Friday, November 30, 2007

Crazy laws

OK, by now we all know that in Sudan it is illegal to allow a child to name a teddy bear after himself. But I'm sure that every country has its own crazy laws. In Japan, for example, it is illegal to ride one of these:

which has led to some curiously circular conversations along these lines:
Do you know why riding a tandem is illegal?
I think it's probably because they are dangerous.
Why do you think they are dangerous?
They must be, because if they weren't, they wouldn't be illegal.
What a blessing it must be to have such blind faith in the infallibility of the legislative process.

Another rather odd law is the one against home brewing beer (kits are widely sold, but using them is criminal). That's because the major brewers don't want their cash cow milked. of course. And there is plenty of outrageous and discriminatory legislation, like the Basic Education Law that guarantees an education to all children in long as they are Japanese. But that is just evil and racist, not completely hatstand in the way that the anti-tandem law is.

Most of the crazy UK legislation turns out on further investigation to be an urban legend (like the one about being able to kill Welshmen after dark in Chester, so long as you use a bow and arrow). But I'm sure there are some genuine oddities both there and elsewhere in the world. Contributions please!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Richard Black (BBC) on scepticism

Many of you have presumably noticed that BBC environment correspondent Richard Black has written a bit about climate change "scepticism" recently. I think the first article was this one, which described his attempts to get some sense out of the sceptics, and then there was this "top ten" of sceptic arguments. As Gavin (who helped him on that article) says, that top ten was a pretty lame affair. That's not a criticism of Richard Black, but rather an indication of how completely irrelevant the "climate sceptics" are. They simply aren't part of the scientific debate - "is it happening, and is it caused by us" is just not an interesting question these days, and hasn't been for some time now. That's not to say there aren't plenty of interesting questions to ask, but in terms of policy decision these are things like: how bad the effects of climate change are going to be, what sort of policy decisions will be effective in reducing emissions, and how we should trade off the welfare of future generations against the current population. I suppose the very last sentence of Black's 10th talking point hints at some of this ("And some economists believe that a warmer climate would, on balance, improve lives"), but up to that point the whole page was just red herrings.

Incidentally, I was amused to read that Steve "Junk Scientist" Milloy wasn't able to find a single Climate Sceptic in the whole state of Texas. Of course it's long been clear that they were a dwindling band of "gone emeritus" types shouting well above their weight, but this is a rather nice demonstration of that fact. The resounding defeat of the Australian Govt could be (and in some quarters, is) seen in a similar light. Whether or not the successor there will actually do anything, or just talk a good talk and then continue business as usual (eg) is another matter. But I'm digressing.

Anyway, another of Richard Black's articles was an investigation into "censorship". Some time ago, he asked for any evidence to back up the occasional claims that the reason why there is no sceptical science is because it is censored by the gatekeepers of the peer-review system. Apparently someone (several people?) had pointed him towards my multiply-rejected paper "Can we believe in high climate sensitivity", so he phoned me up for a chat about it. As is clear from his article, I don't really see this as "censorship of scepticism" so much as gatekeepers doing their usual thing of defending the status quo. In fact as I blogged at the time, a fair proportion of the reviewers actually supported publication, it was the journal editors who seemed to be the main obstacle (and to those who claimed at the time it was "unethical" to discuss reviews, Hansen doesn't seem to think so). I do think that the need to create and support a "consensus" on climate science has acted to stifle debate on the issues we have tried to raise. I expect that had we found an "exciting" result, the publishing world would have been more receptive, but (as that last link shows) even Hansen has trouble when he tries to push the Overton window too far. Ultimately the story probably has more to do with personal politics than some global conspiracy.

There's another lengthy article on the same topic here on the BBC editors' blog. It summarises some results from a poll I was involved in:
In a recent survey of 140 climate scientists, 18 percent found the IPCC too alarming but 82 percent either thought the IPCC represented a reasonable consensus – or said it was not alarming enough. No one agreed with the statement that global warming is a fabrication and that human activity is not having a significant effect.
Amusingly (but frustratingly), this research also seems to be too hot to handle, with the editor of EOS reluctant to publish it...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Yokohama school to cancel lunch for 2 days due to oil price hike

Yokohama school to cancel lunch for 2 days due to oil price hike

Let them eat whale - there's plenty of it stockpiled up.

Open access publishing

Jim Giles had an article in NewScientist on open access publishing recently, along somewhat similar lines to his article in Nature earlier this year. However, this time it's a comment article rather than mere news, so he's prepared (allowed? Nature's hostility to open-access is hardly a secret) to present his point of view, which is that open access is the way forward. I agree with what he says, although think he misses a detail in his presentation of the matter as one of paper charges versus subscription fees. Many journals charge both! So in fact we are already paying the journals $1000-$2000 to take our work, hide it behind a paywall, and sell it for their own profit.

Since I had it handy, I just checked that the 4-page Comment on Schwartz will cost about $2000 for standard publication (in JGR) assuming some use of colour. In fact I see the AGU has just instigated a new experimental system whereby we can pay the same again (roughly) as an additional charge to have the article made freely available to all readers. So that would make it $4000, just for a short comment. Think I'll pass on that second option, as the AGU (in common with essentially all publishers) do not prevent authors putting papers on their own web sites anyway. Google will usually find the full text for recent and even forthcoming papers these days (old pre-web ones are harder to track down).

The EGU open access journals somehow manage the whole process far cheaper - and I don't think they are heavily subsidised by the EGU itself, at least not in the long term. Their page charges are about €20 per page. Even with their small pages this is lot less less than the AGU ask for (an order of magnitude cheaper than the AGU's free-to-view version), and right at, or even below, the bottom of the range of cost that Jim Giles suggests. I also like their open reviewing system. Now that several of their journals are well-established, it looks like an obvious place to send manuscripts on a wide range of topics. The only thing I really don't much like about their system is that the papers are only available as (awkwardly-formatted IMO) pdfs and not directly as html. But this is a bit of a detail. Sadly, they don't yet have a journal for what I would think of as the bulk of climate science itself (there's clearly a demand for it, as I've seen the occasional paper that I would class as mainstream "Climate Dynamics" material in rather tangentially-related journals like ACP and CP).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Will speak English for food

Japan's largest language school - I use the term loosely - folded recently, leaving many foreigners stranded here with no means of support. I can't be bothered blogging about that but it's quite an interesting story in its own right.

Anyway, some of the teachers have started offering lessons in exchange for food, presumably as a publicity stunt cos no sane person who was desperately short of cash would ask for a restaurant meal rather than the equivalent money.

"How demeaning that must be", I said to the person standing beside me, as I helped myself to the plate of canapes in the British Embassy, at last night's reception for a visiting dignitary. "What sort of person would go and talk English to random acquaintances for a couple of hours just for the sake of a free feed?"

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Children to read by sixteen - Tories

"The Conservatives have set out plans which they say will ensure children can read by the age of sixteen."
Actually they said six, not sixteen. I wonder how that would go down in Japan, where the curriculum covers the most basic 2000 kanji (not enough for true reading fluency by any means) by the age of about 16. Jules's boss (who has several children) mixed disbelief and astonishment when Jules mentioned some time ago that she could read before she went to school - "that's not normal, is it?"

Of course there are different interpretations of what it means to be able to read. I wouldn't expect a British 6 year old to be able to handle the more sophisticated newspapers or novels. But I find it hard to understand a world in which secondary school pupils also cannot read these things!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Kooks' corner

Those of you who care about the reputation of the AGU may be concerned at what they have allowed to happen to JGR-Atmospheres:

Global Warming and the Next Ice Age
Journal of Geophysical Research, VOL. 112, NO. D24, 2007
Guest Editor(s): P. Chylek

So that explains how Schwartz got published in the first place. Actually I had the dubious pleasure of reviewing another article out of this collection. It took me all of 5 minutes to spot the mistake, and little longer to write the review which explained it in simple terms. I declined the offer to look at a revised version, so it is not impossible that the published paper will be better, but I am not holding my breath.

Who needs Energy and Environment when JGR will publish this stuff anyway?

Of course I shouldn't tar everyone with the same brush: there are probably some good papers in this issue, maybe even most of them. But Chylek, Essex, Scafetta and West at least all have previous form, and we've shown that the Schwartz paper was wrong. I wonder how many more comments this Special Issue of JGR will provoke?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

That new Japanese tourism promotion in full

And what better way to encourage them than to fingerprint and photograph them the minute they get off the plane. For their own safety, of course (don't laugh, the Govt has actually said that). Anyway, here is the promotional video for the new advertising campaign (via Debito):

Of course this doesn't just apply to tourists, but also to non-Japanese long-term (even permanent) residents, every single time we cross the border. It's dressed up as disease and terrorism control (because of course Japanese don't catch diseases or commit terrorist acts, oh no) but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is is really just a bit of rather childish xenophobia designed to pander to the right wing. There was even some local nonentity baseball ex-player promoting it by saying it would be great to cut down on all this foreign crime...

Welcome to Japan indeed.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Fresh from the department of tasteless metaphors

"the government recognized suicide as a death of a person... who is at the end of their rope"
The govt has released a white paper on the suicide issue (Japan is 9th in the world). With a characteristic lack of attention to punctuation and clarity, Japantoday reported that the government "stressed the need to tackle the issue of suicide by society as a whole".

In unrelated news, an international survey of gender inequality by the World Economic Forum placed Japan an embarrassing 91st out of 128 countries - just below Zimbabwe, Malawi and Nicaragua (well, I think they should be embarrassed, in my culturally-imperialistic way, but I see no signs of them actually being embarrassed).

Hmm, maybe there's something in that "suicide by society as a whole" thing after all.

Global Warming discovered!

Via Tom Adams, who first noticed that Bush had abolished global warming back in February, I see that the existence of global warming is now no longer disputed in the Whitehouse. At least as a phrase in documents. Well, it's a start.

Welcome to Planet Earth, Mr President.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

This blog's reading level is....

I suppose that means I am longwinded and incomprehensible. Who'da thunk it?

This seems to be the latest blog meme...not that I go in for such lowbrow things usually, but I thought I should point out that Stoat is at Junior High level :-)

Update: Oh no - this post has dropped me to a mere post-grad - I guess that just shows that blog memes are bad for your intelligence. I'd better add something pretentious about a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity or carbon dioxide production by benthic bacteria. Incidentally, the latter apparently fooled Benny Peiser who circulated it on his mailing list, but unfortunately people spoilt the fun by quickly pointing out it was a hoax before the likes of Inhofe or Crichton had a chance to pick it up. Desmogblog lists the gullible.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Gaman dekinai

The culture of the Northern Hemisphere evolves from west to east with a discontinuity at the international date line. Of course this wouldn't hold up to detailed scrutiny since all I am really doing is comparing North America, Northern Europe and Japan. The simplest example, and the one I usually trot out when people ask "so what's Japan like?" is the Starbucks chocolate brownie inter-comparison project (SCBIP). In the USA and Canada you're talking a 3 inch by 3 inch square, in Europe a 3 inch by 1.5 inch rectangle and in Japan a 1.5 by 1.5 inch square. Another example is the number of times per sentence that a person says "I". In Japan that's almost never, in Europe maybe it is 1 sentence in 2 and here at Seattle airport (where I'm writing this) it is about twice per sentence, and loudly.

There are many more examples but that second one brings me to the second special Japanese behavioural characteristic (the first being moe). This one, which perhaps comes from putting societal gain before personal gain (hence the link to the preoccupation with "I"), seems more like a resource than an emotion and it is called "gaman". Linguistically it is an activity as in "gaman dekinai" = I can't do gaman. Gaman is all about putting up with things, it is patience and self-denial rolled up together. It is part of what makes society run so fantastically smoothly in Japan, although of course it is therefore also what keeps corrupt and incompetent people in power. The thing I don't know about it is whether it is true masochism - pain-without-gain - or whether people feel some sort of reward, whether they feel they are doing it for societal good, or rather out of duty. Since an obedient person is a beautiful one, I suspect there is some pleasure gained from it even if people do it only out of duty.

So, continuing the NHemisphere evolution with longitude theory, while Americans complain at the slightest discomfort (~60% of US births involve an epidural), the Brits whine endlessly to those around them but don't actually make a public fuss quite so often (~40% epidural) but the Japanese don't merely not complain but generally smile through it (you pretty much have to choose a special hospital that caters to westerners if you want the possibility of *any* pain relief with child-birth). Of course in childbirth there is a perceived gain, but gaman is everywhere - the smiling shop worker who stands in her stilletos the whole day long yet offers perfect patient service, the salaryman working ridiculously long hours and sacrificing his weekends to lose convincingly at golf to clients of his company, the game of sardines played peacefully each day on the trains, putting up with your funny gaijin neighbours (that's us!)... On that last one, I told some American friends of my Dad in Boulder (where I've just been on hols) that I wasn't sure if we disturb our Japanese neighbours playing movies at night, and she asked me if they bang on the walls. She said this like such a thing might be a hint, but not necessarily proof! I was stunned. Of course they don't bang on the walls, or complain in any way that is apparent to me, but that doesn't mean we don't disturb them.

I think I can do moe a little but gaman I'm no good at at all. When I get a headache I take a painkiller. I can do some minor pain-with-gain. For example, I like wearing myself out cycling and climbing mountains. It is not always fun in itself (although it often is) but there are so many gains - great views, a feeling of being fit, a big dinner, and maybe a day recovering lazing round at home. But pain-without-gain, which I suspect is true gaman, I am nowhere near mastering. When my boss (who appears to have an infinite resource of gaman and no sense of time whatsoever) carries on a meeting 5 minutes over its scheduled time I start to get shuffly, and at 20 minutes I complain and at 30 I stake a claim to the canteen and force an end to the meeting. I think there may be some pride in gaman, the evidence being incidents such as a number of meetings I have attended, which have been concluded by others making statements like "Julia is bored" or "Julia looks hungry". If nothing else this means my inability to do gaman is all too obvious to all around.


A defence of

Another of my "just writing it so I can use the title" posts, perhaps :-) But having ranted about them a couple of times in the past, there's no harm in taking this opportunity to say something a bit more conciliatory.

Before anyone thinks I must have gone soft in the head, I should emphasise that this post does not mean that I'm going to stop teasing them if they say things in the future that I think are foolish - in fact they have a howler currently in press that I'm looking forward to blogging about when it appears. But criticism should be well targeted, and I think Stoat misses the mark in his recent posts about this paper.

He says:
Clearly they have had some jolly fun dividing the runs up into trees, but the paper is a disappointment to me, as it doesn't really deal with the main issue, which is the physical plausibility of some of the runs.
While I agree pretty much with Stoat's characterisation of "the main issue", I don't have a problem with papers that do not address this, so long as they do not oversell their results as having any meaningful applicability to the real world (which is probably a valid criticism of the original "sensitivity might be 11C" paper, but not the one under discussion here).

In fact this "main issue" is an incredibly complex one to address. It is effectively the crux of the whole climate prediction problem (and many more prediction problems besides). The issue can be roughly restated as "how good/bad does a model have to be before we trust/distrust its output" or perhaps more precisely as "how do we make meaningful inferences about reality, given the output of some model runs, none of which really looks much like reality if you examine it in any detail". It is certainly not as simple as just choosing (discovering?) some convenient "objective criterion" (or a laundry list of such criteria) against which to measure our models, although such criteria may provide some guidance. (As one adds more criteria to the list, the number of models that pass all of them will simply drop to zero - at what point do we decide to stop?) And although some of us have been thinking about this question for a few years already, it may be a few more years yet before we start to agree on some answers. But meanwhile, there is also plenty of more technical work to do, and so long as they are doing something interesting and valid, I don't think it is fair to criticise papers simply because they did not address the particular problem that you would like them to.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Gott-awful statistics

I read this amusing article in NS while travelling recently, and it reminded me that I'd been meaning to blog about the story for some time. A spot of googling reveals that several others have beaten me to it, but I wasn't going to miss the chance to use my headline pun...

The basic gist is that an astrophysicist called J. Richard Gott III claims to have discovered a principle by which the future duration of an ongoing event can be confidently predicted, with absolutely no knowledge other than the past duration. In particular in this article, he asserts that the human race doesn't have long left on Planet Earth, and further, that the human space program doesn't have long left either, so we had better get on with colonising somewhere else.

It's basically a warmed-over version of the Doomsday "argument", of course - one version of which is that given a total number of N humans (over the entire lifespan of the species), I can assume that with 95% probability my position in the list lies in the (0.025N, 0.975N) interval. Actually, I am number 60B in the order, meaning that I can expect there to be somewhere between 1.5B and 2400B more people (with 95% probability). That means a 2.5% probability that we'll be extinct in the next few decades! Gott does the same thing with the number of years during which there will be a space program, and works out that it is likely to end quite soon, so we had better get on with moving elsewhere while we can.

The argument is nonsense and a spot of googling reveals that many others have shredded it:

Andrew Gelman (where I first read about this) doesn't like it but provides a charitable interpretation of the whole thing as a frequentist statement: given an ordered set, 95% of the members do indeed lie in the middle 95% of the ordering, and thus the intervals constructed by this method are valid confidence intervals for the size of the set, given random samples from it. That's true enough, but (as he also points out) does not justify the misinterpretation of these frequentist confidence intervals as if they were meaningful Bayesian credible intervals, which is what Gott is doing. (It does explain how Gott can demonstrate the success of his method on large historical data sets, for that gives the procedure a meaningful frequentist interpretation.)

Brian Weatherall rips a hole in it, first with a bit of "mockery" (his term) about how it leads to idiotic predictions for several examples such as the durability of the internet or the iPhone (and if anyone doesn't think these predictions are indeed idiotic, I'll happily bet against them as he offers to), and then with a simple example as to how it leads to the following nonsensical claim: if A has a longer historical duration than B, then the future duration of A will certainly (with probability 1!) be as long as the future duration of B - he does this by considering the durations of the events A, B, and "A and B".

Best of all, there is a lovely letter reprinted on Tierney's blog (which also covers the story). Gott has been pushing this idea for a long time now, and following his publication of it in Nature back in 1993(!), this rebuttal was published (I was going to just post an excerpt, but it is so nicely written that I don't want to cut anything out):

“There are lies, damn lies and statistics” is one of those colorful phrases that bedevil poor workaday statisticians who labor under the illusion that they actually contribute to the advancement of scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, the statistical methodology of astrophysicist Dr. John Gott, reported in Nature 363:315-319 (1993), which purportedly enables one to put statistical limits on the probable lifetime of anything from human existence to Nature itself, breathes new life into the saying.

Dr. Gott claimed that, given the duration of existence of anything, there is a 5% probability that it is in its first or last 2.5% of existence. He uses this logic to predict, for example, the duration of publication of Nature. Given that Nature has published for 123 years, he projects the duration of continued publication to be between 123/39 = 3.2 years and 123×39=4800 years, with 95% certainty. He then goes on to predict the future longevity of our species (5000 to 7.8 million years), the probability we will colonize the galaxy and the future prospects of space travel.

This technique would be a wonderful contribution to science were it not based on a patently fallacious argument, almost as old as probability itself. Dubbed the “Principle of Indifference” by John Maynard Keynes in the 1920s, and the “Principle of Insufficient Reason” by Laplace in the early 1800s, it has its origins as far back as Leibniz in the 1600’s (1) . Among other counter-intuitive results, this principle can be used to justify the prediction that after flipping a coin and finding a head, the probability of a head on the next toss is 2/3. (2) It has the been the source of many an apparent paradox and controversy, as alluded to by Keynes, “No other formula in the alchemy of logic has exerted more astonishing powers. For its has established the existence of God from total ignorance, and it has measured with numerical precision the probability that the sun will rise tomorrow.” (3) Perhaps more to the point, Kyburg, a philosopher of statistical inference, has been quoted as describing it as “the most notorious principle in the whole history of probability theory.” (4)

Simply put, the principle of indifference says that it you know nothing about a specified number of possible outcomes, you can assign them equal probability. This is exactly what Dr. Gott does when he assigns a probability of 2.5% to each of the 40 segments of a hypothetical lifetime. There are many problems with this seductively simple logic. The most fundamental one is that, as Keynes said, this procedure creates knowledge (specific probability statements) out of complete ignorance. The practical problem is that when applied in the problems that Dr. Gott addresses, it can justify virtually any answer. Take the Nature projection. If we are completely uncertain about the future length of publication, T, then we are equally uncertain about the cube of that duration, T cubed. Using Dr. Gott’s logic, we can predict the 95% probability interval for T cubed as T3/39 to 39T cubed. But that translates into a 95% probability interval for the future length of publication to be T/3.4 to 3.4T, or 42 to 483 years, not 3 to 4800. By increasing the exponent, we can come to the conclusion that we are 95% sure that the future length of anything will be exactly equal to the duration of its past existence, T. Similarly, if we are ignorant about successively increasing roots of T, we can conclude that we are 95% sure that the future duration of anything will somewhere between zero and infinity. These are the kind of difficulties inherent in any argument based on the principle of indifference.

On the positive side, all of us should be encouraged to learn that there can be no meaningful conclusions where there is no information, and that the labors of scientists to predict such things as the survival of the human species cannot be supplanted by trivial (and in this case specious) statistical arguments. Sadly, however, I believe that this realization, together with the superficial plausibility (and wide publicity) of Dr. Gott’s work, will do little to weaken the link in many people’s minds between “lies” and “statistics”.

Steven N. Goodman, MD, MHS, PhD
Asoc. Professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology
Johns Hopkins University


1. Hacking I. The Emergence of Probability, 126, ( Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge,1975).

2. Howson C, Urbach P. Scientific Reasoning: The Bayesian Approach, 100, (Open Court, La Salle, Illlinois, 1989).

3. Keynes JM. A Treatise on Probability, 89, (Macmillan, London: 1921)

4. Oakes M. Statistical Inference: A commentary for the social sciences, 40, (Wiley, New York, 1986).

Apparently back then, Gott's argument was sufficiently novel that Nature did not feel able to argue that "everyone thinks like this, so you can't criticise it" :-) More likely, the lesser political importance of the topics under discussion meant that they did not feel such a strong need to defend a "consensus" built on such methods.

Regular readers will probably by now have recognised an uncanny resemblance between Gott's argument and the "ignorant prior" so beloved of certain climate scientists. Indeed both succumb to the same argument - Goodman's demonstration of inconsistency via different transformations of the variable (duration of Nature magazine) is exactly what I did with Frame's method.

Of course I wasn't claiming to have discovered anything new in my comment, but it's interesting to note that essentially the same argument was thrashed out so long ago right there in the pages of Nature itself. It doesn't seem to have slowed down Gott either, as he continues to peddle his "theory" far and wide.