Another day, another story about global warming

Seems like every day this week, there’s been some terrible news about global warming. Today, we have the news that Greenland’s glaciers are sliding towards the sea much faster than previously believed. Then there was that forecast yesterday of an 11.4m increase in sea levels worldwide by 3000 if we don’t cut emissions. On Wednesday, plants turned out to be using CO2 so efficiently, there’s an increased risk of floods. All this in the week the Kyoto Protocol celebrated its first birthday.

We’re doomed, as they used to say on Dad’s Army. Oh well.

More global warming gloom and doom

Just when you thought January couldn’t get any worse, now we have a government report saying the planet’s even more completely screwed thanks to global warming than we’d previously thought. Worst fears realised include:

  • Decreasing crop yields in the developing and developed world
  • Tripling of poor harvests in Europe and Russia
  • Large-scale displacement of people in north Africa from desertification
  • Up to 2.8bn people at risk of water shortage
  • 97% loss of coral reefs
  • Total loss of summer Arctic sea ice causing extinction of the polar bear and the walrus
  • Spread of malaria in Africa and north America

Turn off your gadgets at night

We’re a bit OCD about this at our house, but it’s advice worth repeating: turn off your gadgets at night – don’t leave them in standby mode since it wastes huge amounts of electricity. As this BBC article points out, if we all did this, we could do away with two entire power stations per year.

Ben Goldacre exaggerating about arts graduates and science journalism? Actually, no

One of the frequent complaints made by people about Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in The Guardian is his tendency to disparage arts graduates, particularly those that write about science for mainstream publications. Goldacre argues that they really don’t know what they’re talking about, give incorrect explanations for things and generally give science a bad image, with their constant fixation on “formulae for x” where x is the perfect Christmas pudding, relationship, film, CMOS substrate, etc.

Not wishing to generalise, however, I’ve tended to side with the complainants. But today has been an eye-opening day.

I took my wife’s car in to be MOTed this morning. She’s off for a weekend with her girlfriends and since she’ll be working non-stop for the next week or so, she won’t have any time to take it in herself. I got to the garage at 8am, dead on. Normally (I did this the previous two years as well), it takes a couple of hours for them to run all the checks, and since the garage is in the middle of nowhere, I wait there while they do them. This time, however, it took until 11.30.

I hadn’t planned for this. My laptop gave out before I’d watched even one DVD of Peter Brook’s five-hour The Mahabharata. I messed up the Sudoku on my Palm Pilot. Tetris got boring after a while. So I started reading the papers. I started with The Times, which turns out to be duller and stupider than I remember.

First off, the telecoms correspondent said that WiMax was faster than WiFi because it had a speed of 8Mbps. Last time I looked, eight was less than eleven which is the rated speed of WiFi. Sigh.

But then the health correspondent claimed that electroshock therapy was being used more often than before because the stigma it had gained from One Flew of the Cuckoo’s Nest had nearly worn off – not because they’d improved its application, started using anaesthetic and muscle relaxant, etc, although a handy box-out did at least mention those vital sub-points.

So I started to think maybe Mr Goldacre had a point. Then I picked up the Daily Mail.

Hatred of the Daily Mail is compulsory for many liberal and left-leaning people, myself included. Many people hate it because of the things they think are in it, without even having read it. I remember a former colleague’s look of amazement after she’d read a copy. “It’s even worse than I ever thought possible,” she explained. Those of us who had read it nodded sagely. My hatred for the evil rag stems from my actual familiarity with its contents.

So it really was my own fault. I knew the veins were going to start throbbing in my head before I’d even started; I just didn’t know at what point.

It was Melanie Phillips’ column. Phillips had already been the target of one of Goldacre’s columns, in which he’d pointed out the absurd levels of ignorance she had exposed in a piece on MMR. But today she surpassed herself.

Apparently, the discovery that plants produce methane even when not decomposing shows that “scientists” aren’t to be trusted. If they can’t get this right, over “the second most important” greenhouse gas, then how can they be trusted to get climate change analysis right, Phillips wonders? She then explains how climatology uses computer models that can’t be trusted, and that those who believe in climate change are really just anti-American and anti-business.

Having been an Americo-phile (is that even a word?) from an early age, I took exception to this anyway. But the sheer levels of jaw-dropping, vacant idiocy involved in this took me aback. Philliips, who I suspect lacks scientific qualifications of any kind (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) and who knows the subject so well that she doesn’t appreciate that methane is a greater greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, feels equipped to judge the vast amounts of evidence and work that’s gone into climatology and climate change research in general.

Not only that, but she seems to be under the impression that one group of scientists does all the research in all fields (“Hi, my name’s Dr Steve PhD, and when I’m not trying to invent cold fusion techniques in this lab, I create polymers next door, investigate plant species and cellular mytosis over there and model climate change in the computer lab up there”).

In Phillips’ world, because biologists have discovered something unknown about plants, that means climatologists can’t be trusted. Wow. That makes sense. Using the same argument, I immediately deduced that because the features editor of Daily Mail has run an article on why the Bible code is all true, none of the paper’s movie reviews can be trusted.

In a sane world or on a sane newspaper, the Daily Mail‘s editor would have killed the column as soon as he saw it and told her to write about what she knows, not what she clearly doesn’t. But he didn’t. And I just know that there’s at least two Mail readers who have come away from that article thinking they’re now better informed than ‘the common herd’ as a result of it. Bastards.

If I become Prime Minister, my first job will be to pass a law that only science graduates can write about science in magazines and newspapers. Or elect Ben Goldacre PM: he’s right about them, you know.

It’s hard being green sometimes

We try to be green in our house. We recycle. We try to reduce electricity consumption whenever we can. We walk, cycle or use public transport where possible. We try to buy products that use little packaging.

We’ve also tried using products from Ecover. For the most part, these are well worth using, assuming you can believe all thei company’s statements about environmental friendliness.

But we’ve come a cropper with Ecover’s washing powder. Despite the company’s warm words about the powder not being irritating to the skin, we spent three of four sleepless nights scratching ourselves silly after using the powder on our bed linen. After re-washing the bedding in Pesil non-bio capsules, an uninterrupted night’s sleep all round. Hooray. Not so environmentally friendly, but at least we won’t go postal from sleep deprivation.

What gets me is that my otherwise sterling immune system, previously only allergic to penicillin and cat and dog hairs, should have a problem with the plant extracts used to make the Ecover washing powder. What plants are they using? Nettles?

One hundred things we didn’t know a year ago. Except we did.

The BBC is running a story containing 100 facts we didn’t know last year. Aside from the 101st fact that we did know quite a few of those things if we’d ever read a book before 2005, there were quite a few interesting nuggets in there, notably:

7. Baboons can tell the difference between English and French. Zoo keepers at Port Lympne wild animal park in Kent are having to learn French to communicate with the baboons which had been transferred from Paris zoo.

29. When faced with danger, the octopus can wrap six of its legs around its head to disguise itself as a fallen coconut shell and escape by walking backwards on the other two legs, scientists discovered.

50. Only 36% of the world’s newspapers are tabloid.

53. It takes 75kg of raw materials to make a mobile phone.

65. Actor James Doohan, who played Scotty, had a hand in creating the Klingon language that was used in the movies, and which Shakespeare plays were subsequently translated into.

99. The Japanese word “chokuegambo” describes the wish that there were more designer-brand shops on a given street.

Renewable energy trends in 2005

Just as the UK government starts to become convinced that nuclear is the only option for future power needs, renewable energy has started to become more affordable. This slightly US-centric article looks at some of the trends in renewable energy in 2005 that will lead to even more green energy sources in 2006.