Day By Day

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Another Green Fail

Germany is the latest nation to discover that alternative energy solutions like wind power are not likely to fulfill the fuzzy promises advanced by green ideologues. Der Spiegel notes:

The generation of electricity from wind is usually a completely odorless affair. After all, the avoidance of emissions is one of the unique charms of this particular energy source.

But when work is completed on the Nordsee Ost wind farm, some 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of the island of Helgoland in the North Sea, the sea air will be filled with a strong smell of fumes: diesel fumes.
The reason is as simple as it is surprising. The wind farm operator, German utility RWE, has to keep the sensitive equipment -- the drives, hubs and rotor blades -- in constant motion, and for now that requires diesel-powered generators. Because although the wind farm will soon be ready to generate electricity, it won't be able to start doing so because of a lack of infrastructure to transport the electricity to the mainland and feed it into the grid. The necessary connections and cabling won't be ready on time and the delay could last up to a year. 

In other words, before Germany can launch itself into the renewable energy era Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen so frequently hails, the country must first burn massive amounts of fossil fuels out in the middle of the North Sea -- a paradox as the country embarks on its energy revolution.
Read the whole thing here.

The Decline in Global Violence [bumped]

This is something I've been pointing out for a long time, but nobody seems to take it seriously. Here's Stephen Pinker makes the point -- contrary to what you would think from viewing news accounts, we are living in a relatively violence-free time in the world's history. What is more, human societies have been becoming less violent for a long time.


Historian Timothy Snyder published a critical response to the main arguments put forth by Pinker in this piece for Foreign Affairs magazine. His criticism essentially boils down to three points.

1) Turf defense: Pinker is a psychologist and not an historian. Consequently his view of history, as presented in the book, is simplistic. Moreover, he uncritically accepts somewhat questionable information about past societies and his data are therefore problematic. I should point out that, even though he rightly considers Pinker's methodology to be flawed, Snyder does think that his general conclusions regarding the decline of violence are correct.

2) Ideological conflict: Pinker, a mild libertarian, is in Snyder's view unreasonably wary of the role of the state. Snyder, a confirmed statist, points out that while Pinker rightly credits the ancient state with lowering the general level of violence, he ignores all the good things that the modern state does for its citizens. Among these are mass education and public health programs that produce the benefits of better lives and a general civilizing effect. The state is therefore to be credited for training people into non-violent patterns of thought that Pinker naively credits to enlightenment thinkers.

3) This brings us to Snyder's third criticism -- that Pinker has a simplistic understanding of historical processes. He rightly notes that Pinker applies a long discredited approach to intellectual history, one that assumes that ideas trickle down naturally from the great thinkers who formulate them and ignores the mediating and often contradictory effects of the institutions and mechanisms by which ideas are spread throughout society. Moreover Pinker, by emphasizing the world of ideas, neglects to note the materialistic explanations for historical change. Snyder then advances what to my mind is an even more simplistic Marxist/Malthusuan/materialist position -- that conflict can be attributed to the scarcity of resources and that the decline in violence noted by Pinker results from technological changes that have in our time produced a temporary abundance of resources.

This is a fascinating and important debate. I expect to be following its twists and turns for some time to come, and of course will be blogging about it.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Continuing Collapse of Scientific Authority -- Marc Hauser

One of the most important figures in the study of cognition has been Harvard professor Marc Hauser. His work on evolutionary biology and the biological basis for morality has been praised by such luminaries as Peter Singer and Noam Chomsky. He has published more than 200 papers and several books. He is, or rather was, a heavyweight.

Writing in the Nation Charles Gross details Hauser's fall from grace. The results of a government investigation into his work have not yet been revealed, but a Harvard faculty investigation has found him guilty of eight counts of "scientific misconduct". Earlier this year he was banned from teaching, and subsequently resigned his professorship at Harvard.

What is the meaning of all this? Charles Gross explains:
Science is driven by two powerful motivations—to discover the “truth,” while acknowledging how fleeting it can be, and to achieve recognition through publication in prominent journals, through grant support to continue and expand research, and through promotion, prizes and memberships in prestigious scientific societies. The search for scientific truth may be seriously derailed by the desire for recognition, which may result in scientific misconduct.
Certainly the reasons for error go beyond the "desire for recognition" -- we might note ideological predispositions, confirmation bias, monetary considerations, and a host of other factors -- but far more important than understanding why some scientists falsify and misattribute data is the extent to which systematic fraud has permeated the scientific community from its ancient origins. Gross writes:
Accusations of scientific misconduct, sometimes well supported, pepper the history of science from the Greek natural philosophers onward. Ptolemy of Alexandria (90–168), the greatest astronomer of antiquity, has been accused of using without attribution observations of stars made by his predecessor Hipparchus of Rhodes (162–127 BCE), who himself had used much earlier Babylonian observations as if they were his own. Isaac Newton used “fudge factors” to better fit data to his theories. In his studies of hereditary characteristics, Gregor Mendel reported near perfect ratios, and therefore statistically very unlikely ratios, from his pea-plant crossings. When Mendel crossed hybrid plants, he predicted and found that exactly one-third were pure dominants and two-thirds were hybrids. The high unlikelihood of getting exact 1:3 ratios was first pointed out in 1911 by R.A. Fisher, the founder of modern statistics and a founder of population genetics, when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge University. Though Charles Darwin has been cleared of accusations of nicking the idea of natural selection from Alfred Russel Wallace, he seems to have only reluctantly credited some of his predecessors.
Wow! Ptolemy, Newton, Mendel, Darwin... members of the pantheon all. The list underscores just how powerful and ubiquitous are the temptations to which even the greatest scientific minds are susceptible. But certainly, you would think, the modern scientific community, with its elaborate professional standards, peer review, and international associations, would be relatively immune to such error. But, you would be wrong.

In the past few decades there have been a number of studies asking scientists at every level of research in a variety of fields, and under the cover of anonymity, whether they had engaged in fabrication, falsification or plagiarism, or had direct evidence of such misconduct by others. Although the results were variable and involved different survey response rates and methodologies, the overall picture is disturbing.

In a large and pioneering survey of science graduate students and faculty at ninety-nine universities, the historian of biology and ethicist Judith Swazey and her colleagues found that “44 percent of students and 50 percent of faculty” had knowledge of two or more types of misconduct, broadly defined; about 7 percent had “observed” or had “direct knowledge” of faculty falsifying data. In a survey of its members, the International Society of Clinical Biostatistics found that 51 percent of respondents knew of at least one fraudulent project in the previous ten years. Of 549 biomedical trainees at the University of California, San Diego, 10 percent said they had “firsthand knowledge of scientists’ intentionally altering or fabricating data for the purpose of publication.” In a similar survey, 8 percent of biological and medical postdoctoral fellows at the University of California, San Francisco, said they had observed scientists altering data for publication. The American Association for the Advancement of Science surveyed a random sample of its members, and 27 percent of the respondents believed they had encountered or witnessed fabricated, falsified or plagiarized research over the previous ten years, with an average of 2.5 examples. A study by the director of intramural research at the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) of the Department of Health and Human Services found that of 2,212 researchers receiving NIH grants, 201 reported instances of likely federally defined misconduct over a three-year period, of which 60 percent were fabrication or falsification and 36 percent plagiarism. Noting that in 2007 155,000 personnel received research support from the NIH, the authors suggest that under the most conservative assumptions, a minimum of 2,325 possible acts of research misconduct occur each year. Finally, in a meta-analysis of eighteen studies, 2 percent of scientists admitted to fabricating or falsifying data and more than 14 percent had observed other scientists doing the same.

Scientists guilty of misconduct are found in every field, at every kind of research institution and with a variety of social and educational backgrounds. 
So we are not dealing merely with a few "bad apples" -- marginal figures whose misconduct doesn't compromise the integrity of the scientific community in general. This is systematic and pervasive fraud and it brings into question the scientific enterprise in all its aspects. 

Keep this in mind the next time you hear about questionable practices among climate researchers, nutritionists, or medical studies. These fields, because of the immense amounts of money involved, have been particularly susceptible to fraud. And, most importantly, remember this when you hear a politician or policy expert say that they "trust the science". All too often, especially in the areas most closely related to public policy, "science" is not to be trusted. 

Read Gross' article here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Our Nordic Expedition, Part 1 -- Flying to Bergen

Our expedition began, as usual, at Dulles airport near Washington.We checked in, went through security, and headed for the gate to wait for our plane. On the way we passed this -- the MIT Daedalus 87, a human-powered aircraft.

Washington is a political town and the vendors' stalls show just how the winds are blowing. A couple of years ago the display would have been all Obama, now Bush and anti-administration messages seem to be selling.

Then we boarded the plane and took the long flight to Frankfurt where we had a short layover before we took off again for Bergen.

At least one member of the party took advantage of the layover to get some much-needed rest.

I fell asleep on the plane, but "She Who Must Not Be Named" borrowed my camera to take pictures of our approach into Bergen, Norway.

At the airport we were met by a local guide who led us to this bus, which transported us into town and to our hotel. After taking care of our baggage and checking in we had a little time to wander around sightseeing.

Our hotel was right in the center of the city. This statue honoring Ole Bull, the famous nineteenth-century violinist who was from Bergen, was right out front. Bull is a fascinating character. He toured extensively in the United States and was wildly popular here. He used some of his wealth to found an emigrant colony, Oleana, in Potter County, Pennsylvania and today there is an Ole Bull State Park commemorating him in the Keystone State.

Speaking of parks, we were just a block from this lovely lakeside park in Bergen.

And right around the corner was this art gallery.There was no lack of things to see and do in Bergen, but we were tired and on a schedule. After walking around for about an hour or so and taking a few photographs we went back to the hotel and up to our room where we fell asleep..., or rather we tried to. There was a very noisy nightclub just down the street that didn't close until 2:00 am.

Our Nordic Expedition, Part 2 -- Walking Around Bergen

Bergen is a lovely city, the second largest in Norway with a population of about a quarter million people. The town is built around the harbor and stretches inland along the sides of circling mountains. While "She Who Must Not Be Named" unpacked and rested I took my camera out for a walk around the central area of the city. Here's a bit of what I saw:

I actually took this shot from the bus as we drove into the city. It shows the distinctive topography of Bergen -- extensive waterfront and steep slopes that run almost to the water's edge.

Ditto. This is the Torgallmennigen, the city's main square. In the distance you can see residential buildings extending up the mountain. For those of you who want to revisit the square here is a link to a webcam that monitors activity there. 

A side street running off the square. The mountain in the distance is Ulriken, the largest of the mountains encircling the harbor.

Lovely old buildings at the end of the square.

The climate in Bergen is cool [actually a bit chilly this time of year] and wet [it rains more than 200 days a year]. The typical day might see two or three short rain showers. Despite the cool and damp, the citizens of Bergen spend a lot of time outdoors. The streets are crowded during daylight hours and people seem to favor outdoor dining under canopies that keep off the rain. 

Ain't she a beauty. This is the "Bounty", not the original but a copy built for the 1960 Marlon Brando film. It has since appeared in a number of films, most recently "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest". It was on display in Bergen's main harbor, the  when we were there, but has since left for its winter harbor in Puerto Rico.  

At the end of the square I encountered the Bergen fish market pictured here.

I don't know who he is, but he's an appropriate symbol for the fish market.

Lots of lions on display.

And plaques and statues commemorating Norway's past. This one represents its Viking heritage. 

St. John's Church at the opposite end of the square from the fish market. I took the shot while heading back to the hotel for some much needed rest. We could explore more of the town in the morning.

Our Nordic Expedition, Part 3 -- Bergen From Above

The next morning we met our national guide, Fredrik, for a walking tour through the streets of Bergen.

We set off once again through the Torgallmennigen Square. As is often the case in Bergen there had been a drenching downpour just a few minutes before we set off. The morning sunlight shining through a gap in the dark clouds created dramatic contrasts and wet streets make for interesting reflections, but the frequent storms must be an aggravation for people who live here year round.

One nice little touch in the center of town was the statues -- not just the imposing tributes to great figures in the city's past, but these sorts of things:

Our guide pointed out that you seldom see real homeless people on the streets of Bergen, so a fake one will have to do. 

 She's standing right outside the door to a shop fronting the square. I wonder who or what she is waiting for.

As we walked toward Bergen's old city we entered these narrow twisty streets.

I had already walked some of them the day before so I soon left the tour and headed for the city's famous funicular railway.

The railway took me to the top of Mount Floyen.From there I had a spectacular view of the whole city.

This is the famous Vagen harbor around which the city was built. It is also where our hotel was located.

The Lungegardsvann pond and park where "She" and I had explored the day before.

Modern superhighways linking the old part of town with the newer areas in the interior.

Looking inland with my back to the harbor.

The modern commercial center of the city.

Housing climbing the side of the mountain.

At the foot of the Floyen beside the Lille Lungegardsvann lies a very traditional neighborhood featuring a very modern Baptist church.

These block-long buildings lie along Bergen's famous Bryggen Street and replicate the designs of the original buildings which were constructed back in the fourteenth century. Somewhere in there is a museum that houses the world's largest collection of runestones.

And, since it had recently rained I was not surprised to see a rainbow in the sky over the fjord.

Nor was I surprised to see another storm cloud moving rapidly my way. I quickly boarded the railway and emerged back in the harbor just as the storm broke. I walked back to the hotel through pouring rain, but I didn't mind much. After all, people who live here do that nearly every day.

Our Nordic Expedition, Part 4 -- Troldhaugen

After the rain stopped "She" and I went out walking again, to the park and along the main harbor. Here's a bit of what we saw:

A statue of Bergen's most famous son -- the composer, Edvard Grieg. More about him later.

Bowsprit decoration on the Bounty.

Bergen's famous Bryggen Street. The buildings along this row date from the fourteenth century when Bergen was part of the Hanseatic League. Obviously these are not the original structures, but over the centuries as renovations took place they have hewed to the original plan. Today Bryggen stands as a living monument to the city's glorious past.

Returning to the Hotel we joined the rest of the group and boarded a bus for a trip to Troldhaugen.

On the way we passed this, the summer residence of the King of Norway. Ordinarily we could go in to see it up close but because the royal family was in residence we had to stand along a highway and snap pictures from a distance. 

This is the entrance to Troldhaugen, the estate of Edvard Grieg. This modernist statue stands at the entrance. It supposedly incorporates profile views of Grieg and his wife. OK, if you say so....

The Grieg museum containing relics of the composer's life.

The main house of the estate.

A view from the estate across the lake.

Looking across the lake from another perspective.

Outbuildings with turfed roofs, a not uncommon sight in Norway.

Bergen is a lot like the Pacific Northwest in America -- lots of precipitation produces a rain forest where almost everything is covered with moss. 

Inside the living room of the estate hangs a romantic picture of a pathway through a dark, spooky wood. Grieg liked the scene so much that he had the road leading to the estate planted to resemble the painting.

Then it was back to the bus and down to the harbor where we boarded our ship and made ready to leave Bergen for the far north.

 As we approached the harbor we passed another local landmark, Hakkon's Hall, built in the Thirteenth Century.

And part of the same complex [the Bergenshus Fortress], the Rozenkrantz Tower, complete with dungeons, which dates from the Sixteenth Century. 

A final view of the Vagen harbor before we retired to our cabins and rested up for the coming cruise.