An appeal from Rothamsted Research: don't destroy our crop research!

An appeal from scientists at the publicly funded Rothamsted Research and a petition.

These people are proposing to destroy a GM crop in the UK at the end of this month. As with Greenpeace's destruction of an Australian GM crop last year, this is a travesty, and damaging to the integrity of the UK's environmental movement. They're planning this action based on the flimsiest of unchecked facts - including the 'cow gene' theme of their website.

The scientists in question (see the video) have made clear they're happy to talk to them. The protestors have responded with: "We are really pleased they want to engage in a discussion. But we know that talking to them is not going to change their minds. They've declared their position because they have already put the plants in the ground." Uh huh.

Here's more on Rothamsted Research and their climate/sustainability aims.

This also supports a pet theory of mine: scientific ignorance is spread across the political spectrum. Climate denialism may be more right-wing, but that's got nothing to do with rightwingers being generally less scientifically literate, despite what various daft analyses have recently been (massively counterproductively) saying. (Hey! How best to alienate a whole chunk of the political compass!) Many instinctive free-market supporters will back GM the same way these GM-attackers instinctively buy in to climate change, without necessarily comprehending the science: their worldview provides shortcut heuristics.

My partner works on biofuels, and is about to start on a project looking at enzymes in composting and whether they can be isolated/put to use in speeding/increasing efficiency of the digestion process. There are so many fantastic scientists working hard to get us through the next 50/100 years - how can we get through to people like 'taketheflourback' that they're being counterproductive?

A one-para summary of my own view of GM: just another crop optimisation tool, no different to what potato farmers in the Andes were doing thousands of years ago. But like any tool, depends on who's using it for what. We need to support *public* funding of crop projects like this (and encourage effective private investment of benefit to all end-users) not confuse "GM" with "Monsanto".

More on economic modelling at P3

MT is provoking me into defending economics, which is a fact I'll have to reflect on at some point. Comments over there, but as I seem to be continuing to accidentally write down stuff from the PhD, I'll post some of it here too. Latest:

It's good to read some provoking ideas, MT, but - again - it would be nice to see some evidence to back up your arguments. You're not wrong about a lot of things but I don't think you're right either. I'm not in any great position of expertise, mind, but the bullet points feel a little like watching a jazz band fall down the stairs.

"economics distinguishes itself by a massive and systematic aversion to data." Do you follow Krugman's blog? Have you seen his massive and systematic reference to data? Each time, repeatedly pointing out that it clearly supports well-established macro-economic principles, not actions currently being taken in Washington and Europe? I presume you're making a point about economic modelling methods and how they're used?

"There are simple arguments based on plausible assumptions within economics that purport to show that any regulation is a net cost. If these arguments were correct it would be possible to get places faster if the government didn’t intervene to tell you what side of the road to drive on. This conclusion is obviously false. Consequently the plausible assumptions cannot all be correct."

Who makes these arguments? Largely (though not exclusively) a small set of economists-for-hire, buyable from the same dealers who will provide you with some top-notch, well-oiled climate FUD. There's a small overlap with Krugman's Very Serious People, particularly the ones peddling 'nasty medicine' solutions to our current economic woes.

Whoops, economics

Just caught myself off-guard and spewed on economic modelling at P3. Accidental blog entry!
"Does the absence of a workable model refute a hypothesis?" As usual, Krugman's my favourite on this. Particularly from section 'the evolution of ignorance' where he compares theory-making to early map-making. Early maps were more report-based but, as they slowly became filled in, that heuristic knowledge was lost.

"There was an extended period in which improved technique actually led to some loss in knowledge. Between the 1940s and the 1970s something similar happened to economics. A rise in the standards of rigor and logic led to a much improved level of understanding of some things, but also led for a time to an unwillingness to confront those areas the new technical rigor could not yet reach. Areas of inquiry that had been filled in, however imperfectly, became blanks. Only gradually, over an extended period, did these dark regions get re-explored."

Krugman got his Nobel prize for his work on geographical economics (the 'new economic geography'). Here he is (pdf) reflecting on that. His express purpose in creating his 'simple' core-periphery model was to show economists that geography mattered (as well as that you didn't need comparative advantage to make it work, so some places could become the core through endogenous forces alone). But the bait he used to lure neoclassical economists out of their dimensionless 'wonderland' was a model able to preserve general equilibrium.

Wibble (massive navel-gaze alert)

"As a professor of rhetoric, I necessarily became a student of narcissism, which for simplicity’s sake I define as not knowing where your boundaries end and the rest of the world begins." (Guy McPherson via desdemonadespair)

Trying to blog at the minute feels very much like I'm in an imaginary room watching nameless faces wobble on a knife-edge between polite concern and genuine horror, as a needling worry tries to get my attention: am I naked from the waist down? Do I have my pants on my head? What am I saying? I hold off, waiting for some surety that I'll say something sensible... I end up writing nonsense like this. Why? Why here? What's the benefit of that imaginary audience and their wobbly faces? Is it just the virtual equivalent of hanging around in parks with your goolies hanging out, hoping someone's going to look over? As the quote above suggests, it's a peculiar sort of solipsism.

I've always thought it was simply that you have to adopt a different writing style to accommodate the possibility - however slim - that the Internets might come and read you. That forces a little more thought about structure and flow. But having taken an extended break from twitface, and now to be trying facebook again, I'm not so sure. Some peope know they have an audience, and that must help define what they're doing in their own mind. After all, the feedback is real, not merely a projected hallucination. But there must, of course, be something intrinsically narcissistic about the enterprise: each entry reaffirms a desire, however obscured by rationalisations, to be observed. Otherwise, why not just keep a journal?

It's obviously daft, though, to say any form of communication is narcissistic, any more than a schoolkid doing their homework makes them so. What I like about the above quote, though, is that it seems to capture something of the role of imagination in online communication. As I say, it's been weird returning to Facebook and moving again from being deeply suspicious to letting it back in the veins again. (Sociology alert: that's Bauman's synopticon right there. We demand to be watched, and our most private utterances only take on meaning with a viewing public, even if that public exists only in our own mind.) With facebook, that's not to say there's no genuine social element to it, but it's only in taking an extended break from it - and then relearning the weird urge to post - that I can sense the little high it provides, the (cod-psychology alert) micro-dose of oxytocin from rubbing up against the leg of virtual sociability. The number of people that actually take part, compared to the nominal quantity of facebook friends anyone has, is a hint of that.

So it's slightly the same when blogging; one's mental reactions are real enough, but it's unclear to me what's really going on. It's un-nerving. Spending five years working towards the endpoint of the PhD is obviously a factor in feeling so weird. What the bejeesus happens now? How come it still feels like now, it was six months ago! I have to actually finish it first. The viva is long done, but the corrections are still lurking about. The thing still feels too unfinished to mention; another narcissistic urge to destroy anything lacking some inestimable quality of good enough. Sloping off quietly and pretending nothing happened seems easier somehow. Thanks all the same, good taxpayers...

Being spat out at the end of PhDing can leave one devoid of all porpoise. A bad acid trip that takes a huge hunking bite out of your alloted years; a fairy land at right angles to the rest of time. Hang on - what the hell's going on again? Where am I? How old? What the hell was that all for anyway? So here I am, pants on my head, naked from the waist down and possibly even with pencils up my nose, deciding the way to deal with that is to blog about it. Who knows? Might help. Not a full online career and friendship destroying mental breakdown, but at least something capable of causing a slight sweat-prickle of embarrassment when read a year later. You might delete it but the internet never forgets.

At any rate, this all by way of a little push for myself to pull the plug out of my, um, nostrils and write some shit down, for better or worse. This sort of navel-gazing is even more narcissistic than blogging about something genuinely empirically interesting, of course, but some writing is (possibly) better than none. I don't really want to strangle that while I wait for a decent academic voice to assert itself; think I'll just carry on as normal and hope for the best.

That said, some preparation did go into a separate academic blog: domain registered and everything. I'm just not sure I have the heart to write that "dear coveredinbees" letter, so I reckon I'll hang on here a while longer, see if I can get those topics going. Thank you in advance, imaginary audience, for indulging my half-naked pants-on-head ramblings. Wibble.

Denning: "when will you stand up and offer solutions?"

In all the Heartland-related kerfuffle recently, I find myself going back to Denning's 15 minute presentation to their conference last year.

Only a free market can bring this kind of change about. We are not going to get this kind of change from interventionist government. Who’s going to advocate for these effective solutions? Do you think Greenpeace is going to advocate for this? Is that what you’re waiting for? Evidently. If free market advocates shirk their responsibility, others will dictate policy. Is that really what you want? When will you stand up and offer solutions? Are you cowards? To recap, in case you missed it: everyone in this room understands climate well enough. It is not worth your time to argue about the third decimal point. Climate is going to change a lot in the next few decades – and policy will be enacted to deal with perceived needs. The political right has been AWOL in proposing solutions to these problems. And the world needs you to be engaged.

Never mind, eat the fruit

"Your God person puts an apple tree in the middle of a garden and says do what you like guys, oh, but don't eat the apple. Surprise surprise, they eat it and he leaps out from behind a bush shouting `Gotcha'. It wouldn't have made any difference if they hadn't eaten it."

"Why not?"

"Because if you're dealing with somebody who has the sort of mentality which likes leaving hats on the pavement with bricks under them you know perfectly well they won't give up. They'll get you in the end."

"What are you talking about?"

"Never mind, eat the fruit."

Douglas Adams, Restaurant at the end of the Universe

Kindred spirits

"... people generally experience a strong motivation to associate themselves meaningfully with groups of 'kindred spirits' to reduce feelings of boredom and loneliness. To cope with and alleviate such feelings of loneliness, people pursue various strategies, including shopping (Rubenstein and Shaver 1980). The desire for human interaction thus may drive some shoppers to stores in which they find salespeople friendly and communicative."

Yue Pan and George M. Zinkhan, “Determinants of retail patronage: A meta-analytical perspective,” Journal of Retailing 82, no. 3 (2006): 229-243. p.231

David Attenborough is an alien robot

Was just trying to find out if it's really true that the USA broadcast of Frozen Planet will not include the last episode, 'on thin ice', when I found the Daily Mail apoplectic and red-in-face: "Moving polar bear footage filmed in Germany! Eight million people tuned in! Show sold around the world! BBC denies it misled viewers!!!" That list should really end with "BBC causes mass jowel-shaking incident among the home counties! A-brbrbrbrbrrbbr!"

It's a technique that's been used in previous BBC wildlife programmes, of course, for filming something that would otherwise be next to impossible. Even in this series, I'm guessing they probably didn't have a tiny side-on camera able to follow this vole. (In fact, obviously not, it would have been impossible.) It's probably my natural leaning towards the BBC's liberal commie outlook, but I didn't feel particularly cheated by that. Actually, in both cases above, I thought, 'wow, that must have been a bugger to set up.'

What could possibly have triggered the Mail to turn the jowel-shaker to 11 on this? Might it be anything to do with the great global warming conspiracy, perpetuated by the final episode's blatant presentation of actual, physical evidence? I mean, did you see the number of scientists who are clearly swindling the taxpayer solely so they can fly around the arctic in cool planes looking sexy and rugged?

Polar bears, of course, are pretty much guaranteed to trigger this kind of reaction. Witness the recent suspension and reinstatement of Charles Monnett, following his devious reporting of seeing four dead polar bears.

Backing off slightly from my own buttons being pushed, there's an interesting comparison to the recent Jeremy Clarkson nonsense. Paul Sinha did a good job on the Now Show: however clumsily, Clarkson was actually making a joke about attempts to provide balance, giving both sides of every story. But the meme that escaped was too good to question for many, with some even calling for legal action. Hmm.

Whether the Grauniad or the Mail, pushing your reader's buttons sells papers. It gives them a little addictive high and makes them feel vindicated in their own beliefs. The long hard slog of building a daily, working relationship with the truth is much less exciting.

Update: Discovery have decided to air the climate change episode, it seems.

Boycott everything you're against!

Jeremy Hardy had a quality rant on the News Quiz last week. I'd missed what he was ranting about - Louise Mensch on have I got news for you sneering at the Occupy protesters:

They tweet about it regularly on their iphones, perhaps in between getting cafe lattes. And they're housing themselves in some very fancy tents. So they're against capitalism, except for the lattes.

Hislop and Merton have a good go, but Jeremy's spot on:

Oh god, if you'd just think more. If caffeine were nationalised or the city was bustling with anarcho-syndicalist coffee collectives, the protesters would go to them, but we have to deal with society as it is. I don't remember before the mass privatisations of the eighties, Tories boycotting the phones, gas, electricity, water or anything made from steel. And to this day, conservatives will post a letter, phone the fire brigade - even use the NHS.

Which just goes to show that the BBC really is a leftie-liberal hornet's nest. That aside, though, Jeremy's making a pretty good point.

Hypocrisy finger-pointing crops up regularly in climate arguments. Al Gore probably holds the title for most pointed at, but my favourite is Watts calling Copenhagen `a day that will live in hypocrisy' because politicians used a lot of cars. The hypocrisy stemming, presumably, from all the carbon used to put the thing on, rather than rich and powerful people having big cars.

Hypocrisy finger-pointing is very effective: the message gets out there, and its source won't matter at all if it sticks. In a globalised world, there are two morally consistent positions: amorality or suicide. Everyone else has to put up with being tangled in the daily moral quagmire of a globalised economy. On that, looking forward to cheering myself up watching blood in the mobile.

Year zero-and-a-bit

Endings and beginnings: always good times for leaning back in one's chair, squinting at the middle distance and indulging in turgid wiffle. CiB'll hopefully get back to actual topics at some point, but for now I've just got to go with the turgid.

A little over two weeks since the thesis got handed in, the ol' noggin is starting to poke a whimpering nose out into the world again. Five years, that trip was. Learned stuff? Probably. Mostly I just majored in the universe.

Well, that's not strictly true. Exactly the opposite too: something so arcane ended up in the thesis that I can't really explain it to myself, let alone anyone else. Having no viable answer when someone asks what your PhD's about: fairly normal while you're doing it. I'm finding people to be less patient with non-answers now I've actually written it all down and handed it in. Still, I'll leave talking about all that until after the viva. Who knows how that'll go?

In the meantime: what the hell happened to the world? I was tunnel-focused on the PhD for a while there, and when I looked up, everyone was running round in circles wailing. Is the world ending? Yes? Oh. Well... I shall manfully, er, man the keyboard, up to the power outages at least. They'll take my cordless mouse from my cold dead etc. If the power does go, I'll probably just sit here anyway. What else am I gonna do?

You can tell there's a crisis brewing: there are gurus everywhere. Pontification indices are through the roof. A marketplace of Ideas and Systems lines the walls of the black hole we're being sucked into. You can pick n mix any bunch of them: who knows what might work? What I like about the Occupy Wall Street movement is its simplicity. It trails all the usual protest baggage, and I sincerely hope the SWP are still doing their sterling work of bus-putting-on while wondering whether it's that shift in class consciousness they've been so patiently waiting for.

But the simplicity is inescapable. There's been a massive, furrowed-brow pause after everyone - everyone - saw the financial sector get thrown truly unbelievable amounts of money. The numbers were large enough that it didn't seem possible it was real: surely just created by fiat, not the same stuff used to pay for healthcare, jobs? The effects, of course, have turned out to be quite real. One of the most collosal state bailouts in history (proven effective) has somehow segued into Attack of the Tories, and not just in the UK.

I understand almost none of it. I've been trying, but there are still wopping great blobs of ignorance stuck to my visor of, er, understanding. Heh. It's taken two weeks, as I say, for me poor brain to develop any sort of curiosity, but - wow - it's improving a bit now, and isn't the world offering up a whole heap of brain-food? Well done world for all that collapsyness.

The most fundamental question is still as I nihilistically moaned after watching Age of Stupid: are we any better than bacteria in a petridish? It's a nihilistic-sounding question, but it isn't. If it turns out our intelligence helps us not at all, we'll just enter into a collapse phase - maybe a death phase if we're ingeniuous enough to properly sterilise the planet. Our ability to see it coming or invent ways to avoid it may have zero effect. We'll just get to watch. We'll combine that with a little denial that any limits exist at all: some of the bacteria in the petridish will argue the petridish itself is a socialist subterfuge that does nothing but limit true bacterial potential - shortly before they run out of nutrients or choke on their own waste.

After the Indonesian Tsunami, there were no shortage of clerics willing to blame their flocks for straying from God. No amount of actual physical evidence is going to convince some people. Perry doesn't feel obliged to pause even for a moment, despite his state burning (though it's good to see scientists boycotting his state's attempt at direct scientific censorship. I'm sure WUWT would have covered such a blatant, direct attack on free scientific speech... oh, no, turns out they didn't.)

Ach. None of that helps, does it? The gurus are all shouting at the same time, power structures are doing what they do. People like me are here blogging, or knocking up goodies for our own guru CVs, depositing at the bank of whuffie. How - how - do we get from here to... where? A hundred year's time with carbon output stabilisation well behind us? There's probably enough carbon in the ground for us to carry on if we like: peak etc won't save us. Easily 1000ppm by 2100, and who knows how high we can aim if we really put our minds to it?

As Denning so awesomely spent 15 minutes at Heartland pointing out, too many people are AWOL from the debate: `the petridish is socialist'. It would be good to have them back. (Or it would be good for someone to convince me that somehow heading towards 1000ppm co2 by 2100 is just fine, we need do nothing.)

I found myself looking back to old journal after I finished and was rather surprised how much I wiffled about God. The whole God thing's cropped up before, but only because atheists are angry at God for not existing - and that gives secret pretend atheists like me cover for writing about it. What's odd is - talking of beginnings and endings - I started this ridiculous academic trek from South to North over fifteen years. 1996, a box-room in Bournemouth, winter drizzle on the skylight, just getting ready to go the job-centre having moved there the week before. And through so much of that time, up to relatively recently, I'd openly use the word, and clearly didn't consider myself an atheist. I look back and wonder: did it all just fade away?

It's probably more just that the word has too much baggage. But I thought I'd better mention it cos I suspect there's going to be more wiffle about it here. To quote Vinay: 'When they say `why?' what am I supposed to say? That I thought that the god I saw in all beings needed a place to live and something to eat?' Hmm, dunno if that's it. Dunno what I'm on about really. Brain bit like porridge.

Weeelll... not going to go down as the most eloquent blog post ever, but thought it best to get the fingers moving. I'll try and focus a little more from now on. Must do better.

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