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Embracing the Denial Curve

Most people are naturally conservative with a small ‘c’ – they really find it very difficult to change.

For nearly 30 years after leaving academia, I spent a lot of time helping organizations be better at managing their enterprise information and retaining knowledge. Many skills are required to help such aspirations to be realised, and not merely technical ones; as I discussed in The Zeitgeist of the Coder.

As always, techies would run around thinking they had a silver bullet that would make people adopt new practices, simply by installing the software and with a few hours of training. Time and time again I would find that an organization that claimed to have made a big change hadn’t. They had changed very little because no real effort had been put into the changes in behaviour that are required to ensure that the claimed outcomes of an enterprise system rollout would actually transpire.

Old habits die hard.

In my large tool-box of diagrams I used when consulting is the following figure, which originates from the field of ‘business change management’ (I have been using it for many years; long before I became active in climate change).

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 13.57.23

The denial (or change) curve is just a name for the grey path from Denial to Commitment, with each stage described as follows:

  • Denial – people do not believe that the change is needed or will really happen, focusing on business as usual and not engaging their own feelings.
  • Resistance – people now know change is coming and engage their feelings of anxiety, anger and rejection. The focus is personal resistance, not the wider organization. It can be disruptive and even counter to one’s interests.
  • Exploration – a switch occurs whereby people recognize need for personal change and start to explore new ways of working.
  • Commitment – people gain mastery of new ways of working and the focus moves from the personal to the organization – and participating in helping to make the change a success.

The denial referred to here is the regular kind of denial we are all prone to, and is well known to psychologists. In the business context I worked in, it was an illusion to imagine you could get staff to jump en masse from Denial to Commitment.

Denial is more characterised by folded arms and non-communication than by argument or engagement; denial of this kind is a shutting out of the possibility of change, not arguing against it.

Resistance is different. The resentment and anger that comes with Resistance is almost a necessary part of the journey; finding reasons why the change won’t work, and using active measures to frustrate implementation. This can be loud and angry.

Only when the benefits of at least the promise of change start to become appreciated, does Exploration begin, and while there will still be arguments, they move from destructive ones (“It can’t work”) to constructive alternatives (“I don’t see how it can work, but show me”).

Commitment follows, and those that have made this journey are much better at helping others tread in their footsteps than an external consultant. Personal journeys get transformed into communcal ones. There is a tipping point, when enough people are reinforcing the positives so that everyone wants to join the party.

Of course, getting action on global warming and decarbonising our economy is much tougher than getting a large organization to adopt new practices, but maybe there is a lesson here.

For one thing, there is nothing wrong in using the word ‘denial’. Some claim that this is being conflated with ‘holocaust denial’ and is therefore an outrageous slur on  ‘contrarians’ (it is always contrarians that make this claim and merely, I would argue, because they wish to deflect criticism and adopt a posture of victimhood, whereas they are the aggressors).

In any case, I am not so much interested in the tiny percentage of politically motivated contrarians, or ‘ideological denialists’ as I would prefer to call them, even though some are in highly influential positions.

We have to find ways to work around them, rather than give them too much of our time (although it has to be said, I am frustrated at how much airtime these people get on Twitter; and maybe that is a problem with Twitter itself as a platform). Their attention seeking behaviour is self-reinforcing and will not be a path to change (ask a psychologist), and it is wasting time that should be focused on the conversations that really matter.

The great majority of people fit more easily into the standard psychological meaning of the word denial; they are blocking their eyes and ears hoping it will go away.

La la la … la la la.

We are all in denial in some sense and to some level; otherwise we’d be seeing a rebellion wouldn’t we?

It is surely unrealistic to expect it will be a smooth and easy (psychological) journey, from Denial to Commitment, and that we can convince people with a few graphs. We can show all the data in the world – on the efficiency of heat pumps; the health benefits of low meat and EV buses; the falling costs of renewables; the ecological impacts underway; or whatever – but until this becomes internalised as the way we think and act, every day and in every way, it will not lead to measurable outcomes.

We have to pass through The Denial Curve – the pain and anger of the ‘loss’, for what we assumed was forever. That high consumption, limitless travelling, throwaway culture, and our infinite planet, with a mode of consumption that we have somehow slipped into sometime in the 60s or 70s. We have to shake ourselves out of a kind of consumerist trance.

We need to make so many changes at so many levels that the change is bound to create huge anxiety and then, of course, Resistance.

If people are resentful at feeling trapped between a rock and a hard place – between the  terrifying consequences of inaction and the trapped-in-the-headlights ‘conservative’ preference for inaction  – then that is entirely natural. Yet this is exactly the ‘tension’ that needs to be explored, and ultimately, needs to be resolved in each of us, and in our communities.

I sense that there is already a growing number of people who have moved from cross-armed denial, to resentment and hence Resistance. This is to be expected, and we should expect it to get a lot louder. We’ll need strong leaders and ‘counsellors’ amongst us, to help guide people on the journey; despite the noises off.

I would argue therefore that we should embrace The Denial Curve, rather than get stuck in the loop of raging against denial per se (that’s what the ‘ideological denialists’ want!).

If we can reassure people and find ways to help them transition from Resistance to Exploration, then that is the hardest part. Commitment will follow.

 

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2018

 

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Brexit’s Sunlit Uplands

Those pesky Europeans, imposing their values on us – you know, a belief in the rule of law and all that. How dare they!

Freed from this prison, the UK can forge a new future with the world, based on emerging economies, and Britain’s long-established record for gun-boat diplomacy.

What can possibly go wrong?

China, for example, has emerged as a powerhouse likely to overtake the USA as the largest economy in the world by 2050. Ok, so they execute more people than the rest of world put together and lock up millions for ‘re-education’; anyone who does not support the ruling dictatorship.

Sunlit uplands.

Hey ho, at least they want to buy our stuff, so what’s not to like?

Ok, so they actually want to steal our stuff – the stuff they have not already hacked using their superior mathematicians (check out the Olympiad results) – but will then be handed over legally. As the mafia discovered, the easiest way to rob a bank is to own one. And the easiest way to steal from, say, Rolls Royce is to own it. Expect when, not if.

Sunlit uplands.

And what about weapons? Well Saudi Arabia is a great client, and the advantage of having an on-going war – namely pulverising Yemen back to the dark ages and murdering children without challenge (let alone journalists) – is that there is such a great repeat-business order book. BAE Systems shareholders are smiling all the way to the bank.

Sunlit uplands.

There seems no end to powerful and anti-democratic forces who want our stuff.

Let’s cut ourselves off from the cultures that we spent hundreds of years wrestling with – in war and peace – and ultimately worked together with to create a platform for peace, diversity and sharing, of hope, and collaboration. Be it the scientific endeavours, or the regulations that allow safe medicines across Europe, or the protection of consumer rights in telecommunications or even swimming on beaches (without going through the motions).

Who exactly are our friends?

Those in Russia, China and Saudi Arabia that have a long history of suppressing freedoms or those in the EU that have a long history of non-conformism and defence of freedoms, even in the face of despots (Diderot eat your heart out).

As we confront issues such as the unrestricted power of Google and Facebook, or the issue of man-made Global Warming, do we trust the USA, China, India or Russia to act as our friends, and in our interests? Not bloody likely.

Oh, but <keep chanting in the dark> ‘sunlit uplands’ (you know it makes you feel better, you just have to believe and everything will work out – even Chris Grayling’s 50 mile tailbacks for lorries – no pain, no gain).

Is there another path?

We could work with Europeans to push for change and to continue the tradition of European enlightenment and rebellion against elites, towards a better world however flawed; including radical reforms of the EU?

Inside the tent, we have a chance to make the changes, but outside it we merely become prey to deals with those that neither share our values, nor value them. Those who turn our creativity into death and destruction. Is that what we want?

How would you choose in this turbulent world?

Will the UK ultimately find itself  a slave to China, where we will have to attend re-education camps in Milton Keynes; where we will have to unlearn the Glorious Revolution (such a dangerous idea)?

Fanciful?

No less so than the sunlit uplands of post-Brexit Britain we have been promised in the false prospectus of Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg; a race to the bottom future of vestigual government, and the power of moneyed elites, who want to frame our future in 19th Century terms.

How about a 21st Century world where we are leaders in Europe, using our talents in genomics, engineering, and yes, regulation (we Brits are geniuses at that), to build a better, safer world. Where we transition our industries to confront climate change, mental health, ecocide, the digital economy and other great challenges; as Brits and as Europeans.

Is that too much to ask?

 

Richard W. Erskine, 2018.

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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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Musing on the loss of European Medicines Agency (EMA) from the UK

People are arguing as to whether the loss of the EMA from the UK will hurt us or not, and I think missing some nuance.

The ICH (International Committee on Harmonization) has helped pharma to harmonize the way drugs are tested, licensed and monitored globally (albeit with variations), enabling drugs to be submitted for licensing in the largest number of countries possible.

For UK’s Big Pharma, the loss of EMA is a blow but not a fatal one, they have entities everywhere, they’ll find a way.

There are 3 key issues I see, around Network, Innovation and Influence:

  1. Network – New drug development is now more ‘ecosystem’ based, not just big pharma alone, and UK has lots of large, medium and small pharma, in both private and public institutions (Universities, Francis Crick Institute, etc.). And so do other EU countries, which form part of the extended network of collaboration. UK leaving EU will disrupt this network, and loss of EMA subtly changes the centre of power.
  2. Innovation – Further to the damage to networks, and despite ICH’s harmonization, being outside of EU inevitably creates issues for the smaller innovators with less reach, shallower pockets, and a greater challenge in adapting to the new  reality.
  3. Influence – not being at the EMA table (wherever its HQ is based) means that we cannot guide the development of regulation, which is on an inexorable path of even greater harmonization. Despite the UK’s self-loathing re. ‘not being as organized as the Germans’, the Brits have always been better than most at regulation, its deep in our culture (indeed much of the EU regulations neoliberals rail against have been gold-plated by the UK when they reach our shores). But outside the EU, and outside EMA, we won’t be in a position to apply these skills, and our influence will wane.

Unfortunately, the Brexiters have shown that they misunderstand the complexity not merely of supply chains in the automotive sector, for example, but the more subtle connections that exist in highly sophisticated development lifecycles, and highly regulated sectors, like pharmaceuticals.

A key regulatory body moving from our shores will have long term consequences we cannot yet know.

Can Britain adapt to the new reality?

Of course it can, but do not expect it to be easy, quick or cheap to do so.

Expect some pain.

 

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Incredulity, Credulity and the Carbon Cycle

Incredulity, in the face of startling claims, is a natural human reaction and is right and proper.

When I first heard the news about the detection on 14th September 2015 of the gravitational waves from two colliding black holes by the LIGO observatories I was incredulous. Not because I had any reason to disagree with the predictions of Albert Einstein that such waves should exist, rather it was my incredulity that humans had managed to detect such a small change in space-time, much smaller than the size of a proton.

How, I pondered, was the ‘noise’ from random vibrations filtered out? I had to do some studying, and discovered the amazing engineering feats used to isolate this noise.

What is not right and proper is to claim that personal incredulity equates to an error in the claims made. If I perpetuate my incredulity by failing to ask any questions, then it’s I who is culpable.

And if I were to ask questions then simply ignore the answers, and keep repeating my incredulity, who is to blame? If the answers have been sufficient to satisfy everyone skilled in the relevant art, how can a non expert claim to dispute this?

Incredulity is a favoured tactic of many who dispute scientific findings in many areas, and global warming is not immune from the clinically incredulous.

The sadly departed Professor David Mackay gives an example in his book Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air (available online):

The burning of fossil fuels is the principal reason why CO2 concentrations have gone up. This is a fact, but, hang on: I hear a persistent buzzing noise coming from a bunch of climate-change inactivists. What are they saying? Here’s Dominic Lawson, a columnist from the Independent:  

“The burning of fossil fuels sends about seven gigatons of CO2 per year into the atmosphere, which sounds like a lot. Yet the biosphere and the oceans send about 1900 gigatons and 36000 gigatons of CO2 per year into the atmosphere – … one reason why some of us are sceptical about the emphasis put on the role of human fuel-burning in the greenhouse gas effect. Reducing man-made CO2 emissions is megalomania, exaggerating man’s significance. Politicians can’t change the weather.”

Now I have a lot of time for scepticism, and not everything that sceptics say is a crock of manure – but irresponsible journalism like Dominic Lawson’s deserves a good flushing.

Mackay goes on to explain Lawson’s error:

The first problem with Lawson’s offering is that all three numbers that he mentions (seven, 1900, and 36000) are wrong! The correct numbers are 26, 440, and 330. Leaving these errors to one side, let’s address Lawson’s main point, the relative smallness of man-made emissions. Yes, natural flows of CO2 are larger than the additional flow we switched on 200 years ago when we started burning fossil fuels in earnest. But it is terribly misleading to quantify only the large natural flows into the atmosphere, failing to mention the almost exactly equal flows out of the atmosphere back into the biosphere and the oceans. The point is that these natural flows in and out of the atmosphere have been almost exactly in balance for millenia. So it’s not relevant at all that these natural flows are larger than human emissions. The natural flows cancelled themselves out. So the natural flows, large though they were, left the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and ocean constant, over the last few thousand years.

Burning fossil fuels, in contrast, creates a new flow of carbon that, though small, is not cancelled.

I offer this example in some detail as an exemplar of the problem often faced in confronting incredulity.

It is natural that people will often struggle with numbers, especially large abstract sounding numbers. It is easy to get confused when trying to interpret numbers. It does not help that in Dominic Lawson’s case he is ideologically primed to see a ‘gotcha’, where none exists.

Incredulity, such as Lawson’s, is perfectly OK when initially confronting a claim that one is sceptical of; we cannot all be informed on every topic. But why then not pick up the phone, or email a Professor with skills in the particular art, to get them to sort out your confusion?  Or even, read a book, or browse the internet? But of course, Dominic Lawson, like so many others suffers from a syndrome that  many have identified. Charles Darwin noted in The Descent of Man:

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”

It is this failure to display any intellectual curiosity which is unforgivable in those in positions of influence, such as journalists or politicians.

However, the incredulity has a twin brother, its mirror image: credulity. And I want to take an example that also involves the carbon cycle,.

In a politically charged subject, or one where there is a topic close to one’s heart, it is very easy to uncritically accept a piece of evidence or argument. To be, in the technical sense, a victim of confirmation bias.

I have been a vegetarian since 1977, and I like the idea of organic farming, preferably local and fresh. So I have been reading Graham Harvey’s book Grass Fed Nation. I have had the pleasure of meeting Graham, as he was presenting a play he had written which was performed in Stroud. He is a passionate and sincere advocate for his ideas on regenerative farming, and I am sure that much of what he says makes sense to farmers.

The recently reported research from Germany of a 75% decline in insect numbers is deeply worrying, and many are pointing the finger at modern farming and land-use methods.

However, I found something in amongst Harvey’s interesting book that made me incredulous, on the question of carbon.

Harvey presents the argument that, firstly, we can’t do anything to reduce carbon emissions from industry etc., but that secondly, no need to worry because the soils can take up all the annual emissions with ease; and further, that all of extra carbon in the industrial era could be absorbed in soils over coming years.

He relies a lot on Savory’s work, famed for his visionary but contentious TED talk. But he also references other work that makes similar claims.

I would be lying if I said there was not a part of me that wanted this to be true. I was willing it on. But I couldn’t stop myself … I just had to track down the evidence. Being an ex-scientist, I always like to go back to the source, and find a paper, or failing that (because of paywalls), a trusted source that summarises the literature.

Talk about party pooper, but I cannot find any such credible evidence for Harvey’s claim.

I think the error in Harvey’s thinking is to confuse the equilibrium capacity of the soils with their ability to take up more, every year, for decades.

I think it is also a inability to deal with numbers. If you multiply A, B and C together, but then take the highest possible ranges for A, B and C you can easily reach a result which is hugely in error. Overestimate the realistic land that can be addressed; and the carbon dioxide sequestration rate; and the time till saturation/ equilibrium is reached … and it is quite easy to overestimate the product of these by a factor of 100 or more.

Savory is suggesting that over a period of 3 or 4 decades you can draw down the whole of the anthropogenic amount that has accumulated (which is nearly 2000 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide), whereas a realistic assessment (e.g. www.drawdown.org) is suggesting a figure of 14 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (more than 100 times less) is possible in the 2020-2050 timeframe.

There are many complex processes at work in the whole carbon cycle – the biological, chemical and geological processes covering every kind of cycle, with flows of carbon into and out of the carbon sinks. Despite this complexity, and despite the large flows of carbon (as we saw in the Lawson case), atmospheric levels had remained stable for a long time in the pre-industrial era (at 280 parts per million).  The Earth system as a whole was in equilibrium.

The deep oceans have by far the greatest carbon reservoir, so a ‘plausibility argument’ could go along the lines of: the upper ocean will absorb extra CO2 and then pass it to the deep ocean. Problem solved! But this hope was dashed by Revelle and others in the 1950s, when it was shown that the upper-to-lower ocean processes are really quite slow.

I always come back to the Keeling Curve, which reveals an inexorable rise in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere since 1958 (and we can extend the curve further back using ice core data). And the additional CO2 humans started to put into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution (mid-19th century, let us say) was not, as far as I can see, magically soaked up by soils in the pre-industrial-farming days of the mid-20th century, when presumably traditional farming methods pertained.

FCRN explored Savory’s methods and claims, and find that despite decades of trying, he has not demonstrated that his methods work.  Savory’s case is very weak, and he ends up (in his exchanges with FCRN) almost discounting science; saying his methods are not susceptible to scientific investigations. A nice cop-out there.

In an attempt to find some science to back himself up, Savory referenced Gattinger, but that doesn’t hold up either. Track down Gattinger et al’s work  and it reveals that soil organic carbon could (on average, with a large spread) capture 0.4GtC/year (nowhere near annual anthropogenic emissions of 10GtC), and if it cannot keep up with annual emissions, forget soaking up the many decades of historical emissions (the 50% of these that persists for a very long time in the atmosphere).

It is interesting what we see here.

An example of ‘incredulity’ from Lawson, who gets carbon flows mixed up with net carbon flow, and an example of ‘credulity’ from Harvey where he puts too much stock in the equilibrium capacity of carbon in the soil, and assumes this means soils can keep soaking up carbon almost without limit. Both seem to struggle with basic arithmetic.

Incredulity in the face of startling claims is a good initial response to startling claims, but should be the starting point for engaging one’s intellectual curiosity, not as a perpetual excuse for confirming one’s bias; a kind of obdurate ignorance.

And neither should hopes invested in the future be a reason for credulous acceptance of claims, however plausible on face value.

It’s boring I know – not letting either one’s hopes or prejudices hold sway – but maths, logic and scientific evidence are the true friends here.

Maths is a great leveller.

 

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017

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Trust, Truth and the Assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia 

How far do we go back to find examples of investigations of injustice or the abuse of power?

Maybe Roger Casement’s revelations on the horrors of King Leopold’s Congo, or the abuses of Peruvian Indians were heroic examples for which he received a Knighthood, even if later, his support for Irish independence earned him the noose.

Watergate was clearly not the first time that investigative journalism fired the public imagination, but it must be a high point, at least in the US, for the power of the principled and relentless pursuit of the truth by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

And then I call to mind the great days of the Sunday Times’ ‘Insight’ team that conducted many investigations. I recall the brilliant Brian Deer, who wrote for The Times and Sunday Times, and revealed the story behind Wakefield’s fake science on MMR, even while other journalists were shamelessly helping to propagate the discredited non-science.

But those days seem long ago now.

Today, you are just as likely to find The Times, The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Spectator – desperate to satisfy their ageing and conservative readership, or in need of clickbait advertising revenue – to regurgitate bullshit, including the anti-expert nonsense that fills the blogosphere. This nonsense has been called out many times, such as in Climate Feedback.

Despite Michael Gove’s assertion that “Britain has had enough with experts” the IPSOS More Veracity Index of 2016 suggests differently  – It appears that nurses, doctors, lawyers and scientists are in the upper quartile of trust, whereas journalists, estate agents and politicians lurk in the lower quartile.

No wonder the right-wingers who own or write for the organs of conservatism are so keen to attack those in the upper quartile, and claim there is a crisis of trust. This is  displacement activity by politicians and journalists: claiming that there is a crisis of trust with others to deflect it from themselves. The public are not fooled.

It is a deeply cynical and pernicious to play the game of undermining evidence and institutions.

As Hannah Arendt said in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

But investigative journalism is not dead.

In Russia there are many brave journalists who expose corruption and the abuse of power, and they have paid with their lives: 165 murdered since 1993, with about 50% of these since Putin came to power. He didn’t start the killing, but then, he didn’t stop it either.

The nexus of political, business and mafia-style corruption makes it easy from the leadership to shrug off responsibility.

And so we come to Malta, where the same nexus exists. Daphne Caruana Galizia has been exposing corruption for so long, there were no shortage of enemies, including the politicians and police that failed to protect her. Her assassination is a scar on Malta that will take a long time to heal.

The EU has produced anodyne reports on partnership with Malta and programmes continue despite a breakdown in the rule of law and governance, that have provided a haven for nepotism and racketeering. Is Malta really so different to Russia in this regard?

Is the EU able to defend the principles it espouses, and sanction those who fail to live up to them?

The purveyors of false news detest brave investigative journalists as much as they love to attack those like scientists who present evidence that challenges their interests. Strong institutions are needed to defend society against these attacks.

Remainers like myself defend the EU on many counts, but we also expect leadership when that is needed, not merely the wringing of hands.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017.

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America’s Gun Psychosis

This was originally written on 2nd October 2017 following the Las Vegas shooting where Stephen Paddock murdered 58 people and injured 851 more. The latest mass shooting (a phrase that will become out of date, almost before the ink is dry) at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. This is also the 17th school shooting in the USA in the first 45 days of 2018. I have not made any changes to the essay below (because this is tragically the same psychosis), but have added Venn Diagrams to visualize the issue of mental health and guns. Mental health is not the issue here. It is people with homicidal tendencies (many of whom will indeed have mental problems) having easy access to guns. We should not stigmatise a growing number of people with mental health problems. We should reduce access to guns.

If ever one needed proof of the broken state of US politics, the failure to deal with this perpetual gun crisis is it.

After 16 children and 1 teacher were killed in the Dunblane massacre on 13th March 1996, the UK acted.

After 35 people were killed in the PortArthur massacre on 28th April 1996, Australia acted.

It’s what any responsible legislature would do.

So far in 2017, US deaths from shootings totals a staggering 11,652 (I think not including the latest mass shooting in Las Vegas, and with 3 months still to run in 2017 – see gunsviolencearchive – and note this excludes suicides).

The totals for the previous 3 years 2014, 2015 and 2016 are 12,571; 13,500; and 15,079.

The number of those injured comes in at about two times those killed (but note that the ratio for the latest Las Vegas shooting is closer to 10, with the latest Associated Press report at the time of writing, giving 58 people dead and 515 injured).

One cannot imagine the huge number of those scarred by these deaths and injuries – survivors, close families, friends, colleagues, classmates, first-responders, relatives at home and abroad. Who indeed has not been impacted by these shootings, in the US and even abroad?

I write as someone with many relatives and friends in America, and having owed my living to great American companies for much of my career. But I am also someone whose family has been touched by this never-ending obsession that America has with guns.

And still Congress and Presidents seem incapable of standing up to the gun lobby and acting.

The US, far from acting, loosens further the access to guns or controls on them.

This is a national psychosis, and an AWOL legislature.

In both the UK and Australian examples, it was actually conservative administrations that brought in the necessary legislation, so the idea that only ‘liberals’ are interested in reducing the number and severity of shootings, by introducing gun control, is simply wrong. This should not be a party political issue.

In the US some will argue against gun control, saying that a determined criminal or madman can always get hold of a gun. This is a logical fallacy, trying to make the best be the enemy of the good. Just because an action is not guaranteed to be 100% perfect, is no reason for not taking an action that could be effective, and the case of the UK and Australia, very effective. Do we fail to deliver chemotherapy to treat cancer patients because it is not guaranteed to prevent every patient from dying; to be 100% perfect? Of course not. But this is just one of the many specious arguments used by the gun lobby in the USA to defend the indefensible.

But at its root there is, of course, a deeply polarised political system in the USA. The inability to confront the guns crisis, is the same grid-locked polarisation that is preventing the US dealing with healthcare, or the justice system, or endemic racism, or indeed, climate change.

How will America – a country that has given so much to the world – overcome this debilitating polarization in the body politic?

America needs a Mandela – a visionary leader able to bring people together to have a rationale, evidence based conversation – but none is in sight.

It’s enough to make one weep.

The 3 branches of the US Government ought to be ashamed, but expect more platitudinous ‘thoughts and prayers’ … the alternative to them doing their job.

Trump is now praying for the day when evil is banished, for god’s sake! An easy but totally ineffective substitute for actually doing anything practical to stem the carnage, and protect US citizens.

Some pictures added 16th February 2018 to illustrate the problem facing the USA …

Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 08.08.32Screen Shot 2018-02-16 at 08.08.41

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BBC Science Reporting: Evidence, Values and Pollability

In his Harveian Oration to the Royal College of Physicians on 15th October 2015, Professor Sir Mark Walport made the following observation:

“My PhD supervisor, Sir Peter Lachmann, has framed the distinction between the subjective and the objective in a different way, by considering whether questions are ‘pollable’ or ‘non- pollable’; that is, whether a question can be answered in principle by a vote (a pollable question), or whether the question has a right answer that is independent of individual preferences and opinions (a non-pollable question). This distinction can be easily illustrated by a couple of examples. It is a non-pollable question as to whether there is an anthropogenic contribution to climate change. There is a correct answer to this question and your opinion or mine is ultimately irrelevant. The fact that there may be uncertainties about the scale and the nature of the contribution does not change the basic nature of the question. In contrast, it is a pollable question as to whether nuclear energy is an acceptable solution to providing low-carbon power, and I will return to this later.”

The question presents itself: does the BBC understand the distinction between pollable and non-pollable questions related to science?

BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday 12th September included two discussions on the nature of science reporting and how it has changed over the years, particularly at the BBC.

The first was with Steve Jones , Emeritus Professor of Human Genetics at University College, who led a  review of the way the BBC itself reports science, about the changing nature of science reporting, while the second was with Richard Dawkins, Professor of evolutionary biology and David Willetts a former science minister, considering the “public’s evolving relationship with science, evidence and truth”.

Subsequent to this I wrote a letter to the Today team at the BBC, which is reproduced below, which I am now sharing on my blog:

Dear Sir/ Madam

I wanted to thank the BBC Today team for two excellent discussions that John Humphreys had, first with Prof. Steve Jones, and then subsequently with David Willetts and Richard Dawkins.

John Humphreys posed the challenge to Prof. Jones, as to why we should ‘believe’ climate change; and I am paraphrasing his words:

A. The world is warming

B. This warming is man made, and

C. There is only one way of stopping it.

This was an alarming way to approach the topic, for two reasons.

Firstly, the science – and by virtue of that statement, scientists – unequivocally answer A and B with a resounding ‘Yes’.  There is an aggregation of scientific evidence and analysis going back at least to John Tyndall in the mid 19th Century that brought us – no later than the 1980s in fact – to a consilience of science on these questions. I discuss this history and the nature of ‘consilience’ in an essay, here: https://essaysconcerning.com/2017/05/02/a-climate-of-consilience-or-the-science-of-certitude/ 

To question this is at the same level as questioning whether cigarettes cause lung cancer. There is no debate to be had here.  Yes, debate on how to get teenagers  to stop taking up smoking, but that’s a different question.  To say that everyone can have an opinion, and to set up a controversial ‘debate’ on these questions is the “false balance” Professor Jones identified in the report he did for the BBC. Representing opinions is not a license to misrepresent the evidence, by using ‘false balance’ in this way.

Secondly, however, scientists do NOT speak with one voice on how to stop it, as John Humphrey’s phrased his C question.  That is a why the UNFCCC takes up the question here which require policy input, and yes, the input of ‘values’.  Whilst the A and B questions are not questions where it is appropriate to bring values to bear on the answers; solutions are full of value-based inputs.  So the C that John Humphreys should be opening a dialogue on this:

C(amended): There are many solutions that can contribute to addressing the given man-made global warming – either by mitigation or adaptation – which ones do you advocate and why?

And of course many subsidiary questions arise when debating these solutions:

  • Are we too late to prevent dangerous climate change, therefore need a massive reduction in consumption – a degrowth strategy?
  • Can we solve this with a kind of Marshall Plan to decarbonise our energy supply, but also heat buildings and transport, through electrification?
  • What role does nuclear energy play?
  • Given the long time that excess carbon dioxide levels remain in the atmosphere, and the legacy of the developed worlds emissions, how can the developing world receive carbon justice?
  • Even if we decarbonised everything tomorrow, what solutions are feasible for reducing the raised levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; what degree of sea-level rise are we prepared to tolerate, ‘baked in’ already to the Earth system?
  • Is a carbon tax ultimately the only way forward, and what price do we put on carbon?
  • … and so on.

Yes, science can help answer these kinds of questions, but the values play a large part too.  

The fact the BBC still gets stuck in the groove of ‘debating’ A and B, is I think woeful. As woeful as ‘debating’ if smoking causes cancer.

I think David Willetts acknowledged the difference in these classes of question, whereas Richard Dawkins was disappointingly black and white; not recognising the role of values in the C(amended) class of questions.

David Willetts made the interesting point that in social science, there is often greater difficulty in getting to the truth, and this is highly problematic for politicians, but that for the physical sciences, if we’ve discovered the Higgs Boson, it is much clearer.  He made a lot of the need to bring values to bear on decisions and ‘not being able to wait for yet another report’. However, there is a qualitative difference with climate change: it requires long term strategic thinking and it is a challenge to the normal, national political cycles.

On the question of Lord Lawson. By all means invite him to discuss the economics of decarbonising the economy. But last time he was asked on – more or less to do this – and had a discussion with Justin Webb, he was asked by Justin to comment on Al Gore’s statement that we needed to push ahead with the solutions that are already available to us. Move on, in other words.

Instead of answering this question Lord Lawson tried to poke holes in unequivocal science (A and B), instead of addressing C; he has no intention of moving on.  He lost, and seems quite bitter about it; as he went on to make personal attacks on Al Gore.  While the interviewer cannot stop Lord Lawson saying these things, he should be called out on them.

“I am not a scientist” is a statement that US Republican Congressman use to avoid confronting the fact that A and B are true, and not up for debate.  John Humphreys should not be using the same statement (but he did on this episode). 

If climate change is “the big one” as he himself noted, surely it is time he made the effort to educate himself to the point where he understands why A and B are unequivocally “Yes”, in the same way that “Does smoking cause lung cancer?” has an unequivocally “Yes” answer.  There are no shortage of scientists at the Met Office, Cambridge, Oxford, UCL and elsewhere who I am sure would be happy to help him out here.

Today was a good discussion – even a great step forward – but the BBC is still failing in its public service duty, on this topic of global warming.

Kind regards,

Richard Erskine

What seems to be clear to me is that John Humphreys is not alone amongst journalists in failing to distinguish between non-pollable (where evidence accumulated over many years holds sway, and values have no place) and pollable questions (where values can have as big a part to play as the science).

It is about time they started.

o o O o o

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Elf ‘n Safety and The Grenfell Tower fire

The tragic fire at Grenfell Tower breaks one’s heart.

There was a question asked tonight on BBC’s Newsnight which amounted to:

How is it, in 21st Century UK, a rich and prosperous country despite everything, that a fire can engulf a tower block in the way it did last night?

This got me thinking.

People from the council, politicians and others talk of the need to ‘learn lessons’ in a way that makes one wonder if they really believe it.

Apparently, in the British Army they ban the use of such language. Because we all know what this means. Another report. Another expert ignored. Another tragedy, and another lesson unheard, and ignored. A lesson demonstrated through a change in behaviour, great, but some aspirational statement that one will change at some indeterminate time in the future? No thanks.

We know that tragedies like this are multi-causal, so no single cause can explain it. But that doesn’t mean it was unforeseen. In this case there are factors that have been raised:

  • cladding that is not fire-retardant, but rather designed to make a building more aesthetically pleasing, with scant regard for how it undermines the underlying fire-safety of the original building;
  • a lack of any alarm to warn the residents of fire;
  • a lack of sprinklers in rooms or hallways (whereas in hotels this is standard practice; why the difference);
  • a failure to implement a report by a Select Committee of Parliament published following a previous tower-block fire;
  • a building with only one staircase for escape;
  • building standards that are evidently not fit for purpose and widely criticised (for some time) as providing a very low bar for compliance;
  • an arms length management organisation that refused to listen to the concerns of residents.

These and no doubt other factors compounded to either make the fire worse than it should have been, or the response to the fire by residents and rescue workers less effective than it could have been.

No doubt there will be questions about how it is that experts have known about the risks of the kind of cladding used, and have published papers on this, but their knowledge has fallen on deaf ears. No one in authority has had the smidgen of intellectual curiosity or moral impulse to track it down using Google. We apparently need another report to rediscover stuff we already knew, which who knows, maybe they will read this time.

No doubt there are questions to be asked of organisations like the British Standards Institute (BSI) that produces standards in this case that seem to fail to challenge the industry to reach the highest common factor for health and safety, but instead, to arrive a lowest common denominator of standard. They specify tests that are clearly not real-world tests. One is bound to ask if the BSI is fit for purpose, and whether its processes lead to an excessive chumminess with the industries it works with. It has a business model where it generates and sells standards and associated consultancy. Better not rock too many boats? No doubt the standards are “pragmatic” in the business-speak synonym for barely adequate.

Christoper Miers, in his conclusion of a report entitled “Fire Risks From External Cladding Panels – A Perspective From The UK”, wrote:

“Can anything be done about the worldwide legacy of buildings with combustible cored composite panels?  Unless something radical is done, such as national retro-fitting subsidy schemes, it seems inevitable that there will be further fires involving aluminium-faced polyethylene core panels.  Nightmare scenarios include multiple-fatality building-engulfing fires as in China, or given the proximity of towers in some districts, the ignition of neighbouring buildings’ cladding from an external cladding fire, or disintegrated burning panels igniting the roofs of lower buildings adjacent.

It is difficult to envisage owners voluntarily stripping off entire existing aluminium composite panel facades and replacing them with Fire Code-compliant cladding panels, as the cost would be prohibitive.  Partial replacement with barrier bands of fire resistant panels has been suggested to stop fires spreading, [48] but given the flame heights at the Tamweel, Torch and The Address, such barrier bands would have to be substantially large.  The works necessary to provide these barriers would involve much of the scaffolding and associated costs of full replacement.

It seems inevitable that insurers will differentiate between buildings with and without combustible aluminium composite panels and will charge higher premiums for higher risks.  One or two more fires, or a fatal fire, could lead to insurance cover being refused if the risk is considered excessive.  Insurance issues, bad publicity and loss of property value might then make retro-fitting external cladding a viable option in commercial, as well as fire safety terms.”

But despite all these unlearned lessons, there is something far more insidious at work here.

The sneering right wing commentators like Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Fail have waged a campaign for many years against what they claim is an over-weaning attempt by the liberal elite to protect us from ourselves, which goes under the catchy title of “elf ’n safety” (snigger, snigger, sneer). Imagine …

Poor Johnny can’t even go diving off some rocks without someone doing a bloody risk assessment, then someone else has to hold a flag. 

Stuff and nonsense – in my day we used to ski down black runs blindfolded. Never did us any harm.

You get the picture.

I remember once doing a study for the HSE (Health & Safety Executive) back in the 90s, and some of the horror stories of what used to happen in industries like farming and chemicals would make your hair stand on end.

And of course deaths and injury in these and other industries have fallen dramatically in the last few decades, thanks to organisations like the HSE. Far from hurting productivity, it has helped it, by enhancing efficiency and professionalism. In some industries it even drives innovation, as with the noise regulations for aircraft.

And even in the more parochial area of school trips, there was plenty of evidence that just a little bit of prior planning might well prevent poor performance (and injury).

But no, to Richard Littlejohn and his ilk, the “world has gone mad”.

Too often the bureaucrats seem to have bought into – maybe unconsciously – this background noise of derision towards health and safety. They feel inclined to dismiss the concerns raised by experts or ride roughshod over citizens concerns.

What do they know? Business must go on.

And once again we have the chumminess effect: councillors too close to developers, and lacking the critical faculties to ask searching questions, or even obvious ones.

For example, one might have imagined a councillor asking the questions …

“This cladding we plan use… is it anything like that used on that tower block that went up in flames in Dubai? Have we assessed the risks? Can we assure the tenants we have investigated this, and its OK?”.  

There is good box-ticking (in the cock-pit of an aeroplane) and the bad kind. The good kind is used by engineers, pilots, surgeons, school-teachers and others who are skilled in their respective arts.

The bad kind is used by bureaucrats wanting to cover their arses. We heard some of this  last night on Newsnight “we got the design signed off”, “we followed the standards”, etc.

Where is the imagination, the critical thinking, the challenging of lazy assumptions?

And most importantly, where is the answering of tenants’ questions and concerns, and taking health and safety seriously as the number one requirement, not as an afterthought?

But risk assessment planning and execution is incessantly mocked by the sneering, curled lip brigade who inhabit the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and other right wing denigrators of “elf ’n safety”.

This has created a culture of jocular disregard for safety.

Try this. Go to a cafe with a few friends and ask “shall we have a chat about health and safety?”. I bet you that they will – whatever their political views – either laugh or roll their eyes.

Well, maybe not any more. Maybe they may feel suitably chasticised for a while at least, and stop their lazy sneering.

The champion sneerers have been successful through their drip, drip of cherry-picked stories or outright myths; their project has had an insidious effect, and has done its worst inundermining respect for health and safety.

But you see, it is not really health and safety that they have in their sights.  It’s just the easy to mock first hurdle in a wider programme.

There is a bigger prize: regulation!

What the de-regulators like Daniel Hannan want from Brexit is a bonfire of regulations, as he wrote about in his 2015 ‘vision’.

David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, claims not to know the difference between a ‘soft’ Brexit and a hard one.

Well, here’s a guide, David.

A hard Brexit is one where we have a bonfire of regulations; where we have no truck with experts who advise us on risks of ethylene-based cladding or excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere; where ‘risk assessment’ is a joke we have down the club; where the little people enjoy the fruits of ‘trickle down’ economics in a  thriving Britain, free of (allegedly) over-weaning regulation.

But the British have made it clear they do not want a hard Brexit.

I hope and trust that the time is over for the sneering, arrogant advocates for de-regulation, and their purile and dangerous disregard for people’s health, and their safety.

Whether in bringing forth and implementing effective measures to prevent another terrible fire like at Grenfell Tower, or in all the other areas of life and work in the UK that are important for a safe and secure future, the time to take experts and regulations seriously is needed now, more than ever.

 

Richard W. Erskine, 15th June 2017.

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A Climate of Consilience (or the science of certitude)

There seems to be a lot of discussion about an apparently simple question:

Can science be ‘certain’ about, well, anything? 

If that meant not doing anything – not building a bridge; not releasing a new drug; not taking off for the flight to New York; not flying a spacecraft to Saturn; not vaccinating the whole world against polio; not taking action to decarbonise our energy supply; Etc. – then this lack of 100% certainty might totally debilitate a modern society, frozen with doubt and so unable to act.

But of course, we do not stop implementing solutions based on our current best knowledge of nature and the world, however limited it might be. We make judgments. We assess risks. We weigh the evidence. We act.

I think scientists often fall into the trap of answering a quite different question:

Do we have a complete and all encompassing theory of the world (or at least, ‘this’ bit of the world, say how black holes work or how evolution played out)?

And everyone will rush defensively to the obvious answer, “no”. Why? Because we can always learn more, we can always improve, and indeed sometimes – although surprisingly rarely – we can make radical departures from received bodies of knowledge.

We are almost 100% certain of the ‘Second Law of Thermodynamics’ and Darwin’s ‘Evolution by Natural Selection’, but almost everything else is of a lower order.

But even when we do make radical departures, it doesn’t always mean a complete eradication of prior knowledge. It does when moving from superstition, religious dogma, witch-doctoring and superstitious theories of illness: as when we move to the germ theory of disease and a modern understanding biology, because people get cured, and ignorance is vanquished.

But take Newtonian mechanics. This remains valid for the not too small (quantum mechanical) and not too massive or fast (relativistic) domains of nature, and so remains a perfectly good approximation for understanding snooker balls, the motion of the solar system, and even the motion of fluids.

As Helen Czerski describes in her book Storm In A Teacup, the physics of the everyday covers many interesting and complex phenomena.

In the following Figure, from her entertaining TEDxManchester talk The fascinating physics of everyday life, she shows how the physics of the every day applies over a huge range of scales (in time and space); bracketed between the exotic worlds of the extremely small (quantum mechanics) and extremely large (general relativity) which tend to dominate our cultural perceptions of physics today.

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Want to build a bridge, or build a solar system, or understand Saturn’s rings? Move over Schrodinger and Einstein, come on board Newton!

And yes, if you want to understand the interaction of molecules? Thank you Schrodinger.

Want to predict gravitational waves from a distant galaxy where two neutron stars are collinding? Thank you Einstein.

That is why the oft promulgated narrative of science – the periodic obliteration of old theories to be replaced by new ones – is often not quite how things work in practice.  Instead of a vision of a singular pyramid of knowledge that is torn down when someone of Einstein’s genius comes along and rips away its foundations, one instead sees new independent pyramids popping up in the desert of ignorance.

The old pyramids often remain, useful in their own limited ways. And when confronting a complex problem, such as climate change, we see a small army of pyramids working together to make sense of the world.

As one such ‘pyramid’, we have the long and tangled story of the ‘atom’ concept, a story that began with the ancient greeks, and has taken centuries to untangle. Building this pyramid – the one that represents our understanding of the atom – we follow many false trails as well as brilliant revelations. Dalton’s understanding of the uniqueness and differentiation of atoms was one such hard fought revelation. There was the kinetic theory of gases that cemented the atomic/ molecular role in the physical properties of matter: the microscopic behaviour giving rise to the macroscopic properties such as temperature and pressure. Then there was the appreciation of the nuclear character and the electronic properties of atoms, leading ultimately to an appreciation of the fundamental reason for the structure of the periodic table, with a large dose of quantum theory thrown in. And then, with Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron, a resolution of the reason for isotopes very existence. Isotopes that, with the help of Urey’s brilliant insight, enabled their use in diverse paleoclimatogical applications that have brought glaciologists, chemists and atmospheric physicists together to track the progress of our climate and its forcing agents.

We can trace a similar story of how we came to be able to model the dynamical nature of our weather and climate. The bringing together of the dynamics of fluids, their thermodynamics, and much more.

Each brick in these pyramids starting as a question or conundrum and then leading to decades of research, publications, debate and resolutions, and yes, often many new questions.

Science never was and never will be the narrative of ignorance overcome by heroic brilliance overnight by some hard pressed crank cum genius. Galilieo was no crank, neither was Newton, nor was Einstein.

Even if our televisual thirst for instant gratification demands a science with instant answers, the reality is that the great majority of science is a long process of unfolding and developing the consequences of the fundamental principles, to see how these play out. Now, with the help of the computational facilities that are part of an extended laboratory (to add to the test tube, the spectometer, x-ray diffration, and so much more) we can see further and test ideas that were previously inaccessible to experimentation alone (this is true in all fields). Computers are the microscope of the 21st Century, as one molecular biologist has observed.

When we look at climate change we have a subject of undoubted complexity, that is a combination of many disciplines. Maybe for this reason, it was only in the late 1950s that these disparate disciplines recognised the need to come together: meteorology, glaciology, atmospheric chemistry, paleoclimatology, and much more. This convergence of disciplines ultimately led to the formation 30 years later to the IPCC in 1988.

At its most basic, global warming is trivial, and beyond any doubt: add more energy to a system (by adding more infra-red absorbing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere), and the system gets hotter (because, being knocked out of equilibrium, it will heat up faster than it loses heat to space, up and until it reaches a new equilibrium).  Anyone who has spent an evening getting a frying pan to the point where it is hot enough to fry a pancake (and many to follow), will appreciate the principle.

Today, we have moved out of a pre-existing equilibrium and are warming fast, and have not yet reached a new equilibrium. That new equilibrium depends on how much more fossil fuels we burn. The choice now is between very serious and catastrophic.

The different threads of science that come together to create the ‘climate of consilience’ are diverse. They involve everything from the theory of isotopes; the understanding of Earth’s meteorological system; the nature of radiation and how different gases react with different types of radiation; the carbonate chemistry of the oceans; the dynamics of heat and moisture in the atmosphere based on Newtonian mechanics applied to fluids; and so much more.

Each of these threads has a well established body of knowledge in its own right, confirmed through published evidence and through their multiple successful applications.

In climate science these threads converge, and hence the term consilience.

So when did we know ‘for certain’ that global warming was real and is now happening?

Was it when Tyndall discovered in 1859 that carbon dioxide strongly absorbed infra-red radiation, whereas oxygen and nitrogen molecules did not?  Did that prove that the world would warm dangerously in the future? No, but it did provide a key building block in our knowledge.

As did the findings of those that followed.

At each turn, there was always some doubt – something that suggested a ‘get out clause’, and scientists are by nature sceptical …

Surely the extra carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activities would be absorbed by the vast oceans?

No, this was shown from the chemistry of the oceans to be wrong by the late 1950s, and thoroughly put to bed when sufficient time passed after 1958, when Charles Keeling started to accurately measure the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The ‘Keeling Curve’ rises inexorably.

Surely the carbon dioxide absorption of heat would become ‘saturated’ (unable to absorb any more heat) above a certain concentration.

No, this was raised in the early 20th Century but thoroughly refuted in the 1960s. Manabe & Wetherald’s paper in 1967 was the final nail in the coffin of denial for those that pushed against the ‘carbon dioxide’ theory.  To anyone literate in science, that argument was over in 1967.

But will the Earth system not respond in the way feared … won’t the extra heat be absorbed by the oceans?

Good news, bad news. Yes, 93% of the extra heat is indeed being absorbed by the oceans, but the remainder is more than enough to ensure that the glaciers are melting; the great ice sheets are losing ice mass (the loses winning out over any gains of ice); seasons are being affected; sea levels are rising inexorably; and overall the surface temperature is rising. No need for computer models to tell us what is happening, it is there in front of us, for anyone who cares to look.

Many pour scorn on consensus in science.

They say that one right genius is better than 100 fools, which is a fine argument, except when uttered by a fool.

Even the genius has to publish, and fools never will or can, but shout from the sidelines and claim genius. All cranks think they are geniuses, whereas the converse is not true.

Einstein published, and had to undergo scrutiny. When the science community finally decided that Einstein was right, they did so because of the integrity of the theory and weight of evidence were sufficient. It was not a show of hands immdiately after he published, but in a sense, it was a show of hands after years of work to interrogate and test his assertions.

It was consilience followed by consensus (that’s science), not consensus followed by consilience (that’s political dogms).

We are as certain that the Earth has warmed due to increases in greenhouse gases – principally carbon dioxide, arising from human activities – as we are of the effects of smoking on human health, or the benefits of vaccination, and much more.  And we are in part reinforced in this view because of the impact that is already occuring (observations not only theory).

The areas of doubt are there – how fast will the West Antarctica Ice Sheet melt – but these are doubts in the particulars not in the general proposition.  Over 150 years of accumulated knowledge have led to this consilience, and was until recently, received wisdom amongst leaders of all political persuasions, as important and actionable knowledge.

The same is true of the multiple lines of enquiry that constitute the umbrella of disciplines we call ‘climate science’. Not a showing of hands, but a showing of published papers that have helped create this consilience of knowledge, and yes, a consensus of those skilled in their various arts.

It would be quicker to list the various areas of science that have not impacted on climate science than those that have.

In the two tables appended to the end of this essay, I have included:

Firstly, a timeline of selected discoveries and events over a long period – from 1600 to nearly the present – over which time either climate has been the topic or the underlying threads of science have been the topic.  I have also included parallel events related to institutions such as the formation of meteorological organisations, to show both scientific and social developments on the same timeline.

Secondly, I have listed seminal papers in the recent history of the science (from 1800 onwards), with no doubt omissions that I apologise for in advance (comments welcome).

When running workshops on climate fluency I used a 5 metre long roll – a handwritten version of the timeline – and use it to walk along and refer to dates, personalities, stories and of course, key publications. It seems to go down very well (beats Powerpoint, for sure) …

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All this has led to our current, robust, climate of consilience.

There was no rush to judgment, and no ideological bias.

It is time for the commentariat – those who are paid well to exercise their free speech in the comment sections of the media, at the New York Times, BBC, Daily Mail, or wherever –  to study this history of the science, and basically, to understand why scientists are now as sure as they can be. And why they get frustrated with the spurious narrative of ‘the science is not yet in’.

If they attempted such arguments in relation to smoking, vaccination, germ theory or Newtonian mechanics,  they would be laughed out of court.

The science of global warming is at least as robust as any of these, but the science community is not laughing … it’s deeply concerned at the woeful blindness of much of the media.

The science is well beyond being ‘in’; it is now part of a textbook body of knowledge. The consilience is robust and hence the consequent 97% consensus.

It’s time to act.

And if you, dear commentator, feel unable to act, at least write what is accurate, and avoid high school logical fallacies, or bullshit arguments about the nature of science.

Richard Erskine, 2nd May 2017 

Amended on 17th July 2017 to include Tables as streamed Cloudup content (PDFs), due to inability of some readers to view the tables. Click on the arrow on bottom right of ‘frame’ to stream each document in turn, and there will then be an option to download the PDF file itself.

Amended 31st October 2017 to include a Figure I came across from Helen Czerski TED Talk, which helps illustrate a key point of the essay.

TABLE 1 – Timeline of Selected Discoveries and Events (since 1600)

 

TABLE 2 – Key Papers Related to Climate Science (since 1800)

 

END of DOCUMENT

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Lest we regret: science not silence

Cherish not only those who you love, but that which you love. Yesterday I went with my wife on the March for Science in Bristol, the city where we fell in love many years ago. We were on one of over 600 marches globally, to express a love for the science that has brought us so much, and promises so much more.

We do not want in the future to find ourselves mournfully recalling the words of some great poet, words of regret at our careless disregard, our taking for granted –

“When to the session of sweet silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste….” 

(Shakespeare, Sonnet 30)

Humanity needs more experts now than ever before, but it also needs poets and novelists too to find that voice, that will reach the hearts of those who will be hurt by the cynical disregard for truth, for evidence.

This is no longer the preserve of cranks, but now influences men (and it is mostly men) in power who attack the science of evolution, vaccination and climate change, that has saved the lives of billions and promises to save the lives of billions more in the future. Notwithstanding the more prosaic inability to live without the fruits of science (try having a no science friday).

That is why the over 600 cities that Marched for Science yesterday spoke with a true voice. Science is for everyone and we all benefit from its fruits but just as few really know where their food comes from, we have become blind to the processes and creativity of the scientists who will bring us the next wonders, and the next solutions to the challenges we face. We the people, and scientists, must both now pledge to remedy our careless assumption that the Englightenment will prevail against the tide of ignorance that has reached the pinnacle of power, without strong and systemic defenses.

We ignore these threats at our peril.

Let’s not regret being so careless that we allowed an opinionated, ideologically motivated few to use their positions of power to drown out the voices of reason.

Let us, most of all, not waste our dear, precious time.

. . .. o o O o o .. . .

 

Richard W. Erskine, essaysconcerning.com, 23rd April 2017

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The speakers at the Bristol event were Professor Bruce Hood from the Bristol University’s School of Experimental Psychology; TV naturalist Chris Packham; science writer and scientist Dr Simon Singh; At-Bristol’s creative director Anna Starkey; and, scientist and writer Dr Suzi Gage.

Youtube videos of their speeches available here >

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLz3n5TyzhVlR88vhkd8guOjH8F53kizSt 

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Complexity ain’t that complex

According to Megan McArdle in a Bloomberg View opinion piece we cannot trust computer models of the climate because economists have failed when they tried to model complex economic systems.

Leaving aside the fundamental fact that the ‘atoms’ of physics (molecules, humidity, etc.) are consistent in their behaviour, whereas the ‘atoms’ of economics (humans) are fickle and prone to ‘sentiment’, this is a failed form of denialism.

You do not have to be Champagne maker Taittinger investing in sparkling wine production in Kent (England), for example, to know that global warming is real, because there are thousands of scientifically observed and published indicators of a warming world. Most of these receive little attention in the media compared to the global average surface temperature (important though it is).

In her article she repeats something I believe is a key confusion in her piece:

“This lesson from economics is essentially what the “lukewarmists” bring to discussions about climate change. They concede that all else equal, more carbon dioxide will cause the climate to warm. But, they say that warming is likely to be mild unless you use a model which assumes large positive feedback effects.”

Matt Ridley is also often railing against the fact that the feedback from increased humidity turns a warming of 1C (from doubling CO2 from pre-industrial levels) into closer to 3C (as the mean predicted level of warming).

This has nothing to do with the inherent complexity in the climate models as it is derived from basic physics (the Infra-Red spectra of CO2 and H2O; the Clausius–Clapeyron relation that determines the level of humidity when the atmosphere warms; some basics of radiative transfer; etc.). Indeed, it is possible to get to an answer on the basic physics with pencil and paper, and the advanced computer models come to broadly the same conclusion (what the models are increasingly attempting to do is to resolve more details on geographic scales, time scales and within different parts of the Earth system, such as that big block of ice called Antarctica).

But even in the unlikely event that Megan McArdle were to accept these two incontrovertible points (the world is warming and the central feedback, from H2O, are not in any way compromised by some hinted at issue of ‘complexity’), she might still respond with something like:

“oh, but we do rely on complex models to make predictions of the future and things are too chaotic for this to be reliable.”

Well, we have learned from many great minds like Ilya Prigogine that there is complex behaviour in simple systems (e.g. the orbit of Pluto appears on one level to perform according to simple Newtonian mechanics, but in addition, has apparently random wobbles). One needs therefore to be careful at specifying at what level of order ‘chaotic behaviour’ exists. Pluto is both ordered and chaotic.

Whereas for other system that are complex (e.g. the swirling atmosphere of Jupiter) they can display ’emergent’ ordered behaviour (e.g. the big red spot). We see this all around us in the world, and ‘complexity theory’ is now a new branch of science addressing many phenomena that were otherwise inaccessible to pencil and paper: the computer is an essential tool in exploring these phenomena.

Complexity is therefore not in itself a reason for casting out a lazy slur against models, that predictability is impossible.  There is often an ability to find order, at some level, in a system, however complex it is.

Yet, it can also be very simple.

At its most basic, adding energy to the climate system as we are doing by adding heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, tends to warm things up, because of well established basic physics.

In a similar way, printing too much money in an economy tends to lead to inflation, despite the irreducible random factors in human nature.

It ain’t rocket science and you don’t need to be an expert in complexity theory to understand why we are a warming world.

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The Climate of Clive James

Clive James is known as a man of letters and, in the UK at least, as an erudite and  witty commentator on culture, for which he is widely respected. He has also been extremely courageous in sharing his thoughts on his terminal cancer, with his customary wit and flair.

For all these reasons it is sad that he has decided to become embroiled in climate change in the way he has. For sure he has the right to an opinion, but he seems to have muddied the art he loves, with the science that he clearly does not, and the result will satisfy neither discipline.

For those in broadcasting and the media, paid to express a view on anything and everything, it must be easy to develop a self assurance that belies any lack of knowledge. We are now resigned to the almost daily stream of nonsense that those such as Melanie Philips and others produce, given free rein to fulminate in the press.

Clive James’s poem “Imminent Catastrophe” was published in the New Statesman, and discussed  in an article by Kaya Burgess in The Times, 17 March 2016  is barely more subtle, even shrouded as it is in the form of a poem.

The poem reveals more about Clive James’ self-declared ignorance on climate change than it does about the scientists, and if there is a metre absent then it is surely in his poetry, not the predicted sea level rise.

Let’s unpick the poem.

“imminent catastrophe”

No self-respecting climate scientists has ever talked about “imminent” catastrophe. The timescales vary greatly depending on the impacts in question. Yes, there is a strong argument about how fast we need to stop emitting carbon dioxide, in order to avoid the medium to long term consequences. But that is a distinction lost on CJ.

“Not showing any signs of happening”

There are many signs and CJ must either be too lazy or too blinkered to find out about them. The receding mountain glaciers are not imminent, they are already well on their way, and there are many other signs, as illustrated in NASA’s ‘Vital Signs’.

“The ice at the North Pole should have gone” 

A typical exaggerated straw-man statement, rather than an accurate reflection of the scientific position. The clear evidence is that the minimum in sea ice is on a downward trend. “The Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer before mid-century”, says NASA (see Vital Signs above).

“Awkwardly lingering”

Yes it is … rather like those discredited contrarian memes, that CJ slavishly trots out.  Not much creativity at work here I am afraid on his part.

“It seems no more than when we were young” 

CJ’s anecdotal personal experience is worthless, like those who claim that smoking is safe because granny smoked 20 a day and lived to 90, so it must be ok. The disrupted weather systems are already bringing extremes in terms of both wetter winters and hot summers, depending on the region. While ‘attribution’ can get us into the difficult area of probabilities, the dice is already slightly loaded towards more extreme weather, and the loading will increase as the world warms. The National Academy of Sciences have just reported on this  (But once again, I am sure that CJ will not want his opinion to be confused by facts).

“Continuing to not go up by much”

Well, CJ might not be impressed by the sea level rise so far, but the projected sea level rise is expected to be up to 1 metre by the end of the century, which would have a devastating impact on many countries and many cities situated near sea level. The long term picture, over millennia, offers little solace because of the long time it takes for elevated concentrations of carbon dioxide to remain in the atmosphere.

“sure collapse of the alarmist view” 

A word of caution here from CJ regarding the sceptics’ who “lapse into oratory”, but he clearly shares the belief that those who warn of serious impacts of global warming should be labelled alarmist, while at the same time being affronted at the label denialist. Sauce for the goose is apparently not sauce for the gander.

He lazily conflates the science with those that who at first sight may easily be cast in the mould of  alarmist: those dreaded environmentalists.  Let us assume for arguments sake that some of who he objects to are shrill alarmists. Does that have any bearing on the veracity of the science? Of course not, yet he applies his broad brush to tar anyone who might dare raise a concern.

Scientists for their part are often a rather quiet and thoughtful bunch. They often take years before publishing results, so they can check and re-check. But what are they to do about global warming? Keep quiet and they could be criticised for not raising the alarm; yet if they tell us about the worst prognostications in the calmest of voices, they will surely be accused of alarmism. A no-win situation.

It is rather easy for those like CJ, whose opinions are unencumbered by knowledge, to discount thousands of diligent scientists with an insulting and pejorative label.

“His death … motivates the doomsday fantasist”

Scientists such as  Sagan have demonstrated a far less parochial view of the future than CJ. Boltzmann foresaw the heat death of the universe and scientists routinely remind us of what tiny specks we humans are in the universe. It is CJ not they that need reminding of how insignificant we all are.

Scientists show an amazing ability to have both a deep knowledge which challenges our deepest assumptions of the world, and a positive attitude to humanity. A combination of realism and optimism that is often inspiring.

The real fantasists here are those like CJ who imagine that they can stand judgment on 200 years of cumulative scientific knowledge, by rubbishing all those men and women who have established the understanding we now have, including the scientific evidence for global warming resulting from human activities that is now incontrovertible.

It is sad that someone who knows and loves poetry should decide to adulterate his art with this hatchet job on another discipline, science, for which he has little empathy and even less knowledge, but feels qualified to insult with the poetic equivalent of a latter day Margarita Pracatan.

Entertaining for some no doubt, but a rather sad reflection on CJ. He could have used a poem to provide a truly reflective and transcendent piece on the subject of climate change, but instead merely offered an opinion piece masquerading as art, clouded by contrarian myths.

We still love you Clive, but I really hope this poem is not your last.

 

(c) Richard Erskine, 2016

Note: If readers would like a presentation of a golden thread through the science, in plain English, then my essay Demystifying Global Warming & Its Implications aims to provide just that.

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Data catching Santa in the exploding digital universe!

At this time of year, cynics and sceptics pour scorn on Santa and his faithful reindeer, the prancers and dancers of this festive time. The gauntlet is often laid down as follows. Santa will visit all those children who want presents from him – in about one billion homes – which he has to visit on Christmas Eve.

Thankfully, Fermilabs published the calculations some years ago and proved that Santa, travelling at close to the speed of light, would have no problems covering the ground, in 500 seconds, leaving a generous but fleeting 0.15 milliseconds per dwelling to wolf down some sherry and mince pies. We are of course assuming there is just one Santa, but please note that in Iceland they have 13 Santa Clauses, sons of a horrible mountain hag called Grýla (we leave the re-calculation as an exercise for the reader!).

So what about data? Let’s think not about boring networks and bandwidth, but something more fantastic: the whole of our digital universe.

The Guardian reported back in 2009 that “At 487bn gigabytes (GB), if the world’s rapidly expanding digital content were printed and bound into books it would form a stack that would stretch from Earth to Pluto 10 times.”

Assuming 500bn Gb was being added every 18 months, the speed of the 2009 virtual stack of books was about 1000 kilometres per second. This is fast but well short of the speed of light, that is 300 times this value.

The rate of growth is not constant. It too is doubling every 18 months. It is no wonder this was characterised as the “expanding digital universe”. IDC’s fifth annual study on the digital universe published in June 2011 estimated that we had reached 1.8 trillion gigabytes. We are exploding according to plan!

Translated into a velocity, I have calculated that the exponentially accelerating virtual stack of books, reaching well beyond our solar system, will be travelling at more than the speed of light by 2018. Unlike Santa and crew, our ‘virtual stack’ does not have to comply with the special theory of relativity (Einstein, 1905).

So data will not only catch Santa, but accelerate well beyond him, if we carry on at this rate.

With some thought and some digital out-sourcing, maybe Santa can use this virtual stack as a delivery mechanism, and so create a little space in his busy schedule at this time of year to enjoy the mince pies and sherry at more leisure, and avoid indigestion.

Merry Yuletide.

 

Republished from my 2011 post on thoughtfeast

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Thank you, Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor is stepping down as director of the British Museum at the end of 2015.

What an awe inspiring interpreter of our common human history, our common humanity; and what a leader, who has reached across the world, transcending political barriers with a diplomatic skill that matches his cultural sensitivity.

If you have never read A History of The World in 100 Objects (or better, heard the original BBC Radio broadcasts, enriched by his resonant voice), then you are missing a real cultural gem.

After seeing what Neil MacGregor achieved with his equally monumental Germany: Memories of a Nation (such magnificent antidote to an often one-dimensional view of Germany in the British media), Germany could be in no doubt about their choice of him as leader of the Humboldt Forum.

We all wait expectantly to see the fruits of this new project.

New wonders await, for sure.

Thank you, Neil.

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Why James Hansen is wrong on COP21

I think that James Hansen, as much as I respect him and his huge contribution to the science of climate change, and his personal commitment to communicating the risks we face (including getting arrested), has been outrageous in calling COP21 a fraud.

What would have happened if he had chaired the meeting? Hitting everyone over the head until they agree with a carbon tax, which he sets? I suspect the meeting would have ended in acrimony and the world would be in despair at no agreement.

Diplomats may not be great at science, but the converse is also true.

Laurent Fabius possesses another kind of genius.

Is the current agreement flawed? Yes, in many ways, but it is a framework on which to take us forward with 5-yearly reviews, and things that many developing countries had requested, like loss and damage.

I marvel at the ability to bring more than 190 countries together, all with very different histories and current needs, to knit something together.

French diplomacy tonight deserves our gratitude, not our scorn.

Is 1.5C achievable? The science suggests almost certainly not. So why include it? Because low lying and vulnerable countries demanded it. It is a recognition of their plight. Is that a sop to them, a fraud? No, its called diplomacy and of course not an easy thing for scientists like Hansen to accept.

It would not be the first time that ‘creative ambiguity’ was used in the cause of a greater good (I am thinking the peace accords in Northern Ireland where, if we had instead insisted on absolutely rigorous unambiguous language, would still be in a war there).

There is a joke about the visitor to Ireland who asks a local old man for directions to a place he needs to get to … and the old man says … “If I were going where you are heading, I wouldn’t have started from here!”.

We cannot change where we are starting from, not Hansen, not Fabius.

We can all help, individually, in our towns, in our communities, as voters, etc. to help turn aspiration into reality. e.g. like three examples below:

I think we all need to stop whinging about how hard it is and #JFDI.

By we, I mean all levels of civil society across the globe, utilities, politicians, industry, engineers, and all who can contribute.

It is surprising how much can be achieved when everyone decides to work together.

That spirit of working together may be up against huge hurdles, and punishing odds, but it is not a fraud.

(c) Richard Erskine, 12th December 2015

 

 

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Climate Alarmists?

Ted Cruz decided to use a Congressional Committee to ask the question “Data or Dogma? Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Climate Change.”

A number of commentators have explored the why & wherefores of the meeting and analysed Cruz’s partisan summary .

My purpose here is not to reproduce those arguments. Detailed responses to Ted Cruz often repeated talking points are available.

I want to express my intense irritation at the dishonest use of emotional language by Ted Cruz, when labelling (the majority of) climate scientists, and those who are calling for action on global warming, as “alarmists”.

This is one of the oldest tricks in the book; to try to make your position seem reasonable by use of emotionally charges labels to apply to your opponent (or their arguments) in a debate. Unfortunately, as long as there are politicians, there will be abuse of language as a substitute for substance.

It is worth also recalling some wise words from Robert Thouless as true today as when first published in 1930:

Once we are on the look-out for this difference between factual and emotional meanings, we shall notice that words which carry more or less strong suggestions of emotional attitudes are very common and are ordinarily used in the discussion of such controversial questions as those of politics, morals, and religion. This is one reason why men can go on discussing such questions without getting much nearer to a rational solution of them. …

Those who show enthusiasm in support of proposals with which a speaker disagrees are extremists, while those showing similar enthusiasm on his own side are called staunch. If a politician wishes to attack some new proposal he has a battery of these and other words with emotional meanings at his disposal. He speaks of “this suggested panacea supported only by the bombast of extremists”, and the proposal is at once discredited in the minds of the majority of people, who like to think of themselves as moderate, distrustful of panaceas, and uninfluenced by windy eloquence. Also we may notice that it has been discredited without the expenditure of any real thought, for of real objective argument there is none, only the manipulation of words calling out emotion.

Robert Thouless, Straight and Crooked Thinking, Pan, 1930 (revised 1953)

Ted Cruz (like many politicians left and right), uses emotive words to  try to make a case that is stronger than it deserves.

But when he throws around the label global warming or climate “alarmist” to compensate for the paucity of genuine science on his side of the argument, and does this while chairing a US Senate Committee, this is abuse not merely of argument but of power.

When will Republicans realise that they are being manipulated, using the oldest tricks in the dishonest argument handbook?

 

 

 

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Falstaff prepares for battle in Paris

Christopher Monckton and his merry band of global warming contrarians have been in Paris last week plotting their next skirmish in their never ending war against the science of global warming.

Their meeting to discuss their ‘messaging’ for COP21 has been documented by a journalist from Open Democracy and gives a remarkable expose into their rambling thought processes.

I have a vision of Falstaff – a tragic, comic and hopelessly flawed figure – and his crew of weary old soldiers preparing for a new battle. For audiences of Shakespeare’s plays, these scenes provide some light relief from the more serious plots afoot in his great plays. The same was true here except that on this occasion no one was laughing.

In the main play at COP21 there are serious actors at work: mayors of cities planning to decarbonise; managers of huge investment funds now actively forcing businesses to accept fiduciary responsibility; entrepreneurs promoting zero carbon innovations in energy, transport and elsewhere; climate action networks working with citizen groups; and many more. They are not debating whether or not we have a problem – all informed people know we do – they are instead working hard on solutions. Whatever happens with the final text of COP21, the transition is underway. It cannot be stopped.

The contrarians are bound together by a suspicion, and in some cases hatred, of environmentalism, the UN and ‘big’ Government. They have no interest in exploring scientific truth, only in finding ways to create confusion in the climate debate, for the sole purpose of delaying action. So their strategy has been to challenge science in ways that are thoroughly disingenuous.

For example, over many years these people have said that you cannot reliably measure the average global surface temperature of the Earth, or have claimed it is in error because of the heat island effect or whatever (all untrue, but they keep repeating it). So guess what happens when it appears that the warming has slowed or ‘paused’? They then switch tack and say “look, its stopped warming”, now feigning a belief in the very science of global temperature measurement they were lambasting before.

I call that disingenuous.

This is a game that some people have called ‘wack a mole’, because the contrarians pop up in one place and no sooner have you wacked them there, they pop up in another place. Having no shame, they are happy to pop in the prior places where they have been thoroughly ‘wacked’, hoping no one will remember. This is ‘wack a mole’ meets Groundhog Day.

It is not merely a case of getting tangled in knots over the science. Even before we get to the science part, the contrarians deploy a myriad of debating techniques and logical fallacies. One of the favourite fallacies deployed by contrarians is what I call ‘Argument from Incredulity’.

Now, I do not blame anyone for being incredulous about the universe. I would say it is quite normal, on hearing it for the first time, to be incredulous that we are in a galaxy with a few hundred billion stars and in a universe with over 100 billion galaxies. Incredulity is often a good starting point for enquiry and discovery. But it should never be an excuse for persistent ignorance.

As a child, I was surprised when I learned that even 1oC temperature rise meant a fever and a few degrees could be fatal. It is indeed a wonder how a complex system, like the human body, works to create such a fine equilibrium, and that when the system goes even slightly out of equilibrium, it spells trouble.

The Earth’s system has also been in equilibrium. It too, can get a fever with apparently small changes that can knock it out of equilibrium.

In No. 7 of the talking points in Monckton’s rather long list is his observation that CO2 is less than a tenth of 1% of the Earth’s atmosphere (currently, it is 0.04%, or 400 parts per million [ppm])). True, but so what?

If I look through clear air along a long tube I see visible light from a torch at the other end undiminished, but if I then add a small amount of smoke there will be significant dimming out of all proportion with the relative concentration of the smoke. Why? Because if you add a small effect to a situation where there is little or no effect, the change is large.

The same is true when considering infra-red (which is invisible to the human eye but is emitted from the ground when it has been warmed by sunlight). Since 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere is transparent to this infra-red, the ‘small’ amount of CO2 (which does absorb infra-red) is very significant in relative terms. Why? Again, because if you add a small effect to a situation where there is little or no effect, the change is large.

Contrarians like to express the rise as 0.03% to 0.04% to suggest that it is small and insignificant.

Actually, a better way to express the change is that it is equivalent to a 33% increase in CO2 concentrations above pre-industrial levels (see Note).

The current 400 ppm is rising at a rate of over 2 ppm per year. All of this increase is due to human combustion of fossil fuels. That is not small, it is huge, and at a rate that is unprecedented (being over a period of 150 years not the 10s of thousands of years over the ice age cycles).

But here is the most amazing conclusion to the Monckton meeting. In trying to rehearse the arguments they should use when ‘messaging’ on the topic of the greenhouse effect:

“We accept that there is such a thing as the greenhouse effect …
yes, if you add CO2 to the atmosphere, it would cause some warming – there are some on the fringes who would deny that, but it’s tactically efficacious for us to accept that.”

Efficacious to say something you don’t believe! I don’t call that denial, I call it deceitful.

The old soldiers were naturally up in arms. Being sold out at this stage, would be a bitter pill to swallow. As the reporter noted:

Monckton suggested that they should accept that the greenhouse effect is real. There was a fair amount of disagreement in the room. The chair said “I’m trying to appeal to left wing journalists”. For a moment they lost control as a number of people shouted out their various objections. The conclusion?: “The Greenhouse Effect – the debate continues”.

Enough of dissembling contrarians, I say.

At this point the comic interlude must come to a close. Time to get back to some serious debate.

[Falstaff exits, stage Right]

[The action moves back to the main stage]

COP21 continues without interruption, despite noises off.

(c) Richard Erskine, 2015

NOTE

In fact, the Earth’s average surface temperature would be roughly the same as the Moon’s (being the same distance from the sun) without the CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, about 30oC cooler (-15oC rather than +15oC, on average). So adding even a small amount of CO2 to to an atmosphere of Oxygen, Nitrogen and Argon has a huge effect. Something on top of nothing is a big change in percentage terms.

Over the 4 last ice ages, CO2 concentrations have varied between 180 and 300 parts per million. So less than a halving or doubling of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere moved the Earth from ice age to interglacial and back again. We know that less than a doubling can have dramatic changes.

Today’s level of 400 ppm has not been seen on Earth for almost 1 million years.

For at least the last thousand years, the level has been stable at 280 ppm, up until the industrial revolution.

The question of a ‘pause’ in surface temperature is debated amongst climate scientists. One thing they do not disagree about: the increased CO2 means there is an energy imbalance that is causing the planet to warm, with over 90% of the heat going into the oceans, mountain glaciers receding apace, etc.

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Bringing Protest to the Heart of COP21

In the light of the IS attacks on Paris that has terrorised the city, thoughts inevitably turn to the climate talks in December, COP21, and how France will respond.

Will this change the venue or format of COP21?

The message is that the conference remains on course. This is the right decision. This conference is much too important to be blown off course by the actions of murderous ideologues.

The event already had in place security that is inevitably needed for an event like this, with badged access to the conference area itself. I suspect they had already factored in what many Parisians expected might be coming (even if the reality was much more shocking than anyone had imagined).

Will security be beefed up? Yes, inevitably, but it would be a mistake to create an image of a besieged COP21 with popular protest groups shut out of the conference behind even higher ‘walls’ (an impression that many protest groups already feel).

Total security for the large numbers of the ‘unbadged’ outside the conference would be impossible. What to do? Not to be heard in Paris, to stay away?

I don’t believe so, but I do believe we need to re-think the organization of the protests, and I had this feeling even before the terrorist attacks.

We, the citizens of planet Earth all qualify for a ticket to this event: ‘how to save the Earth’, and clearly we cannot all be there.

Whereas UK citizens, like me, can find low carbon ways to travel to Paris, what about a citizen of Indonesia or Canada? Flying in large numbers to Paris would not exactly send a consistent message. A couple of tonnes of carbon dioxide for each far flung protestor: is that the right price?

There needs to be protesters there for sure, and the French people are protesters par excellence. We need people there to create that energy, to help remind the delegates why we are here.

The people – and many of these student groups – understand the challenge better than the politicians, and understand the severe limitations of our politicians to speak for them, and show vision and leadership. They need their voice heard. Often, these events are accused of being ‘corporatist’ and the voices of the status quo still get undue access to the high table.

The organisers need to recognise this imbalance and not to allow the terrorist attacks on Paris to widen this imbalance further.

The COP21 organisers should create a protest space within the conference zone itself: a space where delegates must pass through and is a wall of images, tweets and statements from protest groups who are physically unable to be there. Every hour of every day, delegates must be reminded of why they are there.

We need the words of all nations represented … Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Kenyan, … not just the middle-class Europeans and North Americans who can afford to fly to be there.

If we want a global protest, inside the COP21 tent, then let’s find a way to do this that does not compromise the inevitable demands of security for delegates and observers.

Let’s bring protest to the heart of COP21.

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E O Wilson on Humanity & Biodiversity

E .O. Wilson, the great evolutionary biologist, was in conversation with Jim Al-Khalili on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Life Scientific’ (a little gem of a series)

He discussed his early years (from age 8!), discoveries, and his ideas on how Darwinian natural selection works in  creative tension between individual selection (the self gene variety) and group selection (which many biologists dispute). Fascinating stuff.

In reference to Darwin, he said …

“the man was impossible, he was always right”.

HUMANITY & BIODIVERSITY

In the latter part of this wonderful programme, Jim Al-Khalili steered the conversation to Ed Wilson’s concerns about biodiversity and the impact that humanity is having on it.

For those of you who may be unable to access the BBC iPlayer or a download of the programme, I wanted to share his words, which were so powerful and insightful I felt compelled to transcribe them (my punctuation, because this was a mesmerising stream of thought):

”Humanity has palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like power … now that’s an extremely dangerous combination” …

“We are by instinct related closely to the survival of our distant ancestors by a driving need to strike nature as hard as we could and to draw as much as we could from it, and we haven’t lost that at all;

And we now come to a higher level recognition that we struck too hard and too far and we are threatening the world that we first entered so aggressively and so successfully in Africa;

And we’ve somehow got to pull back our instincts to exploit and subordinate and convert to our immediate welfare because if we take too much more of the Earth’s biodiversity we render the biosphere unstable;

We could in the worst circumstances reach a tipping point in which the whole thing collapses, and we with it.”

Humbling and thought provoking. Nothing to add.

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Google’s Digital Black Hole

So Google, or at least its Vice President, Vint Cerf, has now had a flash of inspiration!

It has realised that information preservation is important.

The Huffington Post reported :

Cerf told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that “if we want people in the future to be able to recreate what we are doing now, we are going to have to build the concept of preservation into the internet”.

Cerf says that a “digital vellum” must be developed which can maintain the state of hardware and software, as well as raw data, so that the web as it appears today can be experienced in decades to come.

“When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that is captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all of the world wide web, it’s clear that we stand to lose an awful lot of our history,” he said, according to the Guardian.

This is an old story that pops up from time to time, like when the BBC’s re-hash of the Doomsday Book turned out to be unreadable after 15 years

People have for some time been discussing the probable gap in the historical record as society makes its messy 50 year transition from a paper-based world to a truly digital one (I think perhaps we are halfway through this transition, which varies in speed according to industry and culture).

Information scientists and those at the sharp end of delivering strategic platforms to industry have known about the preservation issue for as long as there has been IT, and strategies and standards are now well developed for addressing the preservation of information – at the physical preservation, content preservation and intellectual preservation levels.

As Jeff James, the Chief Executive of the UK’s National Archives, pointed out on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (14th February 2015 – in response to this Google story), institutions such as his have a number of successful strategies for ensuring the national archives, at least, will be preserved in perpetuity.

Google naively sold the vision that content does not need the disciplines of information science – curation, preservation, indexing, etc. – because Big Search and Big Data mean the old skills are irrelevant. No, they are even more relevant today than ever, but of course, need to be reframed in terms of digital standards and strategies.

It is because businesses and institutions fired all those people like records managers in the past, because they imagined a word-processor and a fileshare meant that such disciplines were unnecessary, and did not implement enterprise content management (ECM), that there will be a hiatus in their historical records … not because we didn’t know how to standardize or migrate formats.

Those of us that work on information management in industries as diverse as healthcare, engineering and pharmaceuticals have if anything been on the case for even longer than our national archives.

The issue of aging storage devices has long been solved, because at least for those using ECM systems, content is silently moved to newer storage devices periodically, without even the need for human agency.

The issue of document formats is the next easiest to address (at least for those artefacts that are commonly regarded as documents). These may have been created in many forms:

  • Take a clinical safety report for a new drug, written using Microsoft Word 97.  Knowing that Microsoft upgrades its software at least once every 2 years, it is an obvious worry that the report might not be readable in 20 years time. In addition, this report might form part of a huge dossier that is then submitted to the regulatory authorities, to get approval for the drug, and will need to be accessible for some decades after a drug has been taken off the market. So let’s say, at least 50 years from the date of its creation; so we need to preserve the context not just the content.
  • Alternatively, imagine we have created a design for a bridge, using 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software, and then rendered this as 2D drawings (elevations and cross sections) that engineers will use to build the bridge. These are printed on large format sheets that the engineers and construction workers can take on site, and stored digitally in some format

These are non-trivial problems for a raft of reasons of which the format is the least difficult.

At the content level, we need to ask questions of content like,  “Do we ever need to revise, or reuse, the content?”, “For viewers of the content, what level of fidelity is required?”:

  • For the drug safety report, we want to make it non-revisable, non-deniable, so we could create a PDF-A (a flavour designed for archiving which is non-revisable) and for belts and braces, we also store a rendition in a facsimile format (using the TIFF standard, like the RAW type format from a good camera), because the information is quite flat. In this way, we have covered all bases. We are 100% sure we could read the document in 100 or even 1000 years. The fact that TIFF is such a basic format – just rows of coloured dots – is a weakness when it comes to reuse (e.g. editing) but a strength for long-term ‘readability’. A visitor from Alpha Centauri would have no problem understanding it, and so viewing it.
  • What about the engineering drawings? If we come back in 75 years to do a major re-work on the bridge, due to the failure of some components, then would we need to get hold of the original revisable 3D CAD  files? Yes we would! So how do we solve this problem? One strategy is to ensure there are industry standards for specialised formats like CAD (there are), and we make sure these are ‘forward compatible’ (i.e. new versions of software can read old content).  Where this is problematic, we need, periodically to refresh old content to bring it forward to newer formats; this is one of the strategies that national archives use.

In the document world, Goldfarb and others created ‘Generalized Mark-Up Languages’ (GML) in the 1960s, to get around the problem of different  formats, but mainly to enable high fidelity sharing of data/content between people and systems.

This evolved into SGML (Standard GML), and over time into XML (eXtensible Markup Language). There are two main benefits I wish to stress here:

  • Firstly, a separation of content from presentation, meaning that we can take the same content and render it for different viewing contexts or devices (this is now routine today, as people observe viewing the same content on different styles and devices).
  • Secondly, we can create different ‘dialects’ of XML specialised for different industries or applications, in the media, healthcare, finance, etc.

So, for example, NewsML allows many news agencies to send news to an aggregator like Reuters whose systems can automatically process those documents, because the syntax and semantics have been standardized. This includes not only content but the indexing information (in modern parlance, the meta-data) used to characterize or contextualise the content – which ensures high fidelity routing/ targeting of the information to Reuters’ clients.

For more complex situations, like that of a drug dossier, containing say 20,000 files, the whole structure can be defined using an XML ‘schema’ to standardize the structure and its meaning: it specifies what is required in terms of context, metadata and the content itself.

Interestingly, the HTML for which Sir Tim Berners-Lee is famous for, the World Wide Web is a kind of dumbed down SGML/XML which is great for creating simple web pages on the WWW, but loses the two main benefits mentioned above (contextual rendering and industry dialects).

Of course, some technologists would prefer to ignore the practicalities of information management, such as the need to think about document standards. Instead they propose a magic bullet which is to preserve software and hardware environments. By virtualizing the whole stack of software and hardware we preserve everything needed to read the old content. While virtualized systems have a big place in modern IT (because they enable fast deployment of complex systems), they do not obviate the need to tackle the underlying information management standards.

A regulator in healthcare is not going to certify a software stack instead of a document standard (and by ‘document’, I mean the whole machinery of meta-data, context and content formats).

Google may be in danger of looking for a technological magic bullet where none exists. Meanwhile, back in the real world of industry, the rest of us are finding solutions today to all aspects of the information preservation and fidelity issue.

So what if Google did offer a ‘Digital White Hole’ (instead of a Black one), to provide improved access to archived information? What would that mean?

I ask this because Google are on a mission to monetize both our content and our internet personas and behaviour. Unlike National Archives, they do not have a public duty to do what is best for our content, only what is best for them. And they already have an hegemony in relation to search!

Do I really want ‘search’ to extend to the custodianship of content? A new hegemony?! I don’t think so.

When I make a search, Google chooses to put results at the top for those who have paid to be there, not the most appropriate to my context. If I want a drug safety report from 30 years ago, would I expect Google to be the best custodian of such content in the future?  At present, there are no signs that would be even a remotely realistic outcome.

The risk we as citizens or businesses might face is that we become beholden to large service providers like Google to gain access to our archived content, with no statutory safeguards.

If this used some magic virtualized ‘digital vellum’, we might find it difficult or impossible to take our content away and move it to another provider.

The issues of long-term preservation and fidelity of information/ content are too important to be left to commercial interests alone (but of course they will need to play a role).

This is why the standards based approach, coupled with pragmatic strategies as illustrated earlier are what I would recommend. No magic, just hard work, experience, collaboration and persistence.

These are what work today in many industries/ businesses, albeit not implemented universally. If we face a ‘Black Hole’, all the more reason to scale up what we know works.

I would not fly on planes today without a standardized dossier called the Aircraft Maintenance Manual (AMM), linked to the actual maintenance applied to each plane in service, which is a global industry standard, independent of any commercial interest. Planes are like flying paragons of information management!

There is today, particularly in domestic use but also in a surprising number of businesses, far too much content that is unmanaged, unindexed and uncared for, stored on file shares in proprietary formats, not using the well established methods and tools (such as ECM) that would ensure digital and intellectual preservation.

Google’s rather belated realization that the world is not as simple as they would have had us believe, is a great first step (for them), but is it for us? We shall see.

Rather than imagining they have discovered something new, they might be interested in learning how others like Jeff James of the UK’s National Archives, and those of us at the coal face of information management, have been addressing these issues for many years.

Welcome Google, to the world of business critical content, and long-term preservation.

You’ve certainly taken your time!

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