Fielding on climate – How to ask a poor question

Chief scientist fails to sway Fielding on climate – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Senator Fielding has been pimping the press recently after his self-funded tour to a climate “skeptics” conference in the USA. Upon his return to our fair shores I wasn’t overly surprised to hear him touting the dead and buried idea that recent climate change is due to solar processes. Ok, the guy doesn’t have the reputation as a great investigator and seems particular poor at finding out climate information however given his political background this is not too surprising. I started to assume he probably didn’t know how to ask a good question.
And then proof arrived over the radio this morning:

“When I put forward the question ‘isn’t it true that carbon emissions
have been going up and global temperature hasn’t?’, they wanted to
rephrase my question and not answer it,” he (Senator Fielding) told AM.

The good senator does not seem to understand what is wrong with this question and why answering it would be stupid and wrong.
This is called a closed question. It’s the sort of question which is put forward when one is trying to find supporting evidence for ones beliefs and not to learn more about the topic the question is meant to address.   It is obvious what he already believes and is thinking he’s got the great earth shattering question that will stump the oh-so-smart scientists. It’s the sort of poor question when you only care about an answer and not how it is supported.
And here’s the specific problem, regardless of the answer, yes or no, that answer will simply reinforce an existing belief and will not lead to any further understanding of why the answer was given. From this type of question it’s a short fall into the biases of confirmation and dis-confirmation. When teaching critical thinking this is the sort of question that people are told NOT to ask. It’s the sort of question little kids might ask and adults are not meant to ask unless they they trying to push a point of view. It is also the sort of question police would not be asking when interviewing a subject and the sort of question a prosecution lawyer would be asking in a trial to bias the opinions of others.

The question the senator should have asked, if he has any skill in finding out information, and to date there is zero evidence for that on this topic is this:
“Why have carbon emissions have been going up and global temperature hasn’t?”

With this sort of open question the scientists can then explain the factors that affect global temperature and their relative impact. It is the sort of open question we try to teach primary school kids to ask when teaching critical thinking. In answering this open question the scientists would point out that the natural variation vastly exceeds the gradual long term trend which scientists believe to be the indicator of anthropomorphic global warming. As such, over any particular short time span less than 20 or 30 years one would expect with 100% certainty to see periods where the temperature does not go up in a nice smooth manner but stays the same or goes down for a while.

This is a worry. Here we have an elected representative in the Senate of all places, the house where issues are meant to be investigated before national legislation is ratified and the Senator does not seem to know how to ask questions. In his defense he’s not the only one. Many, many of our elected representatives display incredibly poor thinking. However, considering they have probably never been exposed to training in critical thinking,especially in their adult lives, and would know even less about cognitive biases in decision making I guess one could argue they are blissfully ignorant. And politicians are not the only ones. Business leaders routinely make poor decisions and don’t ask good questions that lead to rich answers. The current economic woes have exactly the same root cause as Senator Fielding’s ignorance on climate, the inability to ask good questions.

For brief article about asking good questions see this site. It was simply the first site about the topic Google found.
This isn’t rocket science.

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Swine Flu stupidity and hype

With about as much surprise as the sky being blue we find ourselves in the midst of a media whirlwind about the latest influenza outbreak. As per usual interesting world events always seem to happen when I’m traveling overseas, although in this case it was only Tasmania so I wasn’t too much out of touch with what was happening. However the media I had access to wasn’t initially the CDC website, WHO website or anywhere truly useful but the bog standard and crappy normal media with their teams of incompetent buffoons. However it would appear I was not the only one and even those who should know better, such a national health ministers, seem unable to know how to find out useful information.

The initial surprise of how long Mexico sat on their hands before realising they had a serious problem was soon followed by reports of countries banning pork. After Indonesia’s debacle at handling the H5N1 problem and their ongoing deaths I would have thought that Mexico noticed this and also China’s canning over it’s slow response to ask for help. But apparently not. Reports trickling out of the backwaters of Mexico suggest that this virus has been on the go since early March, which is fantastic as it has been widely accepted that contagious diseases need to have containment and controls lines set up within 21 days. It is simply amazing that a country such as Mexico, which I thought was reasonably advanced, could have botched this so badly. Hopefully they will learn from this as their economy takes a thumping as it closes down for a week or two.

And then we find that various countries around the world are banning imports of pork products. Like, WTF? I realise that in nearly all of these countries the level of science education is quite low but it really isn’t rocket science to know that influenza is transmitted by contact and people coughing. It is not the sort of disease transmitted by eating the creatures infected. And what’s more, last time I checked most people cook pork and don’t eat raw pig lungs.

However, for some good news, CNN has actually had some decent reporting. Pointing out the usual weekly death rate from flu in the USA is still more than the all the deaths of this H1N1 strain is a step in the right direction. Furthermore pointing out the world isn’t going to end in a Zombie controlled mess and the current lethality is only 8% is also a good step in countering the usual hype from the media.

And then we get the dumness again. Here in Australia we have the thermal scanning at airports. Even after the experts point out it will not work because people carrying the virus don’t develop symptoms for 7 days we get stupid claims about “protecting Australia”. Pigs arse you are going to protect Australia this way. It has been pointed out before there really is no way to prevent the spread of these types of diseases. Sure, you can slow them down so your health services are not swamped but the conception of detecting something with such a long latency is simply a joke. The money would be better spent on direct health care where and when it is needed.

Now we get onto some of the local comments. We have the various health ministers and experts commenting on how well prepared we are to handle this. As someone who has had a child with Influenza A in hospital in Adelaide ,I’ll call bullshit on that one. The concept of isolation was not used until my sick son had been sitting amongst non flu hospital patients for about 4 hours. And this was in the middle of the flu A outbreak when the hospitals ran out of ward space. This was the same year the hospital morgue ran out of room and the refrigerated shipping containers were used for overflow. Now I’m not saying that this isn’t coping but it isn’t coping in the way your average voting citizen expects. Why can’t they be upfront about what will happen if this is a pandemic? Be open with the fact that hospitals won’t have room, it’s simply too expensive to have that much spare capacity. Be open with the fact your morgue will overflow and you’ll be using shipping containers. Even if we had a measly 1% of very sick people there is no way in a pink fit 10,000 people turning up to hospitals in Adelaide is going to work. And if we had 10% sick and 1% fatalities just be open and realistic that the standard of health care is simply not going to be very good. Doctors and nurses don’t grow on trees. Neither do administration staff or people who drive medical supply trucks or ambulances. We live in such a safe society we simply can’t deal with small disasters and our expectations of health care and government support are incredibly high due to lack of major threats for many generations.

So in summary, ignore the wild hype, we don’t need to get excited and run around like headless chooks. Yep, it may be really bad however it most likely won’t be as bad as what your grandparents survived in 1918 and the resources we do have these days are so much better. You really don’t need to get too exited, you were listening to the repeated warnings scientists have been saying for decades about this sort of scenario? You did support increased science funding by lobbying politicians didn’t you? Because without that lobbying we wouldn’t have the H1N1 vaccine already…oh wait…you listened to the hype and not the scientists? Maybe if a few more media stations did what CNN has now done and have some decent science reporting this current mess would not have got out of control.

Our own religous fundy politician..

The Australian reports on Labor MP Bidgood.

“I believe there is God’s justice in action in what is going on here.
We haven’t seen the end of it. The ultimate conclusion is like I say,
we look at Bible prophecy, we are going towards a one world bank and a
one world monetary system. And if you believe the word of God and you
read Revelations…you will see clearly what is being spelt out. We are
in the end times.”

“What would Jesus do?” Let’s for a moment assume there is a Jesus who is rational…
Perhaps consider resigning and getting some therapy until you sort your head out?

And just to prove his judgement is dubious, this is the same guy who it is alleged “first reaction when someone is threatening to take their own life is to
take a photo and then to try and sell it to a news organisation”.
He had to recant his actions later in parliament.
Mr Bidgood last night said he “deeply regretted” his actions and
apologised for any offence he had caused: “My actions were highly
insensitive and inappopriate, and I am tonight writing a letter of
apology to the family involved.”

Is this really the sort of person who should be in parliament, a place with a requirement for good judgement?

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Hi tech “Rain Making” at Willunga?

I noticed in one of the local small newspapers an article about an attempt to artificially make rain down at Willunga. To say that the concept of rain making is controversial is probably an understatement and the whole has a rather sordid past of scams which more than overwhelm the few successes. Now before my dear readers start thinking I’m about to rip into this latest endeavor lets just hold our horses and examine one very well documented place where this happens … for real. Tasmania.

Yes, that little annoying and poky island off our south coast has been artificially boosting their rainfall for many years.

To read it all go to here but for a brief summary, please read on. The basic idea is to seed into appropriate clouds with iodine salts, these form nucleation centers and hence rain falls that otherwise might not have. The two points to making this a success are “appropriate clouds ” and “into”. They hydro guys and gals spend some serious time choosing the clouds they will get best success from considering the prevailing weather and very carefully choose the flight path of the planes which do the seeding. This is not a cheap process and they get their bucks from the extra water generating extra power via hydroelectric generators on the dams. They also did a lot of good research early on with CSIRO to make sure it actually worked. So how do we know when things actually work? Glad you asked, answer is…the scientific method. So what is science, and no, it’s not a list of boring facts dull uninspiring science teachers are wont to trot out, especially those with no background or interest in science, which is most of them. Here’s a list I grabbed from a book many years ago and it’s stood the test of time. (And sorry , I don’t have the name of the name, I really, really wish I did.)

  1. Science is logical and rational.
  2. Science makes well-defined claims.
  3. Scientific hypothesis are falsifiable.
  4. Scientific experiments are repeatable.
  5. Science requires that claims are examined by peers.
  6. Science views unexpected gaps in theories with suspicion.
  7. Science requires caution in examining evidence.
  8. Science requires objectivity.
  9. Science does not accept coincidence as proof.
  10. Science does not accept anecdotal evidence as proof.

In real science at least 9 out of 10 of the items will be supported. If you get less than that, then you soon drift into pseudo-science and once you’re down to not many that’s the land of woo.

So let’s look at Tasmanian cloud seeding.

Point 1, yes, putting nucleation centers into clouds does make sense because that is exactly how raindrops form normally.

Point 2, yes, they explain a lot on their FAQ page. They also state their expected improvements in rainfall and where it will fall. Furthermore the CSIRO also explain under what circumstances this will and won’t work here.

Point 3, yes. When they developed their process their testing included a both seeding suitable and not seeding suitable clouds. This was a test to see if what they did had a causal relationship with what they observed.

Point 4, yes.  As far I can be seen, at least 5 sets of experiments to reproduce the effect. This makes simply financial sense. Hiring planes is expensive. Hiring skilled people isn’t cheap either. Why waste money if it didn’t work?

Point 5, yes. They got the CSIRO to examine the results which has a brief summary here.

Point 6, yes. The theory was robust and they actually ran experiments to close as many gaps as possible. AS such the CSIRO found that cloud seeding would not work in many places in Australia.

Point 7, yes. They repeated the experiments over a long time span.

Point 8, yes. There isn’t hype about this working in Tasmania, it doesn’t have high profile media people ranting on how great this will be.

Point 9, yes. The first results looked promising. Did they just go with this? Nope, the repeated the experiments again and again, looking for a testing the variables that affected the results.

Point 10, yes. They actually did the experiment and allowed for the effect to not work.

So that’s how to do it properly. This latest mob down at Willunga initially had the CSIRO involved but they are no longer in the testing program.

Let’s go through the points for the latest proposal by Australian Rain Corporation.

Point 1,Is it logical and rational? Ok, so what does this thing actually do? It releases negative ions at ground level. These negative ions go up into clouds, react with oxygen and make it rain.  A few questions spring to mind about how rational this is. How do the ions actually get up into clouds and can they get high enough? What sort of clouds? Why don’t the ions bond with oxygen in the air normally before they get up into clouds or doesn’t it really matter where this happens. (In which case, why say it?)

Moving on to point 2, well defined claims. They make no mention of what the conditions need to be for this to work. What sort of clouds? What sort of wind pattern? What humidity? How much do they expect? Without knowing exactly what they are claiming it’s going to be hard to tell if they have succeeded. Even the testing procedure isn’t clear no explained anywhere. This could be done without giving away trade secrets but there is no information given. They don’t even mention how they are performing their test.

Without having a well defined claim it’s going to be hard to prove them wrong so point 3 is a fail. In previous tests in Queensland the results where inconclusive but it appears their experiment was pretty badly designed compared to what CSIRO did. TO make it falsifiable they need to sometimes run the machine when they think it might cause more rain and to also not run it when weather conditions are suitable and compare the results. Comparing rainfall from different areas is pretty poor experimental design when there is a better way to do it.

As for peer review I have been unable to find any peer reviewed reports concerning the Queensland trials. Yes, I’ve seen the summary of claims but I actually need to see the report to see how the experiment was done. Snappy headlines don’t cut the mustard.

With regards to gaps in theory, well there are plenty. It’s simply not supported by any. There is a fundamental problem of how the negative ions cause rain, if they could get to where they are needed, if they didn’t react on the way up, if they are special in quantity or quality from what’s already in the atmosphere.

At least they are being a bit cautious with the poor evidence to date although as I have mentioned there is very little to actually examine. The objectivity aspect they are attempting but there are so many missing facts from a real scientific experiment it simply doesn’t look right. (And I wont go into the structure being comprised of pyramids, if nothing else that’s really poor marketing as it attaches a woo factor to the whole thing.) And we’re not accepting the results from Queensland in case they are just a coincidence and at least unlike many dodgy bits of woo like dowsing, the web site hasn’t an anecdotal testimony page.

So what to make of it all? Based on what has been made public it’s unproven pseudo-science at best but at least they are doing the experiment. Their current experiment is not very scientific as it would appear they are just turning the machine on for  3 months to see what will happen. Hopefully there is moer to the test than this. The problem with this method, which appears to be what was used in Queensland, is that we wouldn’t know what would have happened if it wasn’t turned on. There is so much variability in weather, let alone potential climate change, that comparing side by side areas really doesn’t appear to a very valid approach. Especially when the CSIRO has already demonstrated a better protocol and has it publicly available!

Guglielmucci and a reality based world…

I was watching the trainwreck of Guglielmucci’s life unfold tonight on the news. Here are some of the stories behind this, here, here and here. A minister from Hillsong appeared on TV and was being interviewed, usual stuff about how suprised he was, how no-one saw it coming and hows he’s a sinner etc. etc. He also mention no-one ever questioned the story of the cancer.

And this is the problem with living a faith based life. It is difficult to question anything because as soon as you start to question where do you stop? So people are brought up on trust without basis, faith that elders can do no wrong, faith that what you are being told is true. It’s all faith. And that’s the difference between science and reality versus religion. Religion works best in a reality free environment.

“They have said to me that he is very ill. They are assessing where reality stopped and fantasy kicked in and what’s caused all this,” he said.

I’ll hazard a guess where the answer lies and sure enough, a few lines above we have…

“.. He was raised in a Christian home; we’ve never brought that stuff into our home.”

The kid was raised in religous household. This is where adults tell children fairy stories, just like any other household, except that they then say some of these stories are real. And they take their children along to churches where other adults tell the same fairy stories and they are basically brainwashed not to question what they are told. It’s at this stage that the fantasy has kicked in because if the easter bunny isn’t real but an invisible sky fairy is, then we are well on the way to fantasy land.

Now before I get accused of taring all Christians with the same brush, I’ll jump in and say “Yep!”.

You simply can’t have your cake and eat it too. If your going to be honest about reality you can’t pick and choose which facts to believe and which to ignore. And in the case of the pentacostal like churches the sort of people who inhabit these groups seem all too willing to believe. I watched the crap they stream out, the youth groups and the reality adverse advise of sex, drugs and life in general. The followers all suck it in. Its link to any reality based on actual humans or research? Sadly lacking.

In the same way they lap up the fantasy from their preachers they lapped up the fantasy from Michael Guglielmucci. Why would they ever question one of their own? They are not encouraged to question, not encouraged to seek evidence for a belief. And already the post-hoc justification and rationisations have come out, it was the porn that did it. I’m barely waiting for the claim that satan or some other fantasy character was involved in blinding people to the truth.

Checking out the blogs from a few years ago is ‘interesting’. Here’s a typical one about when he was diagnosed.

when i heard he was sick, i laughed… not because i am happy he is sick, but because while he was at our church he was healed of:

Glandular Fever
Blood Clot in his brain
Brain Tumor
Burst Ear Drum

God is so going to get the glory for this one… just like the other ones. But keep praying!

Well, god has got his glory for this one.

I’ll leave the final words to Michael himself, from his hit single, which pretty much sums up this little train wreck and what has caused it. Belief in a sky fairy does not trump reality. Reality is something to ignore at your peril, and reality is best understood by asking questions.

I believe you are more than enough for me
Jesus you are all I need

Chinese Olympic competitors and their age?

One new thing I have learnt this Olympics is that gymnastic competitors need to be 16 years old this year. I’m sure it used to less 20 or 30 years ago but 16 is what it now is.

A few people had noticed, well I imagine *quite* a few people, that the Chinese team seemed to have set up camp near a spring of eternal youth. In other words some of their competitors looked mighty young. It’s hard to tell with teenagers, and I have two of them, how old they are just by looks and so I didn’t really think much of it. Maybe they were particularly youthful looking, who knows, and really who cares. However last night while channel surfing I stumbled across the 10m platform diving and heard the commentators mention the 16 year old girl weighed 28kg. I usually associated “girl”,”16 years old” and “28 kg” with the words ‘anorexia’ or ‘bulimia’ and not ‘incredibly fit Olympic athlete’. I assumed that maybe she was very small and so today through the magic of the Intertubes I checked on who she was. Her name doesn’t matter, you can work it out if you want to, but she is listed as being 137cm (4’6″) and 28kg (62lbs). “Aha”, I thought she *is* short, and then I wondered what her BMI was. Now BMI can’t really be used for kids and the Nintendi Wii Fit has caused a few issues, for example here, because it uses BMI as a measure of fitness.

However it’s a quick calculation and I expected a low number, which is what fit kids usually have…but not that low… Now having seen kids grow and dutifully filled out our growth charts for our own children and gone through throug the usual worry about lack of growth periods etc. I guessed that growth charts might well exists for Chinese kids. Now, I have no idea if Chinese kids are taller or shorter than Ozzie kids, and lets’s face it, who cares, but I thought I’d at least get some growth charts possibly more appropriate than what I have.

Yet again through the wonders of the Intertubes I came across “Growth Charts for Chinese Children“. and not surprising they look pretty much the same as western kids. Funny about that when you’re all the same species. The next step was to put on the chart where this athlete currently is. The results are below.

Now I realise that China has 1.2 Billion people to choose from so you’d expect that they might choose some smaller people to minimise the splash entry however if you look at all of the preliminary competitors for the 10m diving you will see the 2 Chinese competitors, and one other, stand out like sore thumbs. If you then generate a graph of heigh versus weight for 19 competitors you get to see what sort of height and weight the rest of world choose for their competitors for the 10m event. The rest of the world has at least China’s population to choose from, (we’re ignoring most of the 3rd world here), and so I’d expect a fair spread that encompasses little miss “X” in the graph above. It doesn’t.

Something is not adding up? I think China has some explaining to do as to where they have found a supply of superfit midget people. And they’d be wise to get their ducks in a row before someone comes along with an age test a bit more scientific that looking at a passport. If we’re willing to test people for gender how about we test them for age? Either that or just scrap the age requirments.

The above information is about a diver, someone who doesn’t need to meet the age requirement so I can’t see a reason for fudging the age description but the question still stands, what’s going on when someone is so far away from normal and the olympics is about normal people doing their best.

The Joker in a Tarot card?

After lasts weeks entry for the Skeptics Circle, many days after, my Tarot card set arrived. Even though it wasn’t any use for the article I had wanted a set just to get familiar with some of the ideas in Tarot and how it is used. As such I was after a nice set of cards so they were at least worth something in an artistic way. I had stumbled on an Art Nouveau themed deck and I was pleasantly suprised by the look of cards which was by Antonella Castelli. All quite attractive until I flicked through to card 15, “The Devil”. Below is what I saw..

I think most people who have seen “The Dark Knight” will instantly recognise the face and pose..

Spooky Mulder…

Anyway, many thanks to the people who read the post and especially those who linked to it. On that day we had more viewings than we usually get in a month.