Category Archives: Science

Giles Fraser at Westminster Skeptics

via Google+

Thoughts on Dr Giles Fraser at Westminster Skeptics:

He is a great speaker. It’s easy to see why he rose to the position of Canon of St Pauls.

His talk was roughly based around the idea that an evidence-based approach was not helpful in the case of romantic love.

He needs to spend some quality time with the works of Karl Popper on the nature of evidence and the scientific method. Descartes is all very well but there has actually been significant work done since then.

Othello is interesting, but as a work of fiction he doesn’t even rise to the status of anecdote. If you are trying to convince a room full of skeptics that evidence-based reasoning isn’t always helpful it would be nice if you presented some .. I don’t know .. evidence?

Love was repeatedly conflated with monogamy. With a group as diverse as the Westiminster Skeptics I bet not everyone would agree with that assertion. Except the assertion was never even properly made. Giles repeatedly admitted that he refused to define what Love even was. If we can’t even define the limits of what we are talking about then no useful discussion can occur.

It was a very good talk and the resulting discussion was one of the feistiest I’ve heard at #westskep but ultimately his refusal to define what he wanted to talk about moved him towards the usual kind of clumsy apologetics we’ve all heard before. A sort of loosely philosophical brand of special pleading.

This episode brought to you by the letter ‘beer’ and the number ‘too damn late’.

Health, Evidence and Economics

I was going to write a post about Fukushima today, but instead I ended up having a discussion about Evidence Based Medicine (EBM) and it’s intersection with free-market economics. This was precipated by Anne-Marie Cunningham sharing a couple of papers about EBM and the values implicit in it’s use. These are both from the ’90s, but should be read by anyone with an interest in the roots of the current round of NHS reforms.

Links to both the papers can be found in my G+ post on the issue.

With that I’ll leave you with a quote from Florence Nightingale: ‘I need not remind you that what we get into scrapes for is not for saying what nobody believes and everybody says but for saying what everybody believes and nobody says”.

Intelligence² Nuclear Debate – It’s Got To Be Nuclear

I attended the recent Intelligence² debate – It’s Got To Be Nuclear – held at the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington. You can listen to the full audio of the debate and subsequent Q&A session at the link above.

The format was setup for yet another pointless debate between advocates for Nuclear and those for Renewables. I’ll get really excited on the day the hold the debate entitled “Clean Coal: Naive Optimism or Marketing Scam”. Even a poorly framed debate can produce some interesting points so I went along anyway.

After Tony Curzon Price had finished up the introductions, proceedings were opened with a statement by Mark Lynas. You can read the whole thing on Mark’s site. The basic thrust of his argument was that the risks of nuclear accidents have been largely over-stated and not put into context with the risks of other energy sources. He also made the point that this shouldn’t be a choice between renewables and nuclear. We will need both if we are to successfully tackle climate change.

Next up was Craig Bennett from Friends of the Earth. He started off by claiming that pro-nuclear advocates frame the debate as being a choice between nuclear power or climate change. Bennett then brought forth a large stack of reports that he claimed proved that we don’t need nuclear to meet our climate change goals and proceeded to drop them one after the other onto the bench as a rhetorical flourish. The problems of intermittency were glossed over with assertion that smart grids would solve everything (apparently by using electric cars as grid storage). He conflated fuel storage for conventional power sources with energy storage for dealing with renewable intermittency. To continue in the vein he asserted that energy efficiency could make up a big part of our energy production. Bennett then moved on from the “we don’t need nuclear” part of his argument to “nuclear is bad”. Apparently nuclear diverts attention and resources away from renewables and energy efficiency. Exactly how this happens wasn’t clear. He also made some jingoistic assertions about nuclear and the need for imports. I will confess I must have missed the burgeoning indigenous solar panel and wind turbine manufacturing industry. To round things up Bennet characterised nuclear as “old-fashioned” technology and linked it to nuclear weapons proliferation. In this entire section the only thing he said that struck me as plausible was the claim that the costs of nuclear power have not come down in 50 years.

The pro-nuclear response was given by Malcolm Grimston a visiting researcher at Imperial College. Grimston spent most of his time directly rebutting Bennett’s statement. He drove home the point that most of the growth in energy demand will be in the developing world where energy efficiency won’t make much of a difference. He also pointed out that 7/8ths of the world’s traded energy is from fossil fuels. Any sensible policy needs to deal with how to remove that.
Grimston also took on Bennett’s assertions about the intermittancy of wind. He pointed out that it is not unusual to see week long periods in the UK where wind production is below 1% because of large-scale weather patterns. This is what is meant by intermittancy, there are times when for external reasons an entire energy source will be unavailable. On thus subject of efficiency Grimston pointed out that energy production has massively increased in efficiency over the course of the 20th century and hadn’t resulted in a decrease in fuel use. He mentioned that the explanation for this was Jevons Paradox.
Commenting on the safety aspects of Fukushima, he mentioned that all the nuclear plants newer than Daiichi units 1-3 had survived both the earthquake and tsunami intact.

The final statement was made by Tom Burke of E3G who, it later turned out, used to share an office with Malcolm Grimston at Imperial. Burke followed Bennett’s lead by characterising the pro-nuclear argument as nuclear or nothing. Despite Lynas having started out by explicitly stating that we need both nuclear and renewables. He followed this up by asserting that the majority of environmentalist are anti-nuclear and they can’t all be wrong. Which is the straightest example of argumentum ad populum I’ve heard in a while.
This brings us to the saddest spectacle of the evening in which Tom Burke shouted at Mark Lynas for having been mean to him in an LA Times article. During this display Burke also accused Lynas of not being a real environmentalist as he hadn’t ever worked for a real environmental group. Burke seemed surprised when this didn’t go over well with the audience.
He moved onto safer ground citing a £200 billion cleanup cost for Fukushima and linking nuclear power with nuclear weapons proliferation. Asserting that if a country has no civilian nuclear facilities it is very easy to tell if they are developing the bomb. Burke also made an argument that Nuclear couldn’t be built fast enough to meet our needs. He asserted that 50GW of wind had been built globally last year against 1GW of nuclear. He also cited the need to build 260 nuclear plants over the next 20 years just to replace the plants currently at the end of their service lives.

Which brings us to the Q&A session.

Things started off with a strident anti-nuclear activist who would clearly have rather been on the panel than in the audience. Despite protesting that she would be concise she went on and on about a study linking nuclear power-plants to childhood leukaemia. This is the study she was referencing. The authors themselves say that the link is unlikely to be caused by radiation.

Another person pointed out that renewables only get built because of the available subsidies.

A question was asked about whether Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) should be pursued.

Tom Burke replied that nuclear receives much greater subsidies than renewables. He was also of the opinion that energy generation is so important that governments should be subsidising methods they prefer.

Mark Lynas was of the opinion that no large scale CCS had yet been shown to work and that unlike nuclear waste CO2 has no half-life so it must be stored forever. That being said he was also of the opinion that if it could be shown to work it might still be a good idea in the short term. At this point Lynas asked Bennett if it was true that Friends of the Earth (FoE) supported research into Thorium reactors.

Bennett replied that this was true and that FoE supported research into a lot of technologies that are a long way off like Fusion. This makes it sound like FoE only suppport nuclear technologies if it believes they won’t be deployed soon enough to cause it ideological problems with it’s supporters. However I may be reading more into his reply than was actually there.
Bennett also supported CCS. He said that we were going to need it to deal with the very large amount of coal-fired power stations in China.

A question was asked about the CO2 impact of Uranium mining.

The venerable Mayer Hillman asked a question about the peak CO2 concentration in the atmosphere in a fully nuclear world.
A student asked about the impact of water usage by nuclear plants especially where water resources are becoming constrained.

Mark Lynas in response to Mayer Hillman conceded that nuclear was not enough to reach a safe level of CO2.

Another questioner made an interesting assertion as to the negative economic and social consequences of a centralised power system. I think his case was that this made nuclear bad since it is more centralised. In the short time he had he was not able to expand on this thought.

The last question came from a Sustainable Development student who asked about how we should get investment made into into both nuclear and renewables. Her point was that this is difficult since markets are not rational and both sides of the debate are demonising each other.

The final answer came from Bennett in response to Lynas. Bennett admitted that FoE was broadly in support of the shutting down of 7 nuclear reactors by the German government despite the large amounts of extra CO2 it would generate.

I honestly felt that the questions were far more interesting than most of the answers. The problem with debates is that they mostly aren’t conducive to a real investigation of the issues and can very easily descend into sound-bite tennis. There were some interesting points made on both sides, but I felt that Burke and Bennett had more tendency to resort to rhetorical tactics rather than attempt a proper explanation of the position. Which of course doesn’t mean that they are wrong it just means I found them less convincing.

A vote on the motion was taken before and after the debate.

Position Before After
For 128 165
Against 56 63
Undecided 68 15

Which looks to me like no-one who entered the room with a position changed their mind.

Intelligence² Debate – It’s Got To Be Nuclear – Initial Thoughts

I’ve just got back from the debate held by Intelligence² at the Royal Geographical Society in South Kensington.

The motion was simply – It’s got to be nuclear – although both sides agreed that the pro-nuclear camp were clear that they wanted both nuclear and renewables.

The pro arguments were pretty standard
* climate change is such a threat that we need all the tools available
* nuclear is not the threat it has been made out to be
* nuclear is the only power source that can make a dent in coal
* renewables (wind,wave,solar,tidal) can’t do base load

And the anti arguments boiled down to a few you may well have heard before

* nuclear is too expensive
* we can make do with efficiency and renewables
* nuclear vs renewables is a zero-zum game

I found both Mark Lynas and Malcolm Grimston to be entertaining and cogent. I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing Grimston before and was very impressed with his performance. He comes across as being both in command of the facts and genuinely likeable.

The part of the debate the will doubtless gain the most attention is Tom Burke’s shouty, hissy fit at Mark Lynas. In my experience accusing your opponents of being mean to you is never a good tactic. The boos from the audience would suggest that I’m not the only one that felt that.

I am in need of both food and sleep so I’ll leave you with the final vote:
For : 165
Against : 63
Undecided : 15

I’ll write us something more substantive tomorrow when I’ve had time to reflect on the actual arguments that were made rather than the superficialities.

More information at:

A Little Piece Of History

I received the item below in the post this week. And it has made me super happy.
CP-1 Graphite Fragment

The reason that the arrival of this unassuming chunk of grey material made me so gleeful is its history. I’m a bit of a nerd about nuclear power which is an obsession that’s currently slightly less acceptable than fox hunting. The history of nuclear reactors (artificial ones at least) started in a sports stadium in Chicago in 1942. A team lead by Enrico Fermi demonstrated that you could control a fission chain-reaction in a safe manner. The reactor they built was called Chicago Pile 1 (CP-1) since it was literally a pile of graphite blocks, some of which also contained pellets of uranium. All modern reactors, including those that provide the UK with a fifth of it’s electricity, are direct descendants of that first reactor in Chicago.

Recently the CP-1 site was being remediated and a number of original graphite blocks were found. One of these blocks was sliced up into small pieces to be sold for charity. Because I follow a lot of nuclear power folks on the Internet I saw the announcement and a few weeks later I now have a piece of the worlds first nuclear reactor sitting on my bookshelf.

In a pleasing piece of symmetry while most modern nuclear reactor are water-moderated the one closest to me (which probably supplies part of the electricity I use) is Dungeness which is graphite-moderated just like CP-1.

TAM London Day One

The Amazing Meeting London (TAMLondon) kicked off today. My day started off at the back of a queue outside the Mermaid Theater in Blackfriars. Things started off badly for me as I spent most of my queuing time on my trusty Nokia E71 logged into Merlin removing a recalcitrant compute node from the job scheduling system.

All of TAM takes place in the main auditorium of the Mermaid which comfortably seats all ~600 delegates. First up on stage was Brian Cox to talk about the Large Hadron Collider and the scientific questions it is designed to answer. Although what his talk was really about was politician’s tin ear for the fundamental goals of basic science. This lead to a brief (but thoroughly deserved) shoeing for the shambolic STFC. Whenever I listen to Brian Cox I feel like I understand particle physics. This feeling usual lasts as long as it takes me to forget what a lepton is (i.e not very long).

Jon Ronson gave an entertaining account of his adventure at Bohemian Grove and some anecdotes about the people in his book The Men Who Stare at Goats. If you have read his books and seen his documentaries you probably know most of this already. This was lots of fun, but could have done with more David Icke reptile anecdotes.

Simon Singh rounded off the morning session with an update on his progress in the libel suit that the British Chiropracters Association brought against him. He outlined the gross unfairness of the English Libel system pointing out that not only is the burden of proof on the defendant, but it is 140 times more expensive to defend a libel suit in England that it is in most of the rest of Europe. The rapturous reception Singh recieved from the TAMLondon crowd shows that many skeptics share his disgust with English Libel law. As an added bonus superstar legal-blogger Jack Of Kent spoke from the audience.

Lunch was nice and I took the opportunity to wander around St Pauls. I lived in London for six and half years and managed never to visit it.

The glamorous Ariane Sherine lead off the afternoon session with a behind the scenes look at the Atheist Bus Campaign. This might have been usefully subtitled ‘Accidental Atheist Activism’. This section brought up the usual skeptics vs atheists debate which passed without rancor.
Ben Goldacre’s barnstorming presentation on the failures of science journalism was the highlight of the day for me. In particular Goldacre’s Law: ‘There is no piece of fuckwittery so stupid that I can’t find at least one Doctor or PhD to defend it to the death’. It almost goes without saying that Goldacre holds the current TAMLondon record for most profanities in a single presentation. This Brigstockian performance was punctuated by vehement applause from the audience on several occasions.

As a special treat James Randi joined us by skype. While I was disappointed that Randi couldn’t be here in person I’m glad he is listening to his physicians. Hearing Randi reminisce about the highlights of his career was a pleasure.

Drawing proceedings to a close Phil Plait presented Simon Singh with a JREF award in recognition of his on-going legal battle with the BCA.

Now that day one is at an end I must mention Richard Wiseman’s MC’ing, which has been a delight throughout. He is a genuinely funny stage presence and I was nearly in tears with laughter during his ‘teatowel into chicken’ trick.

TAMLondon day one has been more fun a barrel full of monkeys. My only wish is that tomorrow there will be a copy of ’59 seconds’ left so that I can purchase it and read it on the train back to Cardiff.