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.

Blogged with the Flock Browser

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.

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!

Climate debate and facts

Reading in the local newspaper last week I was surprised to find the following statement in an opinion piece by Chris Kenny:

People are scorned as “deniers” simply for pointing out the scientifically agreed fact that Earth has not warmed for a decade.

Overall the article, “I’m sick of the scare tactics in climate debate”, is concerned with the rhetoric that currently fills any discussion over climate and so I was curious about the offhand way such a simply wrong fact was thrown in there. In the next paragraph we then had the following:

And that no one has yet proved a link between human activities and/or carbon emissions and climate change.

The second half of this statement could be discussed as the word “prove” can be ambiguous but I was more interested in the first statement, which again is simply wrong.

With this in mind I wrote a letter to the editor and assumed , in this case incorrectly, that it would be simply ignored as that is my first hand experience of any complaints about the standard of journalism in The Advertiser. To my surprise I soon received a phone call from the editor advising me that they would be publishing my letter. Unfortunately The Advertiser does not put it’s letters online, unlike opinion pieces from it’s journalists, so I can’t show you the link to the letter. However I can simply show you what I wrote as I kept a copy. What is below is in two parts, the first part is what was published, the second is what was left out.

“Chris Kenny’s latest opinion piece with a subtitle of “I’m sick of the scare tactics in climate debate”, will I’m sure be leading to pots and kettles eying each other off. Chris makes the claim “People are scorned as “deniers” simply for pointing out the scientifically agreed fact that Earth has not warmed for a decade.” This is simply wrong and not a fact. The scientific consensus is currently well represented by the following statement from the Hadley Climate Center, “A simple mathematical calculation of the temperature change over the latest decade (1998-2007) alone shows a continued warming of 0.1 °C per decade.” Now, people can argue about other issues and what this means, however the fact of observation is not, unless you care to deny reality.Chris further states “And that no one has yet proved a link between human activities and/or carbon emissions and climate change.” Addressing the first part of this claim scientist have clearly demonstrated that the increasing CO2 levels correspond with a decreasing C13/C12 isotope ratio which is due to human burning of fossil fuels and not a natural process.
Simply put Chris, what you said is wrong.
Now, no-one is going to deny there are alarmists in both camps on this topic which really doesn’t help but could we please respect the facts and concentrate the debate on areas of uncertainty?”

The section that was left out of the published letter, for completeness was:

“And as for “Why the scare campaign”? Chris, of all people, being an adviser to a government should know. Because they work, regardless of which side of the fence you live on. The media could perform us all some justice by promoting articles that investigate facts and not just hype the spin, confuse people and promote ignorance. And a few less straw man arguments by journalists claiming to be skeptical wouldn’t go amiss. Skeptics seek the facts to support an argument and promote critical thinking, aspects sadly lacking in this present debate. However for those wanting such a debate, then please come along to the Skeptics National conference in Adelaide in October where this very topic will be debated on the Sunday morning session.”

Now it’s fine to cut the letter and with hindsight what was cut will be going straight back to them because I find out today, 1 week later, it would appear Chris has a bee in his bonnet about this issue. And the straw man arguments return which is really sad because I remember the long past days of decent journalism.

Without further ado here is his rebuke:


Sceptics can’t deny the facts

  • Skeptics SA accused me of getting my climate change facts wrong last week. However, the U.K.’s Hadley Centre shows none of the past 10 years has been as warm as 1998. Sure, the centre claims there is still evidence of a warming trend, albeit reduced from a decade ago. But it confirms that each of the past 10 years has been cooler than 1998.
  • The Skeptics SA letter also referred to scientific consensus. We often hear this term now but science is not about consensus, it is about objective fact.
  • Another reader asks what more Australia could do to reduce carbon emissions. If we were serious, the first thing we would do is lift our ban on uranium exports to India.
  • Just to restate what happened, someone made a claim, it was factually wrong and they were corrected. I would have thought that’s the end of the matter, lesson learnt. As a skeptic I certainly was not denying the facts. And no-one is claiming that 1998 was not a hot year. Is stating that “Sceptics (sic) can’t deny the facts” suggesting that skeptics have denied the facts? Who knows. Perhaps Chris is claiming he is now a skeptic and that even he can’t deny the facts anymore? That would be reassuring however it is again misleading to state something out of context and to ignore the factual reason which is given by the Hadley Centre. To get a view of the temperature over the past few years, here’s the graph showing this.

    The temperature spike at 1998 can clearly be seen. And it’s explanation, which Chris does not even hint at:

    1998 saw an exceptional El Niño event which contributed strongly to that record-breaking year. Research shows that an exceptional El Niño can warm global temperatures by about 0.2 °C in a single year, affecting both the ocean surface and air temperatures over land. Had any recent years experienced such an El Niño, it is very likely that this record would have been broken. 2005 was also an unusually warm year, the second highest in the global record, but was not associated with El Niño conditions that boosted the warmth of 1998.

    A picture says a thousand words and anyone can see that 1998 is an usual year. It is also apparent that what the Hadley Centre claims about increasing temperature is also correct. The fact that 1998 was a record breaking year does not invalidate the statement from the Hadley Centre that the average temperature is increasing. And before people jump in with “but the last 6 years hasn’t warmed” I’d just like to point out we are not denying this. We’d also not support it either because the error bars clearly show the error measurement is much larger that what we are looking for. The correct position is “we don’t really know”. Perhaps some of the readings were wrong, perhaps there were other things happening such as what happened in 1960’s with increased aerosols and particulates, who knows. That’s why we have error bars on good graphs, so we know how good the data is and don’t make incorrect claims.

    This leads into Chris’s second point, that about consensus and his incorrect belief it has no place in science. If the world was perfect, measurements never had errors, all factors and processes were well known, humans were perfect and generally the whole place was painted in black or white then this would be a valid statement. However in the reality based world that science lives in we know this isn’t correct.

    When you make a measurement there is error and variation. Sometimes there are competing explanations for observations. Sometimes the world is complex and it’s not apparent exactly what is influencing what and what the processes are. And sometimes people have differing points of view and different backgrounds that enable them to look at the same data but draw different conclusions. However this does not mean no claims can be made, as many post-modernists are want to do, or that nothing can be said until everyone totally agrees. There is a misconception in the general public, and this applies to nearly all journalists, the vast majority of whom have no background in science, that science gathers pure unambiguous facts and then make a dogmatic decree of the new knowledge gained. This might be great for depicting a scientist for Hollywood but reality is different. Vastly different.

    Actual science involves the rather more nebulous concept of supplying the best explanation for the available evidence. There is no place for dogmatic belief, unlike in religion where maintaining the status quo and existing faith based knowledge is crucially important. The “best explanation” involves many scientists agreeing that a conclusion can be drawn from the available body of evidence and, shock, horror this is usually done in a via consensus. Now some people might suggest the data is not accurate enough, or not enough data has been collected, or that it is not representative or a hundred reasons why they personally cannot accept the proposed conclusion. That’s fine and science allows for dissent, in fact it strives on dissent. However when the vast majority of scientists agree on something then that’s good enough. If someone brings along more,better or different evidence and it’s convincing and of suitable quality then the consensus will change. It would be lovely to live in a world of unambiguous objective fact but unfortunately that world only exists in the minds of those ignorant to the scientific method, those used to living in a world of political decree and religious dogma.

    And for a recent discussion about long term trends, see this article I wrote a while ago.

    Car that runs on water – pseudoscience woo courtesy of Reuters

    “it only sounds like it’s too good to be true”…

    That would be because it is you friggin morons at Reuters. Yet another traditional media output shows it’s lack of scientifically educated reporters.  Here is the link via the clueless Sydney Morning Herald website.

    The claim is that the system delivers hydrogen forever if you just add water. IMHO “forever” is about as long as whatever is reacting with the water remains. The simple fact is that water is already a burnt’s oxidized hydrogen and unless you are going convert something like aluminum and water into hydrogen and aluminum oxide then I’m afraid that hydrogen in the water is going to stay firmly attached to that oxygen.

    However, why is this sort of rubbish being hocked on mainstream media? Have they really given up any sort of critical treatment of stories in search of the dollar?

    What the suppliers of this system are proposing is this:

    water + “nothing” -> hydogen + ???

    hydrogen + oxygen -> water + energy to move car (this is the burning of the hydrogen in the engine)

    Now if we take the oxygen from the air for free this can be simplified to:

    hydrogen -> hydrogen + energy to move car

    Nicely breaking the law for the conservation of energy.


    However the way the media is reporting this is:

    water (+large amount of BS) – > energy to move the car  (+larger amount of BS)

    People who invest in this sort of crap deserve to loose their money and then slowly starve to death. They’ll be nicely improving our gene pool and increasing the planets average IQ by doing so. I could swear the last time I looked it was 2008…what’s with this sort of bogus woo??

    Weird but good chemistry video

    From a link on New Science we have this video from Europe.

    Good effort, more please.

    Telstra + “hologram” = BS

    On the front page of my morning paper I find a big shiny article touting Telstras use of a “hologram” at a conference held here.  Here is part of what the article says:

    In an Australian first, Dr Bradlow’s life-sized, real-time hologram walked, talked and interacted with business executives at an Adelaide conference while he stood in front of cameras in Telstra’s Melbourne office.

    A 2D "hologram"

    This is pure bullshit. Telstra was not demonstrating a video hologram, or even a static hologram. A quick check on numerous  websites or in many  books explains what a hologram really is  and the most obvious attribute is that it appears to be a 3D object. Not a 2D image on a screen. In their defense, Telstra and the media are only parroting what the company that supplies this technology is saying.

    What Telstra demonstrated was projecting a video onto a screen. Some of my old magic books show how this is done, the concept is way over 100 years old and is explained on the companies website here. What they have made is a translucent foil which is an improvement over the old perspex and glass setup and allows for larger displays without some of the inherent hazards of large partial mirrors. However, a hologram it isn’t. In the right most section of the image above you can see the base of the foil just above the suits feet, yes he’s standing behind it and yes, those are marks on the ground showing him where to stand to give the best image to the viewers.

    From the supplying companies web site we have this:

    All the images used on an Eyeliner™ system appear as three-dimensional images, but are projected as two-dimensional images (2D/3D) into a 3D stage set. The mind of the audience created the 3D illusion. This means that production costs are minimal, needing only the single camera lens for filming and a single projector for the playback.

    The point of this blog is that by using the word hologram, when people see this they come away with a poor impression of the beauty and true awesomeness of a real hologram. So in future when someone talks about hologram people will be thinking of this old stage trick and not the real thing. This is dumbing down science for no good reason apart from marketing hype. And with decreasing levels of basic science understanding and an increasing amount of technology this is the last thing we need.