Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Science: it's complicated

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  • Sacha, in reply to BenWilson,

    I meant the front end in the dimension of time

    got you

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16771 posts Report Reply

  • richard, in reply to James Green,

    FWIW it’s worth, the title “Lord” is always concatenated with the surname, so he is Robert, Lord Winston [of XX], never Lord Robert or Lord Robert Winston.

    Actually, when the Lord is the title held by the younger son of a Duke ("Lord Peter Whimsey") the correct usage is Lord Peter, rather than Lord Whimsey, if Dorothy L Sayers can be believed.

    Not looking for New Engla… • Since Nov 2006 • 259 posts Report Reply

  • richard, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    The problem is that most fields in science use a language that is almost unique. Even when English words are used their meaning is different from field to field. I liked the idea of appreciating science the way you appreciate art but the problem is in this case the art is in another language. Think of it as a great piece of literature written in Arabic. If someone shows it to you and says “wow this is amazing” you look at the scribbling and nod and smile.

    I think this is a copout. I just listened to a technical talk on an aspect of string theory, and “superpotential”, “F-term” and “complex structure moduli” are not terms in regular use outside the field.

    But any good science is part of a larger enterprise and this should be explainable, and is likely of interest to the wider community.

    So you should at least be able to explain the broad field your personal efforts fit in to, even if your own activities are perhaps hard to explain. In the case of this speaker, he could say “we are trying to figure out how the big bang would have worked if string theory is true, and whether the string theory version of the big bang leads to a universe with distinctive properties which might be observable when we look into the sky”.

    My sense is that most good scientists can provide this level of explanation,

    Moreover, you should have a slightly stronger explanation which is understandable to a scientist who is not in your field, but knows something about the general area -- if nothing else, this probably describes the people on hiring committees and grant panels.

    Not looking for New Engla… • Since Nov 2006 • 259 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to richard,

    I think this is a copout. I just listened to a technical talk on an aspect of string theory, and “superpotential”, “F-term” and “complex structure moduli” are not terms in regular use outside the field.

    But any good science is part of a larger enterprise and this should be explainable, and is likely of interest to the wider community.

    I'm interested. Could you explain it here?

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18969 posts Report Reply

  • James Bremner,

    AGW's problem is not a communication problem, it is a substance problem. The climate has not done what the AGWers so confidently told us it would, the earth was supposed to warm but there has been no statistically significant warming since 1995 (Phil Jones of the EA CRU is on record stating this).

    The crux of AGW theory is that as CO2 increases, the earth's temp will increase. Over the last 2 decades, CO2 concentrations in the air have indeed increased, significantly. Temp has flat lined. Shouldn't that be time to go back to the drawing boards?

    These days every time you turn around you see an article like this:
    http://blogs.forbes.com/jamestaylor/2011/07/27/new-nasa-data-blow-gaping-hold-in-global-warming-alarmism/

    Throw in climategate, hockey sticks, the corrupting influence of billions in research money for agw, the absurdity of agw being sited as being responsible for every climatic phenomena, hot winters, cold winters, drought, snow storms, it is all caused by agw, and the better question is why so many still slavishly believe in agw. AGW is not disproven, but it sure as hell isn't proven at this point in time.

    Re Fracking, this piece of technology is a game changer in th energy business, a huge game changer. The world now has hundreds of years of natural gas and now they have figured out how to use it get oil out of shale oil out as well. There are massive oil shale deposits here in the US and around the world. We really can forget about running out of fossil fuels this century and probably well beyond.

    NOLA • Since Nov 2006 • 341 posts Report Reply

  • stever@cs.waikato.ac.nz,

    Here's the paper I recalled hearing about concerning the first detection of toxins from GM crops in humans.

    Concentrations not worrying, apparently, but clearly something to be aware of....and further research around accumulation etc. I guess necessary, given the effects these toxins, in higher concentrations, can have (see the conclusions).

    Hamilton • Since Nov 2006 • 55 posts Report Reply

  • Martin Lindberg, in reply to James Bremner,

    We really can forget about running out of fossil fuels this century and probably well beyond.

    Great!

    Stockholm • Since Jul 2009 • 797 posts Report Reply

  • richard, in reply to Russell Brown,

    I’m interested. Could you explain it here?

    To quote myself in the same post: “we are trying to figure out how the big bang would have worked if string theory is true, and whether the string theory version of the big bang leads to a universe with distinctive properties which might be observable when we look into the sky.”

    How much more do you want ;-)

    Not looking for New Engla… • Since Nov 2006 • 259 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to James Bremner,

    AGW is not disproven, but it sure as hell isn't proven at this point in time

    And smoking doesn't cause cancer, you know.

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16771 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to richard,

    big bang

    that multiple bangs model blew my mind

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16771 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to James Bremner,

    These days every time you turn around you see an article like this:
    http://blogs.forbes.com/jamestaylor/2011/07/27/new-nasa-data-blow-gaping-hold-in-global-warming-alarmism/

    Unlike the author of that column, I will not purport to comment on the scientific claims it cites.

    I would, however, note that the co-author of the study referred to, Dr Roy Spencer, is not just a researcher who happens to have conducted a study that calls into question some elements of modeling.

    He’s also the author of two books, Climate Confusion: How Global Warming Hysteria Leads to Bad Science, Pandering Politicians and Misguided Policies that Hurt the Poor and The Great Global Warming Blunder: How Mother Nature Fooled the World’s Top Climate Scientists. So he’d made up his mind about what was happening and who was to blame long before he embarked on the study.

    He is also a proponent of “intelligent design” and does not accept the theory of evolution.

    So, basically, the fact that you and your Forbes columnist have to resort to citing an obvious outlier like Spencer for comfort says more about your fairly desperate position than anything I could.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18969 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Russell Brown,

    have to resort to citing an obvious outlier

    fair and balanced

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16771 posts Report Reply

  • Martin Lindberg, in reply to Russell Brown,

    I'm interested. Could you explain it here?

    Just in case you weren't joking I can recommend Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe as a starter for string theory. You can also get the TV version in case you have an aunt in America who might have taped it for you.

    Stockholm • Since Jul 2009 • 797 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to richard,

    I think this is a copout.

    No it's not a copout. If I never tried to explain my work and this was the reason I gave then it would be a copout.

    It is however, the reason I fail when I try to explain my work. I'm not as good as those folks who really can explain bleeding edge science to lay audiences AND keep them engaged and interested.

    I could try and explain what I do and why right here - but it would take five pages - and about 5 people would try to read it and one of those might succeed. And the other 4 would be bored catatonic and I would be responsible for their families.

    I can do it OK over a coffee in about 45 minutes providing I have some paper to scribble on and providing my audience is willing to sit still for that long.

    You think it's easy being able to explain science - I can assure it's much harder than the really talented folks make it look.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3419 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to stever@cs.waikato.ac.nz,

    Concentrations not worrying, apparently, but clearly something to be aware of….and further research around accumulation etc. I guess necessary, given the effects these toxins, in higher concentrations, can have

    Thanks for that. Not a paper I had seen. As stated in the paper levels are 1000 fold lower than those that showed effects in cell culture assays in mice but as you say worth being aware of. Also worth noting all mothers had healthy babies with no complications.

    The toxin they refer to is Bt toxin which is specifically an insect toxin and has no effect on animals. It is a protein itself that binds to a receptor in the insect gut. Those receptors are only found in insects and each Bt toxin is highly specific for specific receptors. That's why Bt toxin effective against corn pests has no effect on bees. Also why there is no effective Bt toxin for aphids :(.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3419 posts Report Reply

  • Carol Stewart, in reply to James Bremner,

    Temp has flat lined

    James, that is just a blatant lie.
    I'm not going to waste any time convincing you otherwise, but if anyone's interested, just look here.
    The rest of your post is just as disingenuous and dishonest as well, as Russell noted.

    Christchurch • Since Jul 2008 • 662 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    the GM crops we have now require large-scale use of oil-derived fertilizers and pesticides and also long-distance transport to market, all of which is completely unsustainable in a post-peak-oil world.

    None of those problems have anything to do with GM.

    Perhaps not to do with GM in itself, but the GM varieties we currently have require loads of fertilizer and pesticides that we only have for a limited time. They contribute to a paradigm which will be useless in the longer term, and which is already useless in much of the third world because of the cost.

    I can understand why some farmers are keen to preserve the hardy heirloom varieties: we may need them.

    The Green Revolution's great innovation was high-yielding dwarf varieties of some cereals, but (as an ignorant layperson) I can't see what other directions there are to go in with GM, if we can't use synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.

    I think the way of the future will be in everybody growing their own where possible; urban and rooftop gardens that use every bit of space available; local growers supplying their community, minimising fuel use; and a more vegetable-based diet: we've known for a long time that keeping animals is an inefficient use of space compared to the growing of crops.

    I don't think GM will feed the world; I don't think preventing starvation and supporting a growing population is primarily a scientific problem to be solved: it's an economic and political one. And the more we expect GM to magically give us food security, the less we are prepared for a self-reliant future.

    /rant.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3468 posts Report Reply

  • Carol Stewart, in reply to Lilith __,

    I don't know, Lilith. Some areas are always going to be more suited to food production than others. Here on our windy hilltop in Brooklyn, for example, it's difficult to get anything much edible to grow. [For some reason, cape gooseberries do wonderfully well, but the rest of my family don't even like them much.]
    I do understand the food miles arguments - but conversely, I think that on the whole, trade has been a civilising influence on the world.

    Christchurch • Since Jul 2008 • 662 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Carol Stewart,

    I think that on the whole, trade has been a civilising influence on the world.

    What do you mean by civilising? Globalisation hasn’t alleviated hunger, and it’s been hugely damaging to the environment.

    ETA: I’m happy to absorb anyone’s surplus of cape gooseberries! Yum! :-)

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3468 posts Report Reply

  • Yamis, in reply to James Bremner,

    These days every time you turn around you see an article like this:
    http://blogs.forbes.com/jamestaylor/2011/07/27/new-nasa-data-blow-gaping-hold-in-global-warming-alarmism/</q>

    If you want to know how to include the word "Alarmist" fourteen times in a relatively short blog post read this article.

    Since Nov 2006 • 876 posts Report Reply

  • Yamis, in reply to Lilith __,

    Plenty of hugely damaging work done on the environment BEFORE globalisation Lilith. Maori and NZ's forests being an example.

    I'd also argue that those places most 'hungry' in the world have the least involvement in the process of 'globalisation'.

    Since Nov 2006 • 876 posts Report Reply

  • Roger,

    As well as the science being complicated, our understanding and response to risk is even more complicated. Not only do we naturally respond differently to different risks (often with similar outcomes), some risks we choose to ignore completely.

    We know, for example that many people are scared of flying, while very, very few are scared of traveling in a car, even though travel by commercial airline is 10 to 40 times safer than car travel. If we were to put a product on the market that had a toxin in it that could kill one person in a 1,000,000, people would be outraged. However we know that car accidents kill one person in 10,000 per year and we are quite nonchalant about that (unless of course if affects us directly).

    In the case that started international concern over power lines (Denver), because of a potential link to childhood leukemia; no one commented on the fact that while the disease cases were statistically on the main roads where 'big' wires were, that was also where the high traffic densities were with accompanying automotive exhaust containing things like benzene, a known carcinogen.

    So we react strongly to some risks while ignoring others, which is why when a scientist says that he or she is not completely sure... people leap onto the 0.0001% uncertainly. It is also why we have a dilemma because from a statistical point of view in the chaotic real world there is almost no such thing as certainty.
    But then this is further complicated because we have a level of risk that we are comfortable with and in some ways actually demand:

    "For example, in a Munich study, half a fleet of taxicabs were equipped with anti-lock brakes (ABS), while the other half had conventional brake systems. The crash rate was the same for both types of cab, and Wild concludes this was owing to drivers of ABS-equipped cabs taking more risks, assuming that ABS would take care of them, while the non-ABS drivers drove more carefully since ABS would not be there to help in case of a dangerous situation."

    Which kind of complicates efforts to make the world 'safer'!

    Auckland • Since Jun 2007 • 175 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Roger,

    The other factor is the impact, the harm level. Nuclear power plants for instance may not break very often, but when they do...

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16771 posts Report Reply

  • Lilith __, in reply to Yamis,

    Plenty of hugely damaging work done on the environment BEFORE globalisation Lilith. Maori and NZ’s forests being an example.

    I’d also argue that those places most ‘hungry’ in the world have the least involvement in the process of ‘globalisation’.

    Only a very silly person would claim Globalisation as the root of all evil. :-)

    However it's a system which requires almost everything to be transported long-distance, which is polluting and which becomes prohibitively expensive in the long run unless someone finds a cheap substitute for fossil fuels. And then if we should have to be largely self-sufficient, even on a national basis, we would struggle.

    It also puts the food supply under the control of large multinational corporations, which IMHO is a dumb idea.

    We have the sort of situation where the Amazon is being cut down to produce beef for American hamburgers...it's not like America can't keep its own cattle, but it's cheaper to do it in the Amazon.

    Dunedin • Since Jul 2010 • 3468 posts Report Reply

  • recordari, in reply to Lilith __,

    /rant.

    I feel Genetically Mollified.

    And the more we expect GM to magically give us food security, the less we are prepared for a self-reliant future.

    If anything, the large scale corporate approach to GM has been to hold the future of global food supplies to ransom for greater economic return. What possible humanitarian justification could there be for terminator gene technology in third world seed supplies?

    I'm not specifically against GM, as it could lead to things like clean fuel technologies (apparently, getting closer), but like any scientific breakthrough it depends on in whose hands it is being wielded. Not all scientists, or their corporate funding bodies, are focused on the betterment of humankind, from where I'm standing.

    AUCKLAND • Since Dec 2009 • 2607 posts Report Reply

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