It is with sadness that I see that the Skeptic is still accepting articles and letters with political bias. I would like to spend much of this letter countering some of Owen McShane’s arguments from his article “Why are we crying into our beer?”, but I see we are still arguing in the pages of our magazine about science. It would be really nice if Jim Ring or C Morris could explain to me and I’m sure others who are puzzled by this whole affair, as to what legitimate arguments between legitimate scientists have to do with scepticism.

Having got that off my chest, Owen McShane’s article does have some superficial nods in the direction of science versus pseudo-science, but I was reacting more I suspect to his political opinions than any science involved.

McShane rightly points out that there are some silly opinions around, but neglects to mention that some of these opinions about science come from the libertarian right as well as the left. It is difficult to understand what he wants us to do about risk, apart from just leave it alone. No one in their right mind wants to cut out all risky activity, but some would seem to be more risky than others, and one of the few things that right-wing economists and I would agree on, is that the market is not good at coping with externalities. These are costs or benefits to third parties resulting from productive activity. Pollution is one of these costs.

The problem with negative results from market activity is often that nothing is done until the damage is too expensive to reverse. And while I am probably rich enough to value clean air and water, I would rather prevent them from being polluted than wait for them to be polluted and pay for the cleanup. On the whole this can be done without a great deal of expense. The problem is that free marketers and large corporations always oppose this until public pressure forces them to come to terms with it.

What individual ownership of private property has to do with all this I fail to see, except for the usual mantra from the new right that it is a sacred obligation for governments to allow it. Private property rights are relatively limited in China, but the economy seems to expand rapidly none the less. I fail to see what is sacred about it if it interferes with the public good, which excuse has been used by governments since time immemorial to take it off people to build motorways and so on.

McShane seems to think that the usual suspects, indigenous people, socialists, and environmentalists all think that science is not to be believed, that nature is benign, that Western society is evil and so on. Not so, what most people want is to be able to adapt to his so-called open society in their own way, with some safeguards for their children’s future. Yes nature is still dangerous, and the food supply is safer than it ever has been, (And I notice in fact that his arguments against Beck’s key position are plagiarised from an internet review of his books) but if we don’t make some effort to control the risks associated with unrestricted production, the world may well yet go to hell in a hand-basket and be very expensive to fix.

Bob Metcalfe

What would change their minds?

Both letters in the last issue of the Skeptic questioned the theory of anthropogenic global warming, and were intelligently written (sadly, a rare occurrence in this debate). Unfortunately, they failed to fully address the challenge I had previously posed: to come up with a scenario that would make them change their minds.

Jim Ring says that nobody has won a Nobel Prize or other scientific recognition for anthropogenic climate change. He ignores the fact that the person who first published on anthropogenic warming, Svante Arrhenius in 1896, was indeed awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1903 – just two years after the Nobel awards had started. Ring also fails (like many others) to appreciate the subtle but important difference between predictions – which the IPCC does not do – and forecasts, which are the logical consequence of scenarios, or sets of assumptions. For example, nobody can reliably predict what steps the human race will take to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, but we can make a stab at forecasting the consequences of a given course of action. The fact that recent IPCC reports contain more scenarios is not because predictions are “getting vaguer”. It is because computers have more grunt and we can assess more possibilities.

C Morris fails to realise that Mann’s infamous 1998 “hockey stick” graph is almost irrelevant to the global warming theory, having been published over 100 years after its formulation. Perhaps some physicist could correct me here, but my understanding is the Stefan-Boltzman theory of blackbody radiation, as developed in 1879, can be used to calculate the temperature of the Earth as if there were no atmosphere. Laboratory experiments can show the warming potential of different gases. Confirmation at the planetary scale of the “Greenhouse Effect” is to be seen in the fact that the average surface temperature of the Earth is about +15ºC, instead of -18ºC as predicted by the Stefan-Boltzman equation. The planets Mars and Venus have also confirmed the theory for different temperatures and gaseous concentrations, as have records of Earth’s palaeo-climate.

There is no serious argument in the scientific community about the reality of the physics: add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and — all else being equal – the surface of the planet will warm. The debate is entirely about the magnitude of this effect, particularly in relation to the level of background variability. There is also worthwhile discussion about the efficacy and cost-efficiency of attempting to do anything about it.

To conclude: this topic should be debated in the pages of scientific journals and is entirely out of place in NZ Skeptic magazine. It is not in the same category as ghosts, spoon-bending or astrology. The scientific illiteracy of some Greenhouse Skeptics (not, I hasten to add, the valid contributions of your recent correspondents) does the whole organisation no credit.

Piers Maclaren

(Quite agree. This issue has now had a very good thrashing. How about you all write about something else for a change? -ed.

Stereo connections

I was reading a magazine in the doctor’s surgery the other day, not something I would normally read, but something I like a glance at every now and then to see what I can’t afford. It was a consumer electronics magazine, and in it was an article where someone was reviewing stereo connection cable. Interesting, I thought, how on earth could cable make a noticeable difference to stereo sound? Well, the reviewer seemed to think there was an obvious difference as he recommended one above the others, but it set me to wondering about the science involved in this area of consumerism. So I fired off an email to the editor of the magazine asking if comparisons between pieces of equipment for reviews tests were done blind. To give them credit I did receive a return email but not exactly an answer to my question, just the statement that there was a lot of hype in the cable market, and some other obfuscation. So I then fired off an email to a rival magazine, and again received a reply quite politely saying that blind tests were not done very often because they were “expensive”. But, I asked why on earth should anyone take any notice of someone’s opinion if we can’t guarantee that they can tell one piece of equipment from another without plugging it in themselves? A question to which I am still waiting in answer.

I thought I might as well go the whole hog and rang Consumer to see if their comparative equipment tests were done blind. The woman I talked to didn’t know what blind testing was, and refused to let me talk to someone who might. Incidentally, if anyone associated with Consumer magazine is a member of the Skeptics and by chance reads this, your organisation is distinctly unfriendly to the public, considering it takes public money as far as I know.

Now I know that pseudoscience probably has much more urgent victims then those who buy expensive stereo equipment, but it would seem to me that with the Skeptics support base presumably knowing quite a bit about science that this might be a more fertile area for investigation in your pages than the rather futile and constant arguments about global warming, which as far as I can see is simply a debate between reputable scientists. So what about it? Does anyone know enough about the science of electrical conductivity to tell me if something worth $300-odd a metre will make my stereo sound better than the rather scruffy bits of copper wire that I stuff into little holes and hope for the best. I hope that sometime in the future we may award one of these glossies the bent spoon, they seem to me to well deserve it.

Bob Metcalfe

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