Is peak oil upon us?

One interesting story that has now come out via Wikileaks is that there is some apparent disagreement by the US embassy in Riyadh as the veracity of Saudi Arabia’s outlandish oil reserve claims.

This has major implications for the issue of impending peak oil. What is peak oil you ask? The short answer is it’s the point at which we can no longer drill our way out of our energy problems. It doesn’t mean we’re running out of oil, there’s still plenty left, it’s just that the stuff that’s left is often in much smaller fields, in more remote locations or in the form of unconventional reserves, like tar sands and shales.

This means three things. Firstly these remaining sources are much more expensive to exploit, so the price of energy as a whole (oil in particular) will have to rise. I’ve heard many energy industry insiders talking about prices higher than $200 a barrel being a “good” or “fair” price for oil….well good and fair if you’re not the one paying out at the pump I suppose! Also note that when I talk about price I mean both in terms of financial costs but also the energy costs. A typical Middle East oil well provides us with 1-200 times more energy than we initially invest in producing oil from it. The Tar sands have energy return ratios in the order of 9 to 0.7 depending on who you ask, the 0.7 figure (from environmentalists) would mean we spend more energy in the form of natural gas, coal or nuclear power getting the oil out than we get back from the oil, i.e the tar sands could turn out to be a net energy sink rather than a source.

Obviously, beyond a certain point these costs become too large to sustain. If the oil price soon goes south of $200 and stays there more or less permanently, consumption will inevitably fall as it will be too expensive to use oil in the quantities were currently consume it. And if we end up using, say, half the North American Gas reserves to produce oil from Tar Sands that leaves a lot less gas available for other purposes (home heating, electricity, fertiliser manufacturing) and obviously increases the costs of pretty much everything, until consumption is curbed in some way.

Secondly, there is the rise in the environmental costs from continued fossil fuel use. Nevermind the issue of climate change, most of the world’s remaining oil reserves are in remote wilderness locations like the Arctic (or the ANWR in Alaska) or in the Rainforests. The Gulf of Mexico spill is the sort of price we will have to pay for continued oil dependancy. And projects like the Tar Sands or oil/gas shale drilling are far more environmentally destructive than any previous energy projects.

Finally, we cannot simply pump oil out of the ground at any arbitrary rate. There are a host of economic, technical and geological factors that limit how much oil you can produce from any source within any given time period. Once we are passed peak oil maintaining oil output at its current levels, nevermind increasing output will become increasingly difficult as time goes on. Eventually oil production could enter into a state of steady unending decline, which would have very serious economic consequences if it happens unexpectedly.

Now, it should be stated that such disquiet about Saudi oil reserves isn’t anything new, people have been crying foul about the level of OPEC oil reserves for years. Most notably back in the 1980’s many OPEC countries doubled or tripled their reserves more or less over night. This wasn’t due to any new discoveries, but due to the fact OPEC at the time was contemplating new rules, which related a nations ability to export oil to its proven reserves.
Thus the Saudi’s and the other OPEC countries, have a perverse incentive to over state they’re oil reserves, so it would not be entirely surprising to learn that they have done so. To what degree they have over stated reserves is the question. If its a case of 10-20% its no big deal, if its 40-60% its a case of WTF! There is, it should be noted, no auditor who goes around the OPEC states and measures their oil reserves. Its up to them to tell us how much oil they think they have and it all boils down to whether you believe them or not.

One suspicious fact is that the few of the major OPEC states have ever shown a decrease in they’re stated reserves, indeed for several years many claimed exactly the same amount (despite the fact they were producing oil and supposedly depleting these reserves). The only way this could have been accurate was if during that period they had been going out each year and finding exactly the same amount of oil that they produced and sold that year, which seems pretty unlikely. A few lean years and a decline, then a few good years and a rise, okay I can buy that, but exactly the same found as sold for several years in a row, pull the other one! In another example back in the 70’s and 80’s the Saudi’s made aggressive moves to exploit they’re offshore oil reserves, this is despite the fact they still claim large onshore reserves in their South Eastern desert region (which at the time of writing has no oil drilling projects underway). Why go after the stuff offshore if you’ve all this oil left onshore? Is it perhaps because those onshore fields simply don’t exist?

This whole topic is significant, given what was recently revealed in the IEA’s annual energy assessment reports. Go back through previous few year’s reports and do a search for the word peak oil and you’ll come up with no hits, as the IEA stuck to the mantra that peak oil was a long way off. Do it now and you get lots of them! More importantly, the IEA has been saying for years that they expect global oil production to rise from its current levels of 75-80 million barrels/day to 120m bbl/day by 2030. Their latest report slashes this forecast down to just 96 m bbl/day.

This alone is cause for concern, that 120 bbl/day in 2030 figure was a reflection of what was needed to sustain our current levels of economic growth, if it’s been cut, how are we supposed to sustain such growth levels? There is you see a direct link between oil production and global trade, as so much of the transport infrastructure globally runs on oil, not to mention the fact that so many products we use from Nylon shirts, to pesticides (needed to maintain food production), plastics, pharmaceuticals, etc. are all derived from oil. Consequently we could well face a protracted slow down in global economic activity if these projections prove accurate.

And if that didn’t give energy industry people goose bumps, there was another twist. Conventional oil production (that’s the regular black stuff coming out of the ground) has been more or less flat since 2004 (with a slight peak in 2006), even though prices went through the roof back in 2007. If the OPEC countries had all the oil they claim to have, then with prices at $147 a barrel why didn’t they pump more onto the global market? While Saudi production did increase to a maximum of 10.5m bbl/day (they’re current output is 9.2m bbl/day) just prior to the recession it was a tiny rate of increase given the economic conditions and very small compared to what the Saudi’s frequently claim – that they can raise production up to 20m bbl/day and keep it there for years if necessary. If so, then why didn’t they (or the other OPEC states) increase production when oil prices recently skyrocketed? There are three possible answers:
1) They didn’t increase production because the Saudi’s and their OPEC allies want to maintain an artificial shortage in order to increase profits. If this is true then we need to think twice about getting hooked on OPEC oil in the future, as they clearly have no qualms about engaging in blatant price gouging the like of which would have Rockefeller shaking his head in disgust. This is important because If there’s one fact about oil that everyone agrees, it’s that between 60-70% of the world’s conventional oil reserves lie within the Middle East (they currently produce just 35% of the world’s oil).

2) They didn’t raise production because the valves were already fully open! 10.5m bbl/day is the most we’re ever going to get out of the Saudi’s. Once they do peak, production will decline well below this figure.

3) The Saudi’s do have some spare capacity, but not nearly as much as they claim. A figure closer to 12m bbl/day is probably closer to reality (according to many energy insiders) and they could probably only maintain this for a short period of time (months, rather than years). Obviously if this is true, the Saudis realise they need to maintain some spare capacity to deal with any future emergency (external or domestic) and hence, they aren’t going to put this spare capacity on the market any time soon, regardless of what the price does. Indeed if consumption continues to rise then eventually even this “spare” capacity will be eaten away. If they exceed peak production soon, then demand will outstrip supply all the sooner.

If you look at the graph for the IEA I’ve linked to you’ll note this big grey wedge labelled “crude oilfield yet to be developed” and another blue one labelled “…yet to be found”….here’s the punchline, the bulk of those are supposed to be in the Middle East…..indeed they are specifically meant to be held within 3 countries – Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran. If these wikileak speculations are correct, and we are forced to, say, subtract half of these two wedges, you will see that global oil production will likely begin to fall sometime between 2012 and 2020. Indeed if it weren’t for a recent increase in the output from “unconventional oil reserves” we would already be into the post-peak oil era. So, ya this is pretty big news….which seems to be getting scant attention from the media….. Although with all the stuff going on in Libya right now that’s probably not a big surprise.

The Libya situation does however highlight another problem with peak oil – the erosion of any “swing” capacity. The world relies on several major producers of oil, such as the Saudi’s, the Russians and (increasingly) Iraq to maintain some “spare” capacity which can be brought online quickly to offset some temporary supply shortage (such as the current unrest in Libya right now). As we approach and exceed peak oil this “swing” capacity will be depleted (as we need it just to meet daily demand) and eventually disappear. This means that anytime there is a major interruption to supplies in the future (a revolution in an oil rich country for example), it will have fairly serious economic consequences (a spike in prices, queues at petrol pumps in some countries….with the odd inevitable fist fight, food prices rises, economic downturns, etc.).

Obviously I’m not saying it’s time to start panicking or anything (we should have started doing that back in 2006!), the oil isn’t running out, it’s just going to become an increasingly severe pain in the a$$ to meet our “addiction” to the stuff (as even G. W. Bush admits). And if anthropogenic climate change isn’t enough of an a reason for us to move away from fossil fuels then the consequences of peak oil are reason enough.

The real danger with peak oil you see is we won’t see it coming. The US peaked in 1971, but they didn’t work out that they’d peaked until the early 1980’s. It’s too early to say yet if 2006 was the peak in conventional oil production (as the IEA 2010 report speculated), we’d need a few more years data to be sure. Similarly, as far as the global peak in total oil production (conventional and unconventional), we’ll only know it happened probably a good decade after the event…in other words when it’s too late to do anything about it.

The 2005 Hirsch report made clear that in order to see off any economic disruption the world needed about 20 years to prepare for peak oil. Waiting until after the event would lead to “a significant period of severe economic discomfort”. So, as with climate change, a wait and see policy is simply not acceptable.

“the American way of life is not negotiable” – G.H.W. Bush

“beyond a certain point, nature doesn’t negotiate” – Richard Heinberg

Anti-Science part II, Science under attack

I bring up the issues raised in my last post….

…as a result of another programme put out by Horizon recently which dealt with this rise in people adopting anti-scientific positions on issues such as Climate change, AIDs, Vaccines, GM crops, and of course Creationism.

That more than 40% of people in America can take Creationism in anyway seriously, or that up to 25% in Britain can doubt the official position on climate change is worrying indeed.

So it begs the question, after all the benefits that science and technology have given us over the last few centuries why are so many people now distrustful of it, and the scientists themselves? I would break the answer to this question down into several factors:

– A lack of understanding of the matter of scientific uncertainty
– Inability to put information in its proper context (the guy you met down the pub saying aliens have landed should not get the same level of credibility as the White House Press office saying the same thing!)
– A general backlash against the more negative aspects of scientific progress
– Vested interests, with a small army of PR people & spin doctors determined to make the truth what ever they want it to be.
– And finally a general suspicion of the motives of those at the helm of the scientific establishment

Scientific Uncertainty….
My first point relates to a lack of understanding by many people of the matter of scientific uncertainty. For example, let us suppose, I present you with 2 identical beakers of water and ask you to tell me which is warmer? Now if you pop a thermometer into jar A and it reads 10’C, while jar B reads 90’C, well the answers all but obvious. Just to be on the safe side, one might swap around the thermometers to make sure they are working (or calibrate them properly!), but barring some serious mix up, it’s almost certain you’d have to conclude that B is warmer than A.

Now let us suppose that Jar A reads as 20’C and Jar B is 21’C, which is warmer? I might throw in the fact that within the temperature range you’re working, the margin of error of the thermometers is +/- 0.5’C. On balance, Jar B is still probably warmer, but we really couldn’t say so with any degree of scientific confidence.

We could resolve this problem by repeating the experiment multiple times, using multiple instruments which use different means to record temperature (e.g a platinum resistance thermometer, or a Copper/Constantan thermocouple) over an extended period. Also, what are the ambient conditions? Are they both under similar ambient conditions? (e.g is one facing a window and its warm/cold outside) If the ambient conditions are not similar and steady, this could throw off our instruments by a degree or more. Is it a transient problem or steady state? (i.e is this a changing temperature change or flat and constant).

Anyway, to cut a long story short after multiple experiments, with a variety of different instruments, under careful controlled ambient conditions having been established, if we are still faced with the results A = 20’C and B = 21’C we’d have to conclude that the balance of evidence says jar B is warmer than jar A, but we’d have to tuck a couple of caveats into our report to cover ourselves, as after all there is still a possibility that they are both actually at equal temperature, or indeed that Jar A is in fact warmer. This is an example of scientific uncertainty. A good film about is “how long is a piece of String“, in which the narrator literally attempts to answer this question.

Needless to say, if it’s that complicated to establish how long a piece of string is, or which of two jars is warmer you can imagine how difficult it can be to get ones head around a scientific study of something far more complex – such as the global climate.

Science is, in essence as much about dealing with what you don’t know, as it is a matter of dealing with what you do know. I think the problem here is that when people hear scientists talking about “uncertainties in our climate models” that what the actually hear is “we’re just guessing but we reckon that if we say the world’s warming we’ll get more money”. Actually what the scientists are saying is “we’re very confident that our models are correct, but it’s an issue of accuracy, the actual rate of warming may be slightly slower or even higher than we’re predicting and there is always the slight risk that our model is in error, thought this could still mean warming anyway”

…has to be put in Context
Part of the problem is I think, most people don’t appreciate how we have to put scientific reports in context. If a report comes out that seems to contradict the general consensuses of the IPCC on climate change, it has to be put in context against the hundreds of reports coming out each year which support the theory of anthropogenic Climate change, and the many reports in the past. One string of weather balloon readings saying a slowing in the rate of warming (or cooling), does not make a trend, especially when thousands of other weather stations worldwide using more balloons (as well as ground stations, satellite readings, surface instruments, and other vectors such as tree rings or ice core data) all say the complete opposite.

It could be that this downward trend in temperature represents a localised cooling phenomenon (that’s why scientists don’t like using the term global warming) driven by climate change or something else entirely. It is also well known that the sun does influence climate, and to what degree is uncertain (remember what I said above, that doesn’t mean climatologists don’t know, they have many theories with good evidence to support them, with many well established and supported models, but there’s just some uncertainty as to they’re validity) although the current consensus is that the Sun cannot be responsible for the current phase of warming.

Also there’s the strength of the relevant research. If we are dealing with a graph which is a mass of points which can barely be resolved into a downward trend, then one has to question the accuracy of the data. And as noted above, if the methodology is flawed (e.g doing a study of the Sun over a period of a few years and neglecting to account for its well known 11 year cycle or using uncelebrated instruments) then the conclusions are also flawed. Obviously if the writer of the report is a known critic of Anthropogenic Climate Change (whose research is widely known to be funded by the oil industry) well then, while not dismissing his research out of hand, you have to take it with a pinch of salt.

“Reading might not be your strongest suit”
But global warming deniers of course, don’t put things in context, nor with a pinch of salt. Many, it should be said, don’t even have any relevant qualification, and so have little understanding for the scientific method. Like the creationists, they shout as loudly as they can that they’ve found “proof” that they are right and the entire scientific establishment is wrong. When the peer review process kicks in and points out that, well actually if you reanalyse graph C using an appropriate curve fitting algorithm you get a warming trend not a cooling one, they yell “Conspiracy!” and “Censorship!” then continue to present their work as “fact” long after the scientific community has moved on. For good examples of this behaviour see here and here.

The Lenski dialog a classic example of what happens when a respectable scientists finds himself confronted by someone (in this case Andy Schlafly, the founder of Conservapedia…a “conservative” version of Wikipedia…founded because wiki is too full of “liberal bias”…or what the rest of us call “facts”) with no formal scientific education and a particular agenda (in this case creationism) and a determination to make the evidence fit his pre-existing conclusions:

Seriously, thought I’d give the last one a read, it’s a good laugh! I especially like the “reading doesn’t appear to be your strong point” quip (a slightly cruel thing to say to someone who was home schooled me thinks!). But it does demonstrate a problem, unfortunately some people rank what Little John says in the Mail on Sunday about global warming or what Sarah Palin says about evolution above of what tens of thousands of international experts say about the same subject.

The above examples all demonstrate how false rumours and myths can get going about some facet of established science. There are, for example, many of these false and long since debunked theories about climate change still doing the rounds on the internet. Before anyone wastes both of our time e-mailing me with the usual “but recent measurements show cooling” line take a look at this.

In reference to the statement above, yes you can produce a trend showing recent cooling, if you pick 1998 as you’re start date and 2004 as the end date…Of course you’d be neglecting the fact that 1998 was a strong El Nino year, and 2004 a La Nina year. Extend said graph to the present day (or between two El Nino years) and you still get a warming trend. This is what’s known as “cherry picking” data, and it’s not scientific as, like creationism, it involves starting off with a theory and generating “facts” to support you’re theory, while ignoring every fact that contradicts you’re conclusions, in other words anti-science.

A common debating tactic used by the global warming deniers is to list out the myths listed above one after another (without leaving they’re opponent any time to debunk them), a tactic often referred to as “the Gish Gallop” so named after a known creationists habit of dishing out numerous, falsehoods and half-truths (and utter BS) in an effort to drown out the scientific facts.

Its Just a Theory!
Global warming/evolution is just a theory, is something you often hear. While this is true, it merely demonstrates a lack of understanding of the word “theory”. I might also mention that Gravity is also just a “theory”. Anyone doubting its reality take a jump off something high and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that 90% of what we know about gravity is correct! However, there are admittedly, holes in our knowledge, as our current theories of gravity have difficulty coping with the very large scale and the very small, and more importantly, linking these two extremes together. Now while there are various hypotheses doing the rounds, and there is good evidence to support some of them, it would be unscientific to say science can completely explain the workings of gravity…hence its just a theory!

Similarly when the IPCC says they are 90% certain that the world is warming up and humans are responsible for it, that 10% mostly accounts for various uncertainties:

-Something about the climate that they’ve not yet discovered
-That something else could emerge in the future to drive the climate in a different direction (possibly worsening the situation or easing it)
-That the Earth is warming up, just not at the rate expected, it could be quicker or slower
-That our fossil fuel emission might be having less of an effect as thought, or even a greater effect
-What will happen to the major carbon sinks in the future? Will they help stabilise the current trend or kick us into a runaway greenhouse effect?
-What will happen to the various weather patterns of the earth? Such as the Gulf Stream, will it divert its course or stop?
-If weather patterns change, would this enhance the warming effect globally/regionally or diminish it?

All perfectly valid questions, but to say “its a theory, lets do nothing” is at odds with reality. The only time we’ll know for certain that Anthropogenic Climate Change is definitely a reality (and the IPCC says they know they are 100% right) is probably about the same time they issue a warming that it’s now too late to do anything. And even this is unlikely, remember that we’ve been studying things like evolution and gravity a lot longer than climate, and scientists still can’t even achieve consensus on these issues.

The Horizon film also dealt with the whole Climategate controversy (or lack there-off actually!). The most serious allegation against the scientists was that they spliced several graphs together to create a single trend using a statistical algorithm. This, to be fair, isn’t a very scientific thing to do. The correct procedure would be to put all the graphs together (in this case tree ring data temperature trends) and explain why you had confidence in the measurements of trend A here, but were less certain over here, but that hypothesis is supported by this graph B, from J. Blogs et al 1998, etc. This is exactly what the scientists in question did when the published the research (and put it through peer review) and presented it to the IPCC.

It is also worth remembering that the data in question is but one of many different temperature “vectors” which show past and recent climate behaviour. However, they were (during the e-mail discussion published) now creating a graph for a publication that would be read by a largely non-scientifically literate audience and were obviously fearful that this hard science approach would either sail over everyone’s head, or worse, put them all to sleep. So they opted for this less than scientifically accurate solution of splicing the graphs together. So in that context you have to understand (so called) climategate.

Dumb and Dumber
The above climategate example itself represents another problem for scientists, in order to make ourselves understood by the general public, and indeed other scientist who aren’t specialists in a particular field, it’s often necessary to dumb down ones work. Not because scientists believe that everyone without PhD is stupid, no! but because we realise that, well to be blunt, much of what scientists talk about is kind of BORING! Give most people the choice between gnawing ones own leg off or reading all 2,000 pages of the IPCC 4th assessment on climate change and most people, including quite a few scientists, would choose the former. Of course by dumbing down it opens the door for the critics to swoop in and launch various attacks suggesting our methodology is flawed. Referring them to Mann et al 2001 or Lenski et al 2008 where they will find all the relevant data that will refute they’re criticism simply falls on deaf ears (as again the Lenski dialog above shows).

Of course the fact that there are many vested interested who stand to profit from distorting the truth on such issues doesn’t help. Remember the whole debate about the harmful effects of smoking? All those “scientific” reports that came out saying it wasn’t so bad after all, we’ll the same people who wrote them are still around and they’ve moved on to other causes….such as climate science.

Rise of the Experts
The problem with issues such as climate change, or evolution, or fears by parents over the safety of vaccines is it involves deferring to the experts, and many people just don’t like to do this as they are naturally suspicious of “experts” especially the kind who tell them to do things they’d rather not do (eat less fatty foods, drive more carefully in future sir, smoking is bad for you’re health, etc.) But in a technologically advanced age deferring to the experts is a necessary evil of our time. In the world today we have hired a bunch of climate experts to give us their expert opinion on climate change so it’s a bit late now complaining when they tell us the answer we’d rather not hear. If you hired a plumber to fix your heating system and you then started hoping around peering over his shoulder telling him how to do his job, chances are he’ll either tell you to get lost or walk out on the job.

Unfortunately it’s a fact of life these days that we are increasingly forced to trust to small groups of increasingly specialised experts in our daily lives. For example, it would be incorrect to say a pilot flew you to your destination last time you were in a plane. Strictly speaking the pilot sat in the cockpit and monitored the computer as it flew the plane for him – a computer designed and programmed most likely by some distant experts in a foreign country, then assembled by some other expert half a world away. So we are ever more frequently these days asked to trust ever smaller and more distant groups of experts, or in some cases mindless machines, with our very lives/health/financial well being.

Clearly with climate change a small group of scientists has risen to a very prominent and powerful position in geopolitics and if you ever get a global warming denier drunk you’ll often find they let slip the real reason for their scepticism of climate change (and I suspect this applies to creationists too…problem is half of them are tee-totallers!). The sceptics fear that the many experts on climate have some sort of left wing agenda to push, and much as the creationists fear that if they give into the evolutionists, the global warming deniers are convinced that if the scientists win this argument, we’ll be on the slippery slope towards compulsory gay marriage of all conservatives to gay Muslim terrorist asylum seekers (only over here to live the lazy life on our benefits system…while working hard at stealing our jobs), with guns, meat, religion and cars banned (and them then being forced to cycle everywhere), recycling become compulsory and them all be subject to random euthanasia by communists death panels (who are also fascist in their spare time), while knife wielding yobs freely roam the streets (I think that roughly sums up you’re average Daily Mail edition!) A few typical examples of such right wing paranoia can be found here and here.

An international climate treaty would be the first step towards GLOBAL GOVERNMENT!” is another one you often hear. Of course what these people fail to realise is that we already have a form of global government, in the form of the WTO (an organisation which was largely the idea of many right-wing politicians and libertarian free-market acolytes). By contrast the various proposed global climate treaties often leave it up to the individual Nation States to decide how to meet their targets (by cutting overall energy consumption, using CCS, switched to more renewables, buying carbon credits, or a combination of all of these).

Indeed I don’t see the countries which have signed up to Kyoto (and met their targets) living under the Yoke of the UN or NWO nor the Club of Rome. In fact there have been a number of positive aspects to pursuing Kyoto targets in the form of new job creation and innovation.

Indeed if there’s anything that could lead to global government, it’s a failure to tackle climate change before its too late. As I pointed out in a previous post there is a danger in certain future (worst case) scenarios that the impact of climate change may simply overwhelm some governments, including possibly even the US.

Obviously in such a scenario tackling climate change as currently proposed (i.e. a market let solution with democratic buy-in and nations allowed to dictate their own strategy as they see fit) would no longer be an option. There is a good chance the only way to cope with the crisis at this future date would be through some sort of planet wide program that would inevitably involve many governments giving up some of they’re sovereignty for the sake of coping with the crisis – and we’d have the global warming deniers to thank for it!

The Gospel according to Dawkins
Science has become the new religion! that’s another one you here banded about, that science is now a religion with James Hansen, Al Gore and Richard Dawkins cast as the new high priests of science. Well if science is a religion it’s a strange sort of a one. The opening line of the gospels would read like this I suspect:

“In the beginning there was a scientist with a piece of paper…but he knew sweet FA about nothin…so he went to write that down, well it would be a start…but realised he didn’t even know how to write yet either…so he dith say “feck it!” then did he crumble up said paper and sunder thy pencil, then useth thy remains to undertake some research into fire, cos it was gettin kinda chilly”

Or as Bill Maher put it Science is the “church of we don’t know all the answers”. It’s a church which holds nothing sacred, aside from what facts can be supported by verifiable evidence, and even those “laws” of science will hold sway only as long as the evidence supports them. If new information leads to a radically different conclusion, the whole doctrine can change overnight. Of course, to the many religions of the world, who claim they do have all the answers, and hold many things sacred, even with no evidence to support these beliefs, such a questioning and skeptical mindset is seen as quite threatening.

Opt Out
Either way, I think the real reason for this rise in anti-science is a combination of a lack of understanding of the scientific method, many political, commercial and other vested interests who seek to dupe the public on this matter, and a general anti-scientific backlash as people feel they are being increasingly trapped by the science and technology that controls our lives.

Unfortunately such beliefs are at odds with reality and if you’re not prepared to trust the experts then my advice is – don’t! Abandon the technological world, and do a Kaczynski (without the bombings mind!), go live in a log cabin in the mountains and whatever the governments does as regards coping with climate change, peak oil, global population, or how stem cell research should be utilised, won’t affect you anymore as you’ll be out of the system and beyond such concerns….and too busy trying to make ends meet to care….and likely dead at 35 mind….as life without science and technology was in the old days cruel, hard and short!

The Rise of Anti-Science

Interesting documentary here about the Creationist “science” movement. To say he blow’s their arguments out of the water, is too put it mildly. Actually, if you watch it all the through (I wouldn’t recommend it, he does begin to whaffle alot!), you’re man sort of takes it a bit too far. It’s sort of cruel in a way, almost like watching a puppy being put down!

That said the author does mention he’s from Texas, working on Biology related research, with a strong interest in Palaeontology. A Texan Palaeontologist sort of sounds like a Gay Republican, or a Catholic Orangemen (or an honest Banker/Lawyer), so you can sense a certain level of pent up frustration in his little movie.

He does make some good points thought about how creationist “science” works, i.e that its methodology is the polar opposite of science. In scientific research we assemble the facts, come up with a hypothesis and then do further research to either prove or disprove that hypothesis. Creationists start off with a conclusion (God Dunn it, okay!) and then seek out facts to support this position. Of course along the way they’ll have to crawl over a mountain of evidence in support of Darwinian evolution, which they will of course completely ignore. Finally they will come upon a tiny crumb of “evidence”, which seems to prove their point, if you look at it special way (while neglecting all facts that contradict this view). Needless to say this isn’t science, its “anti-science“.

For example, one claim of the creationist’s is to say that no so-called “missing links” between various evolving species has never been found. Not true, although this is more a matter of (probably deliberate) word confusion. Scientists don’t like to use the term “missing link” as it’s not a scientifically correct phrase. Indeed even the alternative “transitional fossil” tends to earn you a frown. Certainly, many “candidate transitional fossils” have indeed been found. But, scientists being scientists, they don’t want to declare absolutely that, say Archaeopteryx represents the transition between dinosaur and bird.

Clearly it is a dinosaur like creature, which flew (or more likely glided) and had feathers, but to make such a bold statement as to say it is the link between bird and dinosaur isn’t a very scientific statement – we could dig up an even better candidate transitional fossil tomorrow. And in all probability it represents but one small point on a long gradual evolutionary chain, and we probably don’t yet have the full chain completed. Science in short, does not work in terms of absolute truths, only verifiable facts and yet unanswered questions.

Even the position of intelligent design, the closest thing to a working scientific theory the creationists have, isn’t really justifiable. Why? Well if God designed everything, why did he make so many mistakes? Why do chickens and other flightless birds still have working wings? Why do Whales still have leg bones? Why do humans have an appendix?

The only way ID works is if:
1) All God’s plan….so presumably that plan now includes chickens taking to flight, whales are going to flop out of the water and started walking around and humans are going to go back to eating leaves.

2) That God isn’t that great a designer and what with his bad eye sight and poor memory, he frequently get’s things wrong. i.e he isn’t the omnipotent being he’s made out to be by the guys in marketing (but then again, when is marketing ever accurate!).

3) That the overwhelming physical evidence left behind in the fossil record means God is deliberately trying to trick the scientists into believing in evolution, all as part of what I assume is a huge elaborate prank he’s playing on them.
I would also include a 4) not mentioned in the film but the opinion of Alan Turing, the pioneering computer scientists, that god is a mathematician wedded to the idea of an ordered universe run by rules, not hogus pogus, nor meddling deities.

One of the other primary arguments in favour of ID, irreducible complexity, doesn’t stack up either. The creationists ask “how can something as advanced as an eye just pop into being”. The scientific response, “it can’t, nor does it have to!”

There are numerous types of organisms from bacteria to plant species with varying degrees of photosensitivity. It is not unreasonable to therefore suggest that the eye organ evolved in stages. Indeed the process of evolution is still at work as regards vision, as many animals have varying degrees of it. Many animals are colour blind, while certain predators (birds of prey in particular) have superior vision to humans, much as dogs have a more developed sense of smell than humans. Obviously in the last example, dogs need a good sense of smell more than good eyesight, so that’s what they’ve evolved with, while humans (and birds of prey) needed better eyesight, with a sense of smell being less of a priority.

As the author of the film points out it is inaccurate to state that if Christians concede the point on Creation, that this then disproves the bible and all religions. Not true, there is still room for faith and accepting the existence of Darwinian evolution (not so much does evolution work, more why does it work and not something else?), it merely rules out a literal interpretation of the Bible – which is silly anyway, as we know the bible versions accepted now are very different from those of the past.

Thought admittedly the role God now plays is greatly downgraded if we accept evolution as it means he/she has been basically MIA since the Big Bang.

Scam Detectors

Another gem form Newsnight, it seems that several armed forces around the world have fallen for what essentially amounts to a half baked scam…one concocted by a British company. Back in the early days of the war on terror, just prior to the Iraq war, a British company claimed to have developed an electronic radio antenna device designed to detect explosives, drugs and pretty much anything else you wanted to find at considerable distances. Sounds good? The British Royal Engineers even took it around the world and demonstrated it to several military’s who ordered the devices to the tune of tens of millions of pounds worth of said devices. Iraq apparently bought as much as $85m worth of them and they are its key weapon in scanning for explosives at security check points.

Well the problem is, as Newsnight have demonstrated if you watch they’re video, it’s all little more than a scam. The devices contain no actual electronics (an asset tag, what they use to catch thieves in shops) is jammed in to fool anyone who opens it into thinking there’s electronics, but other than that the only thing that makes the thing swivel to “indicate” explosives is the movements of the operator.

Reading through its description on Wikipedia (while, yes not a terribly reliable source of info, but the links to what it says check out) the claims of the manufacturer, that it is powered by “static electricity”, should have immediately set off alarm bells in anyone with half a brain. While I’m no expert on electronics, I’ve used enough sensors and instruments in my time to know that they require not so much a lot of power, but a steady and reliable source of it. The static field of a person, stamping his feet or otherwise would not suffice (no more than its likely to make an e-meter work :crazy:!)

Also its manufacturer’s claim it works by use of “electrostatic magnetic ion attraction” :lalala:, that should have also immediately set off everyone’s bullshit detectors (or maybe everyone who was sold it were using bullshit meters made by the same company too!). That sounds remarkably like Technobabble, a term often used in science fiction shows when they start talking about remodulating the Delithium crystal matrix to cope with a transwarp phase field disruption in the presence of a Folaric radiation source.

….Or as one Imp. College Boffin puts it when questioned on the subject “…means bugger all to me!”

And you wonder how people fall for Ponzi schemes, Phishing scams or Nigerian 419’s! There is indeed one born every minute and one has to conclude that some of them work for the (so-called) “intelligence” services! Indeed what’s most worrying is that the JREF (an organisation devoted to debunking pseudosciences) were onto these people as early as 2008, offering a $1 million dollar reward to anyone who could prove these “bomb detectors” actually worked (no one has come forward yet!)

Despite this all, it seems it took the authorities in the UK until January 2010 to cop onto this fraud, with the arrest of one of the businessmen behind this scam, although others are still at large and marketing similar devices (which also almost certainly don’t work). They are still used as a critical part of the bomb detection policies in several countries overseas.

Interestingly enough one the guy arrested points out that the bulk of the money made on this scam went to “middle men” and on “training”…in other words it was siphoned off by dodgy and corrupt members of the foreign governments, many of whom probably couldn’t care less if it worked or not as it was merely an opportunity for them to milk some cash out of their government, which has now inevitably made its way into some anonymous Swiss or Cayman Islands bank account….oh! and in the case of Iraq ultimately a good deal of that money came from Western governments in the form of foreign military aid payments…i.e out of taxpayers pockets!

To me this is an excellent example of the power of Myth, that the people involved would sooner believe a load of grade A bull than what they could learn from “facts” and boring stuff like that (especially of course when they know they can profit from believing the myth). It is also difficult to believe that so many people who work in senior positions of various governments could be taken in by what seems like an obvious con trick. It also demonstrates why it is necessary to dismantle much of the network of secrecy built up around the security services. This whole episode (and the Wikileaks saga) just goes to show that those in charge of the security are just as gullible and inept as everyone else in the world and consequently there is simply no justification with allowing them to hide they’re errors behind a wall labelled “national security”. Had news of these devices been circulated in the media earlier, someone might well have yelled Bullshit! sooner and saved everyone a lot of money, and indeed prevented lives being lost as a result of bombs slipping through checkpoints.

And should anyone reading this post (or the articles linked to it) still believe these devices work, contact me cos I’m selling them on e-bay at $999.98 each….and I can also do you a deal on some Magic Beans too :wave:!

The Fabulous Adventures of Baron Von Kneecap

We have an election on now in Ireland. Our PM (Taoiseach, often called T-shirt) is retiring…hardly a surprise for a guy with the nick name BIFFO. It looks likely that the new T-shirt will be Enda “cute hoor” sure-I-knew-your-father-well Kenny of Fine Gael, in coalition with Labour (that’s an actual labour party, i.e centre-left, not Tories wt Red ties as in the UK). All the parties in this election are about change of course…as in can anyone out there in the world spare us some change please :DD! Will anything change…ah! don’t be silly! Has it ever!

A lot of joke candidates and other general weirdoes running. There’s a lot of independent’s running, various one issue “down with this sort of thing” candidates, there’s the “anti-immigrant party” (for closet racists), various “Christian” parties of course. There’s even this upper class twit, born in the UK no less, by the name of the Baron of Northstead running up in Louth…no, joke! Seriously! Some Baron, a three time UK MP is running in Louth! The guy’s so lazy that apparently, he’s hardly even bothered to show up for work in London, and now he wants a job down here! Of course, just to make him sound like the everyman, he likes to go by his “commoner” name, Jerry Adams or something like that.
I hope somebody checks his Birth certificate! (though knowing those Sinn Fein types he’ll find it stapled to his forehead the next morning!)

Seriously though, there is a risk of Sinn Fein doing well in the elections as many young people seem inclined to vote for them, despite the fact that some journo ambushed “Lord” Adams (strictly speaking I have refer to him with his title of Lord or Sir) and it sounded like you’d get better financial advice from the Beano. The Journo best watched out…we know what happened to the last group of people who ambushed Sir Jerry…..

My view is that the young’uns are voting Sinn Fein for the same reason they take up smoking, because the old foggies keep telling them not to it. Once they get a bit older, they’ll learn some sense!
Then there’s the types who traditionally vote Fianna Fail (those from foreign shores may question the wisdom of putting a party with the English word “Fail” in their name in charge of the country!), but don’t want to do so this time due to the mess they’ve made. The logical solution would be to vote for the country’s other Centrist party Fine Gael, but for rather illogical reasons of political partisanship many such individuals are planning instead to vote for Sinn Fein. Suggest to them that maybe they vote labour and you hear “oh, but labour are too left wing for me”…and so instead you’re voting for a party (Sinn Fein) to the LEFT of labour, indeed if you read through Sinn Fein’s manifesto (not before bed time thought!) you’ll see they are actually to the LEFT of many socialist parties!

Of course the other major excuse for voting SF is that people are sick of corruption in politics…we are talking about a party here that until not too long ago was almost exclusively funded by criminal activity (indeed the critics would say, they still are!) so I don’t think SF is a good vote as anti-corruption candidates. Like those who vote for far right politicians in the rest of Europe (or the Tea Party in America) it’s a decision made by angry and confused people with little thought for the consequences of what they are doing. Democracy as I see it, is not so much a right as a responsibility. And if you’re not prepared to take up the responsibility of using your vote sensibly, then either don’t bother voting, vote for some independent, or just go into the booth and go inney meany miney moe!

Still its strange, in other parts of the world calling a politician a Socialist, or a Terrorist, (as the Tea party do to Obama), or call them a religious fanatic and its considered insulting, but do the same to politicians on this Island (particularly those in the North) and they’d just say “and what of it?” or “thank you!”