On climate change, science is not “impartial”


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(Photo credit: The Freedom Association)

Reading the history of mathematics and science and you will come across stories about the various cranks and obsessives who, lacking all training, claim they have solved the great problems or proved that the accepted solutions are false.

Even now there are those trying to show that Cantor’s diagonalisation argument is false, just as there were many who were said to have proved Fermat’s Last Theorem long before that was actually done. Others say that evolution is a lie or that Bishop Ussher was right and the Earth is just a few thousand years old.

Is it fair to place James Delingpole – a novelist and English Literature graduate – in the same camp as these cranks because he claims to have authority on global warming, able to gainsay the vast bulk of the scientists who study these matters and conduct scientific discourse through the institutions of the academy and the rigours of peer review?

Yes, is my view.

Delingpole’s latest foray into science is an attack on the BBC for not being “impartial” on the science of climate change. Here’s the thing, the science is not impartial. The fact that the scientific consensus does not fit with Delingpole’s world view does not mean that Delingpole’s world view has a right to an equal hearing, it does not.

To be fair to Delingpole, despite his explicit rejection of the institutions of science…

we should set too much store by the Appeal To Authority. If someone has his facts right on climate change, then he’s still right regardless of whether he’s a geneticist, a marine geologist, or the bastard offspring of Adolf Hitler.

…he seeks to back his claim for equal validity for “denial” by quoting a man who has had peer reviewed work published which broadly aligns with Delingpole’s worldview – Professor Robert Carter.

Carter, at least in the recent past, has also been paid a stipend by the notorious “Heartland Institute” and that doesn’t seem to be his only connection to them, as John Ashton recounts in his description of the BBC’s approach to the issue (the BBC subsequently admitted they’d got this wrong, which is what has irked Delingpole):

At breakfast time, Radio 4’s Today programme informed listeners that despite extensive efforts, the BBC had been unable to find a single British scientist willing to challenge the IPCC‘s findings. At that point the BBC might have concluded that the IPCC’s views represent an overwhelming consensus and left it at that.

Instead, BBC news editors evidently cast their net wider. By lunchtime World at One was introducing Prof Carter as an Australian geologist, speaking for the “Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change“, or NIPCC. Someone who is not a climate scientist, in other words, representing a Not-The-IPCC body. Indeed, it turns out that the NIPCC is backed by the Heartland Institute, a US-based free-market thinktank that opposes urgent action on climate change.

In a remarkable interview that dominated the entire World at One coverage, Carter poured scorn on the IPCC’s findings. He drew on his geological expertise to argue that there was no more point in trying to mitigate climate change than in trying to prevent earthquakes. He claimed that, unlike the intensively peer-reviewed findings of more than 800 IPCC researchers, the NIPCC’s work was truly independent, while cheerfully admitting that family foundations in America paid for it. He implied that it represented a widely held scholarly view, pointing to “around 47” scientific collaborators. He did not specify how many of these were climate scientists.

Reading this, the point seems to be that the BBC tried far too hard to find views that disagreed with the scientific consensus: they accepted Delingpole’s false claim that there is some form of “impartiality” when it comes to competing scientific explanations.

And presumably they did so because climate change science is politically controversial. But that controversy has nothing to do with the science.

Think of it this way … the evidence in support of the Higgs mechanism has been piling up of late. But not every scientist accepts the Standard Model which is built on top of the Higgs mechanism – and many can point to holes in the model that means that it is unlikely to be a complete explanation in any case, even as the experimental evidence mounts for its fundamental correctness.

But did the BBC respond to the award of the Nobel Prize to Peter Higgs by scouring the globe for an advocate of supersymmetry to rubbish the Higgs mechanism and the standard model? Of course they didn’t. They would not have dared because they are not qualified to make that judgement.

So why do they feel they can do otherwise with climate change? The circumstances are very similar – the evidence for the “standard model” here has been piling up, though few would dispute there is much we still don’t fully know or understand. There are some scientists who dispute the standard model but they are in a minority and they are visibly losing the argument as the experimental evidence piles up. That doesn’t make them bad scientists, but it is bad journalism to treat them as though their view is of equal weight with the advocates of the scientific consensus.

Stopping the patent madness


The BBC’s lead story in Britain today is about a decision of a US court which no direct or immediate applicability in Britain at all – over Apple’s victory over Samsung in a US patent case.

The fact that the case, at least in theory, matters not a jot to Britain seems to have rather passed the BBC by. It is not even the case that Samsung’s behaviour is likely to impact on how European regulators might see the company, as the plain fact is that software patents have no legal standing in European lawand in Britain it is unlawful to grant a patent based on a mathematical procedure, which is what an algorithm (a software procedure) is.

English: United States Patent Cover from a rea...
English: United States Patent Cover from a real patent issued (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The basis of the British law seems sound to me. No one makes an invention when they discover a new mathematical procedure – the maths is universal and has always existed (I know that there are philosophical arguments to the contrary, but I’m not buying them!).

But thanks to the BBC Apple have now won half the battle in the UK – many consumers will now think a Samsung product tainted or perhaps even illegal, thanks to some pretty poor journalism.

Yet there is an even deeper threat. Politicians, of all parties, in the UK are subject to some heavy-duty lobbying and pressure from “rights holders” in all fields to extend and deepen the patent and copyright regime. The problem is not one of corruption – politicians, in my experience at least, are not being paid or even offered money to advocate this position.

Instead, with the economy weak, they are being told that extending patent and copyright is the best way to protect jobs and build exports. It’s garbage, frankly: the best way to protect jobs and extend exports is to innovate and create, not to rely on rent from past creations – but it is being listened to.

Already this year European governments and legislators sanctioned stealing property from consumers by retrospectively increasing the copyright protection period on performances. Items which had entered the public domain were simply stolen back from the public – hardly as outrageous as the Enclosures Acts, but exactly the same principle with the state acting to unilaterally enhance the financial health of the largely already wealthy.

From my time working in government and for the Labour Party in government I know this was a long term aim of the music industry and that Labour ministers who ought to have known better were seduced by the argument that as Britain had been such a pioneer in the global popular music industry it was in the ‘national interest’ to legislate in this way. The alternative argument – that it was in the national interest to encourage innovative ways to use works created half a century ago – was dismissed out of hand: having had their hands badly burnt when the dot com bubble burst ministers were not keen to listen to another bunch of ‘new economy’ arguments. The current government seems similarly bewitched.

But there is a deeper argument here too. Copyright and similar protections (such as patents) are privileges granted by the state to encourage innovation for the benefit of the public. There is no ‘natural’ basis for copyright – if I perform something in public I should expect people to copy it. But because such copying might discourage me from subsequent public performances I am granted a special legal and time-limited protection. The law exists not to benefit me, but to encourage me to act in a way that benefits the public. Extending copyright protection from 50 to 75 years has no such public benefit – it merely benefits the copyright holder, and it is simply not credible to suggest that there will be new works created today because protection has been extended that would not have been created because previousl protection only lasted 50 years.

So too with patents. These should exist to encourage genuine invention (ie., not to privilege the discoverers of that which already exists) in such a way that benefits the public. If patent law allows one company to establish a monopoly on a vital technology then it is time to rethink it all.

The Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon


Fifty Shades of WTF?! VOL. "Have You Read...
Fifty Shades of … (Photo credit: Instant Vantage)

When did you first become aware of “Fifty Shades of Grey”? Perhaps if you are a man rather later than if you are a woman… about six weeks ago I noticed that this book – which I had heard of (possibly because I had seen someone reading it on the Tube) was being talked about in social networks and since then the volume of chatter has risen and risen and risen.

On Saturday the BBC reported that last week alone it sold over 200,000 copies in just the UK. But today they also reported that the book is not good news for book shops.

The book is certainly cheap to buy online – but I suspect embarrassment is also a big factor in wanting to buy an electronic copy. Hopefully that means this is just a blip and not a decisive moment in the decline of bookshop sales in Britain.

A reason why kids don’t do programming any more?


As I write this, in the next room my two daughters are playing with their Wii, with the eldest using her Andorid phone to provide incidental music. It’s a not untypical Saturday morning scene in millions of homes I imagine.

In here I am contemplating one of the legacies of my teenage years – the desire to write a computer program for no other reason than I enjoy it.

The immediate problem I face with the current piece of code is user interface related and that does make me wonder if one of the reasons kids have lost interest in programming is (alongside the awful way they are taught about computers) the sheer hideousness of UI code.

Back in the days of Sinclair (or BBC) BASIC things could be made to appear on the screen by simply specifying their cartesian co-ordinates and issuing a PLOT command or similar.

So, I could get back from my A level maths class and plot the graphs of the functions we’d been discussing in a few lines of code. I could write, and graphically represent, the behaviour of heat quanta in a molecular grid with just a few hours work.

Now I would have to set aside a day to do the graph from scratch or use somebody else’s code. The heat quanta representation boggles the mind.

I can understand why the makers of the Raspberry Pi seem to be recreating the BBC Micro environment alongside the electronics: all this UI code just gets in the way of helping kids build useful software.

The tyranny of the arts graduates continues


Michael Gove speaking at the Conservative Part...
Image via Wikipedia

I imagine in Michael Gove‘s world, this has been a good week. The UK’s secretary of state for education has been in the news a lot this week, and that seems to be the key metric for him – after all his qualifications for the job essentially seem to be that he was once a journalist (and a militant and active trade unionist – a friend who worked with him at the BBC once told me he was deployed to ensure that “the Tories all came out” during disputes at the Corporation in 1994.)

The two equal pinnacles of Mr Gove’s week would appear to be his writing a preface (!) to the Bible that he is sending to all schools (he doesn’t seem to understand that Catholic schools – of which there are rather a lot – will not use the text he is sending them, never mind the questions of what the state-maintained Jewish and Muslim schools will think) and a speech he gave to Cambridge University earlier in the week where he waxed lyrical about high literature but seemed to have nothing or next-to-nothing to say about engineering, maths and science.

Matt Pearson puts it so much better than I ever could:

Gove rarely talks of skills which can be used in the modern economy, he does not mention collaboration and teamwork, communication skills and the ability to use a range of technologies to get a job done. He does not talk of creativity and entrepreneurship, of engaging with the information society and introducing young people to the rigours of engineering or computer programming. Presumably as his own education did not cover these elements, and Jane Austen wrote very little in JavaScript, these disciplines have not entered his purview.

Email is ill, but is not dying


Illustration of Facebook mobile interface
Image via Wikipedia

The BBC’s website has an interesting article on the prospects for email, a subject I have written on here a few times.

Email is no longer the killer application of the internet, certainly. Designed by scientists to send messages to other scientists and so built around the notion that all users were acting in good faith, it is weak and that is, no doubt, contributing to the rise of social media as an alternative means of communication.

But there is no reason why we should replace one broken security model – that of email – with another – a reliance on proprietary software (Facebook is proprietary after all).

Email will last because it is open. But maybe someone could and should write a better email.

Review of “The Black Cloud”


Cover of "The Black Cloud"

My interest in astronomy and astrophysics comes from childhood and when I was much, much younger I had an (unscientific) fondness for the “steady state” theory of cosmology, which, in the early 1970s was not as thoroughly discredited as it is today (though, of course, many newer cosmologies borrow from it or show similarities to it – for instance Roger Penrose‘s proposal in Cycles of Time).

Part of the attraction of the steady state cosmology was the figure of Fred Hoyle, or at least how I imagined him: blunt speaking, no nonsense, scientific genius. But until I read The Black Cloud I had not read any of his scientific or literary works.

The book is fascinating as a period piece and not a bad read as a piece of science fiction either – though the overall tone and dialogue reminds me of “Journey into Space” – a 1950s BBC science fiction radio serial recently re-broadcast.

But here is a novel with differential equations, computer program listings (presumably in machine code of some sort as it certainly is not a high level language) and a description of the (then) pioneering technology of pulse code modulation.Not all the science is good though, but Hoyle cannot be blamed for that: although it does not use the term, the view of artificial intelligence here is the conventional one of the time, but also one that fifty years of rapidly advancing computing power has failed, thus far at least, to sustain.

Mixed, with that, though is a fair dose of of Little Englandism, enormous doses of sexism and a quite frightening view into how Hoyle thinks society should be organised – namely with politicians, the people we chose, removed and the dictatorship of the scientists instituted. Stalin ruled in the name of science too.

Hoyle’s preface implies it would be a mistake to ascribe the views of Chris Kingsley, the chief advocate of crushing politics, to himself, but the character sounds far too much like him – the man who once exploded with anger when a snotty PhD student called Stephen Hawking pointed out a flaw in his calculations because he thought it would weaken his attempted blackmail of politicians – for the denial to be credible.

It’s a great book and an easy read, so I do recommend it.