Thursday, 26 February 2009

Former Greenpeace Head sees sense on Nuclear Power

For years I (and no doubt many other people) have wondered why on Earth environmentalist groups who claimed to want to reduce carbon emissions spent so much of their time opposing the only feasible alternative to carbon-based fuels - nuclear power. Finally, it seems, they are starting to see the light. In an article for the Independent, Steven Tindale (a former head of Greenpeace) and three other leading environmentalists come out in favour of nuclear power. Tindale said:

“It was kind of like a religious conversion. Being anti-nuclear was an essential part of being an environmentalist for a long time but now that I’m talking to a number of environmentalists about this, it’s actually quite widespread this view that nuclear power is not ideal but it’s better than climate change.”
That 'religious conversion' point is particularly telling. Steven Landsburg argued years ago that environmentalism was never about saving the environment, it was about following the cathecism.
Things which 'sound' wrong have always been opposed by environmentalists whether they would be a good thing or not - look at Tindale's 'Being anti-nuclear was an essential part of being an environmentalist'. This is certainly something that happens in other areas - I remember when I was a member of an anti-war group in Birmingham, it was widely accepted that in order to oppose the Iraq war you had to oppose the Israeli occupation (I had no problem with that, but why the two should be inherently linked, I have no idea), and it's both irrational and damaging to the cause.

Landsburg's classic example of a basic tenet of enviornmentalistm that may or may not have anything to do with the good of the environment is recycing paper. There is at least a possibility that recycling paper reduces the total number of trees on the planet, by making owning trees less profitable - this may or may not be true, but how many environmentalists would even bother to entertain the notion. Recyling is a Good Thing, wasting paper is a Bad Thing - and you will be shunned for suggesting otherwise (seriously - try it with one of your green friends some time).

Conformity bias is a powerful force, as is consistency bias - the fact that four powerful figures have changed their minds about such a major issue is surely an encouraging sign for environmentalism - whether or not nuclear power is a good thing (I'm pretty convinced it is, but that's not the issue), it's good that environmentalists are willing to actually look at the facts, maybe one day they'll even give their backing to GM....

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The Perfect Pancake

Ok, so I'm probably not the first, and I'm sure I won't be the last, to deconstruct this utterly ridiculous formula, but I mean, seriously... which utterly ridiculous formula you may ask? There are, of course at least two a week in the Metro. Well, for now let's do this one. Dr. Ruth Fairclough who is a "maths expert" and teaches at Wolverhampton University has come up with the following formula for the perfect pancake:

Dr Ruth, who teaches at Wolverhampton University found that
100 - [10L - 7F + C(k - C) + T(m - T)]/(S - E) created the tastiest snack.

In the complex formula L represents the number of lumps in the batter and C equals its consistency.
The letter F stands for the flipping score, k is the ideal consistency and T is the temperature of the pan.
Ideal temp of pan is represented by m, S is the length of time the batter stands before cooking and E is the length of time the cooked pancake sits before being eaten.

The closer to 100 the result is - the better the pancake.
Now we all know how this bit goes. I decide to vary the inputs and see how utterly ridiculous the formula becomes. First let's start with the units. So far as I can tell we have units of "lumps + consistency^2 + Temperature^2)/time". It's a long time since I did any dimensional analysis, but I don't think this is a dimensionless parameter.

Second, let's see what happens if we increase S. In fact, let's increase S a lot, let's leave the batter to stand for, say, 2 million years before we cook it. Then (assuming that the units make some sort of sense) it doesn't matter how bad we get our consistency, or how many lumps we have, it's going to be damn-near perfect. (Anything divided by 2 million years is pretty small).

Now let's see what happens if we let S and e be really close together. Say we let the pancake batter stand for a minute before we cook it, and then eat the pancakes a minute after we have cooked them. Well then, unfortunately, our (S-e) term goes rapidly towards infinity, and it doesn't matter how perfect our consistency was, or how hot the pan - the pancakes are going to be terrible.

We'll skip over the question of what "flipping score" is supposed to mean, and resist the urge to make the obvious play on words...

Finally let's consider those consistency and temperature terms. They are, remember: C(k - C) and T(m - T) where C and T are actual temperature and consistency and k and m are ideal temperature and consistency (why the strange choice of letters I have no idea. Now, depending on the value of (10L-7F), we are either trying to maximise or minimise these terms. If we are maximising them, a little calculus shows that we want to choose C = k/2 and T= m/2. So then we don't actually want to set the pan to the ideal temperature, we want half of the ideal temperature.

But we're probably minimising them (that seems to make more sense.. although why that should affect anything to do with this formula I have no idea). Then we want to choose either T to be one of 0 and m and C to be one of k and M (of course, as these functions are continuous, T arbitarily close to zero will give arbitrarily close to the minimum value. So the optimal temperature for cooking pancakes is either the ideal temperature or zero. And the optimal consistency is either the ideal consistency or zero... remind me again what ideal meant?

Of course, there's no reason why that term we subtract from 100 should be positive. If you're damn good at flipping pancakes, (F is very high) then you might be wanting to minimise those temperature and consistency terms, in order to stop the whole lot being 'too negative'.

Of course, this is all nonsense. I haven't even gone into how one is supposed to give a numerical value to 'consistency' and 'lumps', or the fact that we're not even told what units we're measuring temperature in. It's poppycock, and balderdash. No wonder people think scientists waste all their time doing pointless things when some idiots are willing to put their name to a formula like this. It doesn't help anyone, it's completely uneducational, and it just adds to the idea that maths is something complicated and useless.

I don't know who Ruth Fairclough teaches at the University of Wolverhampton, but I bet she doesn't let them get away with sloppiness on this level in their coursework.

Addendum: Just noticed this excellent post, which makes much the same points as I did, but has a much prettier layout...

Friday, 6 February 2009

Enforced Quackery: Day 7

So, I wondered how long it would be, and it seems the answer is "about 6 weeks". The question? 'How long is it possible to be taught by homeopaths without hearing some nonsense about quantum mechanics?"

Day 7 consisted of a visit to the London Homeopathic Hospital. Just for added irritation value, this is on Great Ormond Street, and one has to (I am reliably informed) walk past the famous hospital where they actually do real medicine in order to get there. There was a meeting with a GP who is also a homeopath. He seemed to be the most sensible of the pracitioners they'd come into contact with so far - coming pretty close to Ben Goldacre's ideal of "ethical bullshit". He gives homeopathic remedies to patients because they seem to help, and doesn't worry about why - he was quite willing to admit that the mechanism is very probably the same mechanism as a placebo... but he made the fairly valid point - if I can give these people pills that make them feel better, why not do it? And who cares how they work?

Of course, then he was asked about how he thinks they work... while admitting that a placebo effect was a possibility, he then spouted the traditional nonsense about what he thought the mechanism might actually be, invoking the "memory of water", and something called "non-linear quantum mechanics". Now, I'm no expert, but I distinctly remember reading something about non-linear quantum mechanics fairly recently, it was this paper which no-one who isn't studying Complexity Theory should bother reading. It says that if quantum physics is non-linear, this should in theory allow us to build quantum computers which solve NP (and even #P) problems in polynomial time. It also says:

Such non-linearity is highly hypothetical: all known experiments confirm the linearity of quantum physics to a high degree of accuracy.
That's right the explanation for the extremely macro-level phenomenon of really really tiny water molecules somehow managing to remember that they once came into contact with significantly less tiny arnica molecules has something to do with the fact that the superposition principle of quantum mechanics - which has to do with things which are a lot tinier than water molecules, might possibly be violated in some cases (even though no-one has ever actually seen this happen).

This is classic bullshit. Essentially the argument goes: homeopathy works, and we don't really know why. I don't really know how quantum mechanics works either, so surely it must have something to do with that. It's not science, and it's certainly not an important part of a medical education.

Once again, there were complaints made to the people in charge about the fact that there hasn't been nearly enough patient contact (although apparently they did see a few during this session). Once again, the reason given was that the "medical practitioners" were worried about what the future doctors might say to their "patients". Again, a promising sign that they've not been brainwashed, but surely if they're not going to be allowed to see patients, then they're not going to be able to observe Medicine in Society.