Monday, March 19, 2007

A lesson in dignity……

dignity noun 1 stateliness, seriousness and formality of manner and appearance. 2 goodness and nobility of character. 3 calmness and self-control. – From chambers on line.

I met Alan on a Thursday night in March. He had lost the key to his motorcycle. He had lost it after competing in a local swim-run competition. We couldn’t find it in the dark. SWMBO and I offered him a lift home to get the spare he thought he kept in a box.

During the course of the search it seemed that Alan wasn’t the sharpest knife in the draw. Suspicions were confirmed during the ride home, the guy really wasn’t too bright. Never the less the conversation reminded me of a thing or two. Alan was in his thirties and he worked for a contractor the serviced Auckland city. He was part of the cleansing crew, he cleaned toilets, emptied bins, swept streets. He is part of an invisible army that keeps the posh bits of Auckland clean and halfway decent. He was a little sad because that race was probably his last one and he wasn’t going to go to the awards dinner at NZ$75 a ticket. On further questioning it became clear why.

Alan works 55hours a week he works split shifts six until midday and then four until late. He works Saturdays and gets Thursdays off. In order to race he has to get cover from his mates from time to time. Not surprisingly he struggles to train. He gets paid the minimum wage, and as far as we can work out he takes home a bit more than a PhD scholarship student (NZ$25k). He has a new wife to support. She is an invalid who got her benefit cut when she married. She gets to work a few hours a week cleaning in a workshop and at a local nursery. They are both looking forward to going away for their first anniversary.

Alan seems a happy enough bloke and quite reasonable with it, he didn’t complain once about his life. His circumstances became clear in a conversation about training and racing.

I am told it is a point of pride in New Zealand that "the Prime Minister gets to stand with the rest of us in the queue at the fish and chip shop". Sounds a bit hollow if some folks in the queue can only afford some to buy chips.

I really truly hope he and his wife have a good time. I also hope his bike is okay.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

About science, facts, knowledge and climate change.

i) The scientist and the science cannot be separated. Polanyi's still influential work points out that the scientists are informed by tacit knowledge which determines the scientific questions they ask, the methods they use and the way in which data is presented.

My point is that there is probably no such thing as objective science or pure unbiased facts as a result.

ii) Causality is difficult, hard and maybe impossible to prove -

Which is why many settled for falsification.

However even this approach suffers because of the methods involved with falsification. Hence we should note that sceptics are often dealt the better hand in science and to some extent law. The sceptics mantra should read - If you don't like the facts start to pick at how they are created; failing that start on semantics and agreed truths.

iii) The theories we choose to apply and make use of are as much determined by mood of the time and history as they are by the basic business of scientific falsification.

Philosophy of Science in the Twentieth Century: Four Central Themes (Paperback) by Donald Gillies and work by TS Kuhn ( still offer useful thoughts on this issue.

The point here is that we shouldn't be surprised if public policy is slow to change-scientific consensus is also really slow to arise.

iv) In some ways saying that you can understand research without having a grasp of stats and methodology is a bit like suggesting you should just kick the tyres before buying a car. Yep you can do it, but don't be surprised if what you get is unreliable.


Nope there is no easy way to grasp this debate or evaluate the evidence within it. But usual rules apply; multiple sources, cross reference, check authority and agenda. Please be patient and persist with science and scientists it is tough turning squiggles and graphs into yes/no, good/bad right/wrong, and sometimes common language isn't good enough.