Home » Posts tagged 'science'

Tag Archives: science

An alternative view of sustainable development

The problem with the UK’s proposed planning reforms is not the presumption in favour of sustainable development. The problem is the definition of sustainable development itself.

The draft National Planning Policy Framework uses the usual definition of sustainable development, that is, a balance between the needs of the society, environment and economy.

The problem with this definition is that it is based on the notion of the economy as an entity that is separate from society. If one is going to treat the economy as somehow separate, then one has to ask the question why sustainable development does not include the law, science, theology, etc as separate entities or systems.

It is indisputable that there is a dialectical relationship between society, i.e. human beings, and the environment. When society expresses or describes the nature of its relationship with the environment, it is recognising that the two are connected. That language of recognition is made up of different dialects.

Law is the expression of the relationship in terms of obligation, economics in terms of value (cost and benefit), science in terms of cause and effect and so on. In environmental law, this is demonstrated in the preventative, polluter pays and precautionary principles respectively. All dialects are part of this one language of recognition and, like American, Canadian and Geordie English, society speaks in all dialects depending on the context.

The point is that one dialect, while distinctive, cannot be separated from the rest. So, in the common definition of sustainable development, there is a preference being given to one particular dialect – economics. It’s a bit like giving priority to Queen’s English. A goal of sustainable development would therefore mean that society sees its relationship with the environment as primarily one of cost and benefit.

On the other hand, how can you achieve a balance between two entities and the method of communication? In other words, sustainable development as defined in this way is impossible.

A more realistic definition of sustainable development would be one that seeks balance between society and the environment through the economy, law, science, etc.

This post is a summary of a part of the first chapter of my PhD thesis

A cult of science?

Most Fridays, I attend an academic group at university that discusses the philosophical foundations of law and finance. Yesterday, we looked at why people believe they experience the paranormal or supernatural. One of the things that the lecturer in charge talked about was how, after the second world war, anthropologists went off to remote islands to study the indigenous people and found them worshipping the remains of aircraft (so called ‘cargo cults’). Apparently, the thinking was that these people saw something fall out of the air to the ground and, quite reasonably, concluded that if it has happened once, it can happen again. The whole belief system was premised on the idea that something would happen in the future because it happened in the past. To me, that sounded very much like science – we observe things happening in the past and develop a theory that say that those things will happen in the future.

So, when I stumbled upon this critique of the dominant climate change science narrative by activist teacher Denis G Rancourt, I was already in the frame of mind to read objectively.

On the gargantuan lie of climate change science

In all of human history, what was believed and promoted by the majority of service intellectuals (high priests) in each civilization was only created and maintained to support the hierarchy and the place of the high priests within the hierarchy. To believe that the present is any different regarding any issue managed by our “experts”, whet … Read More

via COTO Report

Now, I have always believed in the importance of protecting our environment and I am not ready to given up my membership of the climate change camp. Indeed, to a science worshipper like myself, Rancourt would probably a heretic. But he does highlight a particular problem in the way that science is presented.

Up to 500 years ago, the Bible was published in Latin. Unfortunately, the masses could not understand Latin, so they had to rely on experts (priests) to read the Bible and interpret it for them. Similarly today, scientific papers are published in a their own scientific language – which can be understood by other scientists – but not by the masses. It then requires several levels of interpretation for us to understand. I am not suggesting there is anything sinister in this.  (On top of that, much scientific findings cannot be afforded by ordinary people.)

As a result of the translation of the Bible from Latin into the languages of the people in the Reformation, anyone could read and understand God’s Word. Of course, the experts and other people are still needed as quality control, but basically one does not need to have studied theology. Yet, if I wanted to read, for example, a paper on climate science, it would read like gobbledygook (sic), as my scientific education stopped at GCSE. Of course, I read the articles in the newspapers and watch the engaging documentaries on TV but all this is second-, third-, even fourth hand.

Now, I am not suggesting that there is necessarily any hidden agenda on the part of certain interests to hide the truth. But we were clearly meant to understand how the world worked. Yet scientific papers seem to write in their own version of Latin.

The same criticism could be made of academia in general. I could go to Waterstones and pick up a popular book on philosophy, but it is quite difficult to get hold of the original material (or at least English translations of the original material). I had never even heard of Hegel until after I started my PhD, now I think he is the greatest guy in the world. Yes, his work can be difficult to read, but I am slowly getting to grips with his philosophy directly. And it makes a big difference to reading it firsthand. But I daresay that I would even be in this position if I wasn’t at university.

Coming back to climate science, everyone throws around this figure of 2 degrees as some kind of target. And I have no reason to doubt what they say. But I get the feeling that there is all this focus on numbers and data, as if somehow not staying within the limit is the answer to the world’s problems.

Ok, I don’t really what the point of this post is. I don’t have a conclusion. Perhaps someone can provide one for me.

Applying reason to the precautionary principle

So the Health Protection Agency has reported that the number of deaths from swine flu this winter has gone up to 112, but it seems that there is fear because five of those deaths were under 5, of whom 1 was not in an at-risk group. Understandably, people are wondering why the government doesn’t vaccinate all children under five.

After 13 years of a government giving into law of fear, it is refreshing to have the decision to target the vaccination programme based on on independent  scientific evidence. I do not think it is an abandonment of the precautionary principle, however. If anything, it is a reasoned, proper application.

The precautionary principle, one of the fundamental principles of environmental law, is stated in Principle 15 of the 1992 Rio Declaration: “Where there are threats of serious or irrevocable harm, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” The key words here are full scientific certainty – since there is no such thing, then the application of precautionary principle still comes down to what the science seems to suggest. Furthermore, the principle is designed to ensure that cost-effective measures are not prevented. Given that only 5 out of 112 cases in the whole flu season have been under 5, it is difficult to argue that a mass vaccination programme is cost-effective.

The principle  comes into UK law through the European Court of Justice. The key case is Pfizer Animal Health v Council of the European Union, which concerned the use of certain antibodies in animal feed to increase weight in less time. The main issue was whether it posed a risk to public health because bacteria might develop resistance to the antibodies. The European Court of Justice ruled that where there is scientific uncertainty regarding the risks to human health, the EU could use the precautionary principle to “take protective measures without having to wait until the reality and seriousness of those risks become fully apparent”. But, the ECJ added that the risk must be “adequately backed up by the scientific data available” thought not conclusively. That says it all.

This is why I disagree with the gist of Cass Sunstein’s book “Law of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle”. He is right to criticise the application of what he calls the strong form of the precautionary principle as practically paralysing. The truth is, however, that there is no such thing as a strong form of the principle. As the above wording indicates, any so-called application of the precautionary principle that totally disregards the scientific evidence is not the precautionary principle.

It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it

Yesterday, I suggested that snow is God’s way of telling us that we are not all powerful beings. Well, it seems today that we can’t even claim to have all the knowledge in the world.

Scientists have found a lifeform on earth that does not appear to be based on carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorous or sulphur. There is a bacteria in a lake in California whose DNA contains arsenic of all metals, which clearly has implications for the search of extraterrestrial life and the careers of science fiction writers everywhere.

“What we’ve found is a microbe doing something new — building parts of itself out of arsenic,” said scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a fellow in NASA’s astrobiology program who made the groundbreaking discovery at Mono Lake in eastern California.

“There’s an organism on Earth doing something different,” said Wolfe-Simon. “We’ve cracked open the door to what’s possible for life elsewhere in the universe. And that’s profound.”

So you found a bacteria that eats arsenic. My mum once told me of a girl who tried to kill herself by eating pins. What’s so special about about bacteria and arsenic? Caleb Scharf, an astrobiologist at Columbia University, told the New York Times:

“It’s like if you or I morphed into fully functioning cyborgs after being thrown into a room of electronic scrap with nothing to eat.”

But it’s not just about a microbe-sized version of the Borg (a la Star Trek). Apparently,  the unusually salty eastern California’s Mono Lake is rich in arsenic and other minerals and is thought to reflect conditions under which early life evolved on Earth or Mars.

But ultimately, according to Ariel Anbar, a co-author of the study, it’s all about those ‘unknown unknowns':

“Sometimes you think something is not going to work, but then you go looking for it and sometimes you may find it.

“And then you realize, oh, I didn’t understand things quite as well as I thought I did before. And that happens all the time in science. That’s part of what makes it fun.”

This is the best thing about doing research, whatever field you’re in. It’s the joy of having your prior knowlegde and preconceived notions irrevocably altered by some new realisation.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 74 other followers

%d bloggers like this: