April 21, 2012

Ockham's Razor

ABC Radio National

Participatory Democracy and Majoritarian Tyranny

William Grey: Honorary Research Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Queensland

[Unlike participatory democracies, representative] democracies embody checks and balances which help to insulate them from the prejudices and delusions disseminated by special interest advocates, who often float happily in a fact-free parallel universe.
One important balance is the evidence-based expertise which bureaucracies and universities provide to our elected representatives.
Evidence-based expertise makes an important contribution to policy development in our science-based technological society, and sound policy in many areas (including health, energy, agriculture, the environment) depends crucially on scientific expertise.
This is a critically important component of the institutional structures of representative democracy but it is something which is downplayed or ignored by the populist processes of participatory democracy. …

Participatory democracy's hostility to science is a serious strike against it.
A related role of scientific experts is to challenge and correct a mountain of error and confusion and to defend evidence-based beliefs against delusional belief systems promoted, for example, by anti-vaccinationists or deniers of climate change. …

[In Australia, there] is no tradition of consulting the people (aside from elections) for the resolution of socially contested issues.
  • Compulsory national service was introduced during the Korean and Vietnam wars;
  • women were given the vote;
  • the death penalty was abolished;
  • homosexuality was decriminalized;
  • no-fault divorce was introduced; [and]
  • the White Australia Policy was abolished
— all without consulting the will of the people.
Why should legalizing same-sex marriage be any different? …

To those who suggest:
Let the people have their say,
I reply:
The people have had their say.
We have elected our representatives who are invested with the authority to make policy decisions on our behalf.
It is the duty of these elected representatives to act with the power invested in them by the Constitution.

Those who think there is little likelihood of public discourse degenerating into hate speech should study the Irish experience.
There is a very real risk that opponents of marriage equality —
  • the shock jocks,
  • the tabloid press and
  • political voices from the lunar right
— would vilify and denigrate opponents.
The [risk] of inflammatory hate speech is [simply one] not worth taking. …

[The] death penalty was [abolished] not because it was popular, but because it was right.
Had the endorsement of a plebiscite been sought, it would never have happened.

[Justice] and majority opinion [do not always] coincide. …
Plebiscites are a dangerous and capricious instrument of governance and should play no role in determining policy outcomes when questions of social justice are at issue.
It is the job of our [elected] leaders to lead — to shape and direct public opinion for benefit of everyone — not to follow. …

(Plebiscites, 13 November 2016)

An Australian Responsibility

Terry Krieg

[Australia exports] yellowcake to over 20 countries for them to produce emissions free energy. …
[We] have a responsibility to take back [that waste] for final disposal.
… Australia should offer the world the Officer Basin for the development of an international nuclear waste repository for the final disposal of what will be [following the advent of Integrated Fast Reactors] an increasingly smaller volume of waste.

Pigs and Poultry

Asa Wahlquist

[For every one] kilogram of beef 24 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent is produced.
Lamb produces 16.8 Kg.
The figure for pork is 4.1 Kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogram of meat and for chicken it is just 0.8 Kg.




Robyn Williams (1944)

  • The Lucky Country?, 2 October 2016.
    Ian Lowe: Professor of Science, Griffith University.
  • A politician confronts AIDS, 23 November 2014.
    Mark Dodgson: Professor and Director, Technology and Innovation Management Centre, University of Queensland.
  • No more range anxiety, 15 December 2013.
    Alan Finkel: PhD, President, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.
  • Barbara York Main: Spider Woman, 16 October 2013.
    Vicki Laurie: Journalist and Author.
  • The early years of the mobile phone in Australia, 1 September 2013.
    Robin Robertson: Historian.
  • Patents are only inventive sometimes, 25 August 2013.
    Hazel Moir: Adjunct Associate Professor, Research School of Social Sciences, College of Arts & Social Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra.
  • Attributions to climate change, 16 October 2013.
    Tony Eggleton: Emeritus Professor, Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra.
    Author, A Short Introduction to Climate Change, Cambridge University Press.
  • It isn't weird to believe in 'Wind Turbine Syndrome', 28 July 2013.
    Ketan Joshi: Research and Communications Officer, Infigen Energy.

    ['Wind Turbine Syndrome' has been popularized by] New York Paediatrician Nina Pierpont …
    Pierpont is the wife of an anti-wind activist …
    In 2006, she put out a call for:
    'anyone living near wind turbines and suffering ill health effects of whatever sort which he/she suspects are a result of the wind turbines'
    — to contact her.
    By her own admission, Pierpont assumed that ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ was a reality before she even began her interviews.
    The study, involving 38 people, most of whom were interviewed over the phone …
    [Her] self-published study … has spread to communities in Canada, the United States and Australia. …

    Simon Chapman, Professor of Public Health at Sydney University, has [collated 216 symptoms attributed to wind turbines ranging from —] headaches, nausea and sleeplessness, to claims of ‘rage attacks’, chicken deformities and the mass death of 400 goats [—] all associated with the mysterious infrasonic and low-frequency noise emissions of wind energy. …

    {[He has also studied] the prevalence of health complaints around 49 wind farms in Australia, compiled from government submissions, media mentions and the complaints registers of wind energy companies.
    Chapman estimates there are 32,000 people living within five kilometres of Australia’s wind farms.
    Of these, 120 individuals have issued complaints of ill-health they attribute to wind energy.
    Eighty-two per cent of all complaints have arisen since the inception of ‘wind turbine syndrome’ in 2009, and 68 per cent of all complaints are centred around just five wind farms, each of which have been visited by anti-wind groups …}

    The South Australian Environmental Protection Agency produced a comparative report into infrasound in February this year, finding that infrasound near wind farms is mostly attributable to the wind itself, and is no greater than levels measured in urban and CBD areas.
    The highest levels of recorded infrasound came from inside the office of the Environmental Protection Agency. …

    Researchers at Waterloo University in Canada published a paper this year, showing a recent and statistically significant increase in the framing of ‘Wind Turbine Syndrome’ as ‘poorly understood by science’ in regional and capital city newspapers.

  • Innovation policy, 14 July 2013.
    Paul Fletcher: Federal Member for Bradfield (Liberal), New South Wales.
  • Nuclear waste disposal in Australia, 10 March 2013.
    Terry Krieg: Retired Geology and Geography Teacher; Member of the Australian Nuclear Forum.

    Currently … there are about 250,000 tonnes of [nuclear] waste stored {worldwide} in facilities attached to power stations.
    This waste has come from 33 nuclear power generating countries over the past 50 years from a maximum of 440 civil power reactors.
    Within the next five years there will be 53 countries generating nuclear power from well over 500 reactors. …

    [On] exit from the reactor the spent fuel rods … are suspended in cooling ponds under several metres of water. …
    The fuel assemblies remain in the ponds for three years by which time their radiation levels have reduced [by 99%.]
    They are then placed in above ground cool air storage where they remain for about 30 years by which time they are suitable for deep burial in a suitable site. …

    Since the early 1960s high level nuclear materials have been moved through cities, across the countryside and over oceans [without incident.]
    Purpose-built ships with double walled hulls, twin engines and twin navigating systems and special hold-flooding capabilities in case of fire have been plying the oceans between Europe and Japan since the ‘60s.
    They’ve covered over 7 million kilometres in such travels.

    The waste [is stored in] a sparingly soluble solid ceramic form, held in stainless steel drums which are placed in purpose built transport casks six metres long with 30cm thick cast iron walls and weighing about 100 tonnes.
    They are virtually indestructible. …

    Currently the world has to handle about 12,000 tonnes of waste every year.
    [This] will ultimately [be reduced] to a few hundred tonnes when [Integrated Fast Reactors] come on line in future decades. …

    [The] International Atomic Energy Agency [has] established the site criteria necessary for safe permanent disposal of nuclear waste. …

    1. Simple and stable geology [ie] no earthquake or volcanic activity.
    2. Flat topography and [low] rainfall [— less water reduces the risk of] radionuclide movement.
    3. Low permeability host rock which discourages water movement.
    4. Old saline groundwater of no stock or human value.
    5. No resource conflicts …
    6. A thick layer of host rock to house the waste.
    7. A low population density. …

    The Officer Basin [—] a desert region straddling the South Australian and Western Australia border [— has been identified as one of the best potential sites in the world.]
    [The] nearest population centre is the Oak Valley Aboriginal community …
    [That] community could [provide] part of the workforce to operate and administer the waste repository. …

    The burial site would need an area of about 1 kilometre square for surface infrastructure to receive and take the waste underground.
    Ships bringing the waste from around the world for transport to the site would dock at a purpose built small port on the South Australian far west coast …
    [Waste] would be carried on a purpose built railway or road to the site some 250 kms inland.
    At the site, a decline or shaft to an appropriate impermeable layer about 500 metres underground would be required.
    A series of tunnels drilled by a full face boring machine to minimise rock disturbance could radiate from a central chamber.

    The waste in drums would be placed on cradles, moved into and stacked in a tunnel and backfilled.
    The nuclear waste will have been [safely] isolated from the environment forever [without the need for any] further human intervention. …

    {[A 1998 study by Access Economics estimated that such a repository would be worth] $200 billion … over 40 years.
    [It would create] 20,000 infrastructure development [and] 2,500 operational jobs [along] with $2.3 billion per year in taxes and royalties paid by user-countries.}

  • Pigs and poultry, 6 January 2013.
    Asa Wahlquist: Rural Journalist, Sydney.

    In 2008 the price of grain doubled.
    Aid agencies were unable to purchase all the grain they needed.
    Some countries placed embargoes on grain exports and there were food riots in half a dozen countries.
    Grain production had fallen short due to a range of adverse climate events, including drought in Australia, as well as under-investment in grain research and development. …
    Critics condemned the use of grain for fuel and questioned the large quantities of grain being fed to livestock rather than to people. …

    Across China, Indonesia and other Asian countries the middle class is growing rapidly and with that the consumption of meat. …
    • Beef requires 6 to 10 kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of meat;
    • lamb requires six to seven kilograms …
    • pork requires 3.5 to 4 kilograms [and}
    • chicken requires just 1.7 kilograms …
    But … feed does not necessarily mean grain.
    Cattle and sheep can eat grass.
    Traditionally chickens and pigs [produced] protein from food scraps and farm waste.
    [Today food waste] ends up in dumps where it produces the greenhouse gas methane. …

    [Although] poultry and pigs are more efficient converters of plant energy than cattle and produce less greenhouse gas, they … are more dependent on grains. …
    Rather than feeding livestock good quality grain, we should be feeding them by-products like molasses cake, brewer’s grains, vegetable residues and rice husks.

    [It makes] sense to feed animals stuff we don’t or won’t eat …
    [All] that grain ruined by rain at harvest, the residues from food processing, the mountains of food waste.
    In Australia household food waste alone amounts to 4 million tonnes a year, while Britons are estimated to throw out between 18 and 20 million tonnes of food per annum. …

    [In] the UK waste food could be used to produce one sixth of their total meat consumption.
    [However, this practice] was banned in 2001 after the catastrophic outbreak of foot and mouth disease. …

    Until the 1990s only one third of pig feed in the UK consisted of grains that were fit for human consumption …
    [The] rest was made up of crop residues and food waste.
    Since then the proportion of good grain in pig feed has doubled. …
    [The] most important [reason for this] is the ban on food waste that came in after the BSE … and foot and mouth crises. …

    Cattle and sheep have the … advantage of being able to digest grass … but that also produces the potent greenhouse gas methane. …
    [But] 60% of the world’s farmland is grasslands [and there] is no other way to produce food from it apart from grazing ruminants.
    Pigs and poultry … need other more digestible sources of feed.

    [If you] assess the efficiency of ruminants in terms of energy they always come out worse because of their inefficient digestive systems.
    But if you use a ratio of human inedible input to human edible output, then ruminants often come out on top.

    [The] pork industry would love to be able to make use of the food that we waste but it needs a system that eliminates any health risk to pig and to human. …
    Cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens, grass, grain and food waste are all part of a complex picture.

  • A scientific view of non-scientific beliefs, 23 October 2011.
    Craig Cormick.
  • Heat, 16 October 2011.
    Jennifer Coopersmith.
  • Significant does not equal important: why we need the new statistics, 9 October 2011.
    Geoff Cumming.
  • Climate change debate? Pity about the science, 2 October 2011.
    Barry Jones.
  • Deliberative democracy, 5 June 2011.
    Lyn Carson.
  • Climate science and public debate, 13 March 2011.
    Ian Enting.
  • The case of open science, 9 January 2011.
    Julian Cribb.
  • The importance of evidence, 9 May 2010.
    Eran Segev: President, Australian Skeptics.

    So what is an interested citizen to do when faced with the need to form an opinion on a matter about which they have no relevant expertise?
    One answer is in using a few rules of thumb for assessing evidence ….
    [Not] all rules apply in every case and that there are additional methods of assessing evidence which I will not mention.
    However, these five rules of thumb will cover most cases.

    The first rule is … that entities shall not be multiplied unnecessarily [Ockham's Razor].
    [That, all things being equal,] a simpler explanation should take precedence over more complex ones. …
    [For example:] evolution is [fundamentally] a very simple process.
    All it requires are semi-stable replicators, which can be very simple molecules …
    Creation requires God, which is only simpler in a spelling contest …
    God is a huge assumption, which raises a host of new and very complex questions. …

    [The] second rule [is] based on the saying by Carl Sagan:
    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
    [For example, for the claims of homeopathy to be true] would require almost everything we know about physics, chemistry and pharmacology to be wrong. …

    {[Third] rule: the multiple of anecdote is not evidence [and] a single anecdote is certainly not evidence.}
    [For example:]
    My son got the MMR vaccine and it caused him to become autistic.
    [Because] two things happen at the same times does not mean that they are related. Millions of children receive millions of vaccinations every year, and some of them will be diagnosed as autistic.
    Others will [might] have other serious ailments [or] be shown, around the same time, to be of particularly high intelligence.
    None of these things is necessarily caused by vaccines, which is why a statistical analysis is required to see if the incidence of any diagnosis varies between large numbers of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children.
    There is [also] plenty of solid evidence that vaccines are extremely safe and very effective …

    The fourth rule is … experts do know more. …
    Listening to a specialist expert is significantly more likely to lead to the truth than following the advice of an interested, but otherwise unqualified non-expert.

    The last rule is … to trust [the scientific method. …]
    [A] self-correcting process [designed] to find out whether a claim is true or not, with the final arbiter being the available evidence. …
    The story of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren and the discovery of H Pylori as the cause of stomach ulcers is a great example of both the frailties of science and the ultimate victory of evidence over preconceptions.

    For a non-scientist to evaluate the state of the art on a scientific issue there are … two questions that need to be considered:

    1. Has a proper scientific process been followed?
    2. Is there a scientific consensus on the topic?

    [A] 'scientific consensus' … arises when
    • a significant majority of working scientists in the relevant field or fields…
    • the majority of scientific organizations in those fields, and
    • the majority of scientific papers published in credible peer-reviewed scientific journals, all point in roughly the same direction.
    It does not mean a vote was held … that there are no dissenting voices or even that the consensus could not be wrong …
    [It] does mean … that those most able to judge the evidence … have largely been convinced by it.

    In the case of climate change,
    • there is a strong consensus that the world is warming …
    • that humans have been playing an important role in this warming [and]
    • no reason to believe that [proper scientific process] has not been followed …
    Suggestions of impropriety by some scientists, even if proven, are not evidence of a grand conspiracy …

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