April 21, 2012

Ockham's Razor

ABC Radio National

[The] multiple of anecdote is not evidence.
[And] a single anecdote is certainly not evidence.


— Eran Segev, The importance of evidence, 9 May 2010.

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.
(Nuclear waste disposal in Australia, 10 March 2013)

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.
(Pigs and poultry, 6 January 2013)

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)


Contents


It isn't weird to believe in 'Wind Turbine Syndrome'

Australia's Responsibility

Pigs and poultry

Antarctic Climate Change

An Engineering Wonder of the World

A Big Australia

A Prolonged, Painful and Fearful Death

Measures of Leadership: Reflections on Robert S McNamara

There's a Quiet Revolution going on in the Social Sciences

The Importance of Evidence


Ockham's Razor


Robyn Williams (1944)

  • The Lucky Country?, 2 October 2016.
    Ian Lowe (1942): Professor of Science, Griffith University.
  • A politician confronts AIDS, 23 November 2014.
    Mark Dodgson (1947): Director, Technology and Innovation Management Centre, University of Queensland.
  • No more range anxiety, 15 December 2013.
    Alan Finkel (1953): 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 (1965): 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.

    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: Science Communicator.
  • Heat, 16 October 2011.
    Jennifer Coopersmith: Honorary Research Associate, La Trobe University, Bendigo.
  • Testing times for medical science, 9 December 2012.
    Rob Morrison: Professorial Fellow, Flinder's University, Adelaide.

    [The UK] government recently ceased funding pseudoscientific health courses in British universities.
  • 50th Anniversary of Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring', 28 October 2012.
    Jonathon Porritt (1950): Founder Director, Forum for the Future.
  • The effect of climate change in Antarctica, 21 October 2012.
    David Neilson: Photographer.

    Antarctica contains 90% of the Earth’s ice and 70% of its fresh water.
    If all the ice melted the world’s sea levels would rise by 67 metres.
    In late 2009 the International Council for Science’s Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, SCAR published the report Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment [which] references work by over 1,000 scientists. …

    From 1951 to 2006 the annual mean temperature on the western and northern parts of the Antarctic Peninsula rose by 2.9 degrees Celsius.
    [Winter temperatures have increased by] 5.6 degrees Celsius …

    [Mean] annual temperatures across West Antarctica have increased by 0.9 degrees Celsius [and across] East Antarctica … by 0.5 degrees Celsius [since 1957.]
    The global average temperature increase from 1951 to 2004 was 0.5 degrees Celsius.
    [According to a formal attribution study:]
    [Recent temperature] changes were not consistent with internal climate variability or natural climate drivers alone and were directly attributable to human influence.
    It is …. not clear what has caused the particularly high winter temperatures on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula.
    However, the summer temperature increases are thought to be due to a complex sequence of events related to the existence of the ozone hole and increases in greenhouse gases.

    [During the southern winter a] band of high altitude westerly winds, the polar vortex, forms … and encircles Antarctica in the stratosphere above the Southern Ocean.
    These winds have increased in strength primarily due to the loss of stratospheric ozone.

    Although only small quantities of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons and halon gases are now being released into the atmosphere, those that have previously been released will take 50 to 100 years to break down.
    Therefore each spring the ozone hole still forms.

    This loss of ozone cools the region within the stratospheric polar vortex and increases the strength of the winds near the vortex edge.
    Greenhouse gases [also contribute] to this cooling and strengthening process.

    During the summer and autumn [the strengthening high level winds propagate] through the atmosphere to increase [low level wind strength].
    These [low level winds have] become warmer as they take warm moisture from the oceans. …

    The Antarctic circumpolar current … warmed 1 degree Celsius from 1955 to 1998 and it is continuing to warm by about 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade – [faster] than the global average …

    The northern parts of the Antarctic Peninsula lie directly in the path of these stronger and warmer winds and seas. …

    On the eastern side of the Peninsula … the Prince Gustav, Larsen A and Larsen B ice shelves have all collapsed, half of the latter disintegrating in spectacular fashion over five weeks in early 2002.
    Larsen B had been stable for 12,000 years.
    The remaining large Larsen C ice shelf is gradually thinning at a rate of around 2 metres per year and scientists believe its northern edge may begin breaking up within the next decade.

    In the last 50 years ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula have reduced by 27,000 square kilometres.
    After the shelves collapse, glaciers feeding into them advance at a much faster rate, adding significantly more ice into the sea than is being created in their accumulation zones.
    [Ice] shelves float on the sea [so] they do not increase sea levels when they collapse …
    [However,] grounded ice calved into the sea from the accelerating glaciers does increase sea levels.

    [On the western side of the Peninsula the] annual mean [sea-ice] extent has declined by over 40% since 1979 …
    [Each year it forms] for three months less than it did [before]. …

    On the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula and in the South Shetland [and South Orkney Islands the numbers of Adelie and chinstrap] penguins have declined by at least 50% since 1980.
    [In] the South Sandwich Islands [they] have decreased by over 75%. …

    [These] Adelies and chinstraps feed almost exclusively on … krill.
    Krill larvae require winter sea ice as they feed on the algae found on the underside of the sea ice.
    Adult krill feed on phytoplankton which also requires sea ice for its life cycle.

    [Chinstrap penguins] are found only on the Scotia Sea islands, the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia.
    Adelie penguins … are found around the entire coast of Antarctica …
    [At] present the more southerly colonies are showing less variation.
    Some Ross Sea colonies have increased by 20%.

    [A] number of snails, clams and brachiopods have always had unusually thin and delicate shells, probably because there have been no shell-crunching predators such as crabs. …
    King crabs have recently been discovered … below 850 metres where the waters are warmer.
    The 600 to 400 metre waters of most of the shelf are colder, but are gradually warming, and within two decades king crabs could invade large areas.

    Shelled creatures are also at risk from the increasing acidification of the oceans [because it] dissolves carbonate shells and coral.
    Oceans today are 30% more acidic than they were 200 years ago. …

    The West Antarctic ice sheet is considered a marine ice sheet because the bedrock is in many places over 1,000 metres below sea level.
    [This type of ice sheet is considered to be] less stable than the much larger East Antarctic ice sheet where more of the bedrock is above sea level.
    [The] stronger circumpolar winds are dispersing cooler surface water northwards allowing upwelling of warm circumpolar deep water.
    The temperature of this warmer water is also increasing.

    There are fringing ice shelves along the coastal margins of the West Antarctic ice sheet.
    Warm water is penetrating under these shelves which are thinning in places at over five metres per year.
    [Glaciers flowing into these ice shelves are also accelerating: the] Thwaites, Smith and Pine Island glaciers, are moving at speeds at least 60% greater than they were in 1970. …
    The current rate of ice lost from these glaciers is equal to the current rate of ice lost from the entire Greenland ice sheet. …

    Climate models … predict that if there is a doubling of greenhouse gas concentrations by 2100, Antarctica will warm by around 3 degrees Celsius [and the] the annual average total sea ice area around Antarctica will decrease by at least 30%.
    [While this] may not be enough to cause serious melting of the large East Antarctic ice sheet [the impact] on the Antarctic environment is likely to be catastrophic.

  • Building London’s sewerage system: an engineering wonder with lessons for today, 23 September 2012.
    Mark Dodgson (1947): Director, Technology and Innovation Management Centre, University of Queensland.

    Over 31,000 Londoners died between 1831 and 1854 in three outbreaks of cholera, a ghastly water-borne disease that kills quickly and indiscriminately.
    [Joseph] Bazelgette’s engineering of the sewer system [saved an estimated] 12,000 lives a year. …

    [Conservative] politicians and lawyers describing public investments [in infrastructure] as infringements of personal liberty and offenses against private property.
    The Economist …railed against large scale public investments in public sanitation. …

    [The] Metropolitan Board of Works [was established in 1855.]
    [It] eventually became the London County Council and then the Greater London Council which was disbanded by Margaret Thatcher as she believed it to be too powerful.

    Seven years in the planning Bazalgette’s scheme … involved the building of five intercepting sewers running across London. …
    [The] sewerage project employed 20,000 workers using picks and shovels and used 318 million bricks. …
    [It] entailed building [of] the Victoria, Albert and Chelsea embankments. …
    The Victoria Embankment … not only housed the sewers but also an underground railway, gas pipes and other services. …

    [Bazelgette also] oversaw the development of 3,000 streets and rehoused 40,000 people out of appalling slums.
    To sort out the growing traffic problems [he purchased eleven bridges] and removed the tolls.
    He improved [those] bridges and designed three new ones. …

    [The sewerage project met] with a series of disasters [and serious obstacles.]
    A gas pipe … ruptured killing a local resident.
    A tunnel collapsed killing 3 miners.
    In all there were 10 fatalities …
    [A] bricklayer's strike.
    [A] Chief Commissioner of Works who continually rejected his plans and a 45 member board with various factions.

    He dealt with these things with fortitude and tact [combined with a] great ability [to select] able colleagues, including those with which he had previously had disputes.
    He bore no grudges.

    He spent a great amount of time [promoting] his plans and practices to the public and parliamentarians and to various members of Boards and Commissions.
    [Some] 500 to 600 people were encouraged [to visit the works ‒ including] politicians and opinion formers.

    [It] was an expensive project … undertaken in a densely populated urban area. …
    [He] probably oversaw budgets of … around £1.l4 billion at present prices. …

    [He] developed very systematic contract management processes … that involved detailed specification of the work to be conducted and materials to be used …
    [When selecting the winning tender he] did not … always choose the lowest bid, preferring to work with contractors he knew and whose ability he respected. …

    [He] took the risk of experimenting with … a new kind of cement [‒ Portland cement.]
    [He contributed] to the development of the concept of quality control. …

    Bazalgette’s sewers now lead to the largest and most modern treatment works in Europe that generates electricity, uses residue to make breeze blocks and transfers remaining water into the Thames that is cleaner than that in the river itself. …

    When government assumes responsibility for large infrastructure projects these have to be
    • funded appropriately and securely,
    • provide opportunities for related and unexpected innovation and
    • ensure their leadership [displays the same] wisdom and forbearance [as] Joseph Bazalgette.

  • Australia's population debate, 19 August 2012.
    Ian Lowe (1942): Emeritus Professor, Griffith University, Brisbane; President, Australian Conservation Foundation; Author, Bigger or Better — Australia's Population Debate, University of Queensland Press.

    Robyn Williams:
    I arrived in Australia 48 years ago this month.
    I arrived by boat for 10 quid.
    It wasn’t exactly leaky, but the Castel Felice, a converted troop carrier with the buoyancy of a brick and the cuisine of a remand home, was no castle of happiness.

    On landing I was surprised to find so few people.
    And apart from Australians there were quite a lot of Greeks and Italians.
    I was also surprised to find these immigrants were held in contempt in some quarters.
    And I thought those countries had helped invent civilisation.
    There was also one Sikh and he became a friend.

    Well, times change. …

    Ian Lowe (1942):
    [We] don’t have a problem replacing ourselves.
    Each year about 100,000 Australians die and about 250,000 babies are born, so the population would grow by about 150,000 a year or about 400 a day if there were no migration.
    [Since] reliable contraception became available … the average number of children per adult woman [has fallen to] about 1.9 …
    [However, since] the number of adult women is still increasing rapidly as a result of the past birth rate and migration … there is still a large [natural increase. …]

    [John Howard and Peter Costello's baby bonus was] a wasteful solution to a non-problem.
    [The natural population increase] has never been less than 100,000 a year in the last 50 years. …

    Each year some people leave Australia and others arrive.
    [Net annual] migration [has also] averaged about 100,000 [(range 20,000 — 200,000).]
    [Except during the period when] the Howard government dramatically increased inward migration to well over 300,000.
    A significant cause was the scam of education schemes that were really back-door visa programs …
    The current government has clamped down on those arrangements but the annual net migration is still about 250,000 a year. …

    [Combining] birth rate and migration, the Australian population is now growing by about 400,000 a year or [one] million every two and a half years.
    [On] current trends it could be over 40 million [by 2040.]
    [Which raises the question:]
    Where would we get twice as much food [and] water?

    [The] infrastructure in all our major cities is failing to keep pace with the growing population …
    [This] is causing a decline in material living standards. …
    [The economist] Lester Thurow argued [25 years ago] that the average life of built infrastructure like roads, water supply, sewers and transport systems is about 50 years …
    [Therefore,] the annual bill for replacement would normally be about 2% of the total capital invested.
    If the population is growing by 2% the infrastructure bill is the normal 2% replacement plus an extra 2% for the new people, or 4% of the total capital.
    [Thus a] modest rate of growth [effectively] doubles the infrastructure bill.
    [Yet] the revenue base will only have grown by 2%.

    Faced with this problem Thurow predicted, governments would find themselves forced to sell public assets and put together improbable public/private partnerships to try to meet the impossible task of funding the infrastructure needs of the growing population.
    [This is] exactly what we have seen in Australia in recent years.

    One reason [that] the Bligh [Queensland state] government [was] swept from office was its fire sale of public assets to fund infrastructure.
    [Despite] those desperate measures … roads got more congested, public transport got more crowded and so on.
    [Ironically, Bligh's successor] Campbell Newman [in his former capacity as] Lord Mayor of Brisbane … ran up a huge public debt in an orgy of building roads, tunnels and bridges to try to dilute the public disquiet about growth. …

    The claim that we have a financial problem of an ageing population is completely false. …
    [According to the UN we] rank 43rd in the world … by average age …
    [Not] just younger than European countries but also younger than Canada, Cuba, Hong Kong and Singapore. …
    [In] Australia there are as many [people] under 15 as over 60 [19%].
    For at least a decade the numbers entering the workforce will be similar to the numbers turning 65. …
    [Even] if we did have an ageing society, migrants are typically about the same age on average as those already here …

    [Population growth certainly increases] the total size of the economy …
    [However,] there is vigorous debate among economists about whether it increases wealth per person …
    Comparative studies show that countries with growing populations need to spend on assets that are not economically productive like houses, so they don’t perform as well economically as those with stable populations.
    [There] may be a small net benefit [but this is offset by] the negatives of more crowded roads and public transport, less access to open space and recreation areas and so on. …

    [The] average household income [in Queensland] is projected … to grow from about $50,000 a year now to about $65,000 in 2030 if growth is tightly controlled, or to about $69,000 if the present pro-growth policies remain.
    [The] present growth rate of about 2% a year … will increase [the population by] about 50% by 2030.
    [So,] would you rather be 30% wealthier retaining the liveability of your area or 38% wealthier with 50% more cars on the road, 50% more people crowding on to public transport and trying to find space in the parks and children’s playgrounds? …

    The debate … isn’t helped by opportunistic politicians demonising the relatively small groups of boat people. …
    [Total] refugee intake [onshore (air and sea arrivals) and and offshore] is about 5% of migrants. …

    If we had zero net migration the population would stabilise in the 2030s. …

    The choices we are making now determine what Australia will look like in 2050.
    If we continue to encourage large scale migration and a high birth rate the population will be over 40 million and still growing rapidly.
    Holding migration down to around 100,000 a year or lower and phasing out incentives for larger families would enable us to stabilise the population below 30 million.
    There is no more important issue for an informed public debate.

  • Cattle and methane, 12 August 2012.
    Asa Wahlquist: Rural journalist.
  • A grandmother confronts creationist beliefs in her family, 22 July 2012.
    Mildred Studders: Sceptical Grandmother, Brisbane.
  • Beyond vox pop democracy: Deepening democracy in the internet age, 29 April 2012.
    Nicholas Gruen (1957): CEO, Lateral Economics; Chairman, Australian Centre for Social Innovation.
  • GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, 27 May 2012.
    Dave Gardner: Documentary film-maker.
  • Christian animal sacrifice in the Holy Land, 8 April 2012.
    Jill Hamilton.

    As in Halal butchery, the knife goes through the neck slashing the … carotid arteries so blood pours out rapidly.
    The Armenians give salt to the animals in the mistaken belief that it lessens their pain.
    [Animals killed in this fashion] endure prolonged, painful and fearful deaths …

  • Is the carbon Landcare's missing link?, 25 March 2012.
    Phillip Toyne (1947 – 2015): Founding member of Landcare.
  • Measures of leadership: Reflections on Robert S McNamara, 22 January 2012.
    Mark Dodgson (1947): Director, Technology and Innovation Management Centre, University of Queensland.
  • There's a quiet revolution going on in the social sciences, 1 January 2012.
    Ian Wilkinson: Professor, Business School, Discipline of Marketing, University of Sydney.

    … FuturICT [is] the visionary European project to build a planet earth simulator. …
    The pilot project is now underway and it’s funded for 2 million Euros. …

    The world is a highly complex system of interacting people and organisations …
    In order to understand such a system we have to be able to build models … with millions if not billions of simulated people and organisations in it.
    For example, the Epicast epidemiology model at Los Alamos National Laboratory has 300 million agents, one for every person in the USA. …

    [The] social, economic and business sciences [are currently] wedded to a mechanistic view of the world based on analogies with physical systems. …
    Societies and gases … are similar in that they are made up of millions of individual units interacting with each other.
    In a gas, the units are atoms and molecules.
    In society they are people.
    But society does not behave like a gas, no matter how much traditional economic modellers might want it to.
    [It] is not made up of millions of similar individuals randomly interacting with each other — so we cannot take averages and get a good representation of its behaviour, what in the natural sciences is called a mean field approximation.

    By focusing on fictitious representative ‘average’ individuals we are incapable of seeing extreme events that arise due to the heterogeneous, networked, dynamic complexity of real socio-economic systems.
    This is well illustrated by the fact that none of the usual economic models predicted the global financial crisis …

    … CRISIS a complex systems computer model being built of the European economy which includes different types of banks and households as well as other types of business firms.
    Instead of making heroic assumptions to make the model tractable and the maths work out such as highly efficient financial markets and perfectly economically rational actors, we rely on the power of computers to computationally solve the model under different realistic impossible conditions.

    This does not mean we can now predict the future of the world precisely …
    [Overall] order, to the extent there is any, emerges in a bottom up self-organising way from the local interactions taking place over time among all those involved.
    Rather like the way the flocking behaviour of birds emerges from each bird following some simple rules. …

    All we can hope to do is sketch out the range of possible futures and how likely they are under different conditions and the actions we might take. …
    We can use [such] complex systems simulation models as flight simulators for managers and policy makers [to] test out alternative policies and programs.

    [A] model of banking networks developed by Bob May, an Australian who pioneered this type of modelling in the early ‘70s and who became President of the Royal Society and Chief Scientific Adviser to the British Government.
    … May and his colleagues published a paper in Nature which showed a surprising paradox: the banking network as a whole becomes increasingly unstable as each individual bank diversifies its portfolio to spread its risk.
    From each bank’s perspective this is a reasonable thing to do, but if all banks end up being diversified in the same way when a crisis hits they are all blown away.
    That is, sensible individual behaviour makes everyone worse off. …

    The programs to build such models have become ever more friendly and freely available over time.
    One such is NetLogo which started out as a computer system to teach complex systems models and thinking to primary school children.
    [If] primary school kids can do it [presumably] university researchers can learn to do it too.

  • 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 (1932).
  • 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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