Tag Archives: climate change

Anecdata on media, science and society

Anecdata!

Data Point: On Newsnight recently Cambridge’s Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk, David Spiegelhalter, stunned Jeremy Paxman by informing him that unemployment figures are an estimate, not a count, and they’re only accurate to ±100,000.

Do you remember ever seeing an error bar when unemployment figures are announced? Or hearing any journalist correct a politician crowing that unemployment has dropped by a number like 27,000, well within the margin of error?

Data Point: Barely any mainstream publications or news shows have covered the Edward Snowden/NSA/GCHQ revelations properly. Even “GCHQ is watching you and your children on webcams and storing images, including sexual content” didn’t make the TV news that day. I asked the Channel 4 News editor why not: he didn’t reply. One of the presenters did, though:

That edition did find room, however, for an interview about the Daily Mail’s attempt to smear various Labour politicians for events of almost 40 years ago. And they also ran a report on the decline of the barn owl population.

As far as I’m aware only the Guardian covered that story on the front page the next day. Not even a single “Big Brother is watching you” headline.

Data Point: Channel 4 News ignored the Guardian’s report that PA Consulting uploaded 27 DVDs of NHS England hospital data to Google. That’s the entire NHS hospital database for England, tens of millions of patient records, uploaded to servers outside the UK, by management consultants, without patient consent.

While I wouldn’t expect it to have led the news during the Ukraine/Russia standoff the same day, I certainly expected a report before a story about an athlete on trial for murder, or about the previous night’s Oscars. Instead, Channel 4 News made no mention of it at all. Again, I tweeted the editor. Again, no response.

Data Point: Broadcasters including the BBC often insist on a false balance when covering climate change. Nigel Lawson is not a climate scientist, and can only bluster and assert when debating an actual climate scientist presenting actual evidence, but still their positions are presented as equally valid by the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, as if climate change is a matter of political opinion rather than scientific observation and method. At least the BBC isn’t as bad as some other media organisations, which have an editorial policy of man-made climate change denial.

Nigel Says Relax

Data Point: By my countQuestion Time has included only three scientist panellists for the entirety of the parliament so far — Colin Blakemore once and Robert Winston twice (I’m not counting tech-related entrepreneurs like Jimmy Wales). That’s three scientists from 147 editions at time of writing, or 0.004% of all 743 panellists.

(In the same period, Question Time has featured two singers, four poets, seventeen comedians, twenty actors, thirty-five businesspeople and over 120 journalists. Yes, I’ve counted. Nigel Farage has appeared ten times — the same number as Kenneth Clarke. Farage does well belonging to a party with no MPs, doesn’t he?)

End of anecdata!

What to make from all that? Gell-Mann Amnesia applies, as it always does. Journalists misrepresent everything, yet we only seem to think they misrepresent subjects we’re familiar with. The chances are the reporters overlooking the City of London and outside the Old Bailey are bluffing their way through to hit a deadline just as much as the Technology Correspondent is.

But I have to say: I think mainstream media’s lack of understanding of science and technology is actively harming society.

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Avaragado’s 2014 predictions

Here they are: the 2014 predictions literally everyone hasn’t been waiting for. Please return regularly to check my progress and coincidentally bump the readership stats on my blog to make me feel better.

News

  1. In the referendum on independence, Scotland votes No.
  2. Brazil grants asylum to Edward Snowden.
  3. The Lib Dems replace Nick Clegg as leader.
  4. UKIP wins more MEPs in the European Parliamentary Elections than the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems.
  5. An iconic building or monument is damaged in a freak/climate change weather event.
  6. Paul Dacre leaves his position as chief bigot/editor at the Daily Mail.
  7. More than 50% of Daily Express front page main headlines are about the weather.

Sport

  1. Brazil win the World Cup. England don’t qualify from the group stage.
  2. Liverpool win the FA Premier League.
  3. Team GB win exactly one medal at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
  4. Andy Murray loses in the semi-final of the men’s singles at Wimbledon.
  5. Wales win the rugby union Six Nations tournament.
  6. Johnny Brownlee wins the ITU World Triathlon Series.

Science and technology

  1. Steve Ballmer is replaced as CEO of Microsoft by Satya Nadella.
  2. The crew of the International Space Station is evacuated because of orbital debris.
  3. Apple announces a “revolutionary” (in their words) new TV device.
  4. The Nobel prize for physics is won by someone in the field of quantum computing/communication.
  5. Google buys Oculus VR.
  6. Webcam video of a celebrity, obtained covertly by an intelligence agency, leaks on the internet.

Entertainment

  1. Best picture at the Oscars: 12 Years a Slave.
  2. Best actor at the Oscars: Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave.
  3. Best actress at the Oscars: Emma Thompson for Saving Mr Banks.
  4. Bruce Forsyth stops presenting Strictly Come Dancing.
  5. The BBC reboots a classic 1970s sitcom (eg Dad’s Army).
  6. In one of those “celebrities doing stuff” shows (Splash, Strictly, Dancing on Wolves, etc) a celebrity does stuff that results in a nasty injury on live TV.

Celebrity deathwatch

  1. His Racist Highness Prince Philip, 92
  2. Nobel Peace Prize winner and war criminal Henry Kissinger, 90
  3. Thatcher defenestrator Lord (Geoffrey) Howe, 87
  4. Swivel-eyed Ulster firebrand preacher Ian Paisley, 87
  5. Oh no, it’s Yoko Ono, 80
  6. Fifties teen idol and Half a Sixpence crooner Tommy Steele, 77
  7. Much better than the last one Pope Francis, 77
  8. Founder of CNN and all-round not-Murdoch Ted Turner, 75
  9. Nobody did it better than Carly Simon, 68
  10. Free software evangelist and beardy gnu-lover Richard Stallman, 60
  11. Wayward ex-gurner and Gazza Paul Gascoigne, 46
  12. Apprentice self-firing rent-a-gob Katie Hopkins, 38

Based on the pattern of previous years I’m expecting to get about 40% right. Join me this time next year to find out whether I’ve got that prediction wrong too.

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Avaragado’s 2013 predictions – results

Here we are again. New Year’s Eve, fireworks, and celebrations filmed several weeks ago presented as if live TV. And most importantly, the results of my fabulous 2013 predictions – as marked by Chris Walsh, as usual. Commentary etc in square brackets.

News

  1. ✗ The Assad regime in Syria will fall. [Bashar al-Assad still President of Syria]
  2. ✓ There will be no changes in US federal gun-control laws. [Obama has called for tighter gun control, but no actual laws yet]
  3. ✓ The Duchess of Cambridge will give birth to a human boy. [21-Jul: Duchess of Cambridge gives birth to the future king]
  4. ✗ At least one Tory MP will defect to UKIP. [Plenty of councillors defected, and one UKIP MEP defected to the Conservatives, but this specific prediction proved false]
  5. ✗ The equal marriage bill for England and Wales will pass in the Commons but not the Lords. [15-Jul: Equal marriage bill for England and Wales has passed its Third Reading in the House of Lords]
  6. ✓ Dangerous idiot Michael Gove will be involved in a scandal over the exam board selection process for the new EBacc exams. [07-Feb: Education Secretary to announce dramatic climbdown over plans to scrap GCSEs]

[Score: 3/6]

Sport

  1. ✓ Manchester United will win the FA Premier League. [22-Apr: Manchester United won their 13th Premier League title by defeating Aston Villa 3-0 at Old Trafford]
  2. ✗ Chelsea FC will change manager at least twice. [Only one change of manager in 2013: Benitez -> Mourinho]
  3. ✓ At least one British person will win a Wimbledon title. [08-Jul: Andy Murray wins Wimbledon 2013 men’s singles final with straight sets victory over Novak Djokovic]
  4. ✓ Mo Farah will win at least one gold medal at the World Athletics Championships. [10-Aug: Won the 10,000m. Also 16-Aug: Won 5,000m]
  5. ✗ Rory McIlroy will win at least two majors in golf. [Wikipedia: “McIlroy began 2013 with high aspirations, but mostly did not fare well in early tournaments… 25th place at the 2013 Masters Tournament… won the 2013 Emirates Australian Open]
  6. ✗ At least one footballer playing in the UK will come out as gay or bisexual. [Robbie Rogers, but he plays in the USA]

[Score: 3/6]

Science and technology

  1. ✓ Microsoft will buy Nokia. [03-Sep: Microsoft to buy Nokia’s mobile phone unit]
  2. ✗ Scientists will announce the synthesis of one or more atoms of element 119 or higher. [Ununseptium remains the most recently synthesised transuranic element, in 2010. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned]
  3. ✓ NASA will declare that Voyager 1 has left the solar system and entered interstellar space. [12-Sep: Voyager 1 departs to interstellar space]
  4. ✗ Scientists will announce the discovery of an ‘Earth twin’ – an Earth-sized exoplanet within the habitable zone of its star. [Kepler 78b is the same size as Earth, and has same proportions of iron and rock, but is so close to the sun that its year lasts 8.5 hours, rendering it a little too toasty to be habitable]
  5. ✓ The year will be one of the ten warmest years in the global record, and warmer than 2012, according to the World Meteorological Organisation. [13-Nov: “The year 2013 is currently on course to be among the top ten warmest years since modern records began. January-September 2013 was warmer than the same period in both 2011 and 2012.” We’re catching up with Kepler 78b!]
  6. ✓ Archaeologists will confirm that the bones dug up in a Leicester car park are those of Richard III. [04-Feb: DNA confirms bones are king’s]

[Score: 4/6]

Entertainment

  1. ✗ Lincoln will receive the Oscar for Best Picture. [Feb-24: Argo]
  2. ✓ Daniel Day-Lewis will receive the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Lincoln.
  3. ✓ Jennifer Lawrence will receive the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook.
  4. ✓ The 50th anniversary of Doctor Who will involve appearances (in newly filmed scenes) from at least one former Doctor. [23-Nov: Tennant and Baker T, plus future Doctor!]
  5. ✗ The BBC will cancel The Sky at Night (probably while pretending not to). [Still running – Maggie Aderin-Pocock announced in December 2013 as a new presenter]
  6. ✓ The UK entry will finish in the third quarter of the rankings (ie, top half of the bottom half) in the Eurovision Song Contest. [1pt. 18-May: 19th out of 26 puts us 73% of the way down the leader board]

[Score: 4/6]

Celebrity Deathwatch

[We decided to award half a point per death to make the scores more compatible with predictions from previous years, since I included double the usual number of names in this section. We also abandoned the idea to score based on ages.]

  1. ✗ Denis Healey (95)
  2. ✓ Nelson Mandela (94) [Died 5-Dec aged 95]
  3. ✗ Mickey Rooney (92)
  4. ✗ Nancy Reagan (91)
  5. ✗ Richard Attenborough (89)
  6. ✗ Robert Mugabe (88)
  7. ✗ George H. W. Bush (88)
  8. ✓ Richard Briers (78) [Died 17-Feb aged 79]
  9. ✗ Barry Humphries (78)
  10. ✗ Shirley MacLaine (78)
  11. ✗ Bill Murray (62)
  12. ✗ Piers Morgan (47)

[Score: 1/6]

[Total score: 15/30]

A staggering score of 50%! This makes 2013 officially my most successful year ever for predictions. And if the trend of alternating better-worse but generally rising is anything to go by, my predictions for 2014 are on course for 40%. Though I can reveal that’s not one of my official 2014 predictions, otherwise we’re adrift in a glittering sea of meta.

Anyway, return soon for the 2014 predictions in all their 40%-likely glory.

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Avaragado’s 2013 predictions

2012! Who could forget the glorious summer? The coronation of Queen (formerly Sir Alan) Amidala? Britain’s abject failure in the 1500m tug-of-raw at the organic Spacelympics? The universal acclaim for the politics of austerity?

As the dregs of the year drip from the meths bottle of tomorrow into the tramp’s mouth of history and dribble through the foetid beard of ornithology onto the mangy dog’s head of clinical studies at Guy’s Hospital, it is time to stare resolutely past the tramp’s outstretched palm of invisibility to what 2013 will bring forth, or perhaps fifth. Here’s what I think:

News

  1. The Assad regime in Syria will fall.
  2. There will be no changes in US federal gun-control laws.
  3. The Duchess of Cambridge will give birth to a human boy.
  4. At least one Tory MP will defect to UKIP.
  5. The equal marriage bill for England and Wales will pass in the Commons but not the Lords.
  6. Dangerous idiot Michael Gove will be involved in a scandal over the exam board selection process for the new EBacc exams.

Sport

  1. Manchester United will win the FA Premier League.
  2. Chelsea FC will change manager at least twice.
  3. At least one British person will win a Wimbledon title.
  4. Mo Farah will win at least one gold medal at the World Athletics Championships.
  5. Rory McIlroy will win at least two majors in golf.
  6. At least one footballer playing in the UK will come out as gay or bisexual.

Science and technology

  1. Microsoft will buy Nokia.
  2. Scientists will announce the synthesis of one or more atoms of element 119 or higher.
  3. NASA will declare that Voyager 1 has left the solar system and entered interstellar space.
  4. Scientists will announce the discovery of an ‘Earth twin’ – an Earth-sized exoplanet within the habitable zone of its star.
  5. The year will be one of the ten warmest years in the global record, and warmer than 2012, according to the World Meteorological Organisation.
  6. Archaeologists will confirm that the bones dug up in a Leicester car park are those of Richard III.

Entertainment

  1. Lincoln will receive the Oscar for Best Picture.
  2. Daniel Day-Lewis will receive the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Lincoln.
  3. Jennifer Lawrence will receive the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook.
  4. The 50th anniversary of Doctor Who will involve appearances (in newly filmed scenes) from at least one former Doctor.
  5. The BBC will cancel The Sky at Night (probably while pretending not to).
  6. The UK entry will finish in the third quarter of the rankings (ie, top half of the bottom half) in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Celebrity Deathwatch

In previous years I’ve named six people. This year I thought I’d round it up to nine, but then discovered three of my names overlapped with Andrew’s (caution: Facebook). Consequently I added three more, to make twelve.

Also, I’m adopting Andrew’s scoring system: each valid death (occurring at any time in the year) scores that person’s age at death subtracted from 100. For example, an 85-year-old’s death would score 15 points, and a 101-year-old’s would score -1 point (thus making it a daft choice). For reference, I’ve included the age of each of my selected celebrities, as at January 1st 2013.

  1. Denis Healey (95)
  2. Nelson Mandela (94)
  3. Mickey Rooney (92)
  4. Nancy Reagan (91)
  5. Richard Attenborough (89)
  6. Robert Mugabe (88)
  7. George H. W. Bush (88)
  8. Richard Briers (78)
  9. Barry Humphries (78)
  10. Shirley MacLaine (78)
  11. Bill Murray (62)
  12. Piers Morgan (47)

Please join me next New Year’s Eve for the official adjudication and other assorted lols.

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Climategates

Perhaps this is just proxy angst on becoming an uncle for the first time. Perhaps it’s the dawning fortysomething awareness of life’s rollercoaster clanking over the summit. Perhaps Cynical Dave is on a pols-doncha-hate-em downer.

But, you know, we’re doomed, aren’t we?

Sixteen million people at latest estimate – two Londons – are affected by the floods in Pakistan. An area equivalent to about four Manhattans – some very large cocktails indeed, one hundred square miles of ice – has calved from the Petermann glacier off the coast of Greenland, in the largest such event since 1962. Moscow is currently enduring temperatures of 40°C with choking, slice-with-a-knife smog, and Russia has banned grain exports as a fifth of the harvest has been lost to fire (wheat prices recently hit a 22-month high). The first six months of 2010 have been the hottest on record. Indeed, each of the last three decades has been warmer than the decade before.

And slowly, quietly, the already weak agreements made at Copenhagen last year to begin to take some faltering steps towards hopefully starting the process of, if it’s not too much trouble, as long as we don’t step on anyone’s toes, perhaps reducing climate change or mitigating its effects, begin to be rolled back.

The focus of much of the media recently? A woman who wears dresses for a living testifying at the war crimes trial of someone most people have never heard of (this was the lead story on BBC News online all day, even as millions in Pakistan suffered). If not that, then Cameron’s latest alleged gaffe. Or the usual: house prices, immigrants, wheelie bins and/or Diana. Phew What a Scorcher stories, yes, but about the holy trinity of blonde, bikini and beach.

We can’t rely on politicians to fix the climate. They think short-term and are beholden to vested interests for funding and support. They won’t even stop the massive waste of resources that is junk mail, lest it interfere with the god-given right of a moron to try to sell conservatories to people who live in flats. Top-down will not work.

We can’t rely on the people to fix the climate. We are never going to give up our luxuries, our sweat-shop brands, our big gay holidays. Multi-coloured recycling bins won’t save the planet. Bottom-up will not work.

We’re doomed, then. Doomed to more floods, drought, fire, smog, fresh water shortages, pollution, dust bowls, failed crops, famine, disease, war. Civilisation fracturing and falling, just as we’re getting the hang of it.

Perhaps this is how all civilisations ultimately fail: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from tragic. Perhaps this is the solution to the Fermi paradox: nobody has visited us because all civilisations self-destruct, their technological towers unable to support their own weight. Standing on the shoulders of giants is all well and good – unless you’re the poor schmuck at the bottom.

Hawking says: we must go to the stars! Well, yes. But let’s be realistic. He’s talking about projects that need timescales we don’t have, political will we don’t have, and money we don’t have.

In an ideal world, a strong-willed political leader would allocate billions of dollars and as much brainpower as possible to competing, blue-sky research into new and more efficient energy sources, and into trying to deal with whatever damage we’re doing to the planet. There are, as far as I can see, no downsides for the nearly seven billion of us who aren’t oil company executives.

Sadly this is not an ideal world. Obama can’t do it because it would never pass: vested interests and their hired help in Congress would make sure of that. China has the money and the manpower, but it doesn’t have the will. Current events in Russia suggest Medvedev has the will, but he also has the oligarchs.

If not Obama or any other politician, then who? The most likely candidate: Bill Gates. He has the money. He sees the business opportunities of disrupting the energy industry. And he can’t be bought by vested interests. Gates spoke at the TED conference in February on the subject. It’s well worth twenty minutes of your time.

His original vision for Microsoft was fulfilled – a PC on every desk and in every home – and those devices now guzzle energy like there was no tomorrow, which is uncomfortably close to the truth. Today the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spends nearly as much each year on global health as the UN World Health Organisation. Gates’ legacy is already assured. But how much greater a legacy he could have: helping to wean the world off fossil fuels and, perhaps, saving the planet from its own dumb, selfish population.

Perhaps.

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“Hurrah for the deniers!”

Publications such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express are eager to portray almost any event as proof of the end of civilisation as we know it. The sky is constantly falling. Around every street corner lurks a hooded paedo with a cancer-causing cucumber, employed by the BBC but with a hidden agenda to raise petrol prices to fund Muslim lawyers intent on forcing Britain to adopt Sharia law.

Standard, if depressing, stuff. They’re trying to sell newspapers and their tactic is to prey upon the fears of their target demographic.

But what this demographic doesn’t fear, it seems, is climate change. This demographic doesn’t believe in such a thing: it’s old enough to remember previous predictions by “so-called scientists” that failed to materialise, such as electricity “too cheap to meter” and space hotels by 2001. It also remembers how “science got it wrong”: thalidomide, Chernobyl. “Large Hadron Collider broken by bird dropping a baguette”. Those scientist fools. And French too, I bet.

When a scientist says that the evidence is clear, that there is strong consensus for man-made climate change and that we have little or no time to prevent its effects, they hear Charlie Brown’s teacher: “wah wah-wah wah wah”. They joke about how nice it’d be if Britain were as warm as the Algarve. They point to our coldest winter for thirty years as damning evidence against “global warming”.

And the newspapers, scenting sales, follow. The Daily Express now denies man-made climate change on its front page. It recently published a list of “100 reasons why climate change is natural” that has been strongly debunked by New Scientist and others. A few days ago its lead story ridiculed a report that claims the world’s had its warmest winter ever (nicely dissected at Enemies of Reason). And it presents small errors in huge reports, or general scientific rivalry, sloppiness and stupidity in email, as the entire house of cards collapsing.

Newspapers prey upon prejudices as well as fears. They feed, digest, multiply by ten, throw in a dodgy foreigner or two, and print. And the readers believe. And the cycle repeats, reinforcing those beliefs.

What does it matter? It’s the papers, not real life. Where’s the harm? The problem is that newspapers are stupidly influential. Newspapers get people on the streets hunting down paediatricians. Newspapers change government policy. In 1992 The Sun claimed It’s the Sun Wot Won It. Rupert Murdoch has the ear of David Cameron, and The Sun might win it again this year.

When a paper claims that X causes/cures cancer, for various values of X, the reader either disengages/engages with X or not: whether the claim is true or not, the world spins on. When a paper wants to Ban This Sick Filth, the reader harrumphs and turns the page, or tries to do something about it. Whether that week’s sick filth is banned or not, the world spins on. When a paper rattles its sabres at the imminent prospect of Sharia law throughout the land, they’re scare-mongering – it’s not going to happen. The world spins on.

But when a paper takes and promotes the position that climate change science is wrong, that we’re seeing natural change, that we have nothing to worry about, the consequences are serious. Politicians stop acting on climate change as it becomes a vote loser – “throwing money at something we don’t need to do while cucumber-wielding immigrant paedo bankers are on the loose”. I fear we’re seeing the start of this already: climate change is not one of the Conservative party’s “six key themes” for the election, and it isn’t front-and-centre on their web site (though there are details in the Policy section).

Broadsheet newspapers such as the Guardian and the Independent do still follow scientific consensus on climate change. But even they cannot resist the allure of the error, promoting a piss in the ocean of evidence to an acid rainstorm in a drought.

I don’t dispute that climate change scientists are on the back foot right now. But just as one fake fossil doesn’t disprove evolution, a bunch of egocentric scientists (pretty much tautological) and a couple of errors in a 2800-page report don’t undermine the remaining evidence. “I’m sorry, Miss Austen, although we very much enjoyed your manuscript Pride and Prejudice, I’m afraid we found a spelling error on page 53. REJECTED.” Small errors break space probes and computer programs: not climate science.

Perhaps the science is fundamentally wrong; perhaps not. But this is not a coin-toss. The odds are not 50-50. If you want to play the percentages, the odds are strongly in favour of the scientific consensus. There’s a distinct possibility that the sky really is starting to descend, that life as we know it will soon begin to change, and change significantly.

My belief is that, fifty years from now, the current crop of Daily Express headlines will look as bone-headed as the Daily Mail‘s 1934 Hurrah for the blackshirts! But by then all the politicians and newspaper editors involved will be long in their graves – and those not yet born will be living with the consequences of their decisions.

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