Questions from Rothamsted

A Feynman quote, via Robert Wilson: 'The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.'

This weekend's protest at Rothamsted has reduced a labyrinthine issue to a single outcome: trashed, or not trashed? In our house, we're clear that GM itself is a technology like any other. Fire can cook food, keep you warm or burn your house down. Every single tech we've discovered since has followed much the same pattern. The critical factor is us. (update via Robert: "Related Feynman anecdote. A buddhist monk said to him 'the keys to the gates of heaven also open the gates of hell'.")

But that Feynman quote makes me want to spend a little time picking apart my own assumptions. Rather than actually, you know, do that, I thought I'd just get the questions down while they're sloshing about.

  • Is lab-and-field-trial based plant science too centralised to provide the adaptive outcomes our food systems we'll need in the next fifty years? (I'll get on to that one first, going back to the whole 'adaptive landscape' thing and bouncing off the IAASTD's take on biotech.)
  • Is GM technology in any way a unique risk, comparing to other plant tech (that, for decades, has included some pretty brutal radiative and chemical genome-mashing to introduce variation). Is that a plus-point for GM or just an indictment of all industrial plant science? (And impact-wise, don't forget to compare to more basic plant-based stupidity displayed way-back when. 'Splendid invasiveness' indeed - unlike any wheat cultivar I've heard of thus far.)
  • Are the crop-trashers actually right to claim - as Jenny Jones intimates - that you can't extract plant science from the corporate system? ("This research project at Rothamsted may be publishing its work openly, but we can't escape the fact that it is part of a wider approach to agriculture that is no use to poor farmers and to our future food security until we deal with the commercial problems.") Or as Simon Lewis puts it, 'Perhaps it's important to ask of scientific experiments: is this the science of the 1%. Or the 99%'. Relatedly, what private agri-companies and organisations are doing especially good things, and what marks them out?
  • Lastly: have the geekmob been manipulated - Theoden to a shadowy - network's - Wormtongue? Have we been played like a cheap pianola, to quote Douglas from Cabin Pressure? Unsurprisingly, I currently think 'no'. This looks like verdict by innuendo. But there's a bigger problem: how to think about, and deal with, networks of influence? The net is perfect for producing webs of insinuation from connections, many often the product of single 'enthusiasts'. But then, it's a networked world. How the bejeesus can science and policy function in that miasma? It is also much more personal, though: in situations where a choice has to be made, maybe we don't make the right one. Feynman is right for science as for anything else; gotta do our best to make sure we're not fooling ourselves. But how? Is lack of dialogue between sides over Rothamsted more apparent than real? Is it just the world we live in now: self-reinforcing ghettoes? If ways are found to move this conversation forward between currently opposed groups, perhaps something positive will come from all this. A reason to engage the Green Party, not withdraw?

Order / planning etc (old 'about' page)

Just sticking this here for the record as I'm gonna update the 'about' page.

In the early 20th century, Ludwig Von Mises started off the 'socialist economic calculation debate'. He claimed that a planned economy was not only undesirable, but logically impossible. Friedrich Hayek - another Austrian economist - took up the argument and ran with it.

Hayek argued that society was just too complex to plan. Human minds - smaller, less complex systems - could never grasp the intricacies of the whole. For Hayek, this meant that all planning was the road to serfdom.

In the past ten to fifteen years, many people working on computation and society have found Hayek's writing prophetic. Whether or not you agree with his politics, Hayek seemed to have an understanding of society as an evolving process, and of people as bounded in a 'sensory order' from which they must get all their information. He was, perhaps, an agent-based thinker - one who could see the limitations of economic theory at the time, but lacked the tools we have now to investigate these ideas robustly.

An absolutely terrifying amount of work is being done on agent-based modelling, artificial/synthetic societies and the agent-based and cognitive foundations of economics. But that old 20th century question - what, actually, is the possible scope of planning? - might be a good way to focus all this. Is society really too complex to (for example) carefully plan for UK housing, or plan for a food market that protects the most vulnerable while defending local markets from being undercut by state action? Or was Hayek right - any attempt must be anti-market, and anything anti-market must be oppressive? And, anyway, don't we already plan? And, also, can modelling really answer this kind of question?

Or there's a totally different way to look at it. Stephen Lansing, in his book Priests and Programmers, tells the story of the Balinese water temple system: thousands of small temples co-ordinate water flow, in an overlapping patch-work of local choices, from volcano crater to sea. With no central oversight, a fine balance between pest control and rice-growing is struck. But then top-down Green Revolution methods came along and broke it - yields dropped as pests partied.

Lansing worked with ecological modeller James Kremer. The model they built made visible something that had long been invisible to policymakers: just how the system coordinated water flow and fallow periods. They helped reverse major institutions' views of the traditional system, which has since been reinstated.

The Balinese water temple system seems closer to Hayek's view of the market as a 'spontaneous order' than it does to a planning regime. Both are effective because they are decentralised; both can be broken by top-down imposition. So the really important question might be: can you plan for spontaneous order? Can it be grown - to meet a specific goal - like a vine on a trellis? When should we rely on this kind of decentralised system, and when might good ol' central command be better? And should we stop fetishising the price system, since Bali shows there are other ways - with less working parts that can go wrong - to make a productive distributed system?

Geekmob at Rothamsted

A broad and frank dialogue continues to completely fail to happen with taketheflourback and others, including the Green Party's Jenny Jones, who's encouraged members to go. Here's an excellent summary of the issues.

More than one person has declared they won't vote Green until this changes; that said, I think the Green Party may have a quite fluid policy-making process, so getting more stuck in might be an equally valid strategy.

A #geekmob appears to be emerging - but the scientists themselves will be staying away from the trial area, and I hear #geekmob folk should too (on the tiny off-chance anyone's reading this...!) Looks like everyone, including protestors, will be gathering in Rothamsted Park (thanks taketheflourback for the map; it's Harpenden Park on there. Apparently it's really Rothamsted Park. So there we are.)

Taking action: does it matter if you're right?

There's a simple lesson from taketheflourback's protest: no part of the political spectrum has a monopoly on scientific befuddlement. It seems almost a trivial point, but it's actually quite slippery. This thought first occurred to me because some people wondered, why so much climate skepticism on the right?

I argued: a lack of similar skepticism on the left didn't imply a greater grasp of climate science. It's just that climate change happens not to clash with most left-of-centre worldviews (except some very far left positions, though unfortunately I'm having trouble finding an example in the 'global warming = global marxist conspiracy' internet swamps). It can also mesh nicely into anti-corporate / capitalist / colonialist stories, as this rather jaunty take on resource wars from Age of Stupid nicely shows.

There's an anti-GM mirror-image of that too: pretty much all climate skeptics are also pro-plant-tech (quite often, even things like pro-DDT).

This is why all the recent US stuff about 'the Republican Brain' was so dismaying. Whatever evidence lay behind it, it's making the same basic error: ignoring scientific illiteracy where it happens to fit our already pre-conceived notions. The natural conclusion - that all right-wingers are scientific dunces - is just plain nonsense. It's also dangerously alienating.

Open letter to taketheflourback.org: don't destroy research

Dear Taketheflourback,

We’ve decided Microsoft’s corporate control over the computer world has gone too far. So we’re coming to destroy your computers with a baseball bat. You’re using open source software, you say? No matter: you’re still using computers, and Microsoft make software for computers.

That’s your own logic for proposing to destroy the Rothamsted wheat trial on 27th May. You – and every single letter of support you have on your website – have woefully muddled GM technology with corporate control of the food system. They are not the same thing – any more than all computers are built by Microsoft.

GM has been turned into a symbol of corporate power. But this fails to distinguish between a technology (like programming code) and its use and control (like Microsoft versus Ubuntu). What should you do if you want to challenge Microsoft? What millions of others do: create and support open source code, and even open source manufacturing.

If you want ‘open source’, publicly owned plant science, you should support publicly funded projects like Rothamsted's – not destroy them. Rothamsted have said: the resulting crop “will not be patented and it will not be owned by any private companies”.

While you are organising this attack, global agribusiness is carrying on regardless, able to patent both GM and non-GM varieties alike. Control of our food system has indeed become dangerously centralised. Many scientists and researchers agree there is too much private control and that the nature of the global patent system stifles innovation. University departments are under pressure to seek patents - this is not something restricted to plant science. If you have an issue with this, fight against it. But this planned protest is going to achieve exactly the opposite of what you claim to want.

By attacking a publicly funded trial, all you will do is push the research further into private hands, making it less likely this vital work will lead to public benefit.

GM is one technology among many that build on our knowledge of genetics. These are used in plant labs around the world - and they all have the potential to benefit society. To take just two examples, people like Professor John Witcombe are pursuing new participatory breeding techniques in Asia. Marker-assisted selection is being used to create varieties that meet the needs of growers and their communities. A project at Leeds University is working to produce nematode-resistant strains of plant, which would be donated to African plant scientists. Over 50% of African banana yields are lost to nematodes. Their first crop was destroyed by anti-GM protestors.

Rothamsted are working on Aphid resistance. This is an issue of global importance: currently India, China and others use Endosulfan, a highly toxic chemical banned in the West, and hopefully heading towards a global ban. GM is one technology among many - including agro-ecological methods - that may help get us to a pesticide-free future.

Your website makes many claims about the uselessness of GM - but we can’t know what will succeed without trying. Predicting the failure of an experiment is clearly no basis for destroying it. This brand of selectivity and unwillingness to listen exists elsewhere – among so-called 'climate skeptics'. You are making it seem like the same level of ignorance exists in the environmental movement. Is that what you want?

You claim you are carrying out this action to prevent ‘contamination’. The likelihood of any genetic material from the experiment getting out into the wider ecosystem is vanishingly small. Wheat plants pollinate themselves. Their pollen is heavy and cannot carry far on the wind. Traditional varieties of wheat grown in the UK - over 40 of them - stay stable even without the kinds of stringent controls Rothamsted have put in place. The experiment has several buffer zones around it, one of conventional wheat to capture any stray pollen and a further buffer zone of 20 meters (nearly a swimming pool’s length) around the crop will also be kept free of any plants that could (theoretically) cross with wheat. Is this not enough?

Rothamsted have done everything in their power to meet you half way. You asked for debate – they organised and paid for a room, and George Monbiot agreed to chair. Yet – despite having time to appear on Newsnight, as well as organise the protest itself – you apparently don’t have the ‘capacity’ to attend.

It looks a lot like you’re unwilling to back down. Sadly, someone has already taken your website’s advice and carried out their own attack. But one last time: please reconsider. Do not destroy this experiment, and tell other people to stay away. Join in a debate about the future of our food system. Fight for public research: for open access to results, code and scientific discoveries. Help work out how plant scientists, UK growers and organisations like the Transition movement can work together to find new, innovative ways to develop and produce food.

The challenges we face staying within our planetary boundaries are colossal, and we should be working together to meet them. R. Buckminster Fuller said: 'you never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.'

Help build a new model – don’t destroy.

Dan Olner
Dr. Susannah Bird
---

Thanks for all the suggestions, either in comments on the draft or via Twitter.

Game over for the climate

James Hansen: "Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history."

Via Leo Hickman, here's a photo essay: "The Canadian Oil Sand Mines Refused Us Access, So We Rented A Plane To See What They Were Doing". Awe-inspiring, in much the same way as watching a crack addict in a wheelchair get high.

But it's OK, because scientists are all communists, or something.

What are costs, actually? (Another P3 comment...)

Another comment at P3, responding to MT.

Me: "Economics is the study of how people react to cost changes." Hmm, you're right - I need to be more careful with nomenclature myself. I'm sure some of the heterodox econs would say the term is 'essentially contested'. Thinking about it, though, I think my def still works: economics concerns itself with the costs and benefits involved in human choices. I don't see that Marshall's questions contradict that: everything from how we structure institutions, what sectors should be state-owned, the ethics of wealth distribution - is all covered.

"presuming you mean 'cost' in the colloquial sense of money". No, absolutely not. The magic washing machine is a pretty perfect example: what are the costs/benefits of how we use our time? How does technology and societal structure alter that? Rosling very cleverly illustrates precisely this point by pulling books out of the washing machine: it's a machine that produces women's education as well as clean clothes. I see no problem in thinking about time this way while also thinking about how time is socially constructed (see this classic E.P.Thompson article, PDF) and how economic definitions themselves may alter us.

The transition from a mostly agricultural society to what we have today can be thought of in the same way. Two things have happened simultaneously: agri technology has improved, meaning waaay less people can produce massively more (put aside for now 'but it's all just eating fossil fuels'...) The rest of the economy has grown in a feedback process: enabling both increased agri output and freeing up people's time to work elsewhere. As a result, we've also seen a massive morphology change as food processing has moved out of the household/community and into today's sophisticated global industrial networks. A key part of that is how people value their time: we could all be growing food in community gardens and cooking it at home. We have the time to do that. Mostly, we don't. Why not? We prefer to work in paid jobs and access relatively cheaper food, as well as a set of other things we like. Computers, electricity, transport, beer, time to sit and stare at the wall...

Again, there's a whig history danger here: it was meant to be thus, and is natural and good (while forgetting small matters like kicking people off their land when sheep became more profitable, much as we're doing now because car-food is more profitable than people-food [my blog] in many places). But there's also a lot of value in thinking about these changes through the prism of how we value the costs and benefits of our time.

I've found myself looking at my own 'revealed preference' and changing my views. I used to be a lot more fervent about local food growing, until I realised what my shopping habits were telling me: I actually prefer to earn a living in academia and spend time I'd be putting into agriculture on other things, like commenting at P3. If other people feel differently, fine. But I don't think the existence of supermarkets is necessarily a sign of collective moral failure. I also reserve the right to a) reflect on that and change in the future but b) not to have anyone else actually force me to change, unless I've taken part in a democratic process to enforce it ->

Cos maybe supermarket are evil, and individually we're too vulnerable. Marshall lists this in his questions: "what are the proper relations of individual and collective action in a stage of civilization such as ours? How far ought voluntary association in its various forms, old and new, to be left to supply collective action for those purposes for which such action has special advantages?" In the case of supermarkets - and some other market structures - perhaps we should not trust the emergent result of all our collective value-judgements. Instead, maybe we need to get together and decide a set of constraining rules: those we agree are needed, but that we recognise individual actions will tend to corrode over time. That would be democracy. It's also why people who claim that money represents the zenith of democracy [me again] are talking nonsense. If individually we are incapable of making the right carbon choices, collectively we can decide to restrict our choice set.

Spuds & Loops

Somehow forgot to repost this here: from CommonSense (2008, opens PDF), organised by Sheffield's Access Space and edited by Dougald Hine. Was looking for it again, thinking about takebacktheflour's protest.

Potatoes and sound loops: two of my favourite things, and cut from the same cloth. How so? Start with spuds. Raleigh didn’t discover them - Peruvian farmers have been growing potatoes for millennia. The homogenised chips, crisps and ‘product’ we eat are one tiny genetic fibre. They’ve developed thousands of varieties, all the time experimenting in chacritas - their gardens - talking, testing, exchanging, cross-breeding. They’ve woven a tapestry of genetic diversity over the Andes. It’s a living, breathing quilt a million miles from IP-protected superspuds owned by multinationals. In Monsanto-world, farmers are reduced to mindless labourers. And loops? A 21st century global colony of music-makers forage for sounds, recombining them endlessly. Coldcut call it an ‘elaborate megamix’ – a seething evolution that acknowledges its sources as it giggles at copyright. Loops leap from net to mix to dancefloor and back again: we’re the landscape where they thrive or die. So? For us, it’s about freedom to create; in Peru it has meant survival. Open source isn’t new, then. It’s always been about control. In the Andes, autonomy, creativity and survival are entwined threads. Our own cultural viability means heeding the spuds and loops, and binding our own threads together.

Utility is useful (and planets probably don't love each other)

It's interesting that blog-writing was meant to be a way to relax a bit, get ideas down. It's somehow got all tensed up, and I keep on finding myself accidentally writing in comments elsewhere. This one's a quick defence of the idea of utility. At some point I'll explain in more detail the several, tiered stages I went through before I ended up seeing how the standard micro-economics framework is in fact really useful. That's quite a shift, since before I'd completely bought the common sociological (and ABM) criticism of utility as clearly false, because unrealistic. But here's a start. Oh - and having tried many books, here's the best one I found for learning micro-economics basics if, like me, you've been attempting that outside of an economics course. It assumes only calculus basics and the writing is incredibly clear-minded. Anyway, from a comment on an ongoing P3 thread:

I started my PhD listening to a lot of agent modellers promising the moon on a stick. Realistic, reactive, built on plausible psychology blah. I’ve ended it completely seeing what the idea of utility is good for. It’s not meant to be a ‘realistic’ take on human psychology, it’s a neutral framework for thinking through how cost changes shift people’s responses. E.g. the fairly unremarkable fact that people will tend to cut back on other spending first as fuel costs increase can be described in terms of elasticities. It’s tautological, but then all theories are, by themselves. It doesn’t stop it being very useful: if you know that increasing fuel costs will actually reduce spending in the rest of the economy more than it affects fuel spending, that’s important – not least for working out tax revenues.

It doesn’t explain *why* those choices are being made, and for a lot of purposes it doesn’t need to. It depends on what level of explanation you’re after. Others might want to ask: well, is the inelasticity of fuel prices amenable to change in other ways, if we break it down? What role, for example, does the physical structure of cities have?

Compare to another of my favourite utility-based findings: “savings in walking and waiting times are valued at between two and three times savings in on-vehicle time – parameters that have proved to be remarkably robust over the years.” (Button, Transport Economics, p.104)

So: more people will be – for instance – willing to drive for an hour each way to work, when they would never consider walking for that amount of time. Of course, one can come up with many theories to explain the underlying facts: anything from the structure of towns/cities/transport design to people’s (relative) aversion to physical exercise (I commute about an hour each way, with some walking. I’m fairly fit, I run, but I’m not sure I’d want to walk to work for 2 hours a day…!) But *at a given level of explanation* it is very useful to know that people value transport time differently for different modes.

So taking that simple example: if it appears that people will only walk or cycle for much shorter time stretches than under power, what can you do with that info? Several possible things. Find out the impact of physical/urban structure. Try and pull out the underlying factors affecting people’s choices, separate from those structures. If you want to reduce carbon output, you could either berate people for being so weak and tell them they should drive less – or perhaps think about other ways behaviour might be amenable to change, given what we know about how people react to those changes.

I’m not saying utility is the only way to think about people’s choices, and certainly not that it’s a description of the way people “really are”. But it seems to be clearly a useful tool for thinking about cost change, either monetary, time or some other cost imposed by our environment.

And just going back to the ‘level of explanation’ thing: “I have not been able to discover the causes of those properties… and I frame no hypothesis”. That’s Newton on gravity. He came up with what’s probably the first exemplar of a scientifically robust, generalised theory, but understood that deeper levels of explanation awaited. We’re still working on that.

I think physicists actually have less of a problem with this difference between levels of explanation than economists, who tend to assume that whole collections of people act like a single person (the ‘representative agent’ idea). But we have to get comfortable with what level of explanation we’re talking about. People are not utility-maximisers. Utility is useful for thinking about, describing and even predicting what impact people’s reaction to cost changes will have. What’s the problem? Pinning utility onto rationality is not necessary – any more than the theory of gravity requires planets to love each other.

Murderers, Tyrants & Madmen

The Heartland Institute's new poster campaign. I'm sort of still wondering if it's going to turn out to be a joke, but... from their press release (via Leo Hickman):

The people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society. This is why the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.

I think Heartland just became the new Monckton: if they didn't exist, we'd need to invent them.

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