Monday, January 28, 2008

Trapped in the Aboriginal reality show

Trapped in the Aboriginal reality show by Marcia Langton

Please read this article by aboriginal leader, Marcia Langton. It is an extract from a book by her which will be released on February 8th

She details some of the horrors that plague aboriginal communities, horrors that are hard to face but which we must face:
... a four-year-old girl drowned while being raped by a teenager who had been sniffing petrol; two very young children, including a seven-month-old baby, sexually assaulted by adult men while their mothers were elsewhere drinking alcohol. Both children needed surgery for their injuries. Another baby was stabbed twice by a man attempting to kill her mother
She asks why people don't want this information to come out:
Miranda Devine, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, asked: "Why did Tony Jones feel the need to ask Rogers, 'Are you worried that the information itself may be abused by tabloids and racists even, shock jocks - the sort of people who will take information like this and exploit it?' Are there really people so morally confused that they see opposition to the rape of babies as a shock-jock phenomenon?"

The question Devine should have asked was, "Are there really Aboriginal people so morally confused that they see the rape of babies as normal and not warranting any intervention?" I am sad to report that the answer to that question is yes. There are such people, and it is them - rather than snivelling racists or the shock jocks who exploit Aboriginal misery for fame - who undermine attempts to prevent the rape of Aboriginal children and other crimes against our most vulnerable citizens
She condemns the embedded thinking of many Australians towards aboriginal issues:
It seems almost axiomatic to most Australians that Aborigines should be marginalised: poor, sick and forever on the verge of extinction. At the heart of this idea is a belief in the inevitability of our incapability, the acceptance of our "descent into hell". This is part of the cultural and political wrong-headedness that dominates thinking about the role of Aboriginal property rights and economic behaviour in the transition from settler colonialism to modernity.

In this mindset, the potential of an economically empowered, free-thinking, free-speaking Aborigine has been set to one side because it is more interesting to play with the warm, cuddly, cultural Aborigine, the one who is so demoralised that the only available role is as a passive player. The dominance of the "reconciliation and justice" rhetoric in the Australian discourse on Aboriginal issues is a part of this
Australia's shame

Friday, January 25, 2008

minsky's attempt to explain hard problem solving

Some thoughts about a recent artichoke blog ("I'd love to kiss you, but I just washed my hair...") which I thought oversimplified learning theory. This includes an excursion to a Stephen Downes article which was linked to by arti. Some thoughts about the virtues and deficiencies of Skinner's behaviourism are revisited. By degrees this leads me into a borrowed review of Marvin Minsky's book, The Emotion Machine, not necessarily as a solution to the problem but as an illustration of the complexity of learning ...

We learn things by practice and repetition. Very true. This is simple behaviourism. The law of effect. A response to a stimulus which is rewarded tends to be repeated. (behaviourism and the inner environment)

Stephen Downes says he is not a behaviourist but when he talks about learning he sounds behaviourist to me:
When you learn, you are trying to create patterns of connectivity in your brain. You are trying to connect neurons together, and to strengthen that connection. This is accomplished by repeating sets of behaviours or experiences. Learning is a matter of practice and repetition.

Thus, when learning anything - from '2+2=4' to the principles of quantuum mechanics - you need to repeat it over and over, in order to grow this neural connection. Sometimes people learn by repeating the words aloud - this form of rote learning was popular not so long ago. Taking notes when someone talks is also good, because you hear it once, and then repeat it when you write it down.
I agree with that, as far as it goes:
Learning can be viewed as self design. There doesn't appear to be a more powerful way to think about design than thinking of it as an evolution wrought by generate and test!
- behaviourism and the inner environment
Arti links to Stephen's article and then goes onto suggest that:
Enhancing student “engagement”, “authenticity of task”, and or “belonging” does not cause improved student learning outcomes anymore than “just washed hair“ prevents you kissing someone you desire
- "I'd love to kiss you, but I just washed my hair..."

My position: Behaviourism works. We are all behaviourists even though it has been unfashionable to admit it because Skinner took it too far and annoyed everyone by making us feel non creative.

But that is only the beginning of the story

It is way premature to take “engagement”, “authenticity of task”, and or “belonging” out of the learning loop just because their connection to learning is not as obvious as the simple behaviourist case.

I believe that when we begin to tease apart the inputs that arti rejects that problems arise. "Engagement" and "belonging" could be described as being more in the "emotional" category and “authenticity of task” might be more in the "cognitive" category. If you understand a topic more deeply then you can teach the important things first - or setup a task which assists this. I would argue that those with the superior concept map of a problem domain could be capable of teaching that domain better, provided they know how to teach, of course. How to take a learner from point A to point B. They would be capable of developing more authentic tasks because they understand the more important (and less important) parts of the problem domain. When I studied quadratics deeply - by writing a logo program to teach quadratics behaviouristically - I was able to teach them more effectively. See quadratics and behaviourism.

I still like Papert's idea of "objects to think with" (isdp) and that some materials (such as the logo programming language) are better with regard to the following criteria:
  • appropriability (some things lend themselves better than others to being made one's own)
  • evocativeness (some materials are more apt than others to precipitate personal thought)
  • integration (some materials are better carriers of multiple meaning and multiple concepts)
For these sorts of reasons I believe it is premature to throw away "engagement", "belonging" and “authenticity of task” even though the connection of these things to learning is not simple and still poorly understood.

Skinnerian behaviourism does not explain complicated human learning. It only explains simple animal learning, including some human learning.

I discussed this in Dennett's creatures:
  • Darwinian creatures - random mutation and selection by environment
  • Skinnerian creatures - favourably actions are reinforced and then tend to be repeated
  • Popperian creatures - have an inner environment that can preview and select amongst possible actions
  • Gregorian creatures - import mind-tools (words) from the outer cultural environment to create an inner environment which improve both the generators and testers
  • Scientific creatures - an organised process of making and learning from mistakes in public, of getting others to assist in the recognition and correction of mistakes
So, how do we explain more complex human behaviour such as recognising that a problem is hard, that we can't solve it and then selecting alternative appropriate strategies to try in different ways?

This is my context for introducing Marvin Minsky's book, The Emotion Machine. A draft is also available online. Not because Minsky is correct but because he looks at the harder questions. It's preferable to be wrong about the harder questions than to oversimplify human learning (which I think perhaps arti and stephen are doing)

I've read parts of Minsky's book and would recommend this summary from amazon readers reviews, which I reproduce in full:
1. We don't recognize a problem as hard until we've spent some time on it without making any significant progress. For if you can diagnose the particular type of problem you face, then you can use that knowledge to switch to a more appropriate way to think.

2. Critic-selector model of thinking: Each critic object can recognize a certain species of problem type. When a critic sees enough evidence, the critic will activate a "selector", which tries to start up a set of resources that it has learned is likely too act as a way to think that may help in this situation.

3. If a problem seems familiar, use reasoning by analogy. If it seems unfamiliar, change the way you're describing it. If it seems too difficult, divide it into several parts. If it still seems difficult, replace it by a simpler problem. If none of these work, ask someone for help.

4. If too many critics are aroused, then describe the problem in more detail. If too few critics are aroused, then make the description more abstract. If important resources conflict then you should try to discover a cause. If there has been a series of failures, then switch to a different set of critics.

5. Emotional reactions: cautious vs. reckless, unfriendly vs. amicable, visionary vs. practical, inattentive vs. vigilant, reclusive vs. sociable, and courageous vs. cowardly; each such emotional way to think can lead to different ways to deal with things-either by making you see things from new points of view or by increasing your courage or doggedness. If too many critics are active then your emotions would keep changing too quickly. And if those critics stopped working at all, then you'd get stuck in just one of states.

6. The best way to solve a problem is to already know a way to solve it. Searching extensively. When one has no better alternative, one could try to search through all possible chains of actions. But that method is not often practical because such searches grow exponentially.

7. Reasoning by analogy: when a problem reminds you of one that you solved in the past, you may be able to adapt that case to the present case situation.

8. Divide and conquer: if you can't solve a problem all at once, then break it down into smaller parts.

9. Reformulation: find a different representation that highlights more relevant information. Understand in a different way.

10. Planning: consider the set of subgoals and examine how they affect each other.

11. Techniques for problem solving: simplifying, elevating, and changing the subject.

12. More reflective ways to think: wishful thinking, self-reflection, impersonation.

13. Other modes of thinking: 1) logical contradiction: try to prove that your problem cannot be solved, and then look for a flaw in that argument. 2) Logical reasoning. We often try to make chains of deduction. 3) External representation. Drawing suitable diagrams 4) Imagination. What would happen if by simulating possible actions inside the mental models that one has built.

14. Creating higher level selectors and critics help to reduce the sizes of the searches we make.

15. Modes of thought: preparation, incubation, revelation, and evaluation.

16. Creative ideas must be combined with the knowledge and skills already possess-so it must not be too different from ideas with which we're already familiar.

17. If too may critics are active then you notice flaws to correct and spend much time repairing them and never get at the important things and people perceive us as depressed. If too many critics are turned off then you ignore alarms and concerns that would help you concentrate allowing errors and flaws. The fewer the critics active, then the fewer goals pursued, making one intellectually dull.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

teachers union opposes viable plan to help the most disadvantaged group in australia

Everyone knows that aboriginal education is a disaster zone
... the relative failures affecting students in the mainstream pale in comparison to the absolute educational failures diminishing the life prospects of thousands of students in remote indigenous communities.

A significant minority of students from these areas leave school without having acquired any literacy or numeracy skills, and are therefore unlikely to participate in the real economy. This is the most critical disaster in Australian education
- Incentives will bring top teachers
Noel Pearson has a viable plan to do something about it. Read the above article. Pearson's plan borrows from the McKinsey report.

Who is against this? The teachers union.
Adam Lampe, from the Australian Education Union, says any introduction would be fiercely resisted.

"We would fight wholeheartedly against the introduction of any kind of performance pay," Mr Lampe said
- Plan to entice teachers to remote Australia
So the union is against a viable plan to help the most disadvantaged people in Australia.

The role of the unions is to help the disadvantaged? Maybe at one stage, earlier on in their history. Not any more. The role of the union is to help their middle class members. Too bad about the disadvantaged.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

ecology and reality

The plea to save species needs to be evaluated from the perspective that ecosystems are not stable, never have been and never will be.

Ecology talk:
Nature is beautiful and complex. Everything is connected to everything else. Diversity is good. If you upset one part of the web of life then that will destablise the health, harmony, order, balance and equilibrium of the whole system. Man is a threat to the balance of nature and thus to himself. Nature knows best.

A lot of the above passes for conventional wisdom. But nature has never been like this and never will be.

There is no balance of nature. Continual upheaval and chaos is the norm. Diversity does not necessarily enhance stability. Left to its own devices nature will continue on paths of chaotic development as it always has. Biocentric equality is not in the best interests of humans. Some environments favour some species. Other environments favour other species. There is no environment that will favour all species. The demand to save all species is bound to fail.

In a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Myths of Nature by Alston Chase

images of the computer, revisited

In 1991 (pre-web) I wrote an essay which outlined 4 images or metaphors of the computer. It was published then in the union journal and on some old networks that probably don't exist anymore:

Image 1: The computer as a dangerous tool that threatens the emotional well being of our students

Image 2: The computer as a substitute teacher that threatens and dehumanises teaching as a profession

Image 3: The computer as a productive tool that helps prepare students for the world of work where productivity is a big issue

Image 4: The computer as an expressional, creative and reconstructible tool ... an intelligent assistant that enhances our self awareness

Although these need some updating, much of the detail has changed, they still hold up fairly well IMO. My initial argument was that people internalise these contradictory metaphors to varying degrees and that it was a worthwhile exercise to bring them to the surface to examine their social meaning.

Image 1: In 1991 the main worry of the worry warts was computer games. Now we also have porn, pedophiles and on line bullying to worry about

Image 2: This one has changed the most in that we now have a web2.0 movement that offers far more socially than only individualised computer aided instruction. This image has more positive spin now, a bit too much IMO. However, I would accept that image 2 definitely needs rewording

Image 3 is still what schools mainly strive for and image 4 is what they should be doing but still find too hard

Overall, this makes me think that we are running fast but not making a great of progress. I would still see it as useful to argue about our uses of computers in these terms.

Teemu talks nonsense about the OLPC

Thank you OLPC - Maybe now we may start to talk about education again by Teemu Leinonen

There is room for improved educational discussion about the OLPC but Teemu's critique is poorly researched nonsense

He says that the OLPC does not follow in the Doug Engelbart tradition but instead follows Papert's constructionism, which he equates with learning programming, which he sees as very limiting.

This is so wrong in every respect.

What is the Doug Engelbart tradition? Teemu correctly says network augmented human intelligence, which of course is quite consistent with the OLPC mesh networking and community user interface. It would be far more accurate to say that the OLPC is a manifestation of the Doug Engelbart dream and that the work of Papert (logo, constructionism) and Kay (dynabook, OOPs) have built on and enriched that original dream.

The OLPC comes with a few invaluable programming environments (etoys, turtle art and python) which of course is a vast improvement on current western commercial computers which come with no programming environments.

But to equate Papert's constructionism or the OLPC as preoccupied with programming to the exclusion of all else ("the OLPC seems to believe that learning programming is the key to all other learning") is ridiculous. Papert has developed learning theory far beyond that, eg. his theory of mathetics as outlined in The Children's Machine, with ideas such as (from my old essay Invitation to Immersion):
  • Play is OK
  • The emotional precedes the cognitive
  • Our knowledge is like our relationships with other people
  • Trust your intuition
  • Take risks!
  • Take your time
  • A good discussion promotes learning
Anyone who knows anything about Papert knows about his polemic against technocentrism. So when Teemu says, in bold, "The OPLC has a naive believe on computer technology (per se) as a silver bullet in education" he is refuting voices in his head, not anything that anyone working on OLPC believes in.

Other critiques:
Why Computers? by Tom Hoffman
Thank you OLPC, indeed - a comment to Teemu Leinonen by Ismael Peña-López

Friday, January 18, 2008

"The Fish That John West Rejects" and other great comments

Some great nitty gritty comments in response to the Brian Caldwell article: Are we serious about an education revolution?

David 09 Jan 2008 8:53:55am
... a bad school is most often one with a weak head who pays undue attention to the reporting requirements of the educational bureaucracy ... we should empower the heads and the teachers far more and weed out those heads whose raison d'etre is more one of looking good than leading the school

Tom 09 Jan 2008 8:51:58am
... I tend to think that what we have in at the moment really can't have much changed to it RE: the teachers themselves (sure facilities etc can be upgraded) so the best place to attack at the start is the training grounds and start a new generation of teachers. A few years to get implemented, and a few years to start and complete the training of a new batch, it may take some time, but I can't see australia's education 'revolution' occuring within the lifespan of one governement, unless they stay in power for over a decade and a half.

BlzBob 08 Jan 2008 3:53:24pm
Public Schools should get triple the funding of private schools, because they are expected to deal with "The Fish That John West Rejects"

Tony Grant 08 Jan 2008 3:48:48pm
The education revolution will have its casualties, for many educators will need to "lift" their performances ...

Penny 08 Jan 2008 2:59:34pm
At present there are few rewards for excellent teachers who wish to remain in the classroom, with the only real opportunities for increases in salary being to move into management positions

Peter White 08 Jan 2008 2:29:57pm
In the mid 1990's Howard Nicholas wrote a report for the then National Board of Education and Training about the need for well trained teachers of languages. As with many other such reports, it fell into the ubiquitous black hole of politics and little has been done on the recommendations contained therein

meg 08 Jan 2008 6:54:41pm
The ONLY reason/apect that stops public schools from being 'competetive' with private schools is not wealth, is not better resources, is not higher paid or quality teachers. The ONLY reason is stark - its the power given to each systems' Principal to EXPEL studnets and/or parents who just absolutley refuse to work in partnership with the school to resolve behavioural issues

Matty 08 Jan 2008 1:47:25pm
Some have made comment before me about welfare issues and teachers having to be parents at school, for some students this is the only real parenting they will ever get. This is sad but a fact of our society today. Do I want to be a parent, policeman, social worker, psychiatrist, mediator, detective, builder, designer, event organiser, reporter, sporting hero, entertainer, systems administrator, jack of all trades, human resources orgainser etc, etc, no, but unfortunately that is what teaching is.

There may be more. I didn't read them all.

post mind

Who needs a mind, when you have google?

Tara Brabazon interview:
if we have a single problem of our contemporary age I think it is probably confusion between popularity and importance ...

students reference a great deal less (than in the past)

students are not able to tell the difference between a scholarly article and Time magazine
book review: The University of Google: Education in a (post) information age
The push to managerialism means that many more men in shiny polyester suits – arbitrarily given ‘vanity’ titles like Professor on the basis of position not scholarship – pace around university campuses. Not surprisingly, words like diversity and flexibility weave through their footsteps. Transferable skills, strategic plans, cross-sector synergies and generic competencies bounce along for the ride. By living (in the) Post – postmodern, postindustrial, postcolonial and postfordist – new, critical and reflexive spaces are created to build a postinformation society, one that can take the first unsteady steps to knowledge and wisdom
thanks, Daniel Livingstone

Thursday, January 17, 2008

McKinsey: run schools as you would run a successful business

I've been trying to make sense of the McKinsey report, which I now see as a combination of insightful common sense and opportunistic fudge, the latter with respect to the disadvantaged. None of the reports ever solve that problem. Whole system change is usually about a few insights, realism (money) and fudge / deception. Which is why it drives me mad. But its worth looking at this in anticipation of whether the Rudd/Gillard “education revolution” will pick up on it.

I'm missing detail here. I'm not spelling out the fudge in detail but am happy to discuss with anyone who has actually read the report.

btw the McKinsey report pdf has the copy feature turned off, proof that it's not intended to be discussed – it's just "experts" dumping their expertise onto us.

The McKinsey report is American (but with extensive comments about different education systems around the world) and the Brian Caldwell article is an attempt to apply some of the McKinsey thinking to Australia

McKinsey report: How the world's best performing school systems come out on top

Are we serious about an education revolution? Brian Caldwell
(many of the comments following the Caldwell blog are worth reading – I try to cover an aspect of the “big picture” here not covered in those comments)

Some stand out, slap in the face ideas / facts from Caldwell (his article is short, worth reading the whole thing):
“The gap between our high and low performing students is amongst the widest in OECD nations. Up to one-half of all teachers plan to leave the profession within 10 years. The number of students in private schools has jumped by 21.5 per cent in the past 10 years compared to 1.2 per cent in government schools ”

“Every teacher in Australia entering the profession from a university should have a master's degree - as in top-performing Finland - with targets for minimum ENTER scores progressively raised to match those for entry to other highly-sought degrees.”
My context for this is the Kevin Rudd / Julia Gillard promise for an “education revolution” and the inadequacy of what they have delivered (no documents indicating deep thought) so far

What McKinsey and Caldwell are both saying is that to improve education you have to improve the quality of teachers and the status of the profession.

Teacher quality is the most important factor. "The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers". The early years are particularly important. The negative impact on students of a series of bad teachers in the early years is severe and irreversible

That is a bit startling because in a way its pretty obvious. How did we get to be where we are today and why hasn't this been tried before?

In Australia up until now the quality issue has been managed largely through elite, expensive Private Schools, which have had the right to hire and fire (teachers and students). Why is this no longer good enough?

With globalisation, the knowledge economy and increased competition, education has become more important. So, these reports are about the stronger possibility of governments being prepared to spend some money strategically in order to move up the ladder of OECD educational performance because that could well be more related to success in the current economy. These ideas have been around for a long time. Barry Jones wrote Sleepers Awake: Technology and the Future of Work, predicting these trends in 1982. Over the years with more globalisation and interconnection the need to work smarter has accelerated. And so it comes to pass that the need to get the best value for dollar in education expenditure has crept up the political ladder in terms of importance.

The detail makes sense if you keep this big picture in mind. It's a globally inspired outcome based cost-benefit analysis devoid of any wider educational vision. The authors are saying we should run schools in a similar way to how you would run a successful business. The vision is higher quality teachers on reasonable (but not high) money working harder in a profession with higher status. Nice trick if you can get it and according to McKinsey you can get it if you try

Where to spend more money:
  • On teacher quality and marketing of the profession
Other strategic reforms:
  • Select teachers before training them not after, the pay them while being trained with a guaranteed job at the end
  • Coaches for teachers in schools, including Principals who are coaches. ie. Principals as educational leaders not as bureaucrats who become overwhelmed with the paper work
  • Far more classroom based teacher training
  • Facilitate more of teachers learning from each other
  • Front loading compensation - the recommended wage structure is designed for the gullible: front end loading to suck them in initially but then a relatively flat increase in the ensuing years. I don't see how this is going to change the problem identified by Caldwell, “half of all teachers plan to leave the profession within 10 years”
Where to spend less money:
  • Have fewer teachers overall, reverse the trend to smaller class sizes
Much is made of the fact that measured literacy hasn't improved in the USA despite increased spending and reduced class sizes. A good quality teacher will produce better results with larger classes than a poor quality teacher with smaller classes. I would accept this as true. eg. many Private Schools in Australia have large class sizes and achieve better results. For those students the parents are more involved, the classes are better behaved and the overall culture is more pro-learning than in many of their government school counterparts

Some Charter schools have been successful but they have not been successful overall (McKinsey, p. 14). Hence, McKinsey loses interest because they are only interested in whole system change, not more radical but small scale change

Where to fudge:
  • On helping Disadvantaged schools, which are the ones that really need smaller class sizes.
It's true that you can get away with larger classes in elite Private schools but that doesn't work in Disadvantaged schools.


Real improvements in literacy, science and maths will ultimately develop internal to those domains and research into how to better communicate those subjects to young people. The outcomes based approach assumes that we already know what we are doing and just have to measure it.

I recall that brilliant books have been written about the search for quality. Zen and the art of motor cycle maintenance. And how much harder it is to find than measuring outcomes.

In view of the limited scope of the study the wider issues to do with literacy are not explored. eg. the impact of multimedia on reading scores, see "Why Johnny And Janey Can't Read, And Why Mr. And Ms. Smith Can't Teach: The challenge of multiple media literacies in a tumultuous time" by Mark Federman
Twilight of the Books: A recent study has shown a steep decline in literary reading among schoolchildren by Caleb Crain

How is teacher quality measured? In systemic cyclical fashion. The right stuff is defined as the top performers within the current education system (which is seen to be failing in many respects). South Korea selects its teachers from the top 5%, Finland from the top 10%, Singapore and Hong Kong from the top 30%. Those who succeed in the current system represent quality and should be the source of who we select to put back into the system.

information about the co-author:
(Michael Barber's) book was The Learning Game:Arguments for an Education Revolution. Its author, Michael Barber, former research officer for England's largest teachers' union and later professor of education, became Tony Blair's chief adviser on education the day after the election. He now works for McKinsey & Company and is co-author of McKinsey's report How the World's BestPerforming School Systems Come Out on Top, which is currently the most widely read study worldwide of what should lie at the heart of an education revolution

McKinsey quote: ... smart countries will succeed by being "swift to adapt, slow to complain and open to change"

“Slow to complain” ... you get it now? Just compete in the global economy – don't ask too many questions

Sunday, January 13, 2008

how many ways can you hit a drum?

People in order (youtube)

Ages 1 to 100 hitting a drum in 3 minutes. Everyone has a different style of hitting the drum and / or announcing their age

the problem of too much bullshit

Here is my attempt to explain the problem of too much bullshit in the global warming issue:
The other thing that struck me about the debate on global warming is that both sides are so obviously full of shit. I presume there is lots of truth buried beneath the steaming mounds of manure, but I’m not dedicated enough to dig it out
- Dilbert, Global Warming – Part 2

1) Some represent the interests of the oil or coal industry either directly or as part of their world view

2) Some are green ideologues, this goes deep - requires further explanation

3) Some desire certainty or closure. Human and scientific history contains many examples of "the making of very bold claims on the basis of less than comprehensive evidence" (Waller, p. 99)

4) Contrarianism appeals to some, the idea of the rugged individual who stands out from the crowd

5) Both Alarmist or Denialist positions gain more attention and sell better in the media. The current reality may well be that to obtain media attention you have to take either an alarmist or denialist position

6) Not only do we have to deal with a scientific question (what is the situation) but also what to do about it.

For example: If the problem is rapid warming and if the reason is increased anthropogenic CO2 then it does not follow logically that the only solution is to reduce human production of CO2.

The science of the problem itself is contentious. The science of different solutions is relatively unexplored.

7) It is not only a scientific question but an economic (cost-benefit) and philosophical question (attitudes to development and sustainability)

8) To approach scientific objectivity on a complex question, which this is, requires much time and effort. Most people will either go with the media (the worst thing to do) or look around for an expert that they can trust (quite difficult in this case to find one)

In my view the real crisis is not global warming but the problem of cultural malaise about what is required to find the truth. If we were serious about finding the truth we would be demanding far more of our mass media.

Einstein's Luck: The Truth Behind Some of the Greatest Scientific Discoveries (2002) by John Waller

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

scientific consensus

I'm not against the concept of scientific consensus. Some science is well established and non controversial. All scientists agree about how bodies will fall to the earth in given conditions. Scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts as described by Kuhn do happen and are very important but they are dramatic punctuations to the steady state of most known things about science.

I was pretty much persuaded by Peter Norvig's article (The Global Climate Change Consensus) that there was a consensus within peer reviewed articles by scientists about global warming about the following fairly moderate but important IPCC hypothesis:
Human activities ... are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents ... that absorb or scatter radiant energy. Most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.
Although very far from alarmism this hypothesis is important because it does say humans are responsible for "most" of the observed global warming. So, that might throw us into a brand new situation, unprecedented in human history.

However, Norvig's article was written in 2004 and there are now new peer reviewed studies that do dispute the so-called consensus. I thought this article was well argued: “Consensus”?What “Consensus”?Among Climate Scientists, the Debate Is Not Over by The Viscount Monckton of Brenchley

I had to laugh at the end though, where it is revealed that the author is a former policy advisor to Margaret Thatcher during her years as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. But then if a right winger puts up a good argument then we shouldn't dismiss it just because they are a right winger, agreed?

The articles does quite a good job at:
  • discrediting aspects of the original Naomi Oreskes article which originally claimed the consensus
  • exposes the false linkage between Oreskes' moderate consensus position and the alarmism promoted by Al Gore in his movie - the difference between the sea rising 2 inches compared with 20 feet
  • raises what seem to be some valid contextual questions, but which I haven't researched yet
  • concedes that "most climate scientists probably believe that humankind has caused 0.2C of the past half-century’s 0.4C warming"
  • outlines the results of a new review of peer review papers since 2004 in which 7.3% either explicitly or implicitly reject the consensus
  • exposes some alleged important mistakes made by the IPCC about sea level rises
The article however misses out on Peter Norvig's point about Dr. Benny Peiser, you would have to read the Norvig original and follow the links. The Viscount seems to have missed the Norvig article

So, the majority of peer reviewed scientists support a moderate human caused global warming hypothesis. But there is not a consensus and there is not strong case for alarmism based on the peer reviewed literature.

the left and right of global warming

People who describe themselves as left progressives tend to support an extreme global warming, leading us to catastrophe, viewpoint, eg. the ABC

People who describe themselves as politically right tend to oppose an extreme global warming viewpoint. eg. The Australian newspaper

So, the self described left wingers want to reign in the ugly excesses of industrial capitalism. Whereas those on the political right want business as usual or more rapid expansion.

People are social and political animals with viewpoints first and scientific objectivity, which requires hard work, real effort and time, usually comes some way behind this.

John McCarthy has complained of something similar in relation to his web page on progress and its sustainability :

I have a collection of web pages on the sustainability of material progress that treats many problems that have been proposed as possible stoppers. I get email about the pages, both unfavorable and favorable, mostly the latter.

I had believed that the email would concern specific problems or would raise new ones, e.g. "What about erosion of agricultural land?"

There's some of that, but overwhelmingly the email, both pro and con, concerns my attitude, not my (alleged) facts. "How can you be so blithely cornucopian when everybody knows ..." or "I'm glad someone has the courage to take on all those doomsters."

It seems, to my surprise, that people's attitude that the future stems at least as much from personality as from opinions about facts. People look for facts to support their attitudes — which have earlier antecedents.

Monday, January 07, 2008

5 dangerous things you should let your kids do

5 (or 6) dangerous things you should let your kids do:
  1. Play with fire
  2. Own a pocket knife
  3. Throw a spear
  4. Deconstruct appliances
  5. Break the DMCA
  6. Drive a car

scientific thought as a casualty of global warming fears

I asked a few friends over to watch Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, with a discussion afterwards

I was surprised to the extent to which the movie presented Al Gore himself, weaving his personal life into the global warming dialogue - his son's car accident, his sisters death from cancer, his failed Presidential campaign, his struggle to get the data on Arctic ice thickness levels released - how these personal and public events strengthened his resolve to bring the truth to the public. In my experience those who are genuine about promoting the truth normally put their own personal issues into the background.

The movie has already generated a lot of discussion with claims and counter claims

A court case has been held in Britain in opposition to government plans to show the film in secondary schools. The judge ruled that the film contained nine fallacies that ought to be part of any educational material. This generated more discussion at blogs devoted to climate change issues.

Transcript of the movie (with pics)

Gore's climate film has scientific errors - judge

Convenient untruths

The lag between temperature and CO2. (Gore’s got it right.)

Two of the above links point to more sophisticated discussion of the fit between global temperature and CO2 levels over the past , since often CO2 rise lags behind temperature rise.

Most agree that the Gore movie simplifies the truth but some some argue that he's got the big picture correct and its in the nature of the movie media to simplify things, that complex scientific argument would have less mass appeal. According to this viewpoint Gore's movie is an important wakeup call which represents a good starting point for further discussion. eg. not getting it

This is really an argument that since many other things in society are controlled by slick, manipulative advertising (propaganda) then it's OK for major questions of social policy to be conducted in that way too.

Professor Stephen Schneider:
... getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have
- Bright Future, p. 85-6
This argument is elitist. A number of scientists are saying we get it, the situation is very urgent and then its OK to promote an oversimplified view in schools and to the public. One problem here is that the so-called consensus view could turn out to be wrong. Another problem is that teaching the public to think scientifically is seen as too hard.

There is another way. Organise debates of experts who are pro and anti and publicise them to the max. It's a worry that some scientists have become so alarmed that they support the replacement of the public promotion of scientific thinking with propaganda.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

the IPCC may be promoting global warming alarmism

According to over 100 scientists active in climate research (follow the link at the end of this letter) the IPCC is promoting global warming alarmism.

The expensive, anti developmental path of severe CO2 restrictions will do far more harm than good by wasting resources that could be spent on more important problems (HIV/AIDS, malaria, malnutrition, trade imbalances, clean water etc)

All I noticed in our local media about the recent UN Bali Conference was some gloating about how our new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, had exerted his independence from the United States by signing Kyoto.

The following open letter by scientists is far more important news. Our institutions (the Media and the Nobel Prize committee which rewarded the IPCC and Al Gore) are failing in their duty to present objective information to the public.

Open Letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations

December 13, 2007

His Excellency Ban Ki-Moon
Secretary-General, United Nations
New York, NY
United States of America

Dear Mr. Secretary-General,

Re: UN climate conference taking the World in entirely the wrong direction

It is not possible to stop climate change, a natural phenomenon that has affected humanity through the ages. Geological, archaeological, oral and written histories all attest to the dramatic challenges posed to past societies from unanticipated changes in temperature, precipitation, winds and other climatic variables. We therefore need to equip nations to become resilient to the full range of these natural phenomena by promoting economic growth and wealth generation.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued increasingly alarming conclusions about the climatic influences of human-produced carbon dioxide (CO2), a non-polluting gas that is essential to plant photosynthesis. While we understand the evidence that has led them to view CO2 emissions as harmful, the IPCC’s conclusions are quite inadequate as justification for implementing policies that will markedly diminish future prosperity. In particular, it is not established that it is possible to significantly alter global climate through cuts in human greenhouse gas emissions. On top of which, because attempts to cut emissions will slow development, the current UN approach of CO2 reduction is likely to increase human suffering from future climate change rather than to decrease it.

The IPCC Summaries for Policy Makers are the most widely read IPCC reports amongst politicians and non-scientists and are the basis for most climate change policy formulation. Yet these Summaries are prepared by a relatively small core writing team with the final drafts approved line-by-line by government representatives. The great majority of IPCC contributors and reviewers, and the tens of thousands of other scientists who are qualified to comment on these matters, are not involved in the preparation of these documents. The Summaries therefore cannot properly be represented as a consensus view among experts.

Contrary to the impression left by the IPCC Summary reports:

  • Recent observations of phenomena such as glacial retreats, sea-level rise and the migration of temperature-sensitive species are not evidence for abnormal climate change, for none of these changes has been shown to lie outside the bounds of known natural variability.
  • The average rate of warming of 0.1 - 0. 2 degrees Celsius per decade recorded by satellites during the late 20th century falls within known natural rates of warming and cooling over the last 10,000 years.
  • Leading scientists, including some senior IPCC representatives, acknowledge that today’s computer models cannot predict climate. Consistent with this, and despite computer projections of temperature rises, there has been no net global warming since 1998. That the current temperature plateau follows a late 20th century period of warming is consistent with the continuation today of natural multi-decadal or millennial climate cycling.

In stark contrast to the often repeated assertion that the science of climate change is ‘settled’, significant new peer-reviewed research has cast even more doubt on the hypothesis of dangerous human-caused global warming. But because IPCC working groups were generally instructed to consider work published only through May 2005, these important findings are not included in their reports; i.e., the IPCC assessment reports are already materially outdated.

The UN climate conference in Bali has been planned to take the world along a path of severe CO2 restrictions, ignoring the lessons apparent from the failure of the Kyoto Protocol, the chaotic nature of the European CO2 trading market, and the ineffectiveness of other costly initiatives to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Balanced cost/benefit analyses provide no support for the introduction of global measures to cap and reduce energy consumption for the purpose of restricting CO2 emissions. Furthermore, it is irrational to apply the 'precautionary principle' because many scientists recognize that both climatic coolings and warmings are realistic possibilities over the medium-term future.

The current UN focus on "fighting climate change", as illustrated in the November 27th UN Development Programme's Human Development Report, is distracting governments from adapting to the threat of inevitable natural climate changes, whatever forms they may take. National and international planning for such changes is needed, with a focus on helping our most vulnerable citizens adapt to conditions that lie ahead. Attempts to prevent global climate change from occurring are ultimately futile, and constitute a tragic misallocation of resources that would be better spent on humanity’s real and pressing problems.

Yours faithfully,

Independent scientists, engineers and economists active in research of climate-related areas,

Other professional persons knowledgeable about climate change who expressed support for the open letter to the UN Secretary-General.

Copy to: Heads of State of countries of the signatory persons.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

the case for unsustainability

critique of sustainability as a guiding principle by which to run society

sustainability: "forms of progress that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs."
- World Commission on Environment and Development (source)

unsustainability: "a practice or process that can't go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends."
- Michael Pollen (source)

I have a problem with sustainability, not as a word or a concept, but as a guiding philosophy by which to run society. Sustainability is often used in this sense today, as a frame for a world view that implies we are in deep trouble. For example, the above definition of sustainability implies that there is a real problem that the (undefined and unknown) needs of future generations will not be met because of the thoughtless or selfish acts of our current generation.

For more about framing see Lakoff

I would counterpose "no construction, without destruction" as a more useful guiding philosophy. The unsustainability definition fits the way things have always developed and will continue to develop.

A good example would be the transition from hunter-gather to agricultural society as elaborated in The Economist article Hunter-gatherers: Noble or savages? See my recent blog about this, agriculture developed in desperate times Another good example would be the industrial revolution, which is also touched upon in the Economist article:
Notice a close parallel with the industrial revolution. When rural peasants swapped their hovels for the textile mills of Lancashire, did it feel like an improvement? The Dickensian view is that factories replaced a rural idyll with urban misery, poverty, pollution and illness. Factories were indeed miserable and the urban poor were overworked and underfed. But they had flocked to take the jobs in factories often to get away from the cold, muddy, starving rural hell of their birth
Both the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture and from feudalism to capitalism were marked by unsustainability where development undermined and transformed ecologies and the old processes did destroy the very conditions on which they depended. For example, big game such as rhinoceros were hunted to the point of extinction not recently but 17 thousand years ago. I would argue that future progress will occur through struggles that will undermine and destroy existing ecologies too. Unity is conditional, struggle is absolute. The world - both natural and human - has always developed in this way.

The sustainability world outlook can obscure the historical fact that when new things are created old things are destroyed.
At the very least, three difficult questions must be asked before any discussion of sustainability is undertaken in any group. What is being sustained? How long is it being sustained? In who’s interest is what being sustained?
- The Unsustainability of Sustainability by Bill Devall (despite the title this article is pro sustainability but it does contain some important points and references)

the end of the world is not coming soon

Big Media has been trumpeting a litany of impending eco-catastrophes since the mid 80s

I've read parts of Lomborg's book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, a few years ago and he persuaded me to be skeptical about impending eco-catastrophe. Lomborg's work was inspired by Julian Simon (see The Doomslayer)

Recently, the IPCC and Al Gore were jointly awarded a Nobel Prize for their work on Global Warming. The peer reviewed work of scientists ought to be taken seriously. I was persuaded by data expert Peter Norvig (The Global Climate Change Consensus) that human activities are contributing to global warming

However, I still like Lomborg's stance. In a recent article (Perspective on Climate Change 23pp) he makes four basic points:
1. Global warming is real and man-made. This point has been made in many places, but perhaps most strongly and convincingly by the IPCC (2007a).

2. Statements about the strong, ominous and immediate consequences of global warming are often wildly exaggerated, as I will show below.

3. We need a stronger focus on smart solutions rather than excessive if well-intentioned efforts.

4. We need – as this hearing asks for – to put global warming in perspective. Climate change is not the only issue on the global agenda, and actually one of the issues where we can do the least good first.
This article contains some substantial criticism of Al Gores movie, An Inconvenient Truth, that:
  • it looks at heat deaths but ignores cold deaths
  • grossly exaggerates sea level rises
  • exaggerates the effects of global warming on hurricanes
  • exaggerates the impact of global warming on malaria
The continual exaggeration from the media about global warming and eco-catastrophe is the main problem here.

Lomborg presents a cost-benefit analysis that demonstrates we would be far better off spending dollars on such issues as HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, malaria and water technology. Policies such as Kyoto and carbon tax to combat global warming are both extremely costly and relatively ineffective. When the calculations are made in the absence of media induced hype it is more cost effective to adapt to the moderate levels of human induced global warming than to try to prevent it.

other references

Bright Future: Abundance and Progress in the 21st Century- a book by David McMullen (web site)

Progress and its Sustainability by John McCarthy
" ... we argue that the whole world can reach and maintain American standards of living with a population of even 15 billion. We also argue that maintaining material progress is the highest priority and the best way to ensure that population eventually stabilizes at a sustainable level with a standard of living above the present American level and continues to improve thereafter."