of all time, even while my friend vehemently disagrees. When I look at a painting (or sculpture, or film) and feel an emotional response, there is no need to explain it, even though we often seem obliged to put words to emotions, we know these are mere approximations.

In science (or experimental science at least), we ask specific questions, which can be articulated as a hypothesis that challenges the boundaries of our knowledge. We can then design experiments to test the hypothesis, and if we are successful (in the 1% of times that maybe we are lucky), we will have advanced the knowledge of our subject. Most times this is an incremental learning, building on a body of knowledge. Other times, we may need to break something down before building it up again (but unlike the caricature of science often seen on TV, science is rarely about tearing down a whole field of knowledge, and starting from scratch). 

When I see the tree, I ask, why are the leaves of Copper Beech trees deep purple in colour rather than green? Are the energy levels in the chlorophyll molecule somehow changed to produce a different colour or is a different molecule involved?

In science, the objective is to find definite answers to definite questions. That is not to say that the definite answer is in itself a complete answer to all the questions we have. When Schrodinger asked the question ‘What is Life?’ the role and structure of DNA were not known, but there were questions that he could ask and find answers to. This is the wonder of science; this stepping stone quality.

I may find the answer as to why the Copper Beech tree’s leaves are not green, but what of the interesting question of why leaves change colour in autumn and how they change, not from one state (green) to another (brown), but through a complex process that reveals variegations of colour as Autumn unfolds? And what of a forest? How does a mature forest evolve from an immature one; how do pioneer trees give way to a complex ecology of varyingly aged trees and species over time? A leaf begs a question, and a forest may end up being the answer to a bigger question. Maybe we find that art, literature and science are in fact happy bedfellows after all.

As Feynman said, I can be both fascinated by something in the natural world (such as a rainbow) while at the same time seeking a scientific understanding of the phenomenon.

Nevertheless, it seems that while artists and scientists have so much in common, their framings struggle to align, and that in a way is a good thing. 

There is great work done in the illustration of scientific ideas, in textbooks and increasingly in scientific papers. I saw a recent paper on the impact of changes to the stratospheric polar vortex on climate, which was beautifully illustrated. But this is illustration, intended to help articulate those definite questions and answers. It is not art.

So what is the purpose of bringing artists into laboratories to inspire them; to get their response to the work being done there?

The answer, as they say, is on the tin (of this Gurdon Institute collaborative project): It is an experiment.

The hypothesis is that if you take three talented and curious young artists and show them some leading edge science that touches on diverse subjects, good things happen. Art happens.

Based on the short preview of the work being done which I attended, good things are already happening and I am excited to see how the collaboration evolves.

Here are some questions inspired in my mind by the discussion 

  • How do we understand the patterns in form in the ways that Turing wrote about, based on the latest research? Can we explore ‘emergence of form’ as a topic that is interesting, artistically and scientifically?
  • In the world of RNA epigenetics can the previously thought of ‘junk DNA’ play a part in the life of creatures, even humans, in the environment they live in? Can we explore the deep history of our shared genotype, even given our divergent phenotypes? Will the worm teach us how to live better with our environment?
  • Our identity is formed by memory and as we get older we begin to lose our ability to make new memories, but older ones often stay fast, but not always. Surely here there is a rich vein for exploring the artistic and scientific responses to diseases like Alzheimers?

Scientists are dedicated and passionate about their work, like artists. A joint curiosity drives this new collaborative Gurdon Institute project.

The big question for me is this: can art reveal to scientists new questions, or new framings of old questions, that will advance the science in novel ways? Can unexpected connections be revealed or collaborations be inspired?

I certainly hope so.

P.S. the others in my troop did get to do the house visit after all, and it was wonderful, I hear. I missed it because I was too busy chatting to the scientists and artists after the panel discussion; and I am so grateful to have spent time with them.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2018

 

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Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory

Normally, as with 9/11, a conspiracy theory involves convoluted chains of reasoning so torturous that it can take a while to determine how the conjuring trick was done: where the lie was implanted. But often, the anatomy of a conspiracy theory takes the following basic form:

Part 1 is a plausible but flawed technical claim that aims to refute an official account, and provides the starting point for Part 2, which is a multi-threaded stream of whataboutery. To connect Part 1 and 2 a sleight of hand is performed. This is the anatomy of a basic conspiracy theory.

I have been thinking about this because a relative of mine asked me for my opinion about a video that turns out to be a good case study in this form of conspiracy theory. It was a video posted by a Dr Chris Busby relating to the nerve gas used to poison the Skripals: 

So, against my better judgment, I sat through the video.

Dr Busby who comes across initially as quite affable proceeds to outline his experience at length. He says he was employed at the Wellcome Research Laboratories in Beckenham (see Note 1), where he worked, in his words, 

“… on the physical chemistry of pharmaceutical compounds or small organic compounds”, and he used “spectroscopic and other methods to determine the structure of these substances, as they were made by the chemists”. 

I have no reason to doubt his background, but equally have not attempted to verify it either; in any case, this is immaterial because I judge people on their arguments not their qualifications.

I want to pass over Busby’s first claim – that a state actor was not necessarily involved because (in his view):

“any synthetic organic chemist could knock up something like that without a lot of difficulty”

… which is questionable, but is not the main focus of this post. I do have a few observations on this subsidiary claim in Note 2.

He explains correctly that a Mass Spectroscopy spectrum (let’s abbreviate this as ‘spectrum’ in what follows) is a pattern of the masses of the ionised fragments created when a substance passes through the instrument. This pattern is characteristic of the molecule under investigation.

So a spectrum “identifies a material”. So far, so good.

He now makes his plausible but flawed technical claim. I don’t want to call it a lie because I will assume Dr Busby made it in good faith, but it does undermine his claim to be an ‘expert’, and was contained in the following statement he made:

“… but in order to do that, you need to have a sample of the material, you need to have synthesized the material”

In brief we can summarise the claim as follows: In order for you to identify a substance, you need to have synthesised it.

Curiously, later in the video he says that the USA manufactured the A-234 strain that is allegedly involved (see Note 3) and put the spectrum on the NIST database, but then later took it down. 

It does not occur to Dr Busby that Porton Down could have taken a copy of data from NIST before it was removed and used that as the reference spectrum, thereby blowing a huge hole in Busby’s chain of logic (also, see Note 4).

But there is a more fundamental reason why the claim is erroneous even if the data had never existed.

One of the whole points of having a technique like mass spectroscopy is precisely to help researchers in determining the structures of unknown substances, particularly in trace quantities where other structural techniques cannot be used (see Note 5).

To show you why the claim is erroneous, here is an example of a chemistry lecturer taking his students through the process of analysing the spectrum of a substance, in order to establish its structure (Credit: Identify a reasonable structure for the pictured mass spectrum of an unknown sample, Professor Heath’s Chemistry Channel, 6th October 2016).

This method uses knowledge of chemistry, logic and arithmetic to ‘reverse engineer’ the chemical structure, based on the masses of the fragments:

Now it is true that with a library of spectra for known substances, the analysis is greatly accelerated, because we can then compare a sample’s spectrum with ones in the library. This might be called ‘routine diagnostic mass spectroscopy’.

He talked about having done a lot of work on pharmaceuticals that had been synthesised “in Spain or in India”, and clearly here the mode of application would have been the comparison of known molecules manufactured by (in this case Wellcome) with other samples retrieved from other sources – possibly trying to break a patent – but giving away their source due to impurities in the sample (see Note 6).

It then struck me that he must have spent so much time doing this routine diagnostic diagnostic mass spectroscopy that he is now presenting this as the only way in which you can use mass spectroscopy to identify a substance.

He seems to have forgotten the more general use of the method by scientists.

This flawed assumption leads to the scientific and logical chain of reasoning used by Dr Busby in this video. 

The sleight of hand arrives when he uses the phrase ‘false flag’ at 6’55” into a 10’19” video.  

The chain of logic has been constructed to lead the viewer to this point. Dr Busby was in effect saying ‘to test for the agent, you need to have made it; if you can make it, maybe it got out; and maybe the UK (or US) was  responsible for using it!’.

This is an outrageous claim but he avoids directly accusing the UK or US Governments; and this is the sleight of hand. He leaves the viewer to fill in the gap.

This then paves the way for Part 2 of his conspiracy theory which now begins in earnest on the video. He cranks up the rhetoric and offers up an anti-American diatribe, full of conspiracy ideation.

He concludes the video as follows:

“There’s no way there’s any proof that that material that poisoned the Skripal’s came from Russia. That’s the take home message”

On the contrary, the message I took away is that it is sad that an ex-scientist is bending and abusing scientific knowledge to concoct conspiracy theories, to advance his political dogma, and helping to magnify the Kremlin’s whataboutery.

Now, Dr Busby might well respond by saying “but you haven’t proved the Russians did it!”.  No, but I would reply ‘you haven’t proved that they didn’t, and as things stand, it is clear that they are the prime suspect’; ask any police inspector how they would assess the situation.

My purpose here was not to prove anything, but to discuss the anatomy of conspiracy theories in general, and debunk this one in particular.

But I do want to highlight one additional point: those that are apologists for the Russian state will demand 100% proof the Russians did it, but are lazily accepting of weak arguments – including Dr Busby’s video – that attempt to point the finger at the UK or US Governments. This is, at least, double standards.

By all means present your political views and theories on world politics, Dr Busby – the UK is a country where we can express our opinions freely – but please don’t dress them up with flawed scientific reasoning masquerading as scientific expertise.

Hunting down a plausible but flawed technical claim is not always as easy as in the case study above, but remember the anatomy, because it is usually easy to spot the sleight of hand that then connects with the main body of a conspiracy theory.

We all need to be inoculated against this kind of conspiracy ideation, and I hope my dissection of this example is helpful to people.

——

© Richard W. Erskine, 2018

NOTES

Note 1: The Wellcome Research Laboratories in Beckenham closed in 1995, when the GlaxoWellcome merged company was formed, and after further mergers transformed into the current leading pharmaceutical global entity GSK.

Note 2: Busby’s first claim is that the nerve agent identified by Porton Down is a simple organic compound and therefore easy for a chemist to synthesise. Gary Aitkenhead, the chief executive of the government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) said on Sky News (here reported in The Guardian)

“It’s a military-grade nerve agent, which requires extremely sophisticated methods in order to create – something that’s probably only within the capabilities of a state actor.”

But the difficulty of synthesising a molecule is not simply based on the number of atoms in the molecule, but rather the synthetic pathway, and all that, and in the case of a nerve agent, the practical difficulties involved in making the stuff in a safe environment, then preparing it in some ‘weaponized’ formulation.

Vil Mirzayanov who was a chemist who worked on Novichok has said that  that this process is extremely difficult. Dr Busby thinks he knows better but not being a synthetic chemist (remember, he had chemists making the samples he analysed), cannot claim expertise on the ease or difficulty of nerve agent synthesis.

The UK position is that the extremely pure nature of the samples found in Salisbury point to a state actor. Most of us, and I would include Dr Busby, without experience of the synthesis of the nerve agent in question and its formulation as a weapon, cannot really comment with authority on this question.

Simply saying it is a simple molecule really doesn’t stand up as an argument.

Note 3: While the Russian Ambassador to the UK claims that the strain is A-234, neither the UK Government, nor Porton Down, nor the OPCW have stated which strain was used, and so the question regarding what strain or strains the USA might or might not have synthesized, is pure speculation.

Note 4: He says that if the USA synthesised it (the strain of nerve agent assumed to have been used), then it is possible that Porton Down did so as well. I am not arguing this point either way. The point of this post is to challenge what Dr Busby presents as an unassailable chain of logic, but which is nothing of the sort.

Note 5: There are many other techniques used in general for structuralwork, but not all are applicable in every situation. For large complex biological molecules, X-Ray Crystallography has been very successful, and more recently CryoEM has matured to the point where it is taking over this role. Neither will have used in the case of trace quantities of a nerve agent.

Note 6: He also talks about impurities that can show up in a spectrum and using these as a way to identify a laboratory of origin (in relation to his pharmaceuticals experience), but this is a separate argument, which is irrelevant if the sample is of high purity, which is what OPCW confirmed in relation to the nerve gas found in Salisbury.

.. o O o ..

 

 

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Cambridge Analytica and the micro-targeting smokescreen

I have an hypothesis.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) won’t find any retained data at Cambridge Analytica (CA) gleaned from Facebook user’s. They might even find proof it was deleted in a timely manner.

So, would that mean CA did not provide an assist to the Trump campaign? No.

Because the analysis of all that data would have been used to provide knowledge and insight into which buttons to push in the minds of voters, and crucially, in which States this would be most effective.

At that point you can delete all the source Facebook data.

The knowledge and insight would have powered a broad spectrum campaign using good old fashioned media channels and social media. At this point, it is not micro-targeting, but throwing mud knowing it will stick where it matters.

Maybe the focus on micro-targeting is a smokescreen, because if the ICO don’t find retained data, then CA can say “see, we are innocent of all charges of interference”, when in fact the truth could be quite the opposite.

It is important the ICO, Select Committees in the UK Parliament and, when they get their act together, committees on Capitol Hill, ask the right questions, and do not succumb to smokescreens.

But then, that is only an hypothesis.

What do I know?

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2018

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When did you learn about the Holocaust?

“Where were you when Kennedy was shot?”,

used to be the question everyone asked, but of course is an increasingly irrelevant question, in an ageing population.

But a question that should never age, and should stay with us forever, is

“When did you learn about the holocaust?”.

I remember when I first learned about the holocaust, and it remains seared into my consciousness, thanks to a passionate and dedicated teacher, Mr Cromie.

I was a young child at a boarding school Stouts Hill Preparatory School, in the little village of Uley in Gloucestershire. The school no longer exists but that memory never fades. You cannot ‘unlearn’ something like that.

I was no more than 12 at the time, so this would have been 1965 or earlier, and our teacher told us about the mass murder of the Jews in Nazi Germany, but with a sense of anger and resentment at the injustice of this monstrous episode in history. And it has often occurred to me since that the peak of this programme of murder was just 10 years before I was born.

But what did I learn and what did I remember? I learned about the gas chambers, and the burning of bodies, but it was all a kind of vague memory of an atrocity, difficult to properly make sense of at that age.

What we did not really learn was the process by which a civilised country like Germany could turn from being at the centre of European culture to a murderous genocidal regime in just a decade.

For British viewers, this story of inhumanity was often framed through the lens of Bergen-Belsen, because it was the Brits that liberated this Concentration Camp, and the influential Richard Dimbleby was there to deliver his sonorous commentary on the horrors of the skeletal survivors and piles of corpses.

But it is curious how this story is still the reflex image that many Britons have of the holocaust, and I have often wondered why.  The Conversation tried to provide an answer:

“But even though many, if not most, of those involved in the rescue and relief effort were aware of the fact that Jews made up the largest number of the victims, the evolving official British narrative sidestepped this issue. The liberation of Bergen-Belsen became separated from what the people held in this camp had had to endure, and why they had been incarcerated in the first place.

Instead, the liberation of Bergen-Belsen was transformed into a British triumph over “evil”. The event was used to confirm to the wider British public that the British Army had fought a morally and ethically justified war, that all the personal and collective sacrifices made to win the war had now been vindicated. Bergen-Belsen gave sense and meaning to the British military campaign against Nazi Germany and the Allied demand for an unconditional surrender. The liberation of the camp became Britain’s finest hour.”

Each country, each culture, and each person, constructs their own narrative to try to make sense of the horror.

But despite the horror of Bergen-Belsen, and the 35,000 who died there, it is barely a footnote in the industrialised murder campaign that the Nazi leadership planned and executed.

Despite the fact that most people are vaguely aware of a figure of several million Jews and others dying, they are rather less aware of the distinction between Concentration Camps and Death Camps (also know as Extermination Camps).

Many died in the numerous Concentration Camps, as Wikipedia describes:

“Many of the prisoners died in the concentration camps due to deliberate maltreatment, disease, starvation, and overwork, or they were executed as unfit for labor. Prisoners were transported in inhumane conditions by rail freight cars, in which many died before reaching their final destination. The prisoners were confined in the boxcars for days or even weeks, with little or no food or water. Many died of dehydration in the intense heat of summer or froze to death in winter. Concentration camps also existed in Germany itself, and while they were not specifically designed for systematic extermination, many of their inmates perished because of harsh conditions or they were executed.”

The death camps at Chełmno, Treblinka, Sobibór and Belzec were designed purely as places of murder.  It is not simply about the arithmetic of the holocaust. After all, the death squads and related actions in the east accounted for 2.5 million murders, and the death camps over 3 million. But it is the sheer refinement of the industrialization of murder at the Extermination Camps that is difficult to comprehend:

“Visitors to the sites of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka (of who there are far, far fewer than travel to Auschwitz) are shocked by how tiny these killing camps were. A total of around 1.7 million people were murdered in these three camps – 600,000 more than the murder toll of Auschwitz – and yet all three could fit into the area of Auschwitz-Birkenau with room to spare. In a murder process that is an affront to human dignity at almost every level, one of the greatest affronts – and this may seem illiogical unless you have actually been there – is that so many people were killed in such a small area.”

Auschwitz: The Nazis & The ‘Final Solution’ – Laurence Rees, BBC Books, 2005

Majdanek and Auschwitz also became Extermination Camps, but were dual purpose, also being used as Concentration Camps, so they had accommodation, bunks, and so forth that where not needed in the small camps designed purely for murder.

It is helpful to those who deny the holocaust or its full horror that Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka have not entered into the public imagination in the way that Auschwitz has. Being dual use it is then easier to play on this apparent ambiguity, to construct a denial narrative along the lines of: many died from hard labour, it was not systematic murder.

And of course, not knowing about Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Chełmno is a lot easier than knowing, because they expose the full, unadulterated horror.

Remember that the Final Solution came after a decade of murderous projects – the death squads in the east, the euthanasia programmes, and early experiments with gassing – which led to the final horror of the Extermination Camps.

You can never stop learning, because you will never hear all the details, read all the books, or hear all the testimonies.

But if you ever find yourself not feeling deeply uncomfortable (as well as deeply moved) by the horrors of the Holocaust, then it is time to not turn away. To take another look.

For us today, the most important lesson is that it is possible for even a sophisticated and educated country to succumb to a warped philosophy that blames the ‘other’ for  problems in society, and to progressively desensitize the people to greater and greater levels of dehumanisation.

While nothing on the scale of the holocaust has occurred again, can we be confident that it never could? When we see what has happened under Pol Pot, or in Srebrenica, or in Rwanda, we know that the capacity of people to dehumanise ‘others’ for reasons of ethnicity or politics, and to murder them in large numbers, has not gone away.

The price of freedom, and decency in a society, is eternal vigilance.

Calling out hate speech is therefore, in a small way, honouring the 6 million – the great majority of whom were Jews – who died in the holocaust. It is stamping out that first step in that process of dehumanisation that is the common precursor of all genocidal episodes in history. It is always lurking there, waiting to consume a society that is looking for simple answers, and for someone to blame.

When did I learn about the holocaust?

I never stop learning.

 

#HolocaustMemorialDay #WeRemember

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Ending The Climate Solution Wars: A Climate Solutions Taxonomy

If you spend even a little time looking at the internet and social media in search of enlightenment on climate solutions, you will have noted that there are passionate advocates for each and every solution out there, who are also experts in the shortcomings of competing solutions!

This creates a rather unhelpful atmosphere for those of us trying to grapple with the problem of addressing the very real risks of dangerous global warming.

There are four biases – often implied but not always stated – that lie at the heart of these unproductive arguments:

  • Lack of clear evidence of the feasibility of a solution;
  • Failure to be clear and realistic about timescales;
  • Tendency to prioritize solutions in a way that marginalizes others;
  • Preference for top-down (centralization) or bottom-up (decentralization) solutions.

Let’s explore how these manifest themselves:

Feasibility: Lack of clear evidence of the feasibility of a solution

This does not mean that an idea does not have promise (and isn’t worthy of R&D investment), but refers to the tendency to champion a solution based more on wishful thinking than any proven track record. For example, small modular nuclear has been championed as the path to a new future for nuclear – small, modular, scaleable, safe, cheap – and there are an army of people shouting that this is true. We have heard recent news that the economics of small nuclear are looking a bit shaky. This doesn’t mean its dead, but it does rather put the onus on the advocates to prove their case, and cut the PR, as Richard Black has put it. Another one that comes to mind is ‘soil carbon’ as the single-handed saviour (as discussed in Incredulity, Credulity and the Carbon Cycle). The need to reform agriculture is clear, but it is also true (according to published science) that a warming earth could make soils a reinforcer of warming, rather than a cooling agent; the wisdom of resting hopes in regenerative farming as the whole of even a major contributor, is far from clear. The numbers are important.

Those who do not wish to deal with global warming (either because they deny its seriousness or because they do not like the solutions) quite like futuristic solutions, because while we are debating long-off solutions, we are distracted from focusing on implementing existing solutions.

Timescale: Failure to be clear and realistic about timescales

Often we see solutions that seem to clearly have promise and will be able to make a major contribution in the future. The issue is that even when they have passed the feasibility test, they fail to meet it on a timescale required. There is not even one timescale, as discussed in Solving Man-made Global Warming: A Reality Check, as we have an immediate need to reduce carbon emissions (say, 0-10 years), then an intermediate timeframe in which to implement an energy transition (say, 10-40 years). Renewable energy is key to the latter but cannot make sufficient contribution to the former (that can only be done by individual and community reductions in their carbon intensity). And whatever role Nuclear Fusion has for the future of humanity, it is totally irrelevant to solving the challenge we have in the next 50 years to decarbonize our economy.

The other aspect of timescale that is crucial is that the eventual warming of the planet is strongly linked to the peak atmospheric concentration, whereas the peak impacts will be delayed for decades or even centuries, before the Earth system finally reaches a new equilibrium. Therefore, while the decarbonization strategy required for solutions over, say, the 2020-2050 timeframe; the implied impacts timeframe could be 2050-2500, and this delay can make it very difficult to appreciate the urgency for action.

Priority: Tendency to prioritize solutions in a way that precludes others

I was commenting on Project Drawdown on twitter the other day and this elicited a strong response because of a dislike of a ‘list’ approach to solutions. I also do not like ‘lists’ when they imply that the top few should be implemented and the bottom ones ignored.  We are in an ‘all hands on deck’ situation, so we have to be very careful not to exclude solutions that meet the feasibility and timescale tests. Paul Hawken has been very clear that this is not the intention of Project Drawdown (because the different solutions interact and an apparently small solution can act as a catalyst for other solutions).

Centralization: Preference for top-down (centralization) or bottom-up (decentralization) solutions.

Some people like the idea of big solutions which are often underwritten at least by centralised entities like Governments. They argue that big impact require big solutions, and so they have a bias towards solutions like nuclear and an antipathy to lower-tech and less energy intensive solutions like solar and wind.

Others share quite the opposite perspective. They are suspicious of Governments and big business, and like the idea of community based, less intensive solutions. They are often characterized as being unrealistic because of the unending thirst of humanity for consumption suggests an unending need for highly intensive energy sources.

The antagonism between these world views often obscures the obvious: that we will need both top-down and bottom-up solutions. We cannot all have everything we would like. Some give and take will be essential.

This can make for strange bedfellows. Both environmentalists and Tea Party members in Florida supported renewable energy for complementary reasons, and they became allies in defeating large private utilities who were trying to kill renewables.

To counteract these biases, we need to agree on some terms of reference for solving global warming.

  • Firstly, we must of course be guided by the science (namely, the IPCC reports and its projections) in order to measure the scale of the response required. We must take a risk management approach to the potential impacts.
  • Secondly, we need to start with an ‘all hands on deck’ or inclusive philosophy because we have left it so late to tackle decarbonization, we must be very careful before we throw out any ideas.
  • Thirdly, we must agree on a relevant timeline for those solutions we will invest in and scale immediately. For example, for Project Drawdown, that means solutions that are proven, can be scaled and make an impact over the 2020-2050 timescale. Those that cannot need not be ‘thrown out’ but may need more research & development before they move to being operationally scaled.
  • Fourthly, we allow both top-down (centralized) and bottom-up (solutions), but recognise that while Governments dither, it will be up to individuals and social enterprise to act, and so in the short-medium term, it will be the bottom solutions that will have greater impact. Ironically, the much feared ‘World Government’ that right-wing conpiracy theorists most fear, is not what we need right now, and on that, the environmentalists mostly agree!

In the following Climate Solutions Taxonomy I have tried to provide a macro-level view of different solution classes. I have included some solutions which I am not sympathetic too;  such as nuclear and geo-engineering. But bear in mind that the goal here is to map out all solutions. It is not ‘my’ solutions, and is not itself a recommendation or plan.

On one axis we have the top-down versus bottom-up dimension, and on the other axis, broad classes of solution. The taxonomy is therefore not a simple hierarchy, but is multi-dimensional (here I show just two dimensions, but there are more).

Climate Solutions Taxonomy macro view

While I would need to go to a deeper level to show this more clearly, the arrows are suggestive of the system feedbacks that reflect synergies between solutions. For example, solar PV in villages in East Africa support education, which in turn supports improvments in family planning.

It is incredible to me that while we have (properly) invested a lot of intellectual and financial resources in scientific programmes to model the Earth’s climate system (and impacts), there has been dramatically less modelling effort on the economic implications that will help support policy-making (based on the damage from climate change, through what are called Integrated Assessment Models).

But what is even worse is that there seems to have been even less effort – or barely any –  modelling the full range of solutions and their interactions. Yes, there has been modelling of, for example, renewable energy supply and demand (for example in Germany), and yes, Project Drawdown is a great initiative; but I do not see a substantial programme of work, supported by Governments and Academia, that is grappling with the full range of solutions that I have tried to capture in the figure above, and providing an integrated set of tools to support those engaged in planning and implementing solutions.

This is unfortunate at many levels.

I am not here imagining some grand unified theory of climate solutions, where we end up with a spreadsheet telling us how much solar we should build by when and where.

But I do envisage a heuristic tool-kit that would help a town such as the one I was born (Hargesia in Somaliland), or the town in which I now live (Nailsworth in Gloucestershire in the UK), to be able to work through what works for them, to plan and deliver solutions. Each may arrive at different answers, but all need to be grounded in a common base of data and ‘what works’, and a more qualitative body of knowledge on synergies between solutions.

Ideally, the tool-kit would be usable at various levels of granularity, so it could be used at different various scales, and different solutions would emerge at different scales.

A wide range of both quantitative and qualitative methods may be required to grapple with the range of information covered here.

I am looking to explore this further, and am interested in any work or insights people have. Comments welcome.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

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Deficit, Debt and stalling carbon dioxide emissions

This essay is based on an extract from a talk I did recently that was well received. This specific part of the talk was described as very helpful in clarifying matters related to our carbon dioxide emissions. I hope others also find it useful. 

David Cameron said on 24 January 2013 “We’re paying down Britain’s debts” and got a lot of stick for this misleading statement. Why? Let me try to explain.

The deficit is the annual amount by which we spend more than we get in taxes. Whereas, the debt is the cumulative sum of year on year deficits.

As many politicians do, Cameron was using language designed to be, shall we say, ‘economical with the truth’. He was not the first, and he won’t be the last.

We can picture deficit being added to our debt using the following picture (or for greater dramatic effect, do it live if you are giving a talk):

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.10.49

If the deficit declines this year compared to last year, that may be of great solace to the Chancellor (and that was the situation in 2013), because maybe it’s the start of a trend that will mean that the debt may reach a peak.

Cameron could have said “Our debt keeps rising, but at least the rate at which it is rising is slightly less than last year. We’ll need to borrow some more to cover the additional deficit”, would the a honest statement, but he didn’t. It simply wouldn’t have cut it with the spin doctors.

The reality is that the only thing we can conclude from a deficit this year that is smaller than last year is that that the debt has increased by an amount less than last year. That’s it. It doesn’t sound quite so great put that way, does it?

You need year-on-year surpluses to actually bring the debt down.

Deficit and debt are useful in making an analogy with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, because the confusion – intended or accidental – over deficit and debt, is very similar to the confusion that occurs in the mind of the public when the media report changes in our carbon emissions.

Let’s explore the analogy by replacing “Deficit” with “Emissions”, and “Debt” with “Atmospheric Concentration” …

The annual emissions add to the cumulative emissions in the atmosphere, i.e. the raised Atmospheric Concentration.

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.11.25

There are two differences with the financial analogy when we think about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Firstly, when we add, say, 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (the green coloured area represents the added carbon dioxide) …

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.11.37

… then, within a short time (about 5 years) 50% of the added carbon dioxide (that is 20 billion tonnes, in this illustration), is absorbed in oceans and biosphere, balancing the remainder of carbon dioxide added to atmosphere, and we can visualize this balance as follows (Credit: Rabett Run, which includes a more technical description and an animation) –

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.11.52

Secondly, unlike with the economy, once the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide goes up, it stays up for hundred of years (and to get back to where it started, thousands of years), because for one thing, the processes to take carbon from the upper ocean to the deep ocean are very slow.

Unlike with the economy, our added carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere always goes in the wrong direction; it increases.

So when we see stories that talk about “emissions stalling” or other phrases that seem to offer reassurance, remember, they are talking about emissions (deficit) NOT concentrations (debt).

The story title below is just one example, taken from the Financial Times ( and I am not picking on the FT, but it shows that this is not restricted to the tabloids).

Whenever we see a graph of emissions over the years (graph on the left), the Health Warning should always be the Keeling Curve (graph on the right).

Screen Shot 2017-11-23 at 17.12.05

So the global garbon dioxide emissions in 2014 and 2015 where 36.08 and 36.02 billion tonnes, respectively. Cause for cautious rejoicing? Well, given the huge number of variables that go into this figure (the GDP of each nation; their carbon intensity; the efficiency level for equipment and transport; and so on), projecting a trend from a few years is a tricky business, and some have devoted their lives to tracking this figure. Important work for sure.

Then 2016 came along and the figure was similar but slightly raised, at 36.18 billion tonnes.

But we were said to be stalled … 36.08, 36.02 and 36.18.

I liken this to heading for the cliff edge at a steady pace, but at least no longer accelerating. Apparently that is meant to be reassuring.

Then comes the projected figure for 2017, which includes a bit of a burp of carbon dioxide from the oceans – courtesy of the strong El Nino – and this was even predicted, and horror of horrors, it makes headline news around the world.

We have jumped by 2% over the previous year (actually 1.7% to 36.79 billion tonnes). Has the ‘stall’ now unstalled? What next?

The real headline is that we are continuing to emit over 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, year on year without any sign of stopping.

Only when emissions go down to 0 (zero), will the atmospheric concentration STOP rising.

So in relation to our emissions what word do we want to describe it? Not stall, not plateau, not ease back, but instead, stop, finito or end. They’ll do.

I have discovered – from talking to people who do not follow climate change on twitter, or the blogosphere, and are not fans of complex data analysis – that what I explained above was very helpful but also not widely appreciated.

But in a sense, this is probably the most important fact about climate change that everyone needs to understand, that

the carbon dioxide concentration will only stop rising when emissions completely stop.

The second most important fact is this:

whatever value the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide gets to – at that point in the future when we stop adding more – that it is where it will stay for my grandchild, and her grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and so on … for centuries* to come.

The Keeling Curve  – which measures the global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide – is the only curve that matters, because until it flattens, we will not know how much warming there will actually be, because of the third most important fact people must understand is this:

broadly speaking, the level of warming is proportional to the the peak concentration of carbon dioxide.

So when we see stories that talk about “emissions stalling” or other phrases that seem to offer hope that we’ve turned a corner, remember, they are talking about emissions (deficit) NOT concentrations (debt).

It is amazing how often the deficit/ debt confusion is played on by policitians regarding the nations finances.

The ’emissions stalling’ narrative of the last few years has led many to imagine we are, if not out of the woods, then on our way, but I think the confusion here is a failure of the media and other science communicators to always provide a clear health warning.

The truth is that we, as a species, are a long way still from showing a concerted effort to get out of the woods. Worse still, we are arguing amongst ourselves about which path to take.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

 

[* Unless and until we find a way to artificially extract and sequester carbon dioxide; this is still only R&D and not proven at scale yet, so does not rescue the situation we face in the period leading to 2050. We need to halt emissions, not just “stall” them.]

#carbondioxide #emissions #debt #deficit

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