How to reach the South Pole before your rivals do

English: Last expedition of Robert Falcon Scot...
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It’s 100 years since the British explorer Captain Scott reached the South Pole only to realise his rival Roald Amundsen had just beaten him to it. On the return journey he and his party died, but not before writing about it in journals, thus creating an enduring myth of ‘heroic failure’.

In his ‘Message to the Public’, Scott saw his party’s demise as the result of improvident weather:

“We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last”

 Amundsen for his part was typically phlegmatic about his own achievement as contrasted with Scott’s:

“I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”— from The South Pole, by Roald Amundsen

So which was it, luck or judgement? Amundsen clearly didn’t believe in luck. For him it was all down to the planning. This anti-Fatalist stance certainly paid off, but of course it was an appraisal made after the event.

The irony to this little tale is that in 1928 while Amundsen was attempting to rescue another explorer whose air ship had gone missing near the North Pole, his own seaplane went missing. The wreckage was found but Amundsen’s body  never was. So which was it this time: bad luck or bad judgement?

Amundsen's Latham 47 sea plane, shortly before its disappearance in 1928
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It matters who presents the message

unsafe area

Who would you trust to tell you what the risks are?

Research from the Cultural Cognition project suggests the cultural identity of the presenter matters significantly to the public reception of a particular message about risk. In other words, we need our experts to be our experts, not the other side’s experts.

It follows from this that one way of reducing the polarization of debates on risk may be to provide a variety of views on an issue from within a particular cultural bias. Two examples of this in practice are presented below, one quite successful, the other less so.

Continue reading “It matters who presents the message”

Everyone loves a quiz

How Risky is it, Really?Everyone loves a quiz and Psychology Today magazine has a cultural cognition quiz for you, courtesy of David Ropeik.

Roepik is the author of How Risky is it, Really? Why our fears don’t always match the facts. His website offers exerpts from the book and -wait for it –

more quizzes!

While you’re here, though, you could take our little fourcultures quiz just to the right of this page. How much is there?

You know you want to.

…and if you really can’t get enough quiz in your life, why not try the cultural theory quiz posted at the OK Cupid website (no, really). According to its creator, ” The test items are taken from Gunnar Grendstad and Susan Sundback’s paper “Socio-demographic effects on cultural biases” published in Acta Sociologica, vol. 46, no. 4, 2003, pp. 289-306.”

Maybe one day I’ll get round to writing about my scepticism of these kinds of tests. There, I said it.

The more things change…

Digging in permafrost.
Image via Wikipedia

A theory of change requires a set of assumptions about the status quo. These assumptions often go unnoticed and unquestioned. Sentences that include the words always and never are indicative of these assumptions hard at work in the background, demonstrating the unexamined existence of a worldview in which particular forms of stability are taken for granted.

The Russian leadership’s reluctance to ‘believe’ in climate change has undergone something of a shift recently because the assumptions about what is always the case or never the case in Russia have been shaken to the core by drought, massive forest fires and unprecedented (but not uncontested) melting of the permafrost. A recent article by Tony Wood in the LRB outlines these events.

One could be cynical at this point and note that a single extreme weather event is no more indicative of long term climate change than a single swallow is indicative of the arrival of Summer. For the Russian president to change his mind on climate change just because he can smell smoke in Moscow is as naïve as the previous position in which climate change was denied. Russian winters are pretty cold and anyway it’s all a plot invented by Al Gore’s business interests.

But here too the assumptions about stability which underpin our theories of change are under revision. The well established claim that you can’t read climate change from unique events is now itself being revised.

Two thirds of Russia is made up of Permafrost – vechnaya merzlota. Both in English and Russian this is ‘permanent’ or ‘eternal’. By very definition it cannot change and is therefore impervious to rising temperatures or any other supposed shift.

I am mentioning this here because the way things supposedly always are is a crucial mental category, one that organises and disorganises almost all our social relations. We take it for granted at our peril.

The decline of civilization – sudden or gradual?

Thomas Cole The Course of Empire 1836: Consummation
'empires are complex systems'

Quick, quick, slow – the dance steps of collapse

What kinds of stories are we telling one another these days about the fall of civilizations? The idea that the decline of a civilization is without narrative causality is itself a narrative. This is the unacknowledged ideology of historian Niall Ferguson’s recent piece for Foreign Affairs. Here Ferguson abandons the typical causality of historians and opts for a different account, based on complex systems theory. Continue reading “The decline of civilization – sudden or gradual?”

Being Vague about Risk Assessment

pound or two shop. Flickr: whyohwhyohwhyohWhat is the probablity that a 178cm man is tall (or that many items will cost between one pound and two pounds)?

Vagueness is a besetting problem in quantitative risk assessment and it’s often overlooked or ignored in the attempt to find one metric (probability) by which to measure uncertainty. Clearly it’s inappropriate to use probabilistic methods to assess whether or not someone is tall (unless you are using population data to assess, say, the probability someone is taller than a specified height). But many other situations are quantified with probability when they shouldn’t be. Philosopher Mark Colyvan argues that all situations with vague premises should be assessed non-probabilistically. Just as the tallness of a person or the number that constitutes ‘many’ is vague because there will always be borderline cases, so too we should not speak of the probability that, say, biodiversity is declining in a particular ecosystem. Both the measurement of biodiversity and indeed the limits of an ecosystem are vague in the same sense.

This is to highlight the logical assumptions of Cox’s theorem, that ‘Any measure of belief is isomorphic to a probability measure’. Not that Cox is wrong, just that he can be and is used inappropriately whare vague premises are involved.

Colyvan points to a strong claim:

no adequate defense of classical logic in domains employing vague predicates is possible. If I am right about this, then not only are non- probabilistic methods legitimate methods for quantifying at least some types of uncertainty, but are also required for the adequate treatment of uncertainty in any domain where vague predicates are used (2008: 651).

So shouldn’t we just speak more precisely? Wouldn’t this clear up the vagueness and allow us to have confidence in our probabilities? That question brings us to the punchline of this post. Colyvan produces a marvellous quotation from a book on Uncertainty (Morgan and Henrion):

They claim that [uncertainty due to linguistic imprecision]  is “usually relatively easy to remove with a bit of clear thinking” (1990, p. 62). If it were so easy to remove, you would expect them to be able to state this thesis without appeal to at least four vague terms.

What is the probability that vagueness is here to stay?

In case you missed it: Certainty – I’m fairly sure we don’t need it.

References:

Colyvan, M. (2008) Is probability the only approach to uncertainty? Risk Analysis 28.3: 645-652.

Cox, R. T. (1946). Probability, frequency and reasonable ex- pectation. American Journal of Physics, 14, 1–13.

Morgan, M. G., & Henrion, M. (1990). Uncertainty: A Guide to Dealing with Uncertainty in Quantitative Risk and Policy Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Image credit: the vague shop by whyohwhyohwhyoh

Warmer is better!

slateworkers. Credit: Slatesite

Well into the Twentieth Century the slate industry of North Wales was the world’s largest. It roofed the buildings of the world and left a huge scar on the beautiful landscape of what is now the Snowdonia National Park. But that’s not all it left. If you visit Yr Amgueddfa Llechi Cymru – the National Slate Museum – outside the village of Llanberis you can tour the old buildings of the slate quarries, including the infirmary. One of the human legacies of the industry was to bequeath workers, especially slate-splitters, with chronic and fatal respiratory illness from breathing in the slate dust created from dressing the raw material and turning it into usable roof slates. In oral accounts you can hear at the museum workers describe how the air in the slate dressing buildings was thick with dust. On the wall of the infirmary is a row of certificates signed by medical doctors. These documents certify that not only is slate dust not the cause of respiratory illness, it is actually promotes good health. If you ever happen to be visiting North Wales, go and have a look.

My forebears worked in the Dinorwic quarries near Llanberis and so there is a family, if not a personal reason to feel a little affronted by the lie perpetrated by people who could have known and almost certainly did know better. The lie they told on the walls of the infirmary and in their supposedly professional diagnoses condemned many, many people to a slow and painful death. Slate dust was not safe. It was obviously not safe. Anyone who worked in it could have known and did know that. And yet profit was to be made by avoiding and denying the obvious.

These days we like to think health and safety has come a long way. In some ways it certainly has. It’s improved a lot since the time my great great uncle fell and was injured on the quarry face, only to be charged by the company for delaying production. But when I look at the climate change denial industry, I realise in truth we’ve barely moved forward. Continue reading “Warmer is better!”

“God is a Brazilian” – risk perception in Brazil

Brasilia by night: Flickr - babasteve

John Adams of Imperial College London produced  a new preface for the Brazilian translation of his important  book Risk. His very interesting analysis of the social construction of risk is strongly informed by Grid-group cultural theory:

“I have been increasingly impressed by the ability of cultural theory to bring a modicum of order and civility to debates about risk. It is not a typology for pigeonholing participants in debates about risk. Occasionally one encounters a pure type, but most of us are too complex and multi faceted to be captured by a simple label. It does however provide a useful framework and vocabulary for describing the attitudes encountered in discussions about the best way to approach an uncertain future. It helps people to introspect about their own biases and prejudices.”

You can read the whole preface at John Adams’ web site.

http://john-adams.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/deus-e-brasileiro1.pdf

Making up the facts about climate change?

Climate Change Factors

Upton Sinclair said

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Let’s just try to understand a fairly straightforward question. I don’t mean straightforward as in ‘easy to determine’ , but as in ‘you’d think it might have a definite, clear answer’. Here it is:

How much carbon dioxide do volcanoes emit?

This seems exactly the kind of question we should be able to answer if we want to be able to say anything serious about climate change (see the top left box of the diagram). It also seems to be the kind of thing that scientific observation and measurement ought to be able to help us with.

Furthermore, it would in principle be perfectly reasonable to conclude that we don’t actually have an answer yet because it’s just too hard to measure volcanoes with existing methods and technology. A little humility never hurt anyone.

So here goes with the answer. Continue reading “Making up the facts about climate change?”