All posts by Robert Wilson

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NASA confirms that NASA is not predicting civilization is about to collapse

So, it seems that NASA has been a little irked by media stories that it is predicting the imminent collapse of civilization. This story, started off by 9/11 conspiracy theorist Nafeez Ahmed at the Guardian, has somehow gone viral. Over 100,000 people have shared Mr. Ahmed’s original story on it Facebook.

Nafeez Ahmed says:

NASA says:

https://twitter.com/NASA/status/446772173685137408 Continue reading

Absurdity of the day: Greenpeace reporting on itself

In case anyone is unfamiliar with the strange business, Greenpeace have set up a journalism wing called “Energy Desk.” Open Data, Open Discussion, Open Reporting. So they say. Yes, you really need to consult your Orwell here.

Today though we have the bizarre case of Greenpeace providing “analysis” of a report Greenpeace commissioned into renewable energy. The attempt by the writer to provide a patina of critical thought is particularly delightful.

Just think. An environmental group commissions a report to back up its campaigning strategy and it provides the journalism on it. If you spend enough time on the Huffington Post website you will quickly realise this is a potential future of journalism, a profession in an increasingly sorry state.

Not that I would ever recommend you read a report by Greenpeace about energy. You probably have just lined a wall with some paint and have brewed a coffee for the duration of your viewing.

Journalists should check the facts anti-nuclear activists feed them

Tom Bawden in the Independent tells us that Dungeness nuclear power plant was closed for 5 months because of “fears of a Fukushima style flood disaster.

This story, which the Independent calls exclusive, appears to have its origins at the environmental news website Click Green. Reading between the lines the story has probably been fed to journalists by someone at Friends of the Earth. Naturally you would expect journalists to bother checking what anti-nuclear campaigners tell them, but perhaps I am too much of an optimist. Continue reading

The dumbest opening paragraph ever in a science report

Journalists now appear to want to outdo each other in stupidity when it comes to re-hashing Nafeez Ahmed’s silly report about a Nasa-funded study predicting an “imminent collapse” of civilization. The prize so far goes to Tristin Hopper of the National Post. Here is his opening paragraph:

‘After running the numbers on a set of four equations representing human society, a team of NASA-funded mathematicians has come to the grim conclusion that the utter collapse of human civilization will be “difficult to avoid.”’

Yes, they modelled all of humanity with only four equations, and you decided the study was worth reporting on. Evidence certainly that the profession of journalism is facing imminent collapse.

It should be pointed out of course that the study itself does not appear to have actually concluded that civilizational collapse will be “difficult to avoid.” (I say “does not appear” here because so far the final version of this paper has not appeared anywhere).

In fact it as a highly theoretical model, which actually makes no effort whatsoever to predict what will happen in the future. It’s applicability to current human civilization is made clear by it only modelling renewable resources. We live in a world fundamentally reliant on non-renewable resources. Just imagine if you yanked steel or concrete from it. The whole edifice would collapse.

So any model like this will be an incredibly unreliable predictor of the future course of human civilization. This however will not stop those with agendas, or those seeking a cheap headline, from reporting the paper as such.

Replacing Drax Coal Power Plant with a “dirty, great wind farm”

It pains me to say this, but David Rose has a reasonably decent piece in this week’s Mail on Sunday. So, instead of half-baked nonsense about climate science, we have something sensible about bio-energy. I find myself in the strange position of recommending that you read it.

But one thing in it really striked me. This is what a spokesperson for Drax Power Station in Yorkshire had to say in defence of subsidising using biomass (a politically correct term for wood) as a fuel in Drax:

We’re a power company. We’ve been told to take coal out of the equation. What would you have us do – build a dirty great windfarm?

Which gets me thinking. How big would a wind farm need to be to replace Drax? Continue reading

Missing links. Nafeez Ahmed tries to cover up his 9/11 trutherism

I wrote a piece about Nafeez Ahmed yesterday, drawing attention to the questionable nature of all of his journalism and why the Guardian newspaper is giving him a platform. Part of my piece referenced his long history of conspiracy theorist ranting about September 11th, with him frequently implying that the US government had a hand in on the whole shameful business.

To provide evidence that Mr. Ahmed is a 9/11 conspiracy theorist I linked to a piece he wrote, entitled “Interrogating 9/11.” This piece was published on his website on the 11th of September 2006. In the day since I linked to it he has removed the piece from his website. If you search Google for “Nafeez Ahmed Interrogating 9/11″ you can still see the piece prominently located at the top of your google search, but click and you find that the page no longer exists.

However the web is written in ink, as a character in The Social Network observed. Mr. Ahmed’s conspiracy theorist ranting is still available for all to read via archive.is here. Mr. Ahmed obviously wants people to take him seriously, and not recognise that he is a crank with a conspiracy theorist bent. This explains why he would remove this article from his website. Behaviour like this should be unacceptable for someone who claims to be a journalist.

That Mr. Ahmed is given a platform by the Guardian is bad enough, that he is allowed to continue behaving in this fashion is far, far worse.

Daily Fail, the Puff Ho and the Indy repeating apocalyptic bollocks

I blogged yesterday about the bullshit journalism of Nafeez Ahmed. Today the Daily FailPuffington Host and The Independent (a much more reputable outlet than the first two) are now rehasing his absurd piece on how a “Nasa funded study” backs up the view that we face imminent collapse of industrial civilization.

The Mail impressively make things even more fatuous than Ahmed’s piece. The “funded” part of “Nasa funded” study is simply dropped. As should be obvious to anyone who has read the actual study this is simply hyped up nonsense written by a crackpot with a rather low level of scientific literacy. And the author of the Independent’s piece clearly has not read the study this is based on, and simply makes up a bunch of stuff about what the study did. Three cheers for journalism.

However that other media outlets have republished this garbage tells you one thing. The imminent collapse of human civilization may not be near, but that of quality journalism almost certainly is. Or has it arrived already?

No column this week

I’ve just noticed that I have gone a two month stretch with a column every week over at Energy Collective. My readers will have to be disappointed this week, because I appear incapable of thinking of what to write about this week. Or more accurately I was on a 10 hour round trip train journey through the Scottish Highlands yesterday and I was going to knock out something either on whether wind turbines are inefficient (they aren’t) or a primer on capacity factors. Fortunately I forgot to copy the files over to my laptop, so they will have to wait for another week.

And to stick with Martin Scorsese-esque approach I should have a “How many wind turbines would it take to power the planet?” piece coming shortly. This seems to pull in the punters. My “How many wind turbines would it take to power the UK?” post has been my most viewed thing every month for the last six months. A lot of people google this kind of thing, and evidently a lot of them are students trying to get around having to bloody think for themselves. An old story.

That being said if anyone has suggestions for numbers based posts throw them at me in the comments below. 

No, Nasa Does Not Think Civilization Is About To Collapse

I cannot claim to know how much the Guardian pay their in house apocalypse merchant Nafeez Ahmed, but I hope it is not much. Not really a regular journalist, Mr. Ahmed runs the Earth Insight blog “hosted” (does “hosted” mean the Guardian get the stuff for nothing?) by the Guardian. If your idea of journalism is someone waking up each morning and then doing a Google Scholar search and credulously reporting every piece of half-baked research that backs up that journalist’s prejudices then Mr. Ahmed is your guy.

Mr. Ahmed spent a large part of the 2000s going around concocting conspiracy theories about September 11th [update: the link to Mr. Ahmed's crackpot conspiracy theories has been removed from his website in the day since I posted this (you don't need to be a conspiracy theorist to draw a conclusion). Fortunately you can still read it using the archive.is website here.], telling us that the US government was partly behind the whole thing. Back then he was doing the rounds of 9/11 truth conferences, today, sadly, the Guardian has been foolish enough to give him a platform.

However he has since moved on to all things environmental, and he has two key themes: civilization is about to collapse and we are running out of everything. On the latter it is best to picture a man who if asked to write about TV talent shows would take the “we are running out of 18 year olds with enough talent to appear on X Factor” angle.

So we are running out of oil, coal and uranium. And Mr. Ahmed has the research to back himself up. Here he is in 2010 telling us that a study in “Science” (the quote marks are used because it wasn’t Science) that peak coal would have occurred by now. Well, this bizarre prophecy has been shown to be nonsense by China’s still booming coal mines. The same piece also claims that global oil production was in “inexorable” decline since 2008. Well, the numbers are clear on that prophecy. As Vaclav Smil remarked “Is it too much to hope that even some catastrophists and peak-oil cultists will find it impossible to ignore those numbers?” In Mr. Ahmed’s case the answer is almost certainly no.

But normally I would just ignore this type of crackpot, however this week he has dived into theoretical ecology (which is my day job), and made an even bigger fool of himself.

A “Nasa funded study” apparently shows that industrial civilization is on the verge of collapse. (sidenote: anyone familiar with Mr. Ahmed’s approach will note that he likes to put high emphasis on credentials, in this case Nasa, as Christopher Hitchens delightfully mocked here.)

So far this piece of journalism has been tweeted over 6,500 times and shared on Facebook 100,000 times. Social media needs more bullshit checking. (And these are statistics I have updated since I first wrote this. Originally it was 3,500 and 40,000.)

Let’s get first things out of the way. There appears to be no evidence that the paper in question has been peer-reviewed. Mr. Ahmed claims it has been accepted for publication by Ecological Economics.  Yet, the paper is not on the Ecological Economics website, although it is in submission.

This kind of thing should be unacceptable from a reputable newspaper like the Guardian. If a journalist says a study has been peer reviewed, then an editor should make damn sure that it has been peer reviewed. Otherwise no shortage of nonsense could appear in newspapers.

Given that Mr. Ahmed does not link to the paper or give its name a Google search is necessary. This throws up a paper called “A Minimal Model for Human and Nature Interaction.” The lead author name is correct, and that Nasa funded part that Mr. Ahmed so delights in is there. 

So should we now worry about the imminent collapse of industrial civilization? Well, the word “minimal model” in the title should give us a hint. All of the complexities of humanity appear to be reduced to eight equations. Yes you read that correctly, eight equations.

Now, I do not model human civilization as my day job. Instead I model plankton. If you want to do a half adequate job of modelling plankton populations you will probably need more than eight equations. And I think humans are more complex than plankton, but some times I have doubts.

A model with this few equations will always provide egregious predictions about “industrial collapse”. Anyone who spends more than two minutes looking on Gapminder will recognise that inter-country differences are so vast that using eight equations to accurately model humanity is like replicating the Sistine Chapel using a crayon.

The model also assumes that birth rates are fixed. Again spend some time on Gapminder and see how meaningful this assumption. Most problematic is that they only model renewable resources. Modern civilization is fundamentally dependent on the provision of non-renewable resources on a huge scale.

It also assumes that there is a fixed carrying capacity for populations. Carrying capacity itself is a deeply problematic concept. Think about Britain prior to the Industrial Revolution. If Britain had attempted to power the Industrial Revolution with wood it would have rapidly run out of trees. As Tony Wrigley argued in his fine book on the subject the transition to coal allowed Britain to  escape the limits of a purely organic society. This makes it clear that this model, in its current form, offers limited insights into whether civilization will persist over the twenty first century.

Not that this means the research in question is rubbish. They aren’t aiming to model human civilization, but are aiming to provide some general theoretical insights into how civilizations might collapse. Models start simple and over time complexity is added in, and so you cannot criticize scientists for this, unless they make grand claims on the basis of simple, crude models.

And this of course is what Mr. Ahmed does. And this is what he always does.

Update:

Mr. Ahmed apparently thinks I am a “devotee” of American environment journalist Keith Kloor, and I could not fault the science. As an old fashioned atheist I am not aware of my devotion to Keith Kloor or anyone else.

And if Mr. Ahmed believes that 8 equation models of all of humanity cannot be faulted then we can add rank scientifically illiteracy to the charges. Sadly this silly story has now been shared 50,000 times on Facebook, so who knows. The Guardian might even give him a proper column. Can you imagine it?