A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Time to remember Aaron Wildavsky.....

We are living in an age when we should all do well to remember the challenging work of Aaron Wildavsky (see: Wikipedia, 16 August, 2005). Aaron Wildavsky (1930-1993) was a political scientist. He was most noted for his work on risk. From 1962, until he died, he researched at the University of California, Berkeley.

In Searching for Safety (1988), Wildavsky argues that trial-and-error, rather than the precautionary principle, is the better way to manage risk. He observes that rich, technologically-advanced regions are normally the safest, as measured by life expectancy and quality of life. By contrast, precautionary approaches to technology are irrational, especially because they demand knowledge of safety before we can do any tests that demonstrate the degree of safety, or of dangerousness. In addition, precaution tends to eliminate the benefits of new technology, along with harms. Wildavsky advocated enhancing society's capacity to cope with, and adapt to, the unexpected, rather than trying to prevent catastrophe in advance.

I should particularly like to commend this passage from his 'Essay' entitled: 'Riskless Society' (The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics):

"Why are some people frightened of risks and others not? Surveys of risk perception show that knowledge of the known hazards of a technology does not determine whether or to what degree an individual thinks a given technology is safe or dangerous. This holds true not only for laymen, but also for experts in risk assessment. Thus, the most powerful factors related to how people perceive risk apparently are 'trust in institutions' and 'self-rated liberal and conservative identification.' In other words, these findings suggest strongly that people use a framework involving their opinion of the validity of institutions in order to interpret riskiness.

According to one cultural theory, people choose what to fear as a way to defend their way of life. The theory hypothesizes that adherents of a hierarchical culture will approve of technology, provided it is certified as safe by their experts. Competitive individualists will view risk as opportunity and, hence, be optimistic about technology. And egalitarians will view technology as part of the apparatus by which corporate capitalism maintains inequalities that harm society and the natural environment.

One recent study sought to test this theory by comparing how people rate the risks of technology compared to risks from social deviance (departures, such as criminal behavior, from widely approved norms), war, and economic decline. The results are that egalitarians fear technology immensely but think that social deviance is much less dangerous. Hierarchists, by contrast, think technology is basically good if their experts say so, but that social deviance leads to disaster. And individualists think that risk takers do a lot of good for society and that if deviants don't bother them, they won't bother deviants; but they fear war greatly because it stops trade and leads to conscription. Thus, there is no such thing as a risk-averse or risk-taking personality. People who take or avoid all risks are probably certifiably insane; neither would last long. Think of a protester against, say, nuclear power. She is evidently averse to risks posed by nuclear power, but she also throws her body on the line — i.e., takes risks in opposing it.

Other important literature pursues risk perception through what is known as cognitive psychology. Featuring preeminently the path-breaking work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, using mainly small group experiments in which individuals are given tasks involving gambling, this work demonstrates that individuals are very poor judges of probability. More important, perhaps, is their general conservatism: large proportions of people care more about avoiding loss than they do about making gains. Therefore, they will go to considerable lengths to avoid losses, even in the face of high probabilities of making considerable gains..."

I think it is especially easy to spot The Gloomiad 'environmentalist' in this analysis.

Another key Wildavsky text is But is it true?:

"... Working with his students at a risk analysis center, Wildavsky examined all the evidence behind the charges and countercharges in several controversial cases involving environmental health and public safety. Here he lays out these cases in terms an average citizen can understand, weighs the merits of the claims of various parties, and offers reasoned judgments on the government's response. From Love Canal to Times Beach, from DDT to Agent Orange, acid rain, and global warming, from saccharin to asbestos, nuclear waste, and radon, Wildavsky shows how we can achieve an informed understanding of the contentious environmental issues that confront us daily. The book supports the conclusion Wildavsky reached himself, both as a citizen committed to the welfare of the earth and its inhabitants, and as a social scientist concerned with how public policy is made: though it is bad to be harmed, it is worse to be harmed in the name of health." (Harvard University Press blurb; see also these snippets from selected book reviews: e.g., "Global warming. Acid rain. Ozone holes. Just how much are we really at risk? This careful analysis of the evidence concludes that aside from ozone depletion, claims of imminent catastrophe are 'mostly false, unproven, or negligible.'")

How we inceasingly need Professor Wildavsky's wise perspectives today. Just think of the GM debate in Europe.

Philip, back to the cricket. Has me in creases! Forewarned is..... (sorry, you won't understand this across the pond!). It will have you completely stumped. Tea.
Can The Guardian sink any lower?.....

In yesterday's 'Society' Section, The Guardian (September 7) surely plumbed the depths... yet again: Eco Sounding, 'Silver Lining' (scroll down):

"Whatever Hurricane Katrina's long-term effect on the way America thinks about global warming and oil dependency, it is probably going to make GM animal feed more expensive in Europe. Almost all US maize and soya goes through New Orleans and the port of Destrehan, and nothing is expected out for some time because of silting in the Mississippi. This should cheer up anti-GM activists in Britain who have been trying to persuade supermarkets to stick with non-GM supplies and not to accept produce that has been given GM feed."

This exemplifies to perfection the moral cesspit in which the Green 'Left' now mires itself. [If you would like to complain to The Guardian about allowing so gratuitous and insensitive a comment to appear in the newspaper, please do so by e-mailing The Readers' Editor at: reader@guardian.co.uk]

No wonder the sales of The Guardian have been plummeting. After 30 years of taking what was once a very fine newspaper, my wife and I cancelled our order a year ago. We have been a great deal happier ever since.

Philip, increasingly angry with the exploitation of human misery for specious political gain. Coffee.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

University Common Room Claptrap No. 1: 'The Sustainability Committee Rep'.....

Scene: The Common Room, around 11.00 am, at Savonarola de Monbiot University, Frisby-on-Trent:

Dr. Jolyon Petrus [JP], Professor of Oenological Anthropology, encounters his former PhD student, Dr. Pandora Pamina-Postlethwaite (PP)...

JP: "Pandora, how nice to see you? How's that old postdoc going? Like a coffee, by the way?"

PP: "No thanks, Jolyon - the Common Room Committee still hasn't got round to fair trade yet, I fear. But do feel free to have one yourself. And, yes, great thanks. I'm off on Thursday to Papua New Guinea to do some more research."

JP: "Really? I thought you had just been made postdoc rep on the new Sustainability Sub-Committee, or whatever they call it? Should you be flying out there? Not a good example to us unreconstructed oldies, surely?"

PP: "Oh! I'm not doing this lightly, Jolyon. We have a very large form that you have to fill in to ensure that your research trip is really, really worthwhile. I'm going to link with a lost tribe of headhunters to assess their possible contribution to future holistic medicine, and so the Committee felt that this was vital in a dangerous, globalising world order."

JP (brow furrowed): "Sounds fair enough. Hm! Has anybody been turned down yet, by the way?"

PP: "Well, no... but it has made people think about their global emissions and all that."

JP: "I only ask because I suppose I'll have to do one when I go off to Tuscany again - got some great work underway on the ontology of Chianti."

PP: "I'm afraid so, Jolyon. Still it shouldn't be a problem for you."

JP: "When are you back from New Guinea, then?"

PP: "In two months time - boringly, I have a seminar to give in November, and a couple of MA classes."

JP: "Well! You must come round and have dinner with Justine and me when you get back. Tell us all the gory head-hunting details."

PP: "That would be lovely, Jolyon - but I have first to go to that big Conference in California. I'm presenting a poster on 'The genus Usnea in post-partum magic: a critical assessment of Bumcleister's Theory of Medical Holism.' Are you going?"

JP: "No. It's a drag, but I've got to fly out to my sister's wedding in Australia. Got a remarkably cheap flight, by the way."

PP: "Oh! How splendid! I hope it goes well. Help! Is that the time? Sorry, Jolyon, must dash. We have a special meeting of the Sustainability Comittee at 11.30 on the new car park. We want to get people to share on a daily basis coming in from Cambridge and Oxford, and its going to be really difficult for me doing only one day a week here, and at very odd hours. Hope to see you and Justine soon. Ciao for now..."

Philip, and believe you me this is hardly a parody at all. There is more environmental twaddle spun in a University common room than wickets from Warnie himself! A very strong coffee!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Voltaire and Hurricane Katrina.....

Perhaps the finest analysis to date of the misuse and abuse of Hurricane Katrina by commentators, religious zealots, and environmentalists comes from the pen of Niall Ferguson, Professor of History at Harvard University: 'Katrina rains down calamity...so we, of course, look for a scapegoat' (The Sunday Telegraph, September 4). This is a brilliant piece, which starts by recalling Voltaire and the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755 [about which, see my own blog of Tuesday, January 04, 2005 - you will need to scroll down a little].

Here is Ferguson in full flight:
"...The reality is, of course, that natural disasters have no moral significance. They just happen, and we can never exactly predict when or where. In 2003 - to take just a single year - 41,000 people died in Iran when an earthquake struck the city of Bam, more than 2,000 died in a smaller earthquake in Algeria, and just under 1,500 died in India in a freak heatwave. Altogether, at least 100 Americans were killed that year as a result of storms or forest fires.

Natural disasters - please, let's not call them 'Acts of God' - killed many more people than international terrorism that year (according to the State Department, total global casualties due to terrorism in 2003 were 4,271, of whom precisely none were in North America). On the other hand, disasters kill many fewer people each year than heart disease (around seven million), HIV/Aids (around three million) and road traffic accidents (around one million). No doubt if all the heart attacks or car crashes happened in a single day in a single city, we would pay them more attention than we do.

As Voltaire understood, hurricanes, like earthquakes, should serve to remind us of our common vulnerability as human beings in the face of a pitiless Nature. Too bad that today, just as in 1755, we prefer to interpret them in spurious ways, that divide rather than unite us..."

Interestingly, in this context, and following my Friday blog (below), I too have been asked about Enlightenment values and suffering, to which I have replied:
"...the Enlightenment world-view does not have, and does not claim to have, an answer to the problem of human suffering. This is perhaps most cogently expressed in Voltaire's Candide.

Philosophically, science and religion ask different classes of questions. Religion asks 'teleological' (i.e., purpose-driven) and 'transcendent' questions. Teleological questions include: "What is human purpose?" "Why did God create?" and "Why is there suffering?" Transcendent questions include: "Is there a God?" and "Is suffering universal?", questions which, by their essence, transcend our physical universe.

By contrast, Enlightenment science asks quantitative, or 'modelling', questions, and it attempts to build abstract models - theories, or laws - that describe a physical process, and which become the more accepted the more predictive they are, or the better they predict the future behaviour of physical phenomena.

I personally believe we mix these two classes of questions at our intellectual peril, although... each individual will strive to achieve a unified world view to suit their own condition.

But, unquestionably, Enlightenment science does not offer comfort for events like Hurricane Katrina, nor would it claim to do so, unless, of course, a real understanding of a physical phenomenon is itself a form of 'comfort'."

Yet, the eye of the storm is not the issue, and never was. Every forty-to-fifty years, New Orleans will be hit by a Category 4-5 Hurricane, as was so tellingly predicted in the National Geographic (October, 2004). This we know.

The hard questions are not about the science, but about human choices on the ground, in New Orleans itself: "Why were the levées not built to withstand a known-level of risk?"; "Why was a city that is largely within a 'bowl' and beneath sea level so badly planned?"; and, "Why were its large population of the poor and disadvantaged so ignored and left out of the equation?"

These are the questions to challenge the soul of a nation that prides itself on being able to face all adversity and to be at the forefront of world science. A totally natural phenomenon has devastatingly exposed human political and social weakness in the American Deep South, where the 'First' and 'Third' worlds still collide in potential chaos and hell.

And, finally, do visit the blog, Pootergeek, which collates some of the more crass comments relating to Hurricane Katrina: 'Blamestorm' (September 4).

Philip, candide (sic) as ever. Earl Grey in the garden?

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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