Saturday 30 December 2023

"What the Science Says"

For context, in philosophical terms I am (approximately) what is termed a scientific realist, meaning that (a) there are objective truths about the physical world, whether we know them or not - 'Realism' - and (b) science is our best tool for edging towards knowledge in that realm.  I say 'edging' because there's nothing linear, predictable, or even inevitable about how scientific knowledge advances.  Arguably, it sometimes even goes backwards.

There are complexities along the spectrum which we may identify as stretching from maths & formal logic at one end, to "social science" at the other.  Maths and logic advance ratchet-wise: since the late 19th C, what constitutes a proof is not in contention, and new results layer atop old ones in an ever-growing edifice built on firm foundations.  It's fair to say there are some philosophical challenges in figuring out the 'meaning' of some results in formal logic: but results they are.

At the far end of this continuum, use of inverted commas is essential: how much of "social science" really deserves the moniker?  Even linguistics has thus far disappointed, for all the claims that Chomsky's work is a science.  But formal logic sets the standard; physics and chemistry, at least, reckon to be bound by it, and I think we broadly know what we mean by (real) Science.

That said, professional scientists frequently let the side down in a big way, with weaknesses in several dimensions (not necessarily all at once):

  • they tend to forget that, Newtonian physics having been well and truly shown to be in error (even though admirably and formidably consistent mathematically), almost any current theory is up for revision.  They sort-of know this, but often don't behave accordingly.
  • many, if not most of them are cowards (i.e. 'just human'), and won't go against the prevailing dogma - whatever their own results and reasoning suggest.  The dominant dogma in question might be the current scientific paradigm, or some crazy political diktat, but they ain't gonna be the ones to rock the boat.  This makes their claims to objectivity and purity of method particularly galling.
  • many are venal (i.e. 'just human') and money speaks very loudly, in science as elsewhere ...    
We are living in a ba-ad time for science, which betrays all of the above shortcomings aplenty.  Exhibit 'A' is "climate science", and I give you two concurrent headlines from the Graun today: 
Climate scientists hail 2023 as ‘beginning of the end’ for fossil fuel era 
World will look back at 2023 as year humanity exposed its inability to tackle climate crisis, scientists say
OK, it's possible to force-fit a ropey kind of reconciliation onto these two statements.  Conversely, it's possible to retort they prove that scientists are indeed capable of disagreeing in public.  But what interests me more is how (i) "scientists say" can be enlisted to make any point that suits the writer; and thus (ii) how ridiculous it is for anyone to say that "we should follow the science", as if that would result in an unique course of action.

Personally, I strongly suspect that climate scientists (in inverted commas, if you prefer) are in agonies right now, not daring to admit that when they say "it's almost too late to save the world from ... [fill in favourite apocalyptic prediction here]", their own calculations - right or wrong - tell them it's actually wa-ay too late.  I say this with due respect for their earlier pronouncements - in fact, complete respect because, for the sake of argument, I accept them as valid.  My suspicion is a self-contained observation about those scientists' agonised state of mind, an observation that requires no judgement on, and makes no comment on, the Realist "right-or-wrong" aspect.  And why the agony?  Because they fear that if the world knew they really think the game's up, there wouldn't be quite as much appetite for their next project or policy proposal, be that an altruistic fear or one motivated by self-interest.

Exhibit 'B' is of course the disgraceful way in which many university biology departments are allowing themselves to be strong-armed into pernicious, arrant nonsense about sex and gender.  But that one's for another day.

Notwithstanding the foregoing ... Happy New Year!  The tradition 'NY predictions' compo to follow in a day or two.


Friday 22 December 2023

Piers Morgan vs Sweary Goalkeeper - no contest!

It's Morgan again - & this time he chooses to pick a fight with the nation's choice of its beloved Sweary Goalkeeper as Sports Personality of the Year.

The man has completely taken leave of his senses!  Just as Boaty McBoatface was justly the nation's resolute choice in one popular contest, so is Mary Earps this time around.  We're British.  We're like that.

"Shouldn’t it have been given to someone who actually won something in 2023?", he bleats.  No, dickhead, it's a Personality contest, clue in the name etc etc.  Aren't red-top journalists supposed to have their finger on the popular pulse?  Who exactly pays his salary - and why?

Festive greetings to all!


Wednesday 20 December 2023

"Interpreting COP28" - easy!

Lineker Lookalike compo, UAE entry

Each COP since at least COP21 in Paris has claimed to be the "last-chance-to-save-the-world, one-minute-to-midnight" etc.  Each one breaks up with tearful hugs all round - "we've done it!" - and those confected whoops of joy one becomes accustomed to in TV shows where, at key moments, someone at the front lofts a placard reading Everyone Whoop Now Like Demented Gibbons! and the live audience complies with distressing readiness.

Then we read The Text.  The buyer's-remorse hangovers start almost immediately.  What does it mean?  FFS, you can drive a coach and horses through that!    Well of course: what did you expect?

This time we have the following (my emphasis): 

... calls on Parties to contribute to the following global efforts, in a nationally determined manner, taking into account the Paris Agreement and their different national circumstances, pathways and approaches: (a) Tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030; (b) Accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power; (c) Accelerating efforts globally towards net zero emission energy systems, utilizing zero- and low-carbon fuels well before or by around mid-century; (d) Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science; (e) Accelerating zero- and low-emission technologies, including, inter alia, renewables, nuclear, abatement and removal technologies such as carbon capture and utilization and storage, particularly in hard-to-abate sectors, and low-carbon hydrogen production; (f) Accelerating and substantially reducing non-carbon-dioxide emissions globally, including in particular methane emissions by 2030; (g) Accelerating the reduction of emissions from road transport on a range of pathways, including through development of infrastructure and rapid deployment of zero-and low-emission vehicles ...

One can have a bit of fun parsing all the UN-speak boilerplate guff (which lobby is being appeased with which empty form of words etc), but let's stay with the salient bits.

Tripling renewable energy capacity by 2030.   This mostly means wind and solar.  Setting aside the gross implausibility of this target; greenies, please note that wind & solar capacity is a very poor guide to wind & solar output of electricity.  Average for solar: around 10% of nominal rated capacity: for wind, maybe 25%.  Challenging.  And that's before the system balancing issue is addressed, not to mention the grid issues (multiple). 

Towards net zero emission energy systems.  What are 'energy systems'?  A vexed point - see below - and very relevant for ...

Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems ... to achieve net zero by 2050.  This was supposedly the Great Triumph: the first ever explicit mention at a COP of fossil fuels!  Of course, many wanted Phase Out or even Phase-Down, in preference to Transition Away.  Hard luck.  Look around you - who was hosting? (and who'll be hosting next time ..?)

Nuclear / CCUS.  Nuke is the big win for France; and CCUS for the oil industry.  Many greens hate both with a vengeance.  More tough luck.  Look around you.

So - what are 'energy systems'?  The obvious interpretation is power generation, plus heating.  This former is the only sector where serious (albeit flawed) detailed work has gone into what Net Zero might actually mean.  But of course it ain't enough for many.  Here's a bleat from the Graun

... the ambiguous term ‘energy systems’ in the agreement, and how it should be understood ... This ambiguous term is what enabled textual agreement between the 130 countries at Cop28 that wanted a phase-out of fossil fuels and the oil- and gas-producing states who didn’t. The former are absolutely clear that energy systems should be taken to include transport energy – they would not have signed it otherwise. The latter want you to believe it doesn’t... This is a battle for interpretation. It is vital that all supporters of climate action insist that Cop28 has called for the gradual transition to a non-fossil fuel future. Saying the opposite will be self-fulfilling.

The Graun correspondent's 'evidence' is a bit of background puff-wording he likes, that appeared on a UN website.  Nothing direct or specific.  My counter-suggestion would be that, particularly as to transportation, there's a completely separate and explicit little subsection on that sector [(g) above] which makes no such prescription; but only 'reduction of emissions from road transport' (not even air travel or shipping; and certainly not agriculture).  So, no - transport is not in 'energy systems'.  And there it is.  Simples.

But the battle for interpretation will rage on.   Bald men, comb ... COP28's 'text', unlike that of Paris 2015, is not a Treaty, it's entirely pour encourager.  Onwards to COP 29 and, errr, Azerbaijan!


Tuesday 19 December 2023

Harry vs Piers: couldn't they both lose?

Whenever I see someone who's done one Very Good Thing, but is otherwise seriously reprehensible, I am reminded of Auberon Waugh's dictum on Rupert Murdoch:  for crushing the print unions, Murdoch deserves a dukedom.  For everything else - one of the less pleasant circles of Hell.  Piers Morgan has long been in this category, his One Good Thing being unremitting onslaught on the hypocrisies of the House of Sussex.  For the rest, well, how has he escaped sanction here on earth, let alone Hell in the life to come?

Ironic, then, that Harry Sussex might also be working his way towards doing One** Good Thing as he lights a fuse under Morgan.  Harry has his Dukedom already, of course - maybe we can regard that as a down-payment.  And, come to think about it, he already has his circle of Hell ... well, purgatory, anyhow.

Hopefully, they can both lose.  Hopefully also, Harry is redeemable.  We must all hope for redemption.



** Let's also grant him full credit for some of his pre-Markle charity endeavours.    

Thursday 14 December 2023

Education: competing theories on how to make it worse

Ever a reliable source of glimpses into leftie angst, this week the Grauniad provides us with these competing accounts, within two days of each other:  

Scottish schools have tumbled from top of the class Pupils became unwitting guinea pigs of faddish, unproven theories – and paid a high price ... England’s performance on the other hand, with some caveats, held up relatively well, even with the impact of the pandemic, and it has moved up the international tables ... there is little doubt that, educationally, England is performing significantly better than Scotland.

Peers call for urgent overhaul of secondary education in England:  there is too much learning by rote and many key Tory changes should be reversed 

The former article goes on to make it explicitly clear that for the Scots "faddish, unproven theories", we should read "progressive claptrap": read it if you're interested in more of the details.  In terms of those baleful "Tory changes" in England, here's what the Graun says, contrasting them most favourably with Scotland: 

The comparison with England is instructive ... To take the example of maths, there has been significant investment in effective models of teaching from the highest-performing systems in the world. The data shows that it is paying off, in line with the international evidence that high-quality, evidence-based curriculums are a very good and cost-effective way of improving education outcomes.

It's pretty clear that for anyone broadly on the right with the slightest regard for social equity (whether for altruistic or self-serving reasons), providing good education for the masses to facilitate any latent potential for meritorious advance is one, if not the main, central plank of policy.   It ought to be so for lefties, too.

Sadly, education, and what constitutes "good" in this context, are highly contested, not least because for lefties (and Jesuits) it is an ideological battleground and they have more interest in politically-motivated indoctrination than in what might be termed "objective learning".  (That's when they don't have outright malice and social sabotage in mind.)  In leftist countries like China (and, in former days, Soviet Russia), they are simultaneously keen on both ideology and solid learning.  Because they are in charge, they have practical concerns and an economy to build.  

In the west, the left carelessly takes the economy for granted and cares not a fig for genuine learning: they (the left elite) already know all that needs knowing, and the lower orders don't need to be equipped with anything beyond some slogans of the elite's devising.  They've obviously succeeded triumphantly in Scotland - once rightly proud of its education system - and wish to set about English schools in turn.  A plague on them: recall what Christ said about the fate of those messing with the wellbeing of the young.


Friday 8 December 2023

Musk, Twitter & free speech

Having a brain the size of a planet doesn't in any way guarantee clear thinking or intelligent decision-making.  But large cranial capacity coupled to a high degree of bias towards action, rather depends upon there being sound judgement in tow, if crazy things aren't to result.  Exhibit A, one E.Musk, who by all accounts is exceptionally clever; is demonstrably ultra-strong in the initiative department; and whose practical ventures include some astonishing achievements.  And yet, his track record with Twitter from the very start has been one of crass ineptitude - a rich man's folly, ill thought-out.  

Can his primary ventures (Tesla, SpaceX) be so comfortably on autopilot now, that he has spare time to engage properly in this manic, frivolous hobby?  Presumably not: and perhaps that's why we see such an utter fiasco unravelling.  Is there a sound business plan for Twitter lurking somewhere there, merely being hindered temporarily by some unforeseen teething troubles?  We hear clearly enough the statement that is supposed to sum it up, Twitter supposedly being strategically positioned at "a unique and amazing intersection of Free Speech and Main Street" - but that sounds to me like so many a brilliant plan to exploit some cunningly identified synergy-on-paper (if not merely a post-rationalised excuse).  Might sound great, but where's the proof it'll work?  Every VC and PE fund hears twenty glib pitches like this each month.  Zuckerberg got there first, anyway.

Speaker's Corner at Marble Arch is at just such an intersection, but I don't see anyone building a business empire on it.  I do, however, see all manner of madmen ranting there of an afternoon with the occasional fist fight breaking out.  Which brings us to another aspect of all this: Free Speech, an issue on which Musk declares himself to be a fundamentalist.

Another failure of judgement, because there are no fundamental positions on Free Speech this side of North Korea (where they simply set the dial at absolute zero).  Everything else is a position on a spectrum - even in the Land of the Free with their hallowed 1st Amendment.  There are all manner of things you'll be prosecuted for saying or writing, in the USA as elsewhere (including Speakers' Corner).  The argument that a medium like Twitter is "just a platform" is as vacuous as if the Times declared itself to be just some sheets of paper with black ink on them.  The only pertinent difference is, it's easier to pin down the Times.  Oh, and perhaps also that the Times isn't so beloved of da yoof.  It is, however, owned by someone with pretty much the same amount of political clout as the Musks of this world, so it can't simply be that the tech magnates hold more sway in Washington etc.  Let's see what the next US election brings - or rather, what happens afterwards, in 2025.  Social media carnage is pretty much guaranteed next year, along with maximal Russian attempts at interference.  

In any event: does anyone see where Musk is going with Twitter - and can a genuinely compelling commercial narrative be framed?  Business case - or nutcase?