Sunday, 6 April 2008

Australian Skeptics

I receive and read the skeptic, the journal of the Australian Skeptics, and a lot of fun it is too. Quite refreshing to read stuff working to maintain an evidence-based perspective on things like astrology, alternative medicine, creationism, climate-change and the like. But on more important matters, check this typo. The first issue of the skeptic was in 1981, and since then:

There have been many changes...certainly in the appearance of the magazine, but by far t he most important changes have been in the quality...


[bold mine]

-"Onward and Upward", Editorial, the skeptic, Autumn 2008, p.4

If you think something about that sentence doesn't smell quite right, you'd be right. OK I admit that the sentence continues"...of the articles". I suppose the next big hurdle to overcome will be in the proofreading department!

Small things, small things...

However Sir Guy Green's keynote address to the Australian Skeptics National Convention, from November 17-18 last year, is really good. He had a few words to say about the 'precautionary principle', regularly used by people in the environmental movement to make a case for whatever change (or lack of change) they are calling for. First he makes an observation about definition:


The precautionary principle is frequently referred to in discussions about environmental issues...but a threshold problem about applying the principle is that it is routinely referred to as if it had a single universally accepted meaning. But it does not. When it first gained currency the principle was generally understood to mean that where proposed activity might cause irreversible environmental harm, a lack of full scientific certainty is not a sufficient reason for not taking measures to guard against that harm.


"But," observes Sir Guy, "over the years some formulations make the principle applicable where harm is possible while others make it applicable where harm is probable—two very different tests." Indeed. Other formulations such as the Rio Declaration "introduce the notion of cost effectiveness."

Now this is all fine, so long as we're clear about which definition we happen to be using. But Sir Guy points to a more serious problem.

The form of the problem most commonly advanced by environmentalists is that no activity should be undertaken unless it can be demonstrated that that activity will not cause environmental harm. At first sight that appears to be a reasonably defensible proposition, but when it is analysed it, in fact, turns out that it is impossible to comply with. Until we know everything about everything in the universe it is a logical impossibility to prove a negative of that kind.


All pretty abstract. But Sir Guy gives the example of a mythical mountain goat, pseudonovibos spiralis listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as an endangered species, but by 2003 acknowledged not only to be extinct but in all likelihood, never to have existed.

Oops!

But that did not result in it removing it from the list; instead the IUCN invoked 'the precautionary principle' which they concluded 'requires us to assume that the species did exist, and may still exist'


Which is a bit like saying you wouldn't dredge parts of the Loch Ness in Scotland because you're worried about the environmental impact on the monster's habitat.

Quite a useful and bendy principle, that one. Stop whatever you're doing everyone; you are adding to global warming and threatening the existence of polar bears! (Whose population, by the way, has been increasing over the last 40 or so years and is currently stable)

2 comments:

Dannii said...

And far more serious than global warming... it's a well known fact that doing anything increases the universe's total entropy, hastening inevitable heat death! The only environmentally responsible action is to stop existing.

Dave Lankshear said...

But Gordo, just one click away at WWF was the documentation for POPs, PCPs, and the reason climate change will most probably be disastrous for polar bears.

New Scientist also has some good stuff on the polar bear front, and states "While polar bear numbers are increasing in two of these populations, two others are definitely in decline."

...and...

A comprehensive review (pdf) by the US Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that shrinking sea ice is the primary cause for the decline seen in these populations, and it recently proposed listing polar bears as threatened (pdf) under the Endangered Species Act. The World Conservation Union projects the bears' numbers will drop by 30% by 2050 (pdf) due to continued loss of Arctic sea ice."

But the real issue is this: yes there are lots of polar bears, yes there's some tricky semantics around "precautionary principle" but the heart of the thing makes sense, so what's left to do? Talk to a climatologist. Go into their lab and see what's on the slab. It's about how longwave energy interacts with Co2 molecules. They can run some stuff for you, demonstrate some things, push some buttons, get a computer gizmo up and running and basically demonstrate the physics of it... with double blind testing, falsifiability, the machine that goes ping.. everything. That's what global warming is about... not a legal beagle's word games or counting current levels of polar bears. It's about the global climate, and for that... why I think you need to speak to a climatologist, not someone selling their own magazine?