A science presenter, writer, speaker & former TV host; author of The Skeptic's Handbook (over 200,000 copies distributed & available in 15 languages).

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The Vicar of Bray (updated)

A Sunday change of pace, for those who are musically inclined.  – Jo

The Vicar of Bray (probably now preaching at a college in upstate New York)

An updated version[1] by William York (who is looking for a singer, or group. A counter tenor or others?)

In George Bush Senior’s golden days when climate no harm meant,
A zealous scientist was I, and so I gained preferment.
I saw the rise of CO2
might be a source of funding
And so I wrote computer code that soon defied unbundling.

chorus: And this be law, I shall insist
Until my dying day, sir
That what so ere the weather ist,
The climate is at fault, sir.

When William Clinton came to power, then climate was in fashion,
And bold Al Gore bestrode the world whose climate was his passion
The IPCC, I found, did fit
Full well my own projections
And I had been a Wall Street quant, but for these good connections.

Keep reading  →

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Weekend Unthreaded

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The good news medical revolution — this week’s cancer breakthroughs

The word revolution is overused and done to death. But in the case of medicine, we are in the midst of one. Here are three stories just out this week. It’s possibly none of these will end up being useful clinically, but the sheer volume of results like these mean that sooner or later getting a diagnoses of cancer will mean something very different. It’s time for good news stories. Let’s redirect the gravy train of pointless climate and renewables research. (Sell the ABC and use the money to double our medical research budget. How many lives might we change?*)

These are not instant miracles, but potential ones. The bladder cancer drug ultimately helped about a quarter of all patients. It was a small trial. Two patients of 68 appeared to reach the holy grail: to be tested free of cancer (though it doesn’t mean they are).  The second news report talks about a small study targeting a similar mechanism to stop melanoma that only helps about 30% of patients — the study successfully predicted which ones. In both cases the idea is to stop the cancer from hiding from the immune system. Some cancer cells produce molecules called PD-1 or PD-L1 (I don’t know if they are related) to trick the immune system into leaving them alone. The powerful thing about this is the offer of the holy grail for more people: if the immune system recognizes cancer cells as dangerous, even some late stage disseminated cancers could be cleared in a few months and with few of the side effects of the poisonous chemotherapy drugs. Our cellular soldiers can seek out and destroy the problem cells.

The third news story is an early stage “proof of concept” study. It shows that we can already identify cancer markers to an individual cancer (in mice) and make a vaccine to train the immune system to find it. It’s risky — if we vaccinate people against a marker which is also present on healthy cells we unleash an autoimmune disease. Theoretically with DNA tests we should be able to isolate specific tumor mutations that do not appear in healthy cells. It’s a question of cost. But cancer treatment is currently very expensive and costs of DNA analysis and vaccine creation have fallen dramatically in the last 20 years. Sooner or later this will probably be realistic — perhaps as the last resort for people with rarer cancers that don’t respond to other treatments, or who knows?


Treatment breakthrough for advanced bladder cancer

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The Peer Review Scam: Why not review your own paper?

If you suffer from an uncontrollable urge to claim that peer review is a part of The Scientific Method (that’s you Matthew Bailes, Pro VC of Swinburne), the bad news just keeps on coming.  Now, we can add the terms “Peer Review Rigging” to “Peer-review tampering”, and “Citation Rings”.

Not only do personal biases and self-serving interests mean good papers are slowed for years and rejected for inane reasons, but gibberish gets published, and in some fields most results can’t be replicated. Now we find (is anyone surprised?) that some authors are even reviewing their own work. It’s called Peer-Review-Rigging. When the editor asks for suggestions of reviewers, you provide pseudonyms and bogus emails. The editor sends the review to a gmail type address, you pick it up, and voila, you can pretend to be an independent reviewer.

One researcher, Hyung-In Moon, was doing this to review his own submissions. He was caught because he sent the reviews back in less than 24 hours. Presumably if he’d waiting a week, no one would have noticed.

Nature reports: “THE PEER-REVIEW SCAM”

Authors: Cat Ferguson, Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky are the staff writer and two co-founders, respectively, of Retraction Watch in New York City.

Moon’s was not an isolated case. In the past 2 years, journals have been forced to retract more than 110 papers in at least 6 instances of peer-review rigging. What all these cases had in common was that researchers exploited vulnerabilities in the publishers’ computerized systems to dupe editors into accepting manuscripts, often by doing their own reviews. The cases involved publishing behemoths Elsevier, Springer, Taylor & Francis, SAGE and Wiley, as well as Informa, and they exploited security flaws that — in at least one of the systems — could make researchers vulnerable to even more serious identity theft. “For a piece of software that’s used by hundreds of thousands of academics worldwide, it really is appalling,” says Mark Dingemanse, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen,

Even Moon himself thinks the editors should “police the system against people like him”.

“editors are supposed to check they are not from the same institution or co-authors on previous papers.”

That would rule out half the publications in the climate science world.

The worst case involved 130 papers:

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How to save billions of gallons of gasoline

Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have looked at drag-reducing devices on semi-trucks, and say they can conserve billions of gallons of fuel plus tens of billions of dollars. This not exactly rocket science.

Boat-tailed bullet (left)

The researchers estimate that trailer-skirts and boat-tails (see the pic below) could reduce drag on trucks by as much as 25%, which means they would save about 13% on their fuel bill. Apparently only a few percent of US trucks use these devices at the moment, and the researchers claim they can make up to a 19% improvement in fuel economy.

If these work that well (and are not too expensive or painful on carrying capacity), the free market will take care of this pretty quickly.

Boat tails means a tapered shape at the back of the vehicle. They are already used on bullets (and boats, obviously). There are pics of “boat-tails” on trucks below, but my favourite shot is this boat-tail on a car. A DIY masterpiece. It’s a “Pontiac Firefly (Canadian Geo Metro). The maker Darin Cosgrove says  “the Firefly squeezed out 64 miles per gallon during testing.” I can’t see mums rushing to go food shopping in it though. Boat tails on trucks are a lot less ambitious.

A homemade boat tail on a car from cardboard and duct tape.

Researchers estimate it could save $26b in fuel

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65% of US population are skeptical that each flood drought or heatwave is mostly “man-made”

How big is the Green B-lobby? So big, whole research projects are devoted to better ways to push propaganda onto voters. In this case, it turns out that despite an international PR blitz to unscientifically link your car exhaust to extreme floods in Bangladesh (etc and so forth), 65% of the US public just aren’t buying it. Instead the study finds that people are actually not too bad at judging whether a season was warmer than usual. (Was anyone surprised at this after 500 million years of evolution?). Disappointingly, though, for those pushing the climate propaganda, the meme that man-made global warming is to blame for all heatwaves, snowfalls, floods, hurricanes, and reckless fish is not working.

“Only 35 percent of U.S. citizens believe global warming was the main cause of the abnormally high temperatures during the winter of 2012″

This is a cruel blow to climate change activists. They had pinned their hopes on generating fear among voters by trying to associate every storm and bad-hair day to man-made global warming. But two-thirds of the public are not fooled. Even when they “personally experience” abnormally warm winters, or even hear news of a whole series of severe events, 65% of people don’t believe it was man-made.

The abnormally warm winter was just one in an ongoing series of severe weather events — including the 2010 Russian heat wave, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines — that many believed would help start convincing global warming skeptics.

“There’s been a lot of talk among climate scientists, politicians and journalists that warmer winters like this would change people’s minds,” McCright said. “That the more people are exposed to climate change, the more they’ll be convinced. This study suggests this is not the case.”

Perhaps the population is growing more propaganda-weary?

This study further finds that state-level mean temperature anomalies do not influence whether or not people attribute warmer- than-normal local winter temperatures to global warming.

Naturally, when you struggle with cause-and-effect in the climate, you also struggle with cause-and-effect in psychology. Does political orientation influence climate belief, or does climate belief influence political orientation? That is not a question McCright asks.

Given the politicization of climate science and political polarization on climate change beliefs in the US, it is not surprising that attribution of warmer-than-usual winter temperatures to global warming is filtered through partisan and ideological lenses.

Or maybe people’s voting habits are filtered through logical-lenses and they turned away from parties which pushed stupid ideas? How about that hypothesis?

[Science Daily]

Global warming skeptics unmoved by extreme weather

What will it take to convince skeptics of global warming that the phenomenon is real? Surely, many scientists believe, enough droughts, floods and heat waves will begin to change minds.

But a new study led by a Michigan State University scholar throws cold water on that theory.

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Major industry in UK plays guessing games with electricity, warns of shutdowns in winter

Somewhere in the country that led the Industrial Revolution, hundreds of the best and brightest most-productive workers work full time at predicting, gaming, marketing and compensating for the complex modern laws of electricity. And during winter months, thousands of other productive workers have to stop work because the electricity they need might be too expensive. With the UK’s spare electrical generation capacity down to a razor thin 4% this winter, UK manufacturers are warning they will have to shut down even more often than they already do.

Someone thought it would be a good idea to use the UK electricity grid to control global weather, which turned out to be expensive. In a plan to contain electricity costs, someone else had the bright idea to trim back electricity peaks by charging a lot lot more during the worst three half hour periods of energy demand, known as triads. The mysterious triad spikes are subject to the weather and human circadian timetables and hit a bit randomly, though most often on a Monday to Thursday from 5 – 5.30pm.  By definition they occur in winter months,  and must be separated from the last triad by 10 days (though I didn’t think the weather worked like that?).

No one is exactly sure when the next dreaded triad will hit and contractor services and online calculators have sprung up to try to predict them. Even after they’ve hit, no one can be sure they had a triad, because they won’t officially find out ’til the end of February when those peakiest of peak winter days can be identified. When businesses guess that a triad might be about to happen they can shut down or crank up the spare diesel generators. By doing this a large corporation might save £50,000 of its electricity bill.

In a mild winter, when electricity demand is flatish, the expensive triad times are only little spikes and are very hard to predict. So, this genius of bureaucratic planning creates a situation where mild winters with lower electricity demand may mean more shutdowns. Go figure.

 Green Britain: UK Manufacturers Warn Of Shutdowns Amid Energy Emergency Measures

Date: 23/11/14    Tanya Powley, Financial Times

Britain’s heavy manufacturers have warned they may be forced to shut down more often this winter to avoid high power costs because of emergency measures to cut demand.

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Nine poll shows 69% of Australians “don’t believe” in man-made global warming

Channel Nine asked it’s readers “Do you believe in man-made global warming?” Over 122,000 people responded.

The final tally emailed to me this morning was:    Yes: 38,311     No: 84,240

The tally at 1:50pm EST.

As far as I know, the link to it was not posted on any major skeptical blog except possibly in comments (correct me if I’m wrong). In other words, the poll may be a reasonable representation of the web audience of one of our major free-to-air TV Channels.

A few weeks ago ABC Radio national did an online poll asking their readers if the IPCC was right about a four or five degree warming this century.   That was too extreme, even for ABC readers: 91% of 3101 voters said “No”.

A new US poll finds that even though most Americans identify with what would be called environmental values, hardly anyone thought climate change mattered. The Washington Post:

…”64 percent ‘feel a deep connection with nature and the Earth.’”  

Just 5 percent of Americans thought climate change was the most important issue in the U.S. today.”

Amber comments on climatechangedespatch: “5% must be the university profs and the donation seeking green blob to get it that high.”

Believers may have the run of the old media, but Skeptics are all over the new media. And that’s no accident. (Think preaching from the pulpit versus the printing press, when the latter appeared a few hundred years ago.)

h/t to Matty, Chris and Jim

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Google Engineers give up on renewables fixing the climate (but they still miss the point)

Today’s renewable energy technologies won’t save us. So what will?

Two engineers who worked on the Google  RE<C project admit with candour  that they used to think that renewable technologies could help prevent climate change, but they now know that was wrong, saying “Today’s renewable energy technologies won’t save us. So what will?” The brutal answer eventually is “we don’t know”. The RE<C project started in 2007 and was buried in 2011. Google invested $850 million in clean energy. (For a tiny $100,000 I could have saved Google $850 million dollars. If they only asked skeptics instead of Al Gore…)

Ross Koningstein & David Fork admit with admirable honesty that their assumptions about renewables were wrong. But they still haven’t realized their assumptions about climate models are wrong too. Next year perhaps?

Most of their article is about the engineering hurdles of dispatchable and distributed energy. But they also talk about the Google time management philosophy, their 70-20-10 rule (70% core work, 20% cutting edge but viable, 10% “crazy” possibilities). What they don’t seem to realize 70:20:10 is pointless if 100% of their time is spent solving a problem that doesn’t exist. The Google innovation approach is a pot-luck dip. Five percent of any project — and it’s the first 5% — should be about testing all the assumptions and right back to the very first one. If Google did this research it would have been obvious, and years ago,  that not only were renewables unlikely to reduce CO2, but that reducing CO2 was pointless, and indeed, probably counter-productive.

It’s not just about wasting time and money. What if you spend years trying to improve the weather, and not only failed to do that, but had the perverse side-effect of reductions in crop growth, and increases in food and energy prices? What if your main success was to increase the size of deserts — CO2 feeds plants and extra CO2 has the biggest effect on plants in arid zones. How would you feel if you tried to hold back the tide (which is barely rising) but children died of starvation instead?

For the record, the  assumptions they should have tested were 1/ whether climate models are better at predicting the climate than any roulette wheel. 2/ whether there is any empirical evidence that climate feedbacks (especially water vapor in the upper atmosphere) are positive and amplify the effect of CO2 (they aren’t and they don’t). The evidence has been there for years that temperatures drive carbon dioxide, and that if carbon dioxide amplifies the temperature the effect is so small it can’t be measured with modern technology and the best data we have.

Spectrum IEEE

Google’s boldest energy move was an effort known asRE<C, which aimed to develop renewable energy sources that would generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants do. The company announced that Google would help promising technologies mature by investing in start-ups and conducting its own internal R&D. Its aspirational goal: to produce a gigawatt of renewable power more cheaply than a coal-fired plant could, and to achieve this in years, not decades.

As we reflected on the project, we came to the conclusion that even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach. So we’re issuing a call to action.

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UK voters tired of “big” or “bigger” government. UKIP wins again!

Government, Opposition, what’s the difference? It’s all become shades of “bigness”.  With the UK Big-Government orbiting in the  shadow of the Mega-Government in the EU, is it any wonder an alternative had to spring forth? And Lo…

In case you haven’t heard, Mr Reckless left the UK Tories, joined UKIP (the UK Independence Party) and just won the byelection becoming UKIP’s second member of Parliament. It surprised quite a lot of people.  Analysts are abuzz: the electorate was not as old or white as the first seat UKIP won, and it was ranked 271st on the list of seats UKIP “might win”. Labor won just 16% of the vote.

People seem to like the idea of small government, lower taxes, and politicians who don’t promise to change the weather. Who would have thought?

Perhaps the mighty English will one day even win the right to buy powerful hairdryers, and serious vacuums? We dare hope!

BBC News

UKIP’s victory was in many ways even more impressive than their triumph in Clacton. The ease with which they demolished a 9,000 Tory majority was striking and this after the Conservatives had strained every sinew to halt the UKIP bandwagon.

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