January 2, 2017

“Honest scientific discourse and debate is often rendered impossible in the face of the ‘new catastrophism'”

Filed under: Cancon, Environment, Media, Politics, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

It’s not your imagination — we really do seem to be careening from one ecological disaster to another, all caused by thoughtless human action … well, that’s what the activists are constantly saying:

What is patently obvious from reviewing Canada’s ancient history is that scientists still do not have an adequate understanding of Earth’s complex systems on which to base sound economic and environmental policy. From the upper reaches of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans onwards to the deep interior of the planet our knowledge of complex earth systems is still rather rudimentary. Huge areas of our planet are inaccessible and are little known scientifically. There is still also much to learn from reading the rock record of how our planet functioned in the past.

In so many areas, we simply don’t know enough of how our planet functions.

And yet……

Scarcely a day goes past without some group declaring the next global environmental crisis; we seemingly stagger from one widely proclaimed crisis to another each one (so we are told) with the potential to severely curtail or extinguish civilization as we know it. It’s an all too familiar story often told by scientists who cross over into advocacy and often with the scarcely-hidden sub-text that they are the only ones with the messianic foresight to see the problem and create a solution. Much of our science is what we would call ‘crisis-driven’ where funding, politics and the media are all intertwined and inseparable generating a corrupting and highly corrosive influence on the scientific method and its students. If it doesn’t bleed it doesn’t lead is the new yardstick with which to measure the overall significance of research.

Charles Darwin ushered in a new era of thinking where change was expected and necessary. Our species as are all others, is the product of ongoing environmental change and adaption to varying conditions; the constancy of change. In the last 15 years or so however, we have seemingly reverted to a pre-Darwinian mode of a fixed ‘immutable Earth’ where any change beyond some sort of ‘norm’ is seen in some quarters as unnatural, threatening and due to our activities, usually with the proviso of needing ‘to act now to save the planet.’ Honest scientific discourse and debate is often rendered impossible in the face of the ‘new catastrophism.’

Trained as geologists in the knowledge of Earth’s immensely long and complex history we appreciate that environmental change is normal. For example, rivers and coastlines are not static. Those coasts, in particular, that consist of sandy strand-plains and barrier-lagoon systems are continually evolving as sand is moved by the waves and tides. Cyclonic storms (hurricanes), a normal component of the weather in many parts of the world, are particularly likely to cause severe erosion. When recent events such as Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy cause catastrophic damage, and spring storms cause massive flooding in Calgary or down the Mississippi valley, and droughts and wildfires affect large areas of the American SW these events are blamed on a supposed increase in the severity of extreme weather events brought about by climate change. In fact, they just reflect the working of statistical probability and long term climate cyclicity. Such events have happened in the past as part of ongoing changes in climate but affected fewer people. That the costs of weather and climate-related damage today are far greater is not because of an increased frequency of severe weather but the result of humans insisting on congregating and living in places that, while attractive, such as floodplains, mountain sides and beautiful coastlines, are especially vulnerable to natural disasters. Promises of a more ‘stable future’ if we can only prevent climate change are hopelessly misguided and raise unnatural expectations by being willfully ignorant of the natural workings of the planet. Climate change is the major issue for which more geological input dealing with the history of past climates would contribute to a deeper understanding of the nature of change and what we might expect in the future. The past climate record suggests in fact that for much of the Earth’s surface future cooling is the norm. Without natural climate change Canada would be buried under ice 3 km thick; that is it normal state for most of the last 2.5 million years with 100,000 years-long ice ages alternating with brief, short-lived interglacials such as the present which is close to its end.

H/T to Kate at SDA for the link.

November 14, 2013

Scientific facts and theories

Filed under: Environment, Science, Space — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:32

Christopher Taylor wants to help you avoid mis-using the word “fact” when you’re talking about “theories”:

These days, criticizing or questioning statements on science can get you called an idiot or even a heretic; science has become a matter of religious faith for some. If a scientist said it, they believe it, and that’s that. Yet the very nature about science is not to be an authoritative voice, but a method of inquiry; science is about asking questions and wondering if something is valid and factual, not a system of producing absolute statements of unquestioned truth.

It is true that people need that source of truth and it is true that we’re all inescapably religious creatures, so that will find an outlet somewhere. Science just isn’t the proper outlet for it.


The problem is that there’s no way to test or confirm this theory [plate tectonics]. You can make a model and see it work, you can check out types of rock and examine fault lines, and you can make measurements, but that’s only going to tell you small portions of information in very limited time frames. Because the earth is so huge, and because there are so very many different pressures and influences on everything on a planet, you can’t be sure without observation over time.

And since the theory posits that it would take millions of years to really demonstrate this to be true, humanity cannot test it enough to be certain. So all we’re left with is a scientific theory: a functional method of interpreting data. In other words, it cannot be properly or accurately describe as fact.

This is true about other areas. The word “fact” is thrown around so casually with science and is defended angrily by people who really ought to know better. Cosmology does this a lot. Its a fact that the universe is expanding from an unknown central explosive point (although there is a fair amount of data that’s throwing this into question). We can’t know because we can’t have enough data and there hasn’t been long enough to really test this.

Michael Crichton’s criticism of global warming was along these lines. He didn’t deny anything, he just said its too big and complex a system that we understand far too little about to even attempt to make any absolute or authoritative statements about it. Science has gotten us far beyond our ability to properly measure or interpret the data at hand, but some still keep trying to make absolute statements anyway.


And that’s the heart of a scientific theory. It isn’t like a geometric theorem (a statement or formula that can be deduced from the axioms of a formal system by means of its rules of inference), or a theory that Sherlock Holmes might develop (a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural). A scientific theory is a system of interpreting data (a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena). It’s a step beyond a hypothesis, which is simply speculation or a guess, but is not proven fact.

Confusing theory with fact is really not excusable for an educated person, but some theories are so wedded to worldviews and hopes that they become a matter of argument and even rage. Questioning that theory means you’re an idiot, uneducated, worthless. If you doubt this theory, you’re clearly someone who is wrong about everything and should be totally ignored in life, even showered with contempt.

For all its rich vocabulary, English fails to correctly differentiate among the various uses of the word “theory”, which allows propagandists and outright frauds to confuse the issues and obscure the difference between what science can say about an issue and what believers desperately want to be true.

July 10, 2013

Next up on our agenda of things to panic about is “peak water”

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

sp!ked editor Rob Lyons explains that “peak water” just isn’t something to worry too much about:

Disappointed by the failure of the peak-oil disaster to come to fruition, our doom-mongering, Malthusian friends have alighted on other scary narratives to confirm their suspicions of humanity as a rapacious blight on the planet. Their latest is ‘peak water’.

On the face of it, peak water is a boneheaded concept on a planet where two thirds of the surface is covered in, er, water. According to the US Geological Survey, there are 332 million cubic miles of water on Earth. What we tend to need, however, is not sea water but fresh water, of which there is much less: nearer 2.5 million cubic miles. And much of that is too deep underground to be accessed. Surface water in rivers and lakes is a small fraction of overall fresh water: 22,339 cubic miles. Handily, though, natural processes cause sea water to evaporate and form clouds, which then dump their contents on to land — so in most populated parts of the world there is currently sufficient water to supply our needs in an endlessly renewable way. As for the future, it is clear there is no shortage of H2O on the planet. What we really have is a shortage of cheap energy and the necessary technology to take advantage of the salinated stuff.

The ‘peak water’ theorists focus on groundwater supplies that are either being used faster than they are replenished, or supplies that are not replenished at all: so-called ‘fossil water’. According to leading environmentalist Lester Brown, writing in the Guardian last weekend, the rapid exhaustion of these supplies in some parts of the world is leading to the decline of food production. And at a time of fast-growing populations, this apparently promises disaster for these countries.

But often, the problem is a political rather than a practical one. [. . .]

In reality, all of the fixes that apply to peak oil also apply to peak water. New technology may make water desalination far cheaper than it is now, a claim being made for new water filtration methods based on nanotechnology. Better use of water in irrigation, through careful management of when and how water is applied to crops, could cut usage dramatically — something that is already happening in dry countries such as Israel and Australia and in parts of the US. Current uses of water, like flush toilets, may be superseded in places where water is in high demand. Through civil engineering projects, water can be shifted from places where it is plentiful to places where it is needed most, something societies have been doing for thousands of years.

July 6, 2013

Matt Ridley on the “shale cornucopia”

Filed under: Business, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:15

It’s a big deal. A really big deal:

A new report (The Shale Oil Boom: a US Phenomenon) by Leonardo Maugeri, of Harvard University, sets out just how astonishing this second shale revolution already is. After falling for 30 years, US oil production rocketed upwards in the past three years. In 1995 the Bakken field was reckoned by the US Geological Survey to hold a trivial 151 million barrels of recoverable oil. In 2008 this was revised upwards to nearly 4 billion barrels; two months ago that number was doubled. It is a safe bet that it will be revised upwards again.

The big reason for the upwards revisions is technology rather than discovery. Thanks to faster and cheaper drilling (which means less-rich rocks can be profitable) and things such as “zipper fracturing”, where two parallel wells are drilled and alternately fractured to help to release oil for each other, the oil recovery rate is rising from 2 per cent towards 10 per cent in places. Gas is now nearer 30 per cent. Well productivity has doubled in five years.

Now the Bakken is being eclipsed by an even more productive shale formation in southern Texas called the Eagle Ford. Texas, which already produces conventional oil, has doubled its oil production in just over two years and by the end of this year will exceed Venezuela, Kuwait, Mexico and Iraq as an oil “nation”.

[. . .]

Mr Maugeri calculates that at $85 a barrel most shale oil wells repay their capital costs in a year. He estimates that even if oil prices fall steadily to $65 in five years, shale oil production will treble in the US because of increasing productivity per well and the easing of transport bottlenecks. By 2017, he thinks, America will be producing nearly 11 billion barrels a day [correction 11 million], equal to its previous peak in 1970. It would need much less in the way of imports. US oil imports peaked at 60 per cent in 2005 and will be below 40 per cent this year.

Internationally the effect is very different for oil compared with gas. Gas is costly to export by sea, requiring liquefaction. This roughly doubles the cost of it, meaning that America’s cheap shale gas boosts its economy at home, and gives it a competitive advantage in attracting energy-intensive industries. (US gas prices are a third or a quarter of what they are here.) Mexico, too, is benefiting because of having a land border with America and pipelines.

[. . .]

There would be losers. America’s falling appetite for imports may hit Nigeria and Angola harder than the Middle East because of the types of oil they produce, while Canada and Venezuela, whose tarry oil sands are high-cost, would also suffer if oil prices fell. But every oil producer would eventually feel the effect of this falling US demand, so there is no doubting the downward pressure on world oil prices that this revolution is likely to cause.

July 3, 2012

Bad news (for panicmongers, anyway)

Filed under: Economics, Environment — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:32

In the Guardian, George Monbiot (known to his detractors as “The Great Moonbat”) admits the terrible truth. He was wrong, again:

The facts have changed, now we must change too. For the past 10 years an unlikely coalition of geologists, oil drillers, bankers, military strategists and environmentalists has been warning that peak oil — the decline of global supplies — is just around the corner. We had some strong reasons for doing so: production had slowed, the price had risen sharply, depletion was widespread and appeared to be escalating. The first of the great resource crunches seemed about to strike.

Among environmentalists it was never clear, even to ourselves, whether or not we wanted it to happen. It had the potential both to shock the world into economic transformation, averting future catastrophes, and to generate catastrophes of its own, including a shift into even more damaging technologies, such as biofuels and petrol made from coal. Even so, peak oil was a powerful lever. Governments, businesses and voters who seemed impervious to the moral case for cutting the use of fossil fuels might, we hoped, respond to the economic case.

[. . .]

Peak oil hasn’t happened, and it’s unlikely to happen for a very long time.

A report by the oil executive Leonardo Maugeri, published by Harvard University, provides compelling evidence that a new oil boom has begun. The constraints on oil supply over the past 10 years appear to have had more to do with money than geology. The low prices before 2003 had discouraged investors from developing difficult fields. The high prices of the past few years have changed that.

August 29, 2011

American Chemical Society presentation or science fiction convention panel?

Filed under: Science — Tags: — Nicholas @ 09:15

If all you had to go on was the first paragraph, it’d sure sound like the SF convention, not the ACS expo:

How do diamonds the size of potatoes shoot up at 40 miles per hour from their birthplace 100 miles below Earth’s surface? Does a secret realm of life exist inside the Earth? Is there more oil and natural gas than anyone dreams, with oil forming not from the remains of ancient fossilized plants and animals near the surface, but naturally deep, deep down there? Can the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, be transformed into a pure solid mineral?

Those are among the mysteries being tackled in a real-life version of the science fiction classic, A Journey to the Center of the Earth, that was among the topics of a presentation here today at the 242nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). Russell Hemley, Ph.D., said that hundreds of scientists will work together on an international project, called the Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO), to probe the chemical element that’s in the news more often than perhaps any other. That’s carbon as in carbon dioxide.

April 15, 2010

Volcano eruptions, historically speaking

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:06

An interesting slideshow at New Scientist shows that the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull-Fimmvörduháls in Iceland barely even ranks as an eruption, compared to past geological events (not limited to volcanic action).

Incidentally, if you want to know how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, there’s a Wikimedia file here. To be honest, even after hearing it pronounced correctly, I can’t reproduce it . . .

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