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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Solving Man-made Global Warming: A Reality Check

Updated 11th November 2017 – Hopeful message following Figure added.

It seems that the we are all – or most of us – in denial about the reality of the situation we are in with relation to the need to address global warming now, rather than sometime in the future.

We display seesaw emotions, optimistic that emissions have been flattening, but aghast that we had a record jump this year (which was predicted, but was news to the news people). It seems that people forget that if we have slowed from 70 to 60 miles per hour, approaching a cliff edge, the result will be the same, albeit deferred a little. We actually need to slam on the breaks and stop! Actually, due to critical erosion of the cliff edge, we will even need to go into reverse.

I was chatting with a scientist at a conference recently:

Me: I think we need to accept that a wide portfolio of solutions will be required to address global warming. Pacala and Socolow’s ‘wedge stabilization’ concept is still pertinent.

Him: People won’t change; we won’t make it. We are at over 400 parts per million and rising, and have to bring this down, so some artificial means of carbon sequestration is the only answer.

This is just an example of many other kinds of conversations of a similar structure that dominate the blogosphere. It’s all about the future. Future impacts, future solutions. In its more extreme manifestations, people engage in displacement behaviour, talking about any and every solution that is unproven in order to avoid focusing on proven solutions we have today.

Yet nature is telling us that the impacts are now, and surely the solutions should be too; at least for implementation plans in the near term.

Professors Kevin Anderson and Alice Larkin of the Tyndall Centre have been trying to shake us out of our denial for a long time now. The essential argument is that some solutions are immediately implementable while others are some way off, and others so far off they are not relevant to the time frame we must consider (I heard a leader in Fusion Energy research on the BBC who sincerely stated his belief that it is the solution to climate change; seriously?).

The immediately implementable solution that no politician dares talk about is degrowth – less buying stuff, less travel, less waste, etc. All doable tomorrow, and since the top 10% of emitters globally are responsible for 50% of emissions (see Extreme Carbon Inequality, Oxfam), the quickest and easiest solution is for that 10% or let’s say 20%, to halve their emissions; and do so within a few years. It’s also the most ethical thing to do.

Anderson & Larkin’s credibility is enhanced by the fact that they practice what they advocate, as for example, this example of an approach to reduce the air miles associated with scientific conferences:

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 11.51.25

Some of people in the high energy consuming “West” have proven it can be done. Peter Kalmus, in his book Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution describes how he went from a not untypical US citizen responsible for 19 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year, to now something like 1 tonne; which is one fifth of the global average! It is all about what we do, how we do it, and how often we do it.

Anderson and Larkin have said that even just reaching half the European average, at least, would be a huge win: “If the top 10% of emitters were to reduce their emissions to the average for EU, that would mean a 33% in global emissions” (Kevin Andreson, Paris, Climate & Surrealism: how numbers reveal another reality, Cambridge Climate Lecture Series, March 2017).

This approach – a large reduction in consumption (in all its forms) amongst high emitters in all countries, but principally the ‘west’ – could be implemented in the short term (the shorter the better but let’s say, by 2030). Let’s call these Phase 1 solutions.

The reason we love to debate and argue about renewables and intermittency and so on is that it really helps to distract us from the blinding simplicity of the degrowth solution.

It is not that a zero or low carbon infrastructure is not needed, but that the time to fully implement it is too long – even if we managed to do it in 30 years time – to address the issue of rising atmospheric greenhouse gases. This has already started, but from a low base, but will have a large impact in the medium term (by 2050). Let’s call these Phase 2 solutions.

Project Drawdown provides many solutions relevant to both Phase 1 and 2.

And as for my discussion that started this, artificial carbon sequestration methods, such as BECCS and several others (are explored in Atmosphere of Hope by Tim Flannery) will be needed, but it is again about timing. These solutions will be national, regional and international initiatives, and are mostly unproven at present; they live in the longer term, beyond 2050. Let’s call these Phase 3 solutions.

I am not here wanting to get into geo-engineering solutions, a potential Phase 4. A Phase 4 is predicated on Phases 1 to 3 failing or failing to provide sufficient relief. However, I think we would have to accept that if, and I personally believe only if, there was some very rude shock (an unexpected burp of methane from the Arctic, and signs of a catastrophic feedback), leading to an imminent > 3C rise in global average temperature (as a possible red-line), then some form of geo-engineering would be required as a solution of last resort. But for now, we are not in that place. It is a matter for some feasibility studies but not policy and action. We need to implement Phase 1, 2 and 3 – all of which will be required – with the aim of avoiding a Phase 4.

I have illustrated the three phases in the figure which follows (Adapted from Going beyond dangerous climate change: does Paris lock out 2°C? Professors Kevin Anderson & Alice Bows-Larkin, Tyndall Centre – presentation to School of Mechanical Aerospace & Civil Engineering University of Manchester February 2016, Douglas, Isle of Man).

My adapted figure is obviously a simplification, but we need some easily digestible figures to help grapple with this complex subject; and apologies in advance to Anderson & Larkin if I have taken liberties with my colourful additions and annotations to their graphic (while trying to remain true to its intent).

Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 12.19.57

A version of this slide on Twitter (@EssaysConcern) seemed to resonate with some people, as a stark presentation of our situation.

For me, it is actually a rather hopeful image, if as I, you have a belief in the capacity for people to work together to solve problems which so often we see in times of crisis; and this is a crisis, make no mistake.

While the climate inactivists promote a fear of big Government, controlling our lives, the irony here is that Phase 1 is all about individuals and communities, and we can do this with or without Government support. Phase 2 could certainly do with some help in the form of enabling legislation (such a price on carbon), but it does not have to be top-down solutions, although some are (industrial scale energy storage). Only when we get to Phase 3 are we seeing national solutions dominating, and then only because we have an international consensus to execute these major projects; that won’t be big government, it will be responsible government.

The message of Phases 1 and 2 is … don’t blame the conservatives, don’t blame the loss of feed-in tarifs, or … just do it! They can’t stop you!

They can’t force you to boil a full kettle when you only need one mug of tea. They can’t force you to drive to the smoke, when the train will do. They can’t force you to buy new stuff that can be repaired at a cafe.

And if your community wants a renewable energy scheme, then progressives and conservatives can find common cause, despite their other differences. Who doesn’t want greater community control of their energy, to compete with monopolistic utilities?

I think the picture contains a lot of hope, because it puts you, and me, back in charge. And it sends a message to our political leaders, that we want this high on the agenda.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2017




Filed under Essay, Global Warming Solutions

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. 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


Filed under Climate Science, Essay, Uncategorized

JFK Conspiracy Story: Another Science Fail by BBC News

It seems only yesterday that the BBC was having to apologise for not challenging the scientifically illiterate rants of Lord Lawson … oh, but it was yesterday!

So how delightful to see another example of BBC journalism that demonstrates the woeful inability of journalists to report science accurately, or at least, to use well informed counter arguments when confronted with bullshit.

A Story by Owen Amos on the BBC Website (US & Canada section), with clickbait title “JFK assassination: Questions that won’t go away”  … is a grossly ill-informed piece, repeating ignorant conspiracy theories by Jefferson Morley (amongst others), without any challenge (BBC’s emphasis):

“Look at the Zapruder film,” says Morley. “Kennedy’s head goes flying backwards.

I know there’s a theory that if you get hit by a bullet from behind, the head goes towards the source of the bullet.

But as a common sense explanation, it seems very unlikely. That sure looks like a shot from the front.” 

That’s it then, common sense.

Case settled.

If it’s good enough for Oliver Stone and Jefferson Morley, who are we to argue?

But wait a minute!

The theory in question, if Morley is really interested, is the three centuries old  theory called Newtonian Mechanics (Reference: “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica“, Issac Newton, 1687).

Are we to cast that aside and instead listen to a career conspiracy theorist.

You can if you must, but the BBC shouldn’t be peddling such tripe.

As Luis Alvarez, the Nobel Laureate, pointed out long ago, the head MUST kick back in order to conserve both Momentum and Energy.  You need a picture?


[I have not included the maths, but it is high school maths, trust me, you don’t need a Nobel Prize to do the calculation]

Morley would get a Nobel Prize if he disproved it. He hasn’t and won’t.

It seems that Morley has been doing the rounds in the media, and there is no problem finding gullible victims.

You might like to look at the Penn & Teller video of 2006 which demonstrates the physics in practice (with a melon), for the Newtonian sceptics like Morley.

Amos/BBC is gullible in uncritically replaying this nonsense, without mentioning Alvarez. Amos could have said something like

“this rationale (the head kick back) for a second gunman is completely unfounded as it flies in the face of basic Newtonian mechanics .. see this video

Unfortunately this fails the clickbait test for irresponsible journalism, which requires ‘debate’ by idiots in response to experts. It’s balanced reporting after all.

Why are journalists so incapable of understanding 300 years old basic physics, or so carelessly cast it aside. The same physics, by the way, that helps us design airplanes that fly, and a major pillar in climate science too (the science that so persistently eludes Lord Lawson).

I am waiting patiently for another BBC apology for crimes against scientific literacy and an inability to ask searching, informed questions of peddlars of bullshit, be they Lawson or Morley.

(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


Filed under Gun violence, Politics, Uncategorized

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: 

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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