Saturday, 19 February 2011

Rather fishy

A reasonable way in my mind to combat intrusive, patronising, statist interference in our lives is to point out the many times it is laughable, pointless and wrong.  Could keep me busy for a while but I found a decent example while making dinner last night.  Now  I love mackerel, not ashamed to say.  It's tasty for one, and cheap.  But also it is in my humble opinion very good for you.  I've seen enough written about omega-3 fatty acids to come to that conclusion.  I don't intend to give advice on this blog but if I was to, one of the biggies would be "eat oily fish". 

But enough of the culinary discussion, back to the point of this post.  On much packaged food from supermarkets there is the "traffic light" system of labelling, endorsed by the Food Standards Agency and various other statists who can rest safe in the knowledge the serfs have received the benefit of their "advice".  The only use of the traffic lights for me is that if there is a lot of red, whatever is in the packet is likely to taste nice.  Now the FSA issues other advice, some of which I agree with, for example their suggestion to "eat two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily". And here is the rub.  On my packet of mackerel, it had a red "traffic light" for fat, as under some bureaucratic edict it has sufficient fat content that the public needs to be warned.  No account is made of course for the fact is is actually beneficial fat!  As such consumers are warned to stay away from a product while simultaneously being advised to eat it.  By the same interfering apparatus of the nanny state. 

So as for the whole government apparatus telling me what to take into my body. Thanks but no thanks, please get out of my life.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Glorious mud

Another post on the limitations of science but hey, I like this theme.  Strange for a scientist I know but when you get pissed off that "science" is being used to back up the planning and controlling aspects of statism it's a good one to explore. 

Today I find myself, as usual, walking around a complex of separate buildings with paths connecting them, like a university campus.  But I often don't use the paths, because they are poorly laid out. I walk over the grass, even if it's a bit muddy as today, because it's a better (under my criteria) route.  Every time I do this I'm reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) tale of when a new university campus in the UK was built in the 60s (might have been York), they didn't put in the paths for the first term.  They just let the students find their own routes, then laid tarmac where the grass had been worn down by their footprints.  If this didn't actually happen it should as it's a brilliant idea.  It shows what can be achieved by letting individuals (literally!) find their own route through life rather than planning it for them. 

Now I'm sure there is some scientific study of path planning.  Maybe it's a civil engineering discipline or geography or something.  I can imagine it would use sophisticated computer models and various data analysis.  But I doubt in many cases it will produce as good a result as the story above. Sometimes it's best to give up the analyzing and theorising and simply use what in effect are the results of a huge free experiment. But then if you have a doctorate in path studies, you would probably disagree.  Which leads to one of my hypotheses as to why so many scientists (escpecially the academic ones) are deeply statist.  Without the need for planning and control, quite a lot of them wouldn't have jobs.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

My first Goldacre post

Tim Worstall's blog alerts me to a Ben Goldacre article here.  Now I could easily get obsessed about Goldacre if I'm not too careful, seizing upon his every word until he becomes my nemesis (I'm thinking Baron Silas Greenback to my Penfold).  But his article is interesting as it gives an example of where we disagree.

Goldacre points out quite rightly that we have little scientific evidence as to which healthcare model works best but where we differ is he doesn't acknowledge the awful truth. It's that we should stop looking for "evidence" and admit that science isn't a suitable tool to address an issue so enormously complex as has how to deliver healthcare.  The input data are way to numerous, unobtainable and dirty.  Our modelling capabilities are not sufficient and the variables involved are so numerous I cannot see how you can ever corroborate your hypothesis with experimental results (see my earlier post on climage change on a similar theme).  There is a mechanism however which can do jobs too complex for science, such as working out the best way to allocate resources when providing healthcare.  It's called the free market.  Given enough freedom we would see a plethora of competing models of healthcare provision erupt, and we can choose which one we believe is best.  My choice by the way would be a combined insurance / cash pot type system which gives you the freedom to go to whoever will take your money. 

Now given what I've said before, I could never prove in a scientific sense which model is best, but I would still make a choice.  I would have a pretty good gut feeling when making my choice but that is not science.  However I am happy to admit that and in this way show where I believe the boundaries of science lay.  I would not be making my decision by science but by faith, faith that the free market will provide a good model, faith that if the model turns out to be crap it will soon disappear through no analysis other than the pressure of the free market that gave it birth.  I don't need to use science to prove it, I am happy simply to believe. 

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Last word on Professor Sir Paul Nurse NL PRS

Very childish I know but I was thinking yesterday that soon after Professor Nurse was awarded his Phd he would have been titled Dr Nurse.  Now if that's not material for an "Airplane" style spoof medical film I don't know what is.

Documentaries and Nobel Laureates

I said in a previous post I'd return to Nurse, although that sounds more like an aspiration than a promise.  Anyway, when the BBC released it's spiel about Nurse's Horizon documentary it made big play about the fact he is a Nobel laureate.  Now I'm fascinated with the Nobel prize (well, the physics, chemistry and medicine ones at least).  I have met a Nobel laureate and it's not hard to be in awe.  One of the fascinations I have about the the prize is the individuals involved and the story of their achievement.  Some of the winners have the quality that can only be described as pure genius.  Some of them are clever men and women who got the prize through damn hard work  Some just got lucky. All I will say of Nurse is that I know enough of his work to state he thoroughly earned his prize through major contributions to the understanding of the cell cycle.  I doubt he's in the last category.

But back to the reason I bring all this up.  The media loves to present the Nobel prize as a badge of omniscience, scientific infallibility, unquestionable all-knowingness.  It's not though, as any in-depth analysis of the winners will show, some of them wouldn't have a clue outside their own area.  So in the end, either Nurse is a scientist who is able to transfer his superb knowledge of molecular biology to investigating and communicating the seperate science of climage change, or he's not.  If he is then his Nobel prize is ultimately irrelevant.  If he's not then the public have been mislead by the difference between a prize, and a guarantee.  And if you want an example of what I'm talking about, check out Nobel prize winner Kary Mullis and wonder if the BBC would ask him to present a documentary on HIV?

Lastly a post about Nobel prize winners would not be complete without me taking the opportunity to quote a Nobel laureate who I certainly consider falls into the genius category. James D. Watson, co-discoverer of DNA.  He's talking about the possibilities of genetics.

"People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty. I think it would be great."

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Do the math

I've recently had to pay my road tax, or Vehicle Excise Duty, or whatever it's called these days.  Now one of the joys of having a 2 car household and a modicum of numeracy is the opportunity to see how much you are shafted by bogus green taxation.  Car 1 is certified for road tax as producing 142 g of CO2 / km, Car 2 as 284 g / km (I can't afford to buy a newer, more efficient diesel of the same capability by the way).  The road tax for the former is £125 a year, the latter £245.  Both get driven around 4000 miles a year or around 6500 km.  So Car 1 produces 0.9 tonnes of CO2 per annum, Car 2 produces 1.8 tonnes.  As such, even before taking into account the substantial extra petrol tax I will be paying, I am hit with a "carbon tax" of around £135 per tonne of CO2. To put that into perspective, that would be the same as slapping a £350 a year carbon tax on the heating bill of your 3 bed semi.

Which gets me onto a theme that is becoming widely understood and that I hope to propagate further.  It's that greens (eco-facists, watermelons etc) don't want to stop at preserving the environment, they want to impose their lifestyle and political beliefs on you by force.  They themselves can't understand why I drive a car that has more than 3 cylinders so they just do their best to force me to stop, even if the environmental arguement is bogus or weak. If it is cars now, next it will be foreign holidays and flights. I will repeat many times wherever I can until the wider public gets it. It is not about the environment, it is about control.

Although of course they won't need to control themselves, after all if you are in the nomenklatura driving to a foreign holiday will allways remain an option

Spinach or maybe pills

One of the constants of human society is that some people choose to live the life of the ascetic.  One of the other constants is that those who become ascetics often want you to join them.  While 1000 years ago it was the birch twig and vinegar brigade who promised you salvation, these days the same bunch often find the title "nutrionist" serves the same purpose. The birch twigs become "5 a day" or "no cholesterol".  Now I'm happy for them to personally follow whatever lifestyle floats their boat. The problem is they just can't keep their lifestyles to themselves and as a result they get into bed with the Statists. Statists love nutritionists as they provide justification to interfere with one of the most fundamental liberties we possess, what we can take into our bodies.  So clearly I enjoyed this story which I can't help feel shows them all up somewhat.

Let me go back a bit. There are two issues I have with the "eat more fruit and vegetables" campaign.  One is no-one actually has proof of why eating more of this stuff is good for you even though there is epidemiological evidence that it is.  The second issue is the constant refrain that you can never get the same benefits from taking some sort of pill.  This is universally stressed by nutrionists because the prospect of that would disturb their ascetic mindset immensely. No need for hectoring, no need for restraint. No sacrifice. No denial.  Much the same way that the discovery of cheap fusion power would send greens and activist climate scientists into paroxysms. But if we could actually show what combination of substances is giving us the benefit from vegetables, it is entirely possible that would could extract them or make them in a lab and then put them in a pill, or indeed some sort of delicious synthetic vegetable drink. Which would be great for most people, except those who would find it a little too, well, easy.

Which takes me back to the article which I enjoyed for two reasons. Firstly, it postulates the beneficial substance in spinach is nitrate, a substance usually considered to be rather dicey. The EU has forced us to spend billions taking it out of drinking water as a result.  So on one level it shows we still really don't know the full scientific picture and maybe spending billions before we do isn't a great idea (ring any bells?).  Secondly, nitrate is very cheap and if it is of benefit it would be simple to make a supplement containing the equivalent nitrate content of a portion of spinach.  Combine that with the other components of spinach which makes it good for you (my own guess is calcium, folic acid and the stuff that makes it green), and there you go.  Magic synthetic spinach replacement which in my ideal world would probably take the form of those cola flavoured chewy things you get at cinemas. And that would piss the nutritionists off no end.

Climate change policy statement

Many other blogs by writers with a similar viewpoint to myself cover climate change.  They tend to specialise in it and do a much better job than I ever could.  However if I am blogging about science it is inevitable I will cover this subject and as a first post on the issue I wish to make my views clear.

I believe that:

  • Carbon dioxide, methane, halogenated hydrocarbons, water vapour etc. are able to absorb infra-red radiation and thus act to trap heat within the earth's atmosphere.
  • The climate is in continual flux and has experienced extremes of temperature in recent geological history from which it has recovered to give the climate we now experience.  This continual flux makes it difficult to isolate the impact of any one particular variable upon climate. This remains a major challenge for climate science.
  • That the carbon dioxide concentration of the earth's atmosphere has in recent geological history been much higher than that we currently experience or predict in the next 100 years given our current output.  This has not caused catostrophic runaway warming due to inherent feedback mechanisms.
  • There is no "ideal" climate as it continually changes. The climate we currently experience is the product of random solar and geological activity (eg volcanoes) as well as mankind's actions since the dawn of time.  As an example the hunting of mammoths to extinction led to forests becoming more widespread and the earth's albedo decreasing as a result.  Therefore to suggest the climate of today or 20 years ago is in some way the "ideal" or "correct" climate which we should aspire to preserve is deeply unscientific and wrong.
  • That climate modelling by computer is an immature science that is currently unsupported by experimental results.  Since computer climate modelling began as a science there has been the opportunity to predict future climate given a range of scenarios.  We are now at a point where prior modelling should have been backed up by experimental results (i.e what was predicted 10-15 years ago vs. what is the climate now).  However, the experimental results that have so far been obtained are not able to validate the modelling therefore the modelling cannot currently be relied upon.
  • Climate is a highly complex system that is beyond our current modelling capabilities.  Our models are not sophisticated enough and input data (from past temperature recording, tree rings etc) are noisy, incomplete and insufficient for full scientific analysis.

Given the above I believe the following.

  • Our current scientific knowledge cannot justify the massive economic and social costs of large-scale carbon dioxide emissions reduction.
  • That even if we can accurately predict the climate is changing to a degree outside of historical norms, we further need to model the impact of that change.  It should be noted that historically mankind has thrived more in warmer times than colder.
  • That the best way to protect ourselves from rapid, dramatic and extreme climate change (which could happen anyway, for reasons outside our control) is to have a rich, dynamic world economy which will have the capital and know-how to deal with future events.  The best way to ensure such an economy is to have free markets unencumbered by unjustified environmental restraints.
  • That leftist environmentalists are attempting to use climate change to advance their political beliefs. They in turn have recruited activist climate scientists to their cause who have lost sight of the limitations of their science as a result of their political activity.

Finally I wish to state that as an individual I remain deeply fascinated with the natural world and am the type of person who can get as much enjoyment from a forest walk or studying a wild fern as I could from sipping champagne pool-side in Monte Carlo. Anyone who thinks I do not care about the earth on which I live is plain wrong.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

In defence of Delingpole

James Delingpole is one of my favourite bloggers.  Not only (apologies for the sycophancy) do I find him entertaining, provocative and on the money, I get the impression he's a really nice chap.  In fact I do occasionally dream of us having a man-date together, I think we would get on. The venue would be a tank museum or similar, I could call him Dellers maybe.  We would discuss Operation Overlord then go on to a restaurant for a big steak and get drunk on claret.  Finally one of us would flirt inappropriately with the waitress and we'd both fall asleep in a taxi.

Back to reality, I was (vide supra) obviously annoyed by Sir Paul Nurse PRS and his sneering treatment of Dellers in his recent Horizon Documentary.  It is the political posturing by scientists from their "I'm an eminent scientist you're not so I'm right" platform that really pisses me off.  I'll return to Nurse in future posts but two points for now.  First Nurse's analogy with cancer treatment was bollocks (I'm assuming you've seen the documentary).  Cancer drugs are these days often designed in a computer (i.e let's model the shape of the receptor, lets see if the drug fits etc.), then tested in biological systems because the body is an extremely complex system (like climate) and the computer isn't able to prove the safety or effectiveness of the drug.  My simple response to Nurse would have been "so you would take a cancer drug that hadn't been tested in vivo?"  Because that is the equivalent stage of climate science at the moment in comparison with medical science and someone like Nurse should acknowledge that, not make trite remarks.

My second point is check out Nurse's picture on his Wikipedia page, in particular his coiffure.  If there is one warning to teach your kids, it's that any scientist who cares about his personal appearance is up to something.


First Post

So, first comment on my new blog.  I'm a scientist who is also a libertarian and this blog will cover science and libertarianism (there is a theme here).  I'm also quite angry at the moment which is the current driving force for my writings.  Angry with what I see is the hijacking of science by those with a statist agenda. 

Now lets be clear, science is about knowledge, truth and other wholesome sounding things.  The very idea that we can have communist science, conservative science, or indeed libertarian science is ridiculous.  Science is as close as we can get to the absolute which is why I like it.  But for someone like me who also has a political bent, it becomes clear that how we interpret the results of science, how we apply it's findings to society and how we use it as a basis for human action is shaped by our politics.  And for one reason or another, I reckon the majority of scientists have a leftist statist outlook on the world.  I feel this often leads to science being presented as supporting statism when in fact it is only the interpretation that does, the underlying science does nothing of the sort.  I plan to use this blog to argue from the other side.

I should add an addendum that I have always struggled to put my thoughts into words, I much prefer the world of numbers and diagrams.  As such for me this blog is therapy and practice, as well as an outlet.  I look to improve my writing skills as I go along, please bear with me. Finally I hope this blog will attract some readers and some interest, if only because try typing "libertarian science blog" into google, you don't get much back......