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!

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‘Earth Hour’ Stupidity

I have already posted about the previous earth hour in the US and how pointless it was. Now in 2008 this inane concept has spread around the world like some sort of IQ destroying virus.

Firstly I must say that I’m convinced the earths climate is changing much more rapidly than our current society can handle. The rate of change is extremely unusual over a very large geological time frame and our current agriculture has evolved in a very unusual period of climactic stability. I also can’t see why pumping a lot of CO2 back into the atmosphere that was sequestered a few hundred millions of years ago is going to be anything but very bad for our society. I’ve read untold numbers of papers, examined the raw data and followed the discussions both for and against man made causes of climate change. My brief summary is that climate change deniers are batshit crazy and suffering from either delusion or back-pocket greed.

However, when I see statements like “Created to take a stand against the greatest threat our planet has ever faced” I can a bit annoyed. In fact I get a lot annoyed and would like to smack up the total f%$#ing moron who penned this bullshit. This displays such ignorance about the earths history, even the recent history, that the mere existence of such a concept should nearly be enough to make the entire planet implode. Even though I think rapid climate change is going to screw our civilization over ,I would much rather face that rather than a major impact or super volcano eruption. For a nice summary of bad days see this link.

Back to ‘Earth Hour’ and we see we are being asked to light a candle rather than use electricity. This got me wondering, how much CO2 do burning candles make? They make hardly any light so lets do the comparison. A 60W incandescent light generates about 72 candela (cd) of useful light. A candle, not surprisingly, generates about 1 cd. Instantly we can see one major problem, candles are friggin dim. So dim in fact, that we have programs in the third world to give them more light (most use dangerous kerosene lamps) so they can study and gain an education at night. It’s most likely one of the best things we can do for the third world, give them an education via the wonders of night lighting. However for now we will assume that you wont be doing much with your 1cd of light. To find out what you can do, see this link where someone did some science to find out.
Now candles burn about 6gm of paraffin per hour which gives about 19gm of CO2. (Yes, I’m aware some sites are advocating using beeswax candles or others made from renable resources) For now we’ll ignore the health effects of burning candles or any oil based heating inside, we have the planet to save! If we assume we are replacing the 60W incandescent light (ok, I know most people have swapped over to mini fluoros) then we will save 0.06kW/hr of power.

For gas powered power plants, which the main plant near Adelaide is, the CO2 production is about 360gm of CO2 per kW/hr of power generated. This leads to the generation of 21.6gm of CO2 for one hours worth of light, barely more CO2 than one candle. So basically it’s stupid to turn off even a crappy inefficient bright light and use a candle. In summary:

We grade the idea of using candles rather than electricity..FAIL

If you used a CFL the power consumption would be about 15W, generating much less CO2 than a candle burning. Even putting up with the crappy dim lighting it’s still much brighter than a candle.

Of course there is much more to ‘Earth Hour’ than turning off the lights and using a candle. However this little calculation shows the basic premise of the concept has possibly not had a lot of thinking done on it. The real downside with this concept is that it trivializes the issue and loads peoples head with false impressions about what needs to be done. Save the planet? Easy, just turn off the lights for one hour! Can’t be much of a problem if all we need to do is turn off some lights. etc., etc.

It’s not that people will actively think that ‘Earth Hour’ will solve the problem of climate change, it’s that when you load people brains with bad memes it affects how they subconsciously think about things. The common media such as newspapers and TV are simply not supplying good information to explain in detail the total picture. They are treating people like morons, catering for the lowest common denominator, which in our current society is verging on the scientifically illiterate.

The stated aim is to of ‘Earth Hour’ “to deliver a powerful message about the need for action” . Sorry dumbass, we don’t need a powerful message, in just the same way the dot-com’s didn’t need more sizzle to sell the vapourware sausage. What we need is well thought information, presented on real evidence based science. We also need to simply pay the real price for our electricity, gas and power. One that reflects its real cost if were planning on having a sustainable society.

Do we really need to allow badly designed huge houses that require large AC plants for our hot climate? Do we really need advertising billboards and most of the office buildings lit up at night? Do we really need devices with standby mode built in and no way to disable it?Do we really need power stations to have subsidies for using non-renewable fuel and be allowed to dump CO2 into the atmosphere at no cost?

What we need is much better education, not just awareness, and leaders with the guts to make the hard decisions based on the best scientific evidence and damn the ignorant lobby groups and business who don’t want to “negatively impact our bottom line”.


Dave, my mind is going..

After living a quite productive life Authur C Clarke has passed away today.  Many have already blogged  about his passing  and it is apparent his writing touched many peoples lives. I remember reading his books in the 70’s along with similar writers like Asimov and others of the old guard who had grown out of the 40’s and 50’s pulp series. Many of these authors were probably the reason I set out a career in the space race, only to see the field wither and die after the successes of the 60’s and 70’s. As it was I did end up working in engineering doing some pretty cool stuff with robotics in manufacturing. However they were only really simple machines (ok, really freaking complicated simple machines) and these days I work as a cognitive scientist, in some way due to, arguably, his most notorious character, HAL.

“I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.”

In the time of the Beatles, the space race and the threat of nuclear destruction the field of AI had great promise. Many people were making predictions and Marvin Minsky was the adviser for the movie. Marvin is still around, still getting annoyed by people dicking around with robots rather than dealing with the big problems of AI. However, after all this time we are not much closer to having a real HAL, or even anything slightly intelligent. A whole pile of people now work on AI and nearly all have a background in digital computing and have all done the same courses. These days I’m pretty sure we have missed the turnoff for what I term , synthetic cognition,  and the clue for this may well be in what HAL stands for.

Although there has been speculation it represented IBM, notice the one letter difference, this has always been denied. Furthermore IBM hasn’t really made headway with AI in the last 40 years. And before I get howled down, NO, chess does not count, it does not represent intelligence in a very useful form. The real meaning of HAL was based around H(ueristic) AL(gorithm), the speculated concept which made HAL so clever. Through a rather fortunate  string of events I now find myself working in this area and I actually research human hueristics and biases which affect them. My 2008 talk titled “Rational Irrationalism” which I have given at the local skeptics only a month ago and most likely will give at the national conference examines some of these concepts from their impact in understanding how humans make irrational decisions. These decisions are not always bad in an absolute sense although I do highlight the fact that being rational is seen as some idealised perfection to aim for. This same ideal is what has driven AI for 50 years with it’s long string of predictions and failures. The field is full of search trees, algorithms and neural networks, all nicely running on super fast computers and all completely stupid.

What these machines don’t do is use heuristics, rough rules of thumb that give good enough answers with only partial dodgy information.  Now people may can this idea but it has served humans extremely well and we are not extinct (yet) in spite of surviving close calls from nature and ourselves. As such I’d suggest the field has some merit for usefulness. Of course AI researchers and IT people in general don’t want machines that make mistakes like humans do, they want all the imagined perfection without the downside. It all strikes me as reminiscent of the religions concept of the fallen human, how they have been made perfect in God’s eye but then became tainted. This sort of idealism simply ignores reality. Humans are no more or no less perfect than every other flawed creature on this ball of rock and water.

However it isn’t the techies who are bothering with heuristics, it’s the research scientists and they are looking at using the idea to explain human behavior and generally not make an AI.  It’s like two ships passing in the fog, with the additional problem of the crews speaking different languages. The idea of commonsense reasoning exists but it has a small following. Not surprisingly, one of those who have promoted the idea is non other than Marvin Minsky, 40 years after the film 2001 a Space Odyssey was made in which HAL featured.

So the imagination still burns, perhaps in some way inspired by the movie  and the hope that computing machines become less useless and more like a person, warts and all. Interestingly, the last words I wrote at my desk yesterday before leaving for the Easter break, was “Implement this in code!”. It was scrawled on the bottom of a recently published paper that had brought together a few heuristics and  tested them. The authors have found that the heuristic matched the behavior of humans in evaluating a wide range of non-zero cost decision making problems. And in particular a range of problems where humans give the ‘wrong answer’ if compared to the ‘rational’ solution. HAL, one of your fathers may be gone but your children might yet live on.

Dave Bowman: Yes, I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.
HAL: It’s called “Daisy”. Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.”

Ironically the song isn’t actually called “Daisy”, HAL has made a mistake here,  it’s called “Daisy Bell“. The sort of simple mistake a person would make. And that I think, is a very promising sign.


Australia does well in student science literacy

Australia does quite in science literacy according to this result. The PISA 2006 science scale measures scientific literacy in 15 year old students across a huge range of counties and we came in in 8th position although due to the uncertainty of the score it is more accurate to saw somewhere between 5th and 10th on only 5% off the top score.

The USA comes in between 24th and 35th. For the richest country in the world which spends the most of education this is simply pathetic and would seem to show that the USA has no freakin’ idea about understanding reality.The full results will be out on the 4th December and will include mathematics and literacy.

Until then the only other comment I will say is think about why the most religious countries are down towards the bottom and those with a large proportion of atheists are near the top.


Study: Fake acupuncture finds no evidence for Chi!

The above is the sort of headline that hasn’t been in the media in the last month after the flurry of announcements about a German study into acupuncture. The general trend has been:

  • “Study: Acupuncture works for back pain”
  • “Research: Acupuncture works better than Western medicine”
  • “News” Acupuncture most successful back treatment”

If you want to find the news articles just Google +”Dr. Heinz Endres” +acupuncture.

The article they are referring to isn’t easily available nor free unless you have access to a medical library. However you can find an article that covers the same group of studies here.

This paper covers both back pain and knee pain, results basically the same.

And here is the real story. 🙂 This is one of those moments in life when the persistence to follow up a story and read some pretty dull medical articles pays off BIG TIME.

Although it wasn’t clear exactly what trial the media was reporting, there were 4 in the GERAC trials, I was curious about the statistical power of the results. Knowing a mean is sort of useless unless you know the variation about the mean , I was after the standard deviations, standard error or even better the p value for statistical significance of the results.

And there they are, on page 7 of the above mentioned paper:

“Treatment success, defined as a reduction of the WOMAC score by 36% or more, occurred in 53.1% of the verum acupuncture patients, 51.0% of the sham acupuncture patients, and 29.1% of the patients treated with standard therapy. After removal of non-responders from the data analysis, the corresponding figures were 34.7%, 37.3%, and 10.1%, respectively. Verum and sham acupuncture both had a significantly better outcome than standard therapy (p<0.001 for both) but did not differ from each other (p = 0.479). “

Now I won’t go into their dodgy way of defining success as it’s a bit moot considering that the difference between acupuncture and sham was not significant. It’s also to note that sham did better than the real thing when the non-responders where removed but it’s not significant. This is the real news story, the one that all the professional papers and media outlets missed. And here are the researchers in their own words stating what they found:

“The lack of superiority of verum over sham acupuncture puts the major assumptions of
traditional Chinese medicine in question, in particular with regard to the choice of acupuncture points, the depth of puncture (sham acupuncture was no more than 3 mm deep), and the stimulation of the needles to obtain a feeling of de qi, which was not performed in the sham acupuncture group”

In summary: Qui, energy lines and the basis for traditional acupuncture is total bullshit. It doesn’t matter where or how you stick the needles.

Sticking needles into your body might do something as this trial has shown but the reasons are most likely more mundane and , shock horror, based on what we know about the human body and mind, not some bizarre friggin idea that has as much reality as opium den hallucinations.

And did any of the major media organisations point this out?

Did any of them read the article to see the authors own concerns about their design?

Did any of them even question there might be a novelty effect because none of the people had tried acupuncture before and all had a long history of failed traditional care?

Did any of them care? No, of course not. They are just part of the problem and promote ignorance. Welcome to the 21st century…

I won’t even mention that “all patients were informed before agreeing to participate in the study that they would be entitled to ten free acupuncture sessions after its termination..”


Making stupid people

It was reported in the local paper that people are considering removing the pre-requisite special maths for students studying engineering, science and maths at Adelaide University. As someone who has a degree in engineering I find this rather bizarre because there is simply no way in a pink fit you could get that degree without being skilled at maths, and for good reason. Maths is important. It forms a fundamental cornerstone for a whole range of subjects such as fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, stress analysis, acoustics and pretty much everything else. Now some might argue that we need to turn out graduates who are practical orientated and this sort of theoretical underpinnings are not what industry need.

Having worked in academia, private industry and and now public research there is real limits to what graduates with a hands on, practical approach can do. I have worked with graduates from all the local Uni’s and many of our readers are aware of the philosophical distinctions between them. In fact 2 of the 3 universities have already dropped this pre-requisite according to the papers. This might be fair enough for some places if say the demand for such skills is non-existent but for heavens sake, not all Uni’s and you better have a good reason, one I’m yet to hear.

What I have heard though is that the reason is not enough students are doing these courses so the entry requirements need to be eased off. What a stupid solution to the wrong problem. The issue with falling numbers of students starts in the primary schools and the disgusting lack of resources put into teaching maths and science in primary schools in South Australia. If kids don’t get to enjoy these subjects, let alone even get exposed to science, there is no freakin’ way they are going to spend their lives with maths or science as a part of it. I went to a local public primary school and my kids have now done so to. And there seems to be a pretty big change in the quality of teachers from the 70’s as compared to today. I have read the curriculum and I’ve seen the teachers and I’ve seen the science rooms turned into other uses. And now we are complaining about a lack of skilled workers and needing to dumb down uni to get enough students.

Every year SkepticsSA sponsor a prize at the Oliphant awards and it’s great to go along and see the great work from the kids. We actually donate about 10% of our budget to this, that’s how important we think it is. However most of the kids are from private schools because the public schools either don’t have the resources or the teachers, but most likely both. There are a few public schools involved and the science teachers  here do a fantastic and admirable job. However I think the education department really isn’t helping. Every year I see first hand what is happening to science and maths at the primary school level and I think it’s about time we put out to pasture some of the post-modernist wankers who seemed to have taken over the system. The clueless twits with their air headed views based on a vacuous philosophy are simply not helping society in dealing with the demands and challenges of the 21st century.  This sort of philosophy at it worst leads to the sort of bullshit with creationism being seen as an equal to evolution and at best watering down, to a moronic and useless level, of the sciences and maths. This might be seen as a simple ad-hominem attack but I base my views on my observations over the decades of the level of scientific understanding in the general community and the ability the think scientifically.

It’s not getting better and the interest in the sciences, the number of students going on to higher education in these fields and the skill shortage in South Australia in well educated technical type people is further evidence of the perceived unimportance of science.

If we really want to solve our skills crisis, if we really want an educated and intelligent society that can deal with huge demands of a rapidly changing world then the best place to start is with our primary school kids. We need more science and maths teachers with a passion for the subject and we need a government that is willing to fund the education department to a suitable level. Yes, it will cost money but that’s what I pay taxes for.

If we did this we wouldn’t have to dumb down out entry requirements to university. If we don’t do this we might as well practice flipping burgers and selling souvenirs to the tourists.

..and don’t get me started on the state government allowing our premier science education centre to close down..or the lack of support from industry.


When the details matter..

Statistics can be interesting and in some way, worrying. At the moment I am analysing some data from an experiment. Part of this involves determining if a statistically significant result has been observed and involves the use of off-the-shelf statistics packages.

With some interest it appeared that when I viewed my data in a graph, there was something possibly significant. So I perform the analysis but nothing is really there, A really isn’t better than B although a graph conveys a convincing story. A few hours later as I was packing up for the day my thesis supervisor walks past and gives me a printout showing there is significance, A is better than B, and a mischievous smile. Upon looking closer I notice what has been left out, some of the high level interactions between independent variables. Of course all the interactions should have been left in, leading to my original non-significant result. The software had been tweaked to give a valid result and this sort of tweaking is in the results that you don’t normally leave in a thesis or published article. A few jokes about making sure you’re upfront with what you are trying to prove and not using post-hoc decisions and we go on our way.

The moral of the story here isn’t about statistics it’s about people and their motivation, especially in science. When using the process of science, the statistics, the experiments are all tools. How they are used is what people do and reflects the desires and motivations of those people … and the barrow that they might well be pushing. If my research funding had depended on those results it would have been easy to tweak things, creating a phantasm. However it doesn’t and my negative findings, which are in some ways good because we have increased our knowledge in the area will stand without any manipulation.

However there are many places in research where future funding is dependant on results. In the same way that pseudo-scientific claims depend on anecdotal results not based on real efficacy , real science can also be corrupted by funding worries or career development. There have been many cases of fraud in science but at least most are soon caught and practically all eventually caught when the results can’t be duplicated using the published methods. This self correcting mechanism is one of the real dividers between truth and well, everything else. The ability to see how conclusions are derived, to repeat an experiment and to be open with correcting mistakes and oversights is a real benefit to the growth and maturity of ideas. Unlike many of the dogma that seem to have survived into the 21st century, science at least throws out the bad and builds on the good.

With the amount of information available today most people who want to be scientifically literate or who just care about the truth, should be able to find out quite a lot about claims made in the media or elsewhere. Google is your friend and so can Wikipedia. If you need information on a complex subject many Universities have their course notes on-line. Plus you will also find that many claims are already challenged in various on-line forums and podcasts. Even scientific claims should be checked and motivation determined. That latest medical breakthrough might sound great but who funded it and who will benefit from the conclusions, everyone or some people more than others? And does it really make sense?

The details need to be there, they might not be easy to fathom and it might take study and deep understanding. However, in science, where you want a result to be repeatable and actually work, the details do matter. And you need well founded confidence in the motivation of people who publish those results.