Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Received Wisdom 2

Several things I have read recently have made me think a bit more on the subject of our sources of information on many, many topics. A great deal of how we respond to any given matter depends heavily on our understanding of the issues surrounding it and the perceived impact of these on us, but often our opinions and responses are driven by "received wisdom" of decidedly questionable provenance.  All too often our 'received wisdom' is founded on someone's agenda and the propaganda used to promote it.

One such example is the current trend in politics. Everything on the 'right' is portrayed as 'evil' or 'anti-' something. Anything and everything said by a 'right-wing' politician is spun to present it as a threat to liberty, someone's 'right' to something or as designed to 'reward' some group labelled as 'cronies.' Yet, despite ample evidence pointing out that 'the left' are just as likely to fail to deliver, to disadvantage someone or lead us into some place we don't want to be - the 'received wisdom' is that the 'left' is 'for the people' and the 'right' against them. Nowhere is this clearer than in the US Presidential elections at the moment.

Another good example is the 'climate change' debate. Here the extremely complex issues involved are reduced, by 'received wisdom' to a simplistic vision that all 'energy' needs can be provided by 'natural' (by which is meant wind, water or sunlight) means and all other forms of energy generation must be stopped in order to 'stop climate change.' The 'received wisdom' is that reducing European and North American CO2 emissions can reverse the changes occurring in the climate. But can it? Western Europe and the North Americans are the biggest users of hydro-carbon and carbonaceous produced energy for transport and electricity according to the 'received wisdom' distilled for us by newspaper reports of complex scientific studies and propaganda from a host of advocacy groups all determined to push their own agendas. Figures are used, manipulated and sometimes even inverted in 'proving' that 'the west' is the evil society that is destroying the planet, and this has now entered the 'received wisdom' of the younger generations since they have had it from their teachers and mentors.

Yet, if one looks more carefully at the 'numbers'  trotted out concerning 'the western polluting society' one soon realises that while the west is a major user, they are no longer the worst polluters. That 'honour' has long belonged to China and India and overpopulation in both those countries and right across the developing world is driving pollution and desertification in a lot of areas - but the 'received wisdom' is that it is "The West" that is causing this. You have only to think of the campaigns against a certain hamburger franchise chain, blamed by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth for destroying the Amazon forests and other areas. But this ignores a much wider problem, most of the 'slash and burn' stripping of rain forests is not to expand commercial ventures, but to open up agricultural land for exploding subsistence farming. This is often the case in many areas of 'received wisdom' - the manipulation of the original information distorts it and thus the 'wisdom' is itself often erroneous.

Very recently a detailed research study has been published by a respected scientist which actually confirms the complaints of residents blighted by the expanding wind farms. There have long been complaints about the noise of these machines and now the research confirms that there is a noise problem from them. It confirms that people are having disturbed sleep and suffering stress and ill health from it. The BBC promptly sent someone out with a decibel metre to check. No science, just a reporter with a video camera and a Sound Meter. Anyone involved in research will tell you that this is NOT the way to test something, but the BBC video has now gone viral complete with the commentary, "The opponents of wind farms will be quick to try to use this research to oppose new wind farm development." Right, so this was a totally unbiased report? 

Two bits of 'received wisdom' here, the reporter's comment shows a bias against those who oppose wind farms. Clearly the reporter sees them as standing in the way of "clean and green." The second is the commonly promoted view that converting to wind mill power is the only way to replace 'carbon' in energy generation. The choice of things used to 'prove' the wind turbines weren't as noisy is also interesting. The area beneath the flight approach path of a busy airport, next to a motorway and several other well known noise polluted locations - all equal to or noisier than the wind turbines, but not as sustained. I would suggest that this video will now be used as 'proof' that the research done by the scientists was 'deeply flawed' and therefore invalid - but is it?

In our present age much of what is generally considered 'received wisdom' is actually 'opinion' and that is constantly shaped and formed by the media. A scientist makes an interesting piece of research available to a 'learned' journal and, obviously, that is read by his peers who understand the complexities and uncertainties the author or authors have juggled and considered in arriving at their conclusion. If there is sufficient interest in the subject area funding has now to be found to conduct further research in confirmation or refutation of the findings. Enter the 'money men' who usually are not scientists and are not about to read a treatise on some complicated subject before handing out money for 'research.' So someone has to boil the subject down and produce a 'sexed up business case' which will raise interest sufficiently to get a grant of cash.

That, is where things start to get out of hand, because, if you need a lot of money, you need a lot of interest and a demand for there to be more research. So out go fliers to the mainstream media and now the findings, conclusions and the hypothesis become absolute proof that ... The average person doesn't seem to understand the difference between a 'hypothesis' and a 'theory.' Perhaps understandable, but it is common now to see the two being used interchangeably. An 'hypothesis' is drawn up to explain observational and other 'evidence' gathered and is postulated to 'explain' the observed results. The best example is an investigation into some event. The 'evidence' examined draws the investigator toward a conclusion or 'hypothesis' which must now be tested for validity. 

A 'theory' on the other hand is something that has been developed from a hypothesis and proved by replication in further events, research and usually a considerable amount of debate both for and against it. All too often now, a hypothesis is accepted as final unarguable and 'proved' beyond even reasonable doubt simply because someone has managed to persuade an computer 'model' to produce a convincing replication of it. That, then becomes the 'received wisdom' that sections of society will adopt and believe with an almost religious fervour. The problem with that is it is now almost impossible even for a scientist to test the hypothesis properly. Expectation bias dictates that only confirmatory evidence can or will be considered.

An added problem of recent date in the 'received' wisdom' matrix is the rise and rise of 'conspiracy theorist' misinformation. I recently learned that there is a 'forum' frequented by graduate types who post outrageous 'spoof' ideas and 'proofs of conspiracy,' (like photoshopped images of an F-16 fighter striking the twin towers), then bet on how long it will take for someone to seize on this and start to give it credibility. Once again, large numbers of people will innocently circulate some of this on the Internet, giving it wider and wider exposure until it becomes 'fact' and now we have some more 'received wisdom' of very dubious origin - but a majority will remain convinced of its 'truth' despite any and all evidence to the contrary.

Another piece of 'received wisdom' of extremely questionable provenance is the often repeated 97% of scientists agree mankind is responsible for climate change. The number actually comes from a dissertation for a Masters degree. The author sent out several thousand survey questionnaires to scientists and recieved just over a thousand responses. For a variety of reasons the sample was then further culled to become just 79 replies, 77 (97%) of whom agreed with the statement that the "science is settled" on Anthropomorphic global warming. Somewhere down the line this report got quoted, then seized on by promoters of the AGW hypothesis as "proof" that there is nothing to discuss and their hypothesis is 'proved beyond all doubt.' The 97% number is trotted out at every opportunity to silence anyone who dares challenge the "received wisdom" of AGW.

An interesting example of this is the debate over wind generated electricity. One frequently reads extravagant claims with respect to the amounts we can expect to have generated by this source. They range anywhere from 20% to the EU's desired target of 40% of all EU power to come from wind energy by 2020. The 'received wisdom' says that the wind is always blowing somewhere, so covering vast swathes of the country in wind turbines with a theoretical capacity capable of achieving this should ensure that at least 30% of the energy requirement is always coming from the wind. If only it were that easy. The turbines are not that efficient, they can't operate if the wind speed is too low and have to shut down if it is too high. Then you run into the distribution problem and there is another, in that varying wind speeds and natural variations in it's distribution across a 'wind farm' mean that there will be fluctuations in output from individual turbines. Power grids don't deal with fluctuations easily. So, the 'received wisdom' of the politicians and non-specialist bureaucrats - and from them the public - is deeply flawed. A simple check of the output of the range of power generating plants soon flags up the realities.

One of the problems here is getting the real messages across. Far too many belong to what Josephus has termed the "tl;dr" generation. If a tract or message is longer than 140 characters, it won't be read. The news media know this, so everything is reduced to 'sound bytes' that are attention grabbing and dramatic - and this is what gets absorbed and regurgitated as 'received wisdom.'

That is a dangerous state of affairs, since hugely important decisions are being taken, which will have long term impacts on the health and wealth of the nation, based on flawed reporting of really complex issues.  

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