Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Thursday, November 29, 2012

"Limits to Growth": an alternative history


In 1972, the report titled "The Limits to Growth" discussed a series of scenarios of the current trends that foresaw a global economic collapse for some moment in the 21st century. The report also recommended actions designed to avoid such a collapse and stabilized the economic system. However, these recommendations were ignored and the report was demonized by means of a propaganda campaign. In this post, Max Iacono examines an "alternative history" in which  the report would have included scenarios based on its own acceptance or rejection.


Guest post by Max Iacono


Max Iacono holds a  B.S. from MIT in Chemical Engineering;  PhD in Organizational Psychology from the University of Michigan. His career has been in human resources and institutional development with several U.S. multinationals, consultancy firms, the World Bank and the International Labour Organization. 


Let us hypothetically consider that the Club of Rome and the original MIT team- authors also might have added two additional "scenarios" (which I will call the pessimistic book-reception scenario and the optimistic book-reception scenario) that they might have considered as part of their work and perhaps included in some suitable form as an Appendix.

But these two additional scenarios would NOT have dealt with any of the future likely or unlikely World Model Scenarios and their related variables being modeled by the book, (that work was already well done and certainly thoroughly enough)  but instead would have dealt with  the likely acceptance or rejection of the book itself by society, and of its most likely acceptance-trajectory and its societal impact in terms of either spurring humanity towards assorted remedial or preventive actions (by either governments, civil society or various private sector actors or by the international public sector or by some combination of these) or failing to do so,  or perhaps even (perversely) having an opposite effect.  

What additional variables would have had to be considered by the authors to try to model and come up with the above two scenarios and how would these variables most likely interact with the other variables already treated by the book?

And if the ultimate impact on society and its future trajectory (economic and population wise)  was indeed the purpose of the book then perhaps it would have been better to consider not only the optimistic scenario of the book’s gradual acceptance followed by various positive actions by various actors, e.g. new policies and etc. to alter humanity's collision course with various physical and natural limits, but also the pessimistic scenario that the book would either at best be misunderstood or at worst be either "naturally" or deliberately and purposefully maligned and discredited.   (and that therefore it’s impact would be very little over the next 40 years)

Would this have been a legitimate question to ask back around 1972?  And had it been asked and answered correctly might anything have been done differently  regarding either the content of the book or its explanation and promotion, or its defense?    
If one takes a quick look now at the more recent formulation by the Club of Rome of "A New Path to World Development," which can be viewed here, one readily sees that the Club now sees this overall PATH as consisting of FIVE interactive components or “clusters of inter-connected issues” and namely:

1. Environment and Resources: Climate Change, Energy Security, Ecosystems and Water

2. Globalisation:  Distribution of Wealth and Income, Employment, Economic Restructuring,  Trade and Finance

3. International Development:  Demographic growth, Environmental Stress, Poverty, Food Production, Health and Employment

4. Social Change:  Values, Culture, Identity, and Behavior

5. Peace and Security:  Justice, Democracy, Governance, Solidarity, Security and Peace

I very much agree with the above path based on my own professional experiences in the development assistance field.

But I also wonder whether if the Club of Rome had tried to come up with such a “New Path to World Development” formulation back in 1972 it would have (or even could have) come up with the same five issue clusters and interactive variables now listed above.  Since many ideas and practices and their underlying theories have evolved significantly since then in each of the five areas and domains listed. e.g. remember “the commanding heights” of the economy,  and later on,  the back and forth between State and Market and what might be the right balance between the two in various different national contexts?

But what seems clear is that the first book Limits to Growth focused mainly on modeling variables fitting under items 1 and 3 above and only secondarily (or at least much less so) on those variables fitting under items 2, 4 and 5.  

And this even though the ultimate objective of the book (some kind of positive impact on humanity’s trajectory going forward) probably would have been better served or attained by achieving some positive change in the variables and sub-variables that might fit best under items 2,4, and 5.   Because without some change to these key intermediate or “mediational” variables the remaining important economic and physical variables treated by the study, might never be paid attention to sufficiently.
And in fact this reality very likely also points to some of the probable reasons why out of the two scenarios which I suggested for consideration above….(the optimistic one and the pessimistic one) it was the pessimistic one which turned out to be more correct.   Namely the book was NOT particularly well received, accepted or acted upon.  And very regrettably humanity lost 40 years of precious time.

Ugo Bardi already described quite well and in detail the specific reasons why this happened and how and who the “negative” actors or forces or influences were in his Revisiting Limits to Growth.  So there is no need to repeat them here. 

I would just like to point out for the consideration of the readers of this blog that if “social (or societal) change” was indeed the objective of the first LTG book and if its content and scenarios were geared to having such societal change eventually occur, it might have been possible to predict that the overt or even just tacit and implicit suggestion of any such change needing to come about would have come up against many existing societal values, many existing identities, many existing aspects of culture, and many existing aspects of human behavior. 

That is, the content and implicit or tacit implications of the first LTG book even if it made no explicit “recommendations” to governments, civil society or private sectors or to the international public sector (such as for instance to establish an IPCC institution to study climate change in depth and make recommendations)   would be in open and obvious conflict with the (then) current status of many of the human social, cultural, political, institutional and ideological variables subsumed under item 4 above.  

And equally the book also would come into conflict with the then current status of the variables in item 5 above namely:  existing governance systems, existing democratic political systems, as well as various people’s different understandings of  “justice and solidarity” (both intra and inter-generational). Since many existing aspects of these key variables would be threatened by the book and by its arguments and evidence,  it might have been possible to predict that the book would be rejected and eventually actively discredited by various actors…..until such time as the evidence in its favor observable all around became overwhelming, namely the point we are rapidly reaching –or have already reached- right now, 40 years later.

The above is not meant to be in any way a criticism of either the Club of Rome or of the authors of the original LTG book who I think did an admirable and worthy job.   And of course it is also rather easy for me –or for anyone else- to point out “ex post” that the book’s rejection “could have been anticipated or predicted”.   I certainly did NOT predict it myself and in fact I was in the “optimistic scenario” camp or “mode of expectation” until such time as I started to clearly see and analyze what was occurring all around as being much more in line with the “pessimistic scenario”. 

But now after the fact it seems rather easy to “predict” (or to “post-dict”) that various particular actors and forces would have come out ever more actively against the book. I will list just a few generic ones that come to my own mind (of course there could well be many more):

i) The professional identities of various either well-known or lesser known economists and schools of economics who may have felt threatened or who may have thought that the book did not give their field and its theories and models the consideration and status (and priority?)  that  they thought they deserved.  But did economics and its theories and some of its key players indeed “deserve” such consideration? Was “dynamic systems theory” an “intruder” into an otherwise private or exclusive domain of economics?

ii) Various general business or economic interests and their respective advocacy groups and supporters who did not want to hear (and certainly did not want the public at large to hear) that “economic growth forever” was not going to work and that some qualitative or quantitative restraints or limits may sooner or later have to placed on their activities

iii) Various political interests, groups, parties or tendencies who directly or indirectly work for those same private sector interests above

iv) Various ideological and cultural interests in broader human society at large and in various wealthier countries in particular (or in less materially wealthy countries whose populations aspired to the mainstream definition of “development” as material wealth)  regarding any modifications to current or future “lifestyles” that acceptance of the book’s ideas and findings might eventually require

v) Various religious interests who might have thought that the book might imply having to curb population growth and therefore end up being in conflict with either religious doctrine or its related cultural practices or norms (of all of the main monotheistic religions and their various subgroups)

vi) Various academic and media interests who might actively come out in favor or in support of any of the other interests already listed above

vii) And once mainstream media and mainstream academia (or at least selected parts thereof) come into the picture it is clear that the current “propaganda systems” also might eventually also come into play to do what propaganda systems know how to do best.  Which is to do much more than merely lie and deceive about single facts,  but to directly or indirectly subtly or not so subtly misinform, misrepresent, mislead, discredit, put forward wrong or otherwise not-very-constructive ideas, values, or cultural identities,  or general or specific conclusions, or courses of action, simply because they favor certain particular groups or “clients” or political, economic or cultural interests,  of the propaganda system itself;   and at the same time to actively vilify and diminish more correct or scientific,  or more constructive or careful,  or more sensible or plausible ideas, values, identities, conclusions or courses of action. 

Anyone who has any doubt about this last point and how one component of a propaganda system works only needs to watch Fox “News” for a few days to observe how its anchors and commentators treat the idea of climate change, the oil and gas industry, the coal industry, fracking for shale gas, tar sands development, “drill baby drill”,  and all those “misguided” “tree huggers” and assorted “lefties”.   And since, generally speaking, propagandists’ last concern is for facts or truth, ever more careful and correct arguments and scientific evidence will not help in the least;  the most capable among them are able to lampoon and discredit in the mind of the public, years of painstaking and careful scientific work with a single cultural or identity insinuation or slander against the presumed ideology or even the nationality or regional identity of the scientists or their supporters.

In this respect in the minds of some segment of U.S. audiences just the term “Club of Rome” could already be suspect which is probably why it is often emphasized by the propagandists and ideologues over the harder to attack and to discredit “MIT” which is well known in the U.S. for its scientific and technical work and for various contributions also to the U.S. military-industrial complex.  Whereas it is much less difficult for the O’Reillys of this world to indirectly paint black institutions such as the Club of Rome as “a bunch of pro-U.N. European socialists”.  (which to a significant portion of the U.S. TV audience has gradually become pure anathema again thanks to the same kinds of propaganda)

So although perhaps not much now can be done about the fact that the first Limits to Growth effort did not really foresee or address the above fairly predictable reactions of at least some significant parts of human society’s political, ideological and cultural systems and their sub-systems (e.g. parts of the media and even parts of academia) it certainly is indispensable to do something about all of this now.   And I think the latest related book “The World in 2052” by is far more realistic in taking all of the above into account within its narrative.

I don’t wish to try to delve any further than Jorgen Randers already has done on the most likely future scenarios.  I think he already does an excellent job and I would have very little to add,  so I simply accept his current views (and those of the authors of his various “glimpses”) as the most probable and the best qualified at this point in time.  Namely to “sum up” in reductionist fashion,   that we have a roughly fifty-fifty chance of going over 2.3 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures sometime during this century and thereby triggering runaway climate change.  But this does not mean that further improved or more refined technical and scientific arguments and models (and the research that would permit making them) in favor or against certain scenarios could not or should not be made or done.   And more recent forecasts are far less favorable and foresee at least a 3.6 degree rise, if not much higher,  if key tipping points are breached.  (as recently looks increasingly likely).

For instance how likely is it (and when is this most likely to happen) that Arctic methane will begin to contribute significantly to so called “runaway” temperature increases and related self-amplifying feedback loops?  Much has been studied and written about this topic too and we probably still need to know much more although we probably already know enough to know that it has a strong likelihood of occurring, or at least we know about as much as we ever can hope to know within realistic margins of empirical or conceptual error.  After it has happened (if it happens) we will know for sure.  And in the meantime an ounce of prevention is worth not just one pound but about 1000 pounds of cure  (since no ex-post cure is likely to exist or to work at all).

So in my opinion although it is every important to continue to do more and more, and better and better, scientific research and analysis in all the areas and variables and their relationships which are related to Limits to Growth,  (and on climate change variables in particular)  it may be more important at this point to work on precisely those other variables that were not sufficiently addressed in or by the first book.  Namely how to get what remains a largely mostly ignorant and/or even actively recalcitrant humanity (we should not consider only those who have been convinced, namely the various groups and components of the so called “sustainability” crowd or movement,  but the vast majority of our 7 billion earthly human denizens who still either do not know,  or do not care enough,  or do not know what to do or how to get it done) to take on board and start acting on the existential threat that all of humanity very likely faces.  Even as the precise extent and timing and the specific evolution of the threat continues to be studied scientifically. 

In other words it may be more important now to bring to bear not only what we know or can still learn in the geophysical, physical, natural, biological and ecological and demographic sciences regarding sources and sinks and “carrying capacity” and Limits to Growth,  but ALSO what we know about human society and how to go about changing it in terms of political science, political economy, culture, the various components of human identity, psychology, ideology, governance and all of their related institutions and the various means and methods available to attempt to modify or change these sufficiently in order to try to bring about the significant societal and economic and political systemic changes which are needed to achieve authentic sustainability before it could well be too late. Forty years have been lost since the first totally crystal clear warning and forty more years should not be lost now.   Should a brand new Limits to Growth book sequel now be written focusing on “how to practically change and reconfigure human society” and its current systemic paradigms so that these will conform much better to various planetary physical, ecological and/or demographic limits? 




Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The devil's best trick applied to oil production forecasts


My Russian friends would often tell me that, at the time of the Soviet Union, nobody believed the official propaganda but they had no other source of information. In our times, we have plenty of sources of information, but it seems that most of us choose to believe the official propaganda.

I think it was Baudelaire who said, "The devil's best trick is to convince people that he doesn't exist."

_______________________________________________



A Thermonuclear Energy Bomb in Christmas Wrappings

World Energy Report 2012: The Good, the Bad, and the Really, Truly Ugly

...... 

Claiming that advances in drilling technology were producing an upsurge in North American energy output, World Energy Outlook predicted that the United States would overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the planet’s leading oil producer by 2020.  “North America is at the forefront of a sweeping transformation in oil and gas production that will affect all regions of the world,” declared IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven in a widely quoted statement.

In the U.S., the prediction of imminent supremacy in the oil-output sweepstakes was generally greeted with unabashed jubilation.  “This is a remarkable change,” said John Larson of IHS, a corporate research firm.  “It’s truly transformative.  It’s fundamentally changing the energy outlook for this country.”  Not only will this result in a diminished reliance on imported oil, he indicated, but also generate vast numbers of new jobs.  “This is about jobs.  You know, it's about blue-collar jobs.  These are good jobs.”

The editors of the Wall Street Journal were no less ecstatic.  In an editorial with the eye-catching headline “Saudi America,” they lauded U.S. energy companies for bringing about a technological revolution, largely based on the utilization of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to extract oil and gas from shale rock.  That, they claimed, was what made a new mega-energy boom possible.  “This is a real energy revolution,” the Journal noted, “even if it's far from the renewable energy dreamland of so many government subsidies and mandates.”

.....

Sunday, November 25, 2012

One year of Mario Monti in Italy: grandfather's government

After one year as head of the Italian government, there is no doubt that Mr. Mario Monti has been successful at implementing  a policy of fiscal rigor and cost containment. He has been successful also because he has been good at managing his media image, consistently playing the role of the wise grandfather. However, the Italian economic problems can hardly be solved by purely fiscal measures. What follows is a personal interpretation of the situation.


In a debate that took place in 1980, Ronald Reagan, then presidential candidate,  demolished the incumbent democratic president, Jimmy Carter, with a single sentence, "There you go again!" That sentence became so famous that it even has a specific Wikipedia entry.

That old debate came back to my mind when, this month, I read that the Monti Government, in Italy, had reached one year of life. But what was the connection between Mario Monti and Ronald Reagan? It took me some head scratching before I could find an answer. And then it downed on me: yes! Monti was playing the role of the grandfather, just as Reagan did in the 1980s.

Ronald Reagan was a genius of communication and he had a natural talent for playing roles. In the 1980 elections he consistently played the role of the wise grandfather and he used that role to demolish his younger opponent. It was a case of asymmetric rhetorical warfare: Reagan could tell to Carter "there you go again", but Carter could not tell that to Reagan. It was grandfather vs. grandson: no contest. That would have gained the election for Reagan even without the help of the Iran hostage crisis that arrived later on.

At 69, Mario Monti is younger than his predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi (76), but he has been playing a completely different role. Whereas Berlusconi played the "alpha male," rich, powerful, and successful with women, Monti played the grandfather; calm, reassuring, and wise. He showed a remarkable skill at this role; avoiding displays of power and continuously dropping hints of normalcy in the media: his wife shopping at the market, having Christmas dinner with his family, and the like. Just as in the confrontation between Reagan and Carter, there was no contest in the struggle of Monti against Berlusconi. After decades of rule by an elite that looked more interested in sex and money than in serving the country, Italians appreciated a lot having a prime minister who didn't boast about how many women he had and about how rich he was. In a way, Berlusconi was victim of his own success: alpha males tend to generate a lot of opposition and to be toppled after their first major mistake (and Berlusconi made more than one).

In Monti's implementation of government, people look at their leader as if they were looking at their grandfather: a wise figure that helps them when they are in trouble. Grandpa may ask you sacrifices, of course, but you have no doubt that he is doing that for your well being. So, Italians submitted to Monti's cure of fiscal rigor and higher taxation with startling patience; at least up to now. So far, we haven't seen anything like the disorders that have accompanied the similar crisis in Spain and in Greece.

But can Monti's political experiment continue for a long time? Maybe, but there is a big problem: Italy's troubles may be well beyond fixing by fiscal rigor alone. Facing the convergence of the resource crisis, of onrushing global warming, and the general ecosystem disruption, even grandfather's wisdom may not be enough. The old ways of fixing an economy just don't seem to be working any more. Italy's whole economic system seems to be collapsing and the country needs to find new resources in order to survive. These new resources could have been obtained by continuing the politics of support for renewable energy which, instead, the Monti government abandoned. At the same time the Monti government failed to disengage Italy from some extremely expensive public works, such as the new high speed railway line from Turin to Lyon, which are weighing heavily on the country's budget. In short, Monti's cure for the Italian economy is starting to look more and more like curing a cough by chocking the patient to death. 

After one year of sacrifices, Italians haven't seen improvements in their condition: taxes keep rising, services keep being slashed, finding an apartment for rent at reasonable prices is nearly impossible, unemployment is increasing, and the struggle to arrive to the end of the month is becoming more and more difficult even for those who still have a salary. Mr. Monti keeps saying that someday growth will restart, but that is starting to sound hollow. Right now, Italy seems to be on the brink of a collective nervous breakdown and the recent street protests are a symptom of what may happen in the future. Grandpa's pill to cure Italy's illness was always bitter, but now it looks more and more ineffective.













Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Cold fusion and I


Some people seem to think that science is like this, but the everyday life of the researcher is nothing like Dr. Zarkow building a spaceship in his basement. In science, as in most tasks in life, there holds the rule "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration"


When I mention that I experimented on cold fusion, back in 1989, I find that many people seem to be very interested. What I did is not especially relevant, but I thought I could tell that story here - if nothing else to show how easy it is to be overtaken by enthusiasm. But it may also be a way to show how the scientific method works.

Let me go back to 1989; when Fleischmann and Pons claimed that they could attain the fusion of deuterium nuclei in a test tube. I distinctly remember the feeling of elation of those months. It was such an incredible discovery: it was going to change everything in science. And not just that. I was thinking that also a lot of science fiction stories would have to be rewritten.

In July, I took a trip to Berkeley, to work at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory during the summer. There, they had one of the best labs of electrochemistry in the world and if anyone was able to replicate the experiments made by Fleischmann and Pons, they were the right ones. So, when I arrived in Berkeley one of the first things I discussed with my colleagues was cold fusion. I was surprised to discover that they were very disappointed. They had tried to replicate the electrochemical cold fusion experiment almost immediately after the first announcement. But they were not getting any result and they had concluded that the whole story was a scam or a mistake. I distinctly remember having heard my boss at the lab discussing about cold fusion on the phone with someone else, saying, "look, that was just a measurement error."

I spent that summer in Berkeley working on subjects totally unrelated to cold fusion, but I had not completely given up. You see, the claim by Fleischmann and Pons had unleashed a series of similar claims. Some people claimed that they could see fusion in gases emitted by volcanoes, and some that they could see fusion in metals other than palladium, just exposing them to gaseous deuterium.  The overall atmosphere reminded a little the "Elvis sightings." Someone saw something and immediately other people reported having seen something similar. So, maybe electrochemistry was not the only way to obtain cold fusion. Maybe there were other ways, even better ones! So, back in Italy, in September, I thought I could do something myself. I had a laboratory equipped with some instrumentation; so, why not give it a try? At that time I didn't have to teach and I was free from the administrative tasks I have nowadays, so I could work in relative peace for at least a couple of months.

I won't bother you with the details of what I did (*). Let me just mention that my set up was inspired by the work of Scaramuzzi and others in Frascati and that it was based on comparing tests made with deuterium with tests done with ordinary hydrogen. I tried several combinations of temperatures and pressures, different kinds of palladium samples. But I couldn't see anything:  no traces of cold fusion, no matter what I did. Eventually, I gave up. I was not the only one to be disappointed. The excitement was gone and the whole cold fusion story was dying out. Nobody could obtain convincing results and several people started feeling ashamed for having been much too rash in publishing what their results. The general conclusion was that the concept of "cold fusion" had been just a mistake; an illusion, a scientific case of an "Elvis sighting".

So that's the story, more or less. Now, can we learn something from it? Maybe so. For one thing, in science there is no such thing as a failed experiment as long as you do a correct analysis of the data you obtain. Of course, my experiments could't prove that cold fusion does not exist (**), just as no experiment can prove beyond any conceivable doubt that unicorns do not exist. What my experiments could prove was that cold fusion was far from being so easy to obtain as it had appeared to be at that time (many other experiments were proving that). If there was any cold fusion in my set-up, it occurred on an extremely small scale and it had to be very, very difficult to detect.

But I think there is more to be learned from this experience. One thing is how easy is to be taken by the "Elvis sighting" atmosphere. At the beginning, people were telling me that I was a bad experimenter if I couldn't see cold fusion. "Come on," they said, "everybody is seeing cold fusion. Why can't you manage to see anything?" And, you know, the Elvis sighting effect is strong: a number of times I thought I had really seen a helium signal that showed that, yes, there was cold fusion going on! But then I redid the experiment and the signal was gone. One of the characteristics of "pathological science", indeed is that the results are always at the edge of the sensitivity of the instrumentation.

I was not the only one seeing ghosts of cold fusion. I remember discussing this matter with a colleague who told me he had the same problem with his setup. He was using a neutron detector and he was seeing the same emission signal with deuterium and with hydrogen. His conclusion? Well, it was not that his neutron detector was a bit unreliable, but that he was seeing cold fusion also with hydrogen. I won't name this colleague, but let me just note that, fortunately for his reputation, it seems that he never published this idea of his.

In the end, however, I think the main point is that the scientific method works. Yes, scientists are human beings, they may be victim of their own expectations, of the "Elvis sighting" effect and they can make mistakes, of course. But, on the whole, the system filters away the bad results. It is science, baby!


(*) Just in case you are interested in this kind of things, let me tell me something of the experimental setup I used. It is all from memory, because the notes and the data from that time must be in some box, somewhere, but they would be very hard to find. In any case, I remember that I used a system that had been built for catalysis studies. It was made up of a reaction chamber connected with a ultra-high vacuum equipped with a mass spectrometer. In the reaction chamber, I exposed a palladium sample to deuterium at different pressures and temperatures. My idea was that if cold fusion was occurring, then it would occur inside the palladium lattice and that would generate helium nuclei that would remain trapped there. So, after the reaction, I would pump out the deuterium, open the chamber and flash the sample at high temperature in order to release the helium into the mass spectrometer. Of course, there is a problem here: the deuterium molecule (D2) and helium have the same mass and can't be separated by an ordinary mass spectrometer. So, I had the gas passing through a trap made with freshly evaporated titanium that would adsorb the deuterium, leaving only helium. The trap could not eliminate all the deuterium, but I reasoned that, if the cold fusion effect was significant, I should see a difference by repeating the experiment using ordinary hydrogen. This detection setup was similar to the one used by Del Giudice, Di Ninno and others later on, when  they claimed to have detected cold fusion (link). However, the reactive system was similar to the one used by Scaramuzzi and others in 1989, when they claimed they could see cold fusion by exposing titanium to deuterium gas (link). In any case, as I say in the main text, here, I never could see any significant effect. 

(**) You could say that I couldn't see cold fusion because I never could go to really high pressures with my setup. Yes but, later on, some people did something similar at pressures probably a hundred thousand times larger than what I could get. They didn't find anything, either (Silvera and Moshary, Physical Review B, 42, 14, 1990, p. 9143)

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Science's evil twin

Hugo, Bart Simpson's evil twin

Every time that I find myself discussing “cold fusion,” I need to explain why I think there exists a "good" science and a "bad" science; the latter sometimes defined also as “pseudo-science” or “pathological science.”. It is a point which is perfectly obvious to scientists, but very difficult to explain to non scientists. So, let me describe a discussion that I had with Steven Featherstone, American journalist and writer, who came to visit me as part of an investigation of the cold fusion phenomenon in Italy, that he recently published in the November issue of “Popular Science”. I'll report our conversation in a novelized form that – I think – keeps the essence of what we said to each other in more than four hours of talking. These are not, obviously, the exact words said in this occasion, but Steve has been so kind to approve this version. So, here it is.


“But what is that, exactly?” Steven said, somewhat surprised, after I had ushered him into the lab, to face the huge metal machine in the center. It was a giant mass of tubes, flanges, connectors, and more. Two students and one technician were busy tooling around with wrenches and screwdrivers; all while watching the screens of several computers placed around the machine.

“A super-microscope, basically”, I said. “it can see atoms, one by one. It is called scanning tunneling microscope.”

Steven seemed to be duly impressed by the scene. He asked to me, "but these students; what they are learning, exactly?" My first answer was, "they are learning how to operate an atomic resolution microscope..." Then, I came up with something different. "But, really, they are learning how to be scientists. It takes years."

As the computer screens kept flashing their images, I tried to explain. “See, Steven, those two young guys, the two graduate students, they are going through a kind of training. It will make them slightly different than the average human being. They are going to learn that, in science, the "pecking order" is often established by proving that your colleague is wrong. No one plays the nice guy in this. Whatever you do will be scrutinized by your colleagues with the specific purpose of proving you wrong. And you'll do the same with your colleagues. It is the way science works.”

Back in my office, we continued the discussion. “Scientists are human beings, of course,” I said, “and to err is human. But the system works in such a way that, as a scientist, you find yourself “embedded” and, normally, it is very difficult to miss the beat. In science, there is this tight system of controls. Mediocre scientists can still perform honest work; bright ones find that their creative flights of fancy are ruthlessly destroyed their colleagues.”

“But,” Steve said, “If the system keeps in check the behavior of people, how can there be a 'bad science', or 'pseudo science'?”

I scratched my head a bit. “Well....” I said,”you know, Steve, pseudo science is just like 'Hugo Simpson,' you remember, he is a character of the Simpsons series. Hugo is Bart Simpson's evil twin. He looks like Bart, but he is not Bart. He lives in the attic and he eats fish heads raw.... So, pseudo-science looks like science, but it is not science. Pseudo-scientists make measurements, or at least what they call measurements. They write papers, they claim to have obtained results. And pseudo-science has academies, journals, conferences, prizes, everything.  But it is all different, it is like Hugo Simpson – he is not Bart!”

At this point, I think I looked fully paranoid to Steve, who started looking at me rather puzzled. As I tried to say more, he stopped me. “All right, Ugo,” he said, “let's go to things real. From what you are telling me, it is clear that you classify 'cold fusion' as pseudo-science”

I didn't even need to nod with my head as Steve continued. “So, just tell me why cold fusion is pseudo science.”

“Steve,” I said, “I read that you visited the nuclear plants in Chernobyl, right?”

“Yes, I did.”

“An interesting experience, I figure.”

“You bet.”

“How would you classify the Chernobyl plant; science or pseudo-science?”

“Well.... the whole thing was in shambles but... hmmm.... it looked pretty much like science to me. I mean, serious stuff.”

“Right. Chernobyl was a disaster, of course. But it was science. The nuclear plants were built by scientists on the basis of scientific results. And the plants worked. They produced energy for many years; until someone had this idea of making a test to see what would happen in case there was a sudden loss of the external power supply.”

“That was the scientific approach?”

“It was. Scientists have this tendency of blowing themselves up with their experiments. It has happened so many times in the history of science! But it is the scientific method: you have an idea, you need to put it to test. See, Steve, I am not so happy to have to say this, but from what I read about the Chernobyl disaster, it was a legitimate experiment. A poorly designed experiment, yes, but a legitimate one. In a way, it even worked. They learned what they should not have done. A bit too late, unfortunately....”

Steve smiled, “It reminds me of the scientist who injected himself with bacteria to prove his theory on the cause of ulcers." He said. "He could prove that he was right!”

“Yes, I know the story. They should never have that guy get even close to a nuclear plant! A friend of mine said once that for humans discovering nuclear energy has been like it would be for ants to discover fire.... but this is another story. “

“Well, all right," Steve continued, "so Chernobyl was good science, and....”

“All right, let me get to my point, Steve.  Most of the victims in Chernobyl were killed by radiations. If you have nuclear reactions you have radiations: that's a fundamental point. And nuclear radiations kill people - we know that. That happened not just in Chernobyl; there are many cases of people who were hurt by radiations - sometimes even killed. You have to be very careful when you deal with nuclear reactions. I have worked a little with X-rays and nuclear isotopes and I can tell you: it is scary stuff. "

"I see your point," Steve said. "You mean that there are no radiations with cold fusion..."

"Yeah, people claiming that they can attain 'cold fusion' show no sign of radiation damage, as far as I know. Not that I wish that they would get hurt, of course, but if they were really getting nuclear fusion, the energies involved are immense and.....

“But,” Steve said, “there is this claim of 'excess heat'.....”

“Well, see, Steve, there are rules. You claim you have this 'excess heat,' Fine, you can claim that, but your claim must be verified. In science, experiments must be clearly explained, must be reviewed by competent people, must be repeatable and not just repeatable - must be actually repeated. And if competent people can't repeat your experiment, then you don't claim that there is a conspiracy against you. You are wrong and you must admit it. You know, this is not arbitrary. These rules are applied because they work. You don't apply the rules? You are not doing science – you are doing pseudo-science. You are like Hugo Simpson in the Simpsons. Not the real Bart.”

Steve seemed to be thoughtful for a while “But, you know, there is one thing about Hugo Simpson.....”

“Yes?”

“Do you remember how the story ends?”

“Hmmm..... I think I understand what you mean.”

“Yes. In the end it is discovered that Hugo is the “good” twin, whereas Bart is the evil one. Could that happen with pseudo-science?”

“You mean, discovering that cold fusion is real science?”

“Yeah.”

I laughed. “Sure! In that case, some scientists will be confined in a damp attic and forced to eat fish heads raw!”

Steve laughed, too. “Do you think it could happen?”

“Well, it is the beauty of science: if you can prove than an accepted theory is wrong, then it is proven that it is wrong - everybody accepts it. But you must provide good proof and follow the rules of science.”

“And you don't think that the cold fusion people.......”

“No way!”

“But they could.”

“In principle.......yes. But, you know, Steve, I am not really afraid of having to eat raw fish heads any time soon!”

“Which reminds me of something....”

“Yep! You know, in Italy we can have something much better than raw fish heads for lunch!”

“I was sure of that. Let's go!”


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Hurricane Sandy and climate change: from complacency to panic




According to James Schlesinger, human beings have only two modes of operation: complacency and panic. This is a fitting description of our attitude towards climate change. So far, we have been in "complacency mode", ignoring the problem. Major disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy, may push us from complacency to panic. In this case, we may enter a condition of full "survival mode" and forget about the ultimate causes of what is happening. (Image from Bloomberg)


Hurricane Sandy struck New York just a few months after the dramatic melting of the Arctic Sea ice of this summer. The melting hardly made a ripple in the news, but it didn't pass unnoticed. It generated a strong sense of urgency that appeared as a more aggressive stance when Sandy struck. Whereas in other occasions scientists had been very cautious in linking specific events to climate change, this time it was different. That, in turn, affected the media and the front cover of Bloomberg Businessweek, with the sentence "It is global warming, stupid," represents a real turning point in this attitude.

So, today we are seeing an attempt to build up a communication strategy that could bring climate change to the top of our perceived priorities. In this sense, Sandy may be considered as the tool that could bring us there. But is it going to work? On this point, Andy Revkin published a note with the  title "Why Climate Disasters Might Not Boost Public Engagement On Climate Change."

Revkin cites at length a text by George Marshall, an expert in climate communication. The gist of Marshall's position is that disasters tend to generate an immediate reaction where people tend to develop attitudes such as social cohesion, community values, and reciprocal help. In other words, people go into "survival mode," and they have no time to dedicate to understanding the ultimate reasons of what is happening to them. Indeed, there is no evidence that people struck by climate related disasters such as droughts, heat waves, floods, and the like have made the connection between these events and climate change.

That basically confirms what James Schlesinger said about the "two modes of operation" of human beings: complacency and panic. If we are in "complacency mode," we don't care about preventing possible disasters. If we are in "panic mode", we have no time to dedicate to preventing disasters, either.

If this is the way things stand, we have a big problem: if climate disasters are rare, people will remain in complacency mode and will not connect the dots. On the other hand, if climate disasters become very frequent, people will go in panic mode and will have no time to connect dots.

So, Hurricane Sandy is unlikely to be the magic tool that brings climate change to the top of the world's priorities. Nevertheless, it offers us a window of opportunity, at least if we will not be stricken by a sequence of disasters so rapid that there won't be time to think about what's happening. Right now, when the emergency phase is over, there is time to stop and think about the reasons of the disaster. If we do that, we might have a chance to find a precarious equilibrium in between complacency and panic: we can put climate change back at the top of the world's priorities.

It is just that: a window of opportunity. It is up to us to seize it.



Sunday, November 4, 2012

We have been chasing the wrong demon!

Guest post by Graeme Maxton. This text has appeared in several newspapers on Nov 1st, 2012. It is reproduced here by permission from the author





Look behind you!

It's climate change we need to worry about, not economic growth and al-Qaeda

It almost seems fitting.

The country that uses the most oil, that has produced the greatest amount of CO2 emissions for decades and that has consistently denied the evidence of climate change, has received the slap it required. With tens of deaths, a crushed infrastructure and billions of dollars worth of damage, Hurricane Sandy was the wake up call America needed. More than that, it was an event to which we should all pay heed. It is time to stop wasting money on fake wars and start spending it to protect us from a much graver threat.

In October 2012, I attended the General Assembly of The Club of Rome, in Bucharest. There, we were presented with the latest evidence on the effects of climate change, and they were scary. Predictions made just five years ago have already proved wildly wrong. In 2007, scientists said that they thought the Arctic would be ice free by the end of this century. At the current rate of melting however, it will now be ice free in the summer of 2015. It will be ice free all year by 2030.

This is not the main worry, however, as this is floating ice. When it melts it does not raise sea-levels. The real worry is the Greenland Ice Shelf, which is also melting at an unprecedented rate. If this disappears too, the effects will be catastrophic. Sea levels around the world will rise between six and seven metres, wiping out cities like New York, London and Shanghai. The addition of so much cold fresh water into the seas would also change ocean currents and weather patterns in ways we can barely imagine. At the same time, rising temperatures in the northern hemisphere now risk melting much of the Siberian permafrost, which will release vast clouds of trapped methane, accelerating the speed of climate change even more. This risks starting a chain reaction, which we could do nothing to stop.

The effects of what we are doing to the planet are all around us. From the storms and floods this year, to the record droughts. Since 1980, the number of natural catastrophes has risen from an average of 400 a year to nearly 1,000 now, according to Munich Re. Ironically, North America has already been more affected by “extreme weather” than anywhere else.

We need to make urgent changes to the way we live if we want to avoid a crisis. The changes now anticipated will not just affect our children and grandchildren. They will affect us all.

When predictions were made a few years ago, scientists said it would all be more or less okay if we limited the rise in average global temperatures to 2ºC. Yet we will miss that target now. Because we have not actually done anything to halt the damage we are doing, the amount of gas being released into the atmosphere has continued to grow. Without change, we are now heading for a 4ºC rise, which will take the Earth's average temperature back to levels last seen 40 million years ago. This will cause the Antarctic to melt too, with sea levels rising 60-70 metres. The droughts and floods we would experience along the way would make the planet virtually uninhabitable.

While these changes have been happening, while they have been denied and ignored, we have been fighting two senseless wars instead. The first has been the fight for growth. Governments around the world have spent trillions trying to prop up their economies, to keep them growing and keep people spending. In the process, they have kept us digging up ever more of the world's raw materials and consuming even more stuff we don't need, making the changes to the climate even worse.

The second senseless war has been the War on Terror. According to a study by Brown University last year, the cost to America in the first ten years after 9/11 was a staggering $4trn. Trillions more have been spent in Europe and elsewhere. During all this time, there have been just 251 terrorism-related deaths in the developed world and none in the US. Over the same time, tens of thousands have been killed by climate change. According to Munich Re, 30,000 people have been killed in North America alone, between 1980 and 2011 because of weather related incidents.

For more than a decade we have been chasing the wrong demon. The biggest threat to our existence is not the lack of economic growth, nor al-Qaeda. It is the Earth itself. Unless we learn to treat it with respect and start responding to the signals it is sending us, it will consume us all.


Graeme Maxton is a Fellow of the International Centre of the Club of Rome


Friday, November 2, 2012

Hurricane Sandy: will people finally understand what's happening?


The Hurricane Sandy has been a tremendous blow against the wall of indifference that the forces of denial had been able to erect against the idea of anthropogenic global warming. So successful these forces have been, that it had become politically incorrect even to mention the subject. But Nature doesn't know about political correctness and it is not affected by ideological debates. Will Sandy be enough to change the general perception of Climate Change? 


There is this story in Italy about a boxer who goes into the ring and takes a terrible beating from his opponent in the first round. His coach tries to encourage him and he says, "it was OK, you dodged all the blows!" So, the second round starts and the boxer again takes a tremendous beating. His coach consoles him saying, "you are doing fine! He missed you all the time!" There comes the third round, and the boxer again takes a terrible beating. He goes back to his corner and his coach tells him, "excellent! He keeps missing you!" At this point, the boxer says, "OK, but, you know, you should keep an eye on the referee, because, up there, there is someone who's beating the hell out of me!"
  
Reality always wins and, if people are punched hard enough, eventually they learn. It also means that learning is not necessarily a painless process, unfortunately. How much more punishment do we have to take before we finally understand the reality of climate change?


 

Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)