Slaying the Climate Ghouls

They may have been BESTed, but the climate change denier spooks and ghouls are still fluttering about like deranged rabid bats. Here is a draft of a letter I am considering sending to somebody in an organisation under which I serve…

31st October 2011


It seems to me that you are labouring under several false impressions of the consensus in science regarding global warming and climate change. For example, you do not appear to accept that global warming is taking place, a fact that is evidenced by over a century of data. And as another example, you do not appear to accept that global warming is causing climate change, a scientific reality evidenced by countless studies. However, I’m not going to guide you to the peer-reviewed science for those points. All I want to do in this particular communication is offer you a popular critique of one of your key arguments, and challenge you to check your sources.

Continue reading Slaying the Climate Ghouls

The Problem of Powerlessness #2

On Wednesday, I received a telephone call from an Information Technology recruitment consultancy. They wanted to know if I would be prepared to provide computer systems programming services for NATO.

Detecting that I was speaking with a native French-speaker, I slipped into my rather unpracticed second language to explain that I could not countenance working with the militaries, because I disagree with their strategy of repeated aggression.

I explained I was critical of the possibility that the air strikes in Libya were being conducted in order to establish an occupation of North Africa by Western forces, to protect oil and gas interests in the region. The recruitment agent agreed with me that the Americans were the driving force behind NATO, and that they were being too warlike.

Whoops, there goes another great opportunity to make a huge pile of cash, contracting for warmongers ! Sometimes you just have to kiss a career goodbye. IT consultancy has many ethical pitfalls. Time to reinvent myself.

I’ve been “back to school” for the second university degree, and now I’m supposed to submit myself to the “third degree” – go out and get me a job. The paucity of available positions due to the poor economic climate notwithstanding, the possibility of ending up in an unsuitable role fills me with dread. One of these days I might try to write about my experiences of having to endure several kinds of abuse whilst engaged in paid employment : suffice it to say, workplace inhumanity can be unbearable, some people don’t know what ethical behaviour means, and Human Resources departments always take sides, especially with vindictive, manipulative, micro-managers. I know what it’s like to be powerless.

Continue reading The Problem of Powerlessness #2

George Monbiot : New Clear

It is a newer, clearer tone that George Monbiot uses in his piece The nuclear industry stinks. But that is not a reason to ditch nuclear power. He seems to have lost his dirty annoyance with filthy anti-nuclear activists and moved onto a higher plane of moral certitude, where the air is cleaner and more refined.

He is pro-technology, but anti-industry. For him, the privately owned enterprises of atomic energy are the central problem that has led to accidents both of a radioactive and an accountancy nature. “Corporate power ?”, he asks, “No thanks.” The trouble is, you can’t really separate the failings of nuclear power from the failings of human power. It’s such a large, complex and dangerous enterprise that inevitably, human power systems compromise the use of the technology, regardless of whether they are publicly or privately owned. For a small amount of evidence, just look at the history of publicly-managed nuclear power in the United Kingdom. Not exactly peachy. And as for those who claimed that a “free” market approach to managing nuclear power would improve matters – how wrong they were. In my view, on the basis of the evidence so far, nobody can claim that nuclear power can be run as an efficient, safe, profit-making venture.

Continue reading George Monbiot : New Clear

Mark Lynas : Oxford Ragwort

Image Credit : Mark Holderness

Mark Lynas betrayed more of his intellectual influences this week, when he tweeted as @mark_lynas “Colony collapse disorder – honeybees – not quite the environmental story it seemed:

Hmmm. That’s a piece from a new generation of Nordhaus-es, Hannah, writing for the Breakthrough Institute, founded by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, authors of “The Death of Environmentalism“, a document I truly regret wasting the paper to print. As I read it, I started scratching hot red comments in the margins, so many, that in the end the pages were more red than black-and-white.

Hannah’s piece, like her book, “The Beekeeper’s Lament“, is more delicate and considered, I think, but still shreds decades of environmental thought and much science, without any justification in my view.

She writes, “…very quickly, many journalists settled on neonicotinoids — pesticides that are applied to more than 140 different crops — as the likely culprit. It seemed a familiar story of human greed and
shortsightedness. With their callous disregard for nature, big chemical companies and big agriculture were killing the bees — and threatening our own survival. The honey bee’s recent problems have occasioned a similar rush to judgment. Before any studies had been conducted on the causes of CCD, three books and countless articles came out touting pesticides as the malady’s cause. Had I been able to turn a book around quickly, I might have leapt to the same conclusions. But I was late to the party, and as more studies came out and I came to better understand the science, I became less and less convinced that pesticides provided a convincing explanation for beekeepers’ losses…”

Her argument appears to be that pesticides are bad for other pollinators, not bees; but that this makes life harder for the bees, who then have to do all that pollination instead :-

“In steps John Miller, a boundingly energetic and charismatic beekeeper, who tasks himself with the care and the sustainable keeping of honeybees. He is descended from America’s first migratory beekeeper, N.E. Miller, who, at the beginning of the 20th century, transported thousands of hives from one crop to another, working the Idahoan clover in summer and the Californian almonds in winter. Back then beekeepers used to pay farmers to keep a few dozen hives on their land. But now farmers pay beekeepers millions of dollars to have their crops pollinated by upwards of ten thousand hives. With the rise of the monocrop and increasingly efficient pesticides, there are simply not enough natural pollinators to complete the massive task of sexing-up millions of acres of almond groves.”

This kind of writing seems to me like a lot of anti-green writing, where a straw man is set up, only to bow down and worship it. The central framework of fallacy appears to be :-

a. Environmentalists are zealous, and therefore crazy.
b. They believe pesticides are dangerous to bees.
c. They must be wrong, and pesticides can’t be all that bad for bees.

Let’s just read a little around that idea, shall we ? Let’s start with Wikipedia, just to make it easy :-

“For the majority of pesticides that are registered in the United States, EPA only requires a short-term contact toxicity test on adult honeybees. In some cases, the agency also receives short-term oral toxicity tests, which are required in Europe. EPA’s testing requirements do not account for sub-lethal effects to bees or effects on brood or larvae. Their testing requirements are also not designed to determine effects in bees from exposure to systemic pesticides. With Colony Collapse Disorder, whole hive tests in the field are needed in order to determine the effects of a pesticide on bee colonies. To date, there are very few scientifically valid whole hive studies that can be used to determine the effects of pesticides on bee colonies.”

Actually, it’s not just “mad environmentalists” who are concerned about the effect of pesticides on honeybees. Here’s just one scholarly paper :-
“High Levels of Miticides and Agrochemicals in North American Apiaries: Implications for Honey Bee Health”, Mullin et el., 2010.

What has this got to do with Climate Change. I can hear you asking ?

Well, it’s like this – in order to do intensive farming, agricultural chemicals are used on crops. Specialised herbicides, pesticides and fungicides are used on genetically modified crops, along with chemical fertilisers.

In order to convince people to accept Genetically Modified food, they’ve got to be encouraged to believe that pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are really alright.

Hence, pesticides cannot be fingered as a problem for bees, otherwise people might not accept GM crops…

Yes, it’s coming back round to tampering with our food genes. And it’s being sold to us as a cure for Climate Change.

At the bottom of this page there’s a transcript of a snippet from a television programme I was unlucky and incensed enough to have viewed yesterday. Called “The Wonder of Weeds”, it took us through the basic logic of modern-day plant breeding, including the role for genetic modification of plants – without once mentioning the words “life sciences”, “bioengineering”, “biotechnology” or even “genetic modification”.

The GM crops are presented as being the saviour of humanity, without once mentioning why conditions in the world may be damaging crops in new ways in the future, a lot of which will be due to climate change.

There was the usual category error – of confusing science with technology. Let’s repeat that one again. Technology is when you play with the genes of a crucial staple crop like wheat. Science is when you discover, maybe 25 years later, that it has had knock-on effects in the food chain. Oh dear. Too late for remorse – the genetically modified genome is now globally distributed.

The presenter of the programme, Chris Collins, didn’t even spot the cognitive dissonance of his own script. In the first part of the programme he talks about common weeds that are foreign invaders in the UK and cause untold trouble. In the second part of the programme he doesn’t even blink when he talks about modifying crops at the genetic level – not questioning that introducing foreign genes into vital crops might have detrimental, unforeseen impacts – rather like a microscopic version of the imported “plant pariahs”, Buddleia davidii, Rhododendron ponticum and Japanese knotweed. Oh yes, Oxford Ragwort, another introduction to the UK, is not such a hazard, but you can’t guarantee what happens when you get plant invaders.

I find it astonishing that such obvious propaganda on behalf of corporate plans to modify crops for their own private market profit is allowed into BBC television programming.

Climate Change is being used as the Trojan Horse rationale in which to bring GM crops to the UK, and elsewhere, as part of international agricultural development programmes. This is the ideological equivalent of a rogue gene inserted into the DNA of science. I find this an outrage.

I recommend you check the work of GM Freeze to counter this braintwisting manipulation.

And if you want a little bit more of an insider on what Dr Alison Smith, featured in the BBC show, is actually doing with her amazing knowledge of plants – it seems her work encompasses improving the production of alcoholic beverages, not feeding the world. I kid you not :-
“Glucosidase inhibitors: new approaches to malting efficiency : Alison Smith, John Innes Centre : Improving the efficiency with which barley grain is converted into beer and whisky would reduce waste and energy consumption in the brewing industry, as well as ensuring profitability. This project aims to improve the efficiency of malting, the first stage in beer and whisky production, by building on new discoveries about how barley grains convert starch to sugars when they germinate.”

What is the BBSRC ? This is a research programme that’s “infested” with corporate people – whose agenda is money-making, not philanthropy.

And what’s genetic modification of crops got to do with Mark Lynas ? Well, just read his new book, “The God Species“, and you’ll find out.

The plain fact in my view is that we do not need genetically modified crops in Europe. In Africa, they’re too poor to afford the chemicals to use with the GM seeds. And in the not-too-distant future, the price of the chemicals will shoot up because of Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas, making GM crops inaccessible to those North Americans who currently use it. So this particular technology takes us nowhere forward at all. We need to manage water and the root causes of poverty rather than tamper with genes.

Saturday 25 June 2011

“The Wonder of Weeds”

“Travelling around the UK and meeting experts in botanical history, genetics, pharmaceuticals and wild food, Chris Collins tells the story behind the plants most people call weeds.”

45 minutes 20 seconds

…And the massive irony of all this is that the very crop that has become a monoculture at the expense of weeds, wheat, was once a weed itself…

Plant scientist Professor Nick Harberd of Oxford University has researched the moment a weed became wheat.

Nick : “About half a million years ago, there was spontaneously, in the wild, nothing to do with human beings, a cross-hybridisation, a cross-pollination if you like, between two wild grass species…”

“…So one can imagine that humans were cultivating this wheat [10,000 to 12,000 years ago] in a field and then by chance a weed was growing within that field. And there was again a spontaneous hydridisation event beteen the cultivated wheat and this wild grass that was growing in that imaginary field.”

“The whole process made a plant that was bigger and more vigorous. And as a result of this we ended up with the wheat crop we all grow and feed off today.”

Nick can exactly recreate exactly how wheat and weeds crossbred in a lab today…

47 minutes 40 seconds

Weeds helped us out millenia ago and now scientists in the 21st Century have turned to weeds once again for one of the most important discoveries in plant biology ever.

It could save lives by creating a super wheat.

It all took place here, at the John Innes Institute in Norwich.

Alison : “So come on in Chris. You need to sterilise your feet here…”

Chris : “So this means we’re not bringing in anything nasty from outside…”

Alison : “That’s right. No thrips or viruses or anything else that might come in.”

Dr Alison Smith is head of Metabolic Biology here.

Chris : “This is the first time I’ve ever dressed up to go and see a weed.”

Alison : “We look after our weeds very carefully here.”

Alison’s team have been studying a small common weed called Arabidopsis [thaliana] or Thale Cress, which is now used as the model to map the DNA of all plants on the planet.

Alison : “Well this weed is incredibly easy for us to work on. And all plant scientists almost in the world take information from this weed. And many plant scientists only work on this little weed.”

“The reason why it’s really useful is that like a lot of weeds it goes from seed to seed really quickly, so we can get through lots and lots of generations, and that makes it easy for us to do genetic studies to understand how the weed behaves and what all of its genes are doing.”

“But also, about 20 years ago, plant scientists got together. And at that time they were working on lots and lots of different plants. And they decided, let’s work on one plant together that can become the model from which we can develop our understanding of plants.”

“So about the same time as we were sequencing the human genome, we started to sequence the genome of this little weed. So in 2000 we got the entire gene sequence of this weed, all of the genes are known, the same time as we understood the human genome.”

Chris : “So really then, this small weed is a blueprint for all plants ?”

Alison : “This is the model for all plant life, that’s right.”

But the sequencing of the Arabidopsis genome is not just for the sake of it. Alison and her 600 colleagues are unlocking the secrets of the plant’s success, like its speedy growth rate and its hardiness, and are transfering those abilities to the crops that matter to us, like wheat.

This is one of the most important discoveries in plant biology ever, where one of the humblest weeds could save millions of lives around the world.

Chris : “Now we’ve seen our magic weed and you’ve got this genetic blueprint. How do you take that blueprint and apply it to arable crops like this wheat ?”

Alison : “Well we can start to tackle, using this blueprint, some of the real problems that we have with our crops like disease, for example. Our crops are quite susceptible to some diseases. We’ve been able to breed for that, but we haven’t known what genes we’re breeding for.”

“In Arabidopsis, Arabidopsis gets diseases as well, we can understand exactly how it’s resistant to those diseases. We know what genes it needs. And we can say right, where are those genes in wheat ? Can we make sure that our new wheats have the genes that make them resistant to disease ?”

“Another example would be how the wheat exactly makes its seeds. Obviously, this is the really important bit of wheat. This is what we eat. This is human food. We understand a bit about the process of about how these little seeds are formed, but in Arabidopsis we understand in absolute molecular detail how those seeds are made, and that helps us to understand how we make to make better seeds, bigger seeds, more nutritious seeds in wheat. We can apply that knowlege in wheat.”

Well, I know scientists don’t like to be too dramatic, but I’m going to be, because of simply what I’ve found out. Weeds can play a big role in arable crops like wheat, or even maybe the future of humanity.

Alison : “I think it was the starting point for what has to be a revolution in our crops, a revolution in understanding how they work and making them work better and doing that fast.”

“It’s taken our ancestors, you know, millenia, to get to this point. We can’t afford to take the next step in millenia. We have to take it in tens of years or less. And in order to do that, you’re absolutely right, the information from Arabidopsis has been the key to pushing us forward.”

It’s the resilience of weeds and the insights they give us into helping crops survive that makes them amongst the most useful plants on the planet…

Selling Thorium to China

Kirk Sorensen, formerly of Teledyne Brown Engineering, now of Flibe Energy

To: Claverton Energy Research Group
From: Jo Abbess
Date: 24 June 2011
Subject: “Don’t believe the spin on thorium being a ‘greener’ nuclear option”‏

Hi Clavertonians,

As you are, I’m sure, aware, context is everything.

I was so sure we’d escaped the clutches of the “Thorium Activist Trolls” a few years ago, but no, here they are in resurgence again, and this time they’ve sucked in George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and Stephen Tinsdale, all apparently gullible enough to believe the newly resurrected Generation IV hype campaign.

They should have first done their research on the old Gen IV hype campaign that withered alongside the “Hemp will Save the World, No Really” campaign and the “Biodiesel will Save the World, AND You Can Make it at Home” brigade. Oh, and the Zero Point Energy people.

I was, I admit, quite encouraged by both the Hemp and Biodiesel drives, until I realised they were a deliberate distraction from the Big Picture – how to cope with the necessity of creating an integrated system of truly sustainable energy for the future.

Hemp and Biodiesel became Internet virally transmitted memes around the same time as the Thorium concept, but where did they come from ?

Where does the Thorium meme originate from this time round ? I found some people took to it at The Register, where they spin against Climate Change science a lot – watch the clipped video :-

I would suggest that there are connections between the Thorium campaign and the anti-Climate Change science campaign, and I have some evidence, but I’m too busy to research more in-depth just now, so I’m not going to write it all up yet.

The key issues with all energy options is TIME TO DELIVERY and SCALEABILITY, and I think the option presented by the Thorium fuel cycle fails on both counts.

Yeah, sure, some rich people can devote their life savings to it, and some Departments of Defense (yes, Americans) and their corporate hangers-on can try selling ANOTHER dud technology to China (which is the basis of some Internet energy memes in my view).

Remember Carbon Capture and Storage ? The British Government were very keen on making a Big Thing about CCS – in order to sell it to the miscreant Chinese because (WARNING : CHINA MYTH) China builds 2 !! coal-fired !! power stations a week/day/month !!

THORIUM – A Brief Analysis
TIME TO DELIVERY – 20 to 50 years
USEFULNESS ASSESSMENT – virtually zero, although it could keep some people on the gravy train, and suck in some Chinese dough

The Tyndall Centre say that global emissions of greenhouse gases have to peak AT THE LATEST by 2020. We should be thinking about rolling out the technology WE ALREADY HAVE to meet that end.

Don’t believe the hype,


PS What other evidence do we have that the Thorium meme is most likely just a propaganda campaign ? Nick Griffin of the British National Party backs it, and the BNP are widely alleged to promote divisiveness…

Steve McIntyre : Plan Beak


Steve McIntyre, probably the only person on the planet who might grumble about the cost of Barack Obama’s suit rather than his all-American wars, has suddenly become an expert energy engineer, it seems.

This month, he’s taking aim at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, regarding their special report on Renewable Energy, questioning the contributions of an engineer, Sven Teske, and basing his objections on the fact that Teske works for Greenpeace :-

Flinging any kind of pseudo-mud he can construe at the IPCC is not Steve’s newest of tricks, but it still seems to be effective, going by the dance of the close cohort of the very few remaining loyal climate change “sceptics” who get published in widely-read media :-

He even pulled the turtleneck over Andrew Revkin’s eyes for a while :-

And Mark Lynas has been joining in, in his own nit-picky way :-

The few comebacks have been bordering on the satirical, or briefly factual, with the exception of Carbon Brief’s very measured analysis of the IPCC’s communication expertise :-

Leo Hickman’s being bravely evenhanded :-

It’s not a total surprise that New Scientist and The Economist wade in deep :-

Sven Teske’s explanation has not been accepted by Mark Lynas, although it seems really OK to me :-

The Daily Mail digs out the usual emotive terms :-

Steve McIntyre is playing out the “Princess and the Pea” narrative, complaining about a few wrunkles in a process of international collaboration, and distracting us from looking at the actual report, which I would encourage you most warmly to do :-

It is full of the most incredible case studies and intriguing engineering discoveries. It makes cautious, conservative calculations, and looks at conditions and caveats in a very transparent manner. For a work that relied on the contributions of over 120 people and managed to compose a document so helpful and illuminating, I’d say it’s a work of profound achievement, and should be read in every school and university. Four scenarios from a collection of 164 are studied in depth to compare their strengths and weaknesses – and the conclusion of the SRREN team is that :-

“Close to 80 percent of the world‘s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies…”

Somehow, though, Steve McIntyre believes otherwise. I suppose it’s not completely fair to berate him, because he might be suffering from a delusion, given that he seems to believe his opinion trumps that of over a hundred of the world’s authorities on what is possible in Renewable Energy technologies; and I’m the last person who would criticise somebody for having a mental illness.

I’m wondering, however, since he often sticks his nose up at IPCC matters, and since the world is suffering from stress in the supply of fossil fuels, whether he has a “Plan Beak” for the world’s energy crisis ?

Come on Steve McIntyre, tell us what your plan is to provide energy for humanity. Don’t tell me you believe that Nuclear Power is the way forward. I just won’t believe you, and a large number of the citizens of the UK, France, Germany, Japan, Italy and help us all, even Switzerland, would share my doubts.

As everybody can clearly see from the Columbia University graph at the top of this post, the IPCC are right about emissions, and the global warming data shows they’re right about that too. Why should they be wrong about Renewable Energy ?

I mean, I detect there are a few issues with the way the IPCC organises itself, and the style of its reports, but hey, where’s the viable alternative ? I don’t see one, anywhere. And don’t go pointing me to groups with pretensions.

We may just have to get used to complex international bodies, formed of complex, intelligent people, and learn how to read their complex, intricate reports with care and attention. And not get distracted by grumpy semi-retired mining consultants.

Mark Lynas : Mutant Ninja

Mark Lynas may call himself a “green”, and be a clean-shaven, respectable, politely-spoken Oxford academic type but he appears to be mutating into something very unappealing indeed. He’s written some good books on climate change – every schoolroom and university module should have one – but on energy, he is deep in the political woods, without even a wind-up flashlight.

His latest stunt is to join in with accusations from Steve McIntyre of Climate Audit that the IPCC’s report on Renewable Energy has been partly crafted by people without appropriate independence or expertise. Here, from Andrew Revkin :-

“The IPCC must urgently review its policies for hiring lead authors – and I would have thought that not only should biased ‘grey literature’ be rejected, but campaigners from NGOs should not be allowed to join the lead author group and thereby review their own work.”

And who is this nefarious untalented Non-Governmental Organisation ? Greenpeace, it appears, according to Mark Lynas, is not capable of writing about the future of energy (or even the current situation).

Daniel Kammen has weighed in and The Revkin has updated his post :-

“There is no Himalaya-gate here at all. While there are some issues with individual chapters, there is no ‘Greenpeace Scenario.’ The 77% carbon free by 2050 is actually more conservative than some cases. The European Climate Foundation, for example has a 100% carbon neutral scenario and Price Waterhouse has a very low carbon one for North Africa. Further, while the IPCC works from published cases, the scenarios are evaluated and assessed by a team.”

There have been a number of reports written in the last year that back the viability of Renewable Energy technologies in replacing the world’s fossil fuel and nuclear energy systems. Not all of them were crafted by Greenpeace researchers. In fact, virtually none of them. Nuclear…yes…maybe it’s that little word “nuclear” that’s the root cause of Mark Lynas’ problem with Greenpeace.

In the Guardian, he is quoted as saying :-

“Many ‘green’ campaigns, like those against nuclear power and GM crops, are not actually scientifically defensible…”

And that’s where you are so wrong, Mark Lynas with the book coming out soon that you seem so desperate to publicise by saying things you know people will find annoying. Nuclear power is a TECHNOLOGY, not a SCIENCE. This is the same basic category error made by Dick Taverne and a number of other public commentators who don’t appear to have an engineering background.

TECHNOLOGY is where people decide that their designs to make something look like they’ll work, build them and don’t foresee flaws with them. SCIENCE is where people study the technology that they’ve built and research the flaws that appear and report on them. Science is what has shown the limitations with the original boasts about genetically modified crops. It turns out that GMOs are a ruse to sell chemicals. And on nuclear fission – the science is in and on the front of your daily newspaper : nuclear power plants pose a number of risks. The advice of the reputable scientists and engineers – old fission nuclear power plants should be withdrawn.

But returning to Renewable Energy, a number of organisations now believe that the demise of fossil fuels needn’t stop humanity from accessing abundant energy. Here is just a very short compilation :-

The Two Marks : Mark A. Delucchi and Mark Z. Jacobson :-

PriceWaterhouseCooper :-

CAT Zero Carbon Britain 2030 :-

Roadmap 2050 :-

European Renewable Energy Council R[e]volution :-

But oh, no, we can’t quote the last one because Greenpeace researchers were involved, and Mark Lynas wouldn’t approve of that. Mark Lynas appears to be living in a world where Greenpeace people can’t have engineering research skills because they have ideals, working for a world that uses safe, clean energy.

The IPCC report on Renewable Energy is here :-

Much as I respect turtles, I have to say it – Mark Lynas, you’re a turtle – slow-moving and easy to catch out and turn into soup. You should know by now not to get sucked in by spurious non-arguments from Steve McIntyre. The “cleantech” industry that’s ramping up to provide the world with green energy is worth billions, soon to be trillions of dollars worldwide, and this fact appears to have completely passed you by. The only future for energy is sustainable, renewable, non-nuclear, clean, quiet and safe. There is no other viable, liveable, option.

[ UPDATE : In the Independent newspaper, Mark Lynas is quoted as remarking “Campaigners should not be employed as lead authors in IPCC reports”. So, Mark, it’s really fine for employees of the major oil, gas and mining companies to take a leading role on major IPCC reports; but it’s not fine, according to you, that somebody working for much less money and much higher principles than mere corporate profit should contribute ? Denigrating somebody for being a “campaigner” is a stereotypical insult. Everybody’s got an agenda, campaigners included. What’s your agenda, Mark ? Selling your new book ? Don’t be dismissive about Greenpeace researchers. They may have ideals, but they’re not naive – they also have brains – and with their declared position on getting at the truth they can be trusted to be direct, decent and honest. Where’s your ethical compass, Mark ? ]

Viva Italia !

Adam Curtis : Daft Punk


The final part (I really hope it is the final part) of Adam Curtis’ trilogy on “Evil” Computers and “Devillish” Enviromentalists – “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace” – a title drawn from a poem written by what would appear to be a madman – has now been uploaded to YouTube, allowing me to view it without taking part in the memory-eating public monitoring disappointment that is BBC iPlayer :-

Adam Curtis certainly reveals himself as a little monkeyish in this episode, throwing overarm and underhand javelins at “liberals” of all hues and cries, particularly environmental ones; and throwing in liberal references to primates wherever he can, seemingly to suggest that mankind has un- or de-evolved by adopting computing tools and studying the natural world.

Continue reading Adam Curtis : Daft Punk

Retour au Latour

In the realm of conspiracy theories, one branch is particularly difficult to unseat – suppositions of technological risks to health – or what I am naming “technocankery”, since a good number of them attribute cancer to the use of technology. Why, it is clear to see : cancer is caused by small, unseen mutations, and it’s hard to pinpoint causal effects. “Carcinogen” is therefore a useful accusation to hurl at any technology you don’t like, even if you have no proof or evidence.

But we’re doing science. How we know what we know is through a long chain of experimentation and monitoring, data gathering that can lead to reasonable claims that can then be subject to further testing and assessing. People rightly assert that we need to keep our minds open to possibilities unconceived, or mistakes unknowingly trodden. As the Dalai Lama Tweeted 25th May 2011 : “To arrive at certainty, you need to start from a skeptical posture. The best scientists are impartial, not swayed by their own beliefs.”

Continue reading Retour au Latour

Adam Curtis : Chaotically Unstable

I’m looking quizzical, rubbing my chin. Adam Curtis appears to have lost control of his mind, or at the very least, is showing signs of unhealthy self contradiction. Where are the checks and balances ?

At the start of Part 2 of “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”, he unpicks, and, I would suggest, stamps on, the idea that ecosystems are networks of feedback loops, tending to re-balance. And then at the end of the same presentation, he asserts that human revolutions fail, and society folds in on itself and returns to the state of power and control it was in before. Now which is it to be, Adam Curtis ? Self-correcting stability or non-correcting ebbs, flows and shifting sands ?

Continue reading Adam Curtis : Chaotically Unstable

Netting It

Christopher Booker and James Delingpole made common cause this weekend in opposition to the BBC 2 Horizon documentary “Science under Attack” that featured Paul Nurse :-

The Daily Telegraph commentators appear not to understand the Global Carbon Cycle, and how this has been disturbed by mankind’s activities – principally burning fossil fuels and cutting down trees.

There is ongoing exchange between the soil and the air and the plants and the air, and the seas and the air, and so on; but the key Carbon Dioxide fact is that it is building up in the sky.

It’s not the gross figures that count, it’s the net.

The net is the amount that gets left in the air when all the absorption and emissions processes from the Carbon Sinks and the Carbon Sources have nearly cancelled each other out :-

In the Horizon programme the observation is made that mankind’s Carbon Dioxide emission production comes to around 7 gigatonnes a year. By contrast, volcanoes “popping off” and the oceans contribute only about 1 gigatonne – obviously, that’s net, not gross.

The amount of Carbon Dioxide exchanged in both directions between air and seas is much larger :-

Booker claims that the programme was a “misrepresentation”. Delingpole claims that Paul Nurse has demonstrated “really basic, idiot’s-level mistakes about “climate science””.

Amusingly for me, neither of them appear to suspect they could be barking up the wrong creek with the wrong paddle.

Work with me, James Delingpole

To: James Delingpole
Date: 25th January 2011
Subject: Dodgy science on the telly

Dear James,

Like you, I felt somewhat intellectually “tampered with” by Paul Nurse (“Science under Attack”, Horizon BBC 2, 24th January 2011), and I wondered if we should make some sort of common cause against the domination of faulty thinking of the scientific elite in the media.

As you know, I’m a fan of Climate Change Science, and everything I see, read and hear confirms the projections. In the end, you will come to believe, but the evidence for manmade Global Warming is not the source of my contention with the BBC today.

I disliked the incredibly scornful tone of the Genetically Modified research technologist, who when interviewed avoided the broader picture of the imposition of GM crops against the will of the people. He asked a question something like “…if GM crops are so bad, then why have millions of American farmers planted them ?…” and naturally, because you are a smart chap, you and I both know the real answer to that question.

It’s not the quality of the products that keep farmers hooked on GM, it’s the power of the sales force and the exclusivity contracts people sign up to. What people are really buying is not the GM seed but the herbicides, and Paul Nurse didn’t even touch on that subject (but if he had, he might have “interfered with” that, too).

Why is it that Paul Nurse could not distinguish between technology and science ? What blinkered him from separating the brute force of invention from the laboured acquisition of rigorous knowledge ?

Several top science advisers and commentators have made this mistake in the past, including John Beddington and Dick Taverne :-

So, James, can we stand shoulder-to-shoulder on opposing untested technologies ? Can we walk together under the same banner, protesting Frankenstein biofuels and gene poisoning ?

Can we find something to agree on, something to work together for ?

With my finest regards,

Jo Abbess

Words fail me

It’s not quite accurate to say that language has entirely failed me, in fact, I am as loquacious as ever, but for a few minutes back there, whilst watching Paul Nurse present the Horizon “Science under Attack” show on iPlayer, I was definitely gobsmacked :- (UK TV Licence Payers only. Sorry. I don’t make the rules.)

How is it that even Paul Nurse has entirely missed the key point about why people resent and resist genetic modification of crops and animals ?

There is a very clear dividing line between technology and science. Just because you can engineer something with technology, doesn’t mean you should do it. And it doesn’t mean it’s scientifically sound.

The results are not in from GM crop testing, and in some cases, GM crops are being deployed without the full long-term testing that everybody would expect.

This is worse than the presumptions of the pharmaceutical industry, pumping out Thalidomide and then having to say sorry (or not) to a generation of people born without limbs.

The reason we, the vast majority of people, don’t want genetically modified foods and fuels, is because the science is not complete. We don’t actually know yet the full scale of the impacts of GMOs on ecology, wildlife and human beings.

Technology is building the atom bomb and dropping it. Science is following up the cancer distribution in the Japanese population and making recommendations that this kind of weapon should never, ever be used again, as its effects have profound genetic implications.

Genetically modifying organisms is technology. It’s not science, and we shouldn’t have to accept it if we don’t want to.

It’s instructive to look at the research that is being done into “biosciences” (one of a bunch of phrases used to cover the practices of genetic modification of plants and animals). In the UK, the BBSRC is a prime example of the cooperation between technology and industry, where undercover of some pretty decent research, gene splicing carries on. If only people outside the research establishments knew more about this. Remember, it’s all about increasing the sales of herbicides :-

“…Development of resistant crops could provide a good way forward. If the genes responsible for resistance to pests could be identified, they could be bred into specially selected crops by either conventional or GM methods. GM crops that are resistant to pests have already been proven to be an important tool in developing sustainable alternatives to chemical pesticides. GM is not the only option we have available for crop protection, but given the challenges we face in securing future food supplies all technologies need to be considered, keeping possible social, economic and policy implications in mind…”

“…Herbicide-tolerant crops are engineered to enable crops to withstand doses of herbicides that would otherwise kill them. These crops are generally developed by the manufacturers of the herbicide with the hope of increasing the sale of that herbicide. Roundup ReadyTM crops, for example, are produced by the Monsanto company, the producer of the herbicide Roundup, a billion-dollar product that generates about 40 percent of the company’s annual revenue…”

In the United States, John Podesta, formerly somebody I considered one of the good guys, has joined Joule Unlimited to make fuel from genetically modified microorganisms. Tell me this is a good idea, and I’ll tell you that it could be decades after the technology is implemented before the full facts of contamination of the environment with gene fragments is in the scientific literature :-

Later that same day…

Having watched the BBC broadcast in detail, I have to answer the question posed by the good gene technology scientist. He asks something along the lines of “…if the GM technology has failed, why have millions and millions of farmers planted millions and millions of acres of GM crops ?…”

The answer is, of course, the salesmanship of the agricultural chemical companies in selling their herbicide-tolerant, GM crops.

It has nothing to do with the validity of the product, or even its viability. It has everything to do with the sales of chemicals.

Paul Nurse asks for scientists to be more present in the media and make their evidence more widely available.

So, Paul, where are the publicly available copies of all the GM crop science then ? Or is that too commercially sensitive as “intellectual property” to be shared with us ?

“Can Genetically Modified Crops Feed the World? : Genetic modification has been touted as a solution to hunger, but does it really boost yields? David Biello reports : April 16, 2009 : Humans have been genetically modifying crops for millenia the old-fashioned way – selective breeding. But new techniques that insert foreign genetic material, say bacterial genes to produce insecticide in a corn plant, have raised health and environmental concerns. And that has prompted European countries, most recently Germany, to ban genetically modified, or GM, crops.”

“Proponents argue that GM crops can help feed the world. And given ever increasing demands for food, animal feed, fiber and now even biofuels, the world needs all the help it can get. Unfortunately, it looks like GM corn and soybeans won’t help, after all. A study from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that genetically engineered crops do not produce larger harvests.”

“Crop yield increases in recent years have almost entirely been due to improved farming or traditional plant breeding, despite more than 3,000 field trials of GM crops. Of course, farmers have typically planted, say, GM corn, because it can tolerate high doses of weed-killer. And the Biotechnology Industry Organization argues that GM crops can boost yields in developing countries where there are limited resources for pesticides. But it appears that, to date, traditional plant breeding boosts crop yields better than genetic modification. Those old farmers were on to something.”