Into the New Wild

Introducing my new blog The Cultural Wilderness. This will cover topics more directly related to conservation, forestry, and other environmental science topics. This is my inaugural post, a review of Fred Pearce’s book on invasive species The New Wild. Enjoy!

Book review: The New Wild: Why invasive species will be nature’s salvation by Fred Pearce

Icon Books 2015 new-wild

In 1910 New Zealand’s great botanist Leonard Cochayne described the dramatic change in plant communities which had occurred since the first visit of Captain Cook to the country in 1769 (1). Some 560 new species from Europe, Africa and elsewhere had by become established by then, with half of them common throughout the country from the coasts to the highest mountains:

At first thought, the idea of 560 different sorts of plants- some of them the most aggressive weeds in Europe- having not only been loosed to do their will, but also having established a secure footing, would lead to the conclusion that, if not the flora of New Zealand, at any rate the primitive vegetation was doomed. No conclusion could be more incorrect. Were it not that man has changed, and is changing, the face of nature by means of his farming operations, his grazing animals, his fires, his drains, and his intensive exploitation of rain forest and flax swamp, the host of foreign plant invaders would be powerless- the indigenous plants, attuned to the special life conditions f their native land, would laugh these aliens to scorn. Why, even now, when the introduced plants have man as their potent ally, 66 percent of the species are rare or local, 40 percent being so rare as to be negligible, while merely 34 percent can be classed as extremely common, common, or fairly common, these being taken together. But these percentages do not emphasise the real state of affairs, for many of the commoner plants are confined to sides of toads, neglected building sites, and rubbish heaps- in short, to “waste ground” as it is called- and there are many other species restricted to cultivated land. In fact, probably only about 100 species are established on land where the vegetation would be exposed to modification only by grazing, fire, and other causes due to the indirect action of man.

The warfare, indeed, between the plant inhabitants of primitive New Zealand and the alien invaders is waged almost entirely under conditions where man takes a powerful hand, for, except for certain rock, stony debris, and water-plant formations, no primitive plant community has been desecrated by a single foreign invader. This is a very different version of the story from that even yet current in biological literature, where it is affirmed ad nauseum that the New Zealand vegetation is powerless when it comes into competition with the European plants, which by natural selection have become the very elite of the weed world.

Cochayne’s observations made over a hundred years ago are almost identical to those made forcefully in Fred Pearce’s provocative new book which takes to task invasion biology– the view that non-native species are generally “invasive”, constituting one of the greatest threats to biodiversity and ecosystem health, and need to be controlled and where possible eradicated completely- almost at any cost.

Continue reading on my new blog The Cultural Wilderness.


Timberati has a nice post on changing ones mind, with a great quote from Lomborg:

I think the main point of [The Skeptical Environmentalist] was to challenge our notion that everything is going down the drain, and I don’t see any reason to revise that…I’m trying to recapture much of what the left stood for–when we believed in progress, when we believed that scientific understanding could lead us ahead and not just rely on tradition. … Unfortunately, I find that a fair amount of the left has turned towards a romanticized view of the world. –Bjørn Lomborg

I posted a comment:

That is a great quote from Lomborg.
Ive written about this myself having shifted my position radically from “downwinger” to “upwinger” some years ago- and like yourself, Lomborg and then Ridley were two of my main inspirations and influences (and still are).
I think a number of things have to converge for a radical shift like that. These are some of the factors that played a role for me:
firstly, in terms of data, the peak oil doom I was predicting didnt happen. After a few years of no collapse and things basically carrying on pretty much as normal I just had to reassess my position. Cognitive dissonance would set in otherwise and reality just seemed to trump the ideology all too clearly- even the 2008 crash didnt seem to be anything like the Mad Max scenario we had been expecting.
Secondly, I was moving away from my tribe for other reasons- the crazy conspiracy theories, the superstitions, the hypocrisy of many of their stances (they were more than happy to take the benefits of the modern world when it suited) all became too much and I started openly challenging them more and more.
Thirdly, and most importantly I think, I found another tribe to move to- in books and literature, and online mainly. Over time I came across more people in the real world who were going through similar transitions.
I think that is really important because no-one can really stand alone for long. We need community on some level, like-minded people to gravitate towards and validate our new perspective, otherwise it is too hard.
Our nomadic ancestors would die if they were ostracized from the tribe and I think that is why tribalism has such a grip on people today and why changing minds is so hard. Building welcoming communities that are able to entice people over from the Dark Side is one of the most important things we can do.

*[yes this was also an opportunity to make a small tribute to the late great David Bowie. I thought this was a nice piece about him:
David Bowie’s ‘Lazarus’ Video isn’t just A Goodbye, it’s a Harrowing Warning]

March against Reality

Is there anything more ridiculous and confused than Saturday’s Climate March in London? Apparently it was attended by some 5000 people- about the same number who would visit the London Eye every 90 minutes. The problem with marches is that they are good at addressing specific black-and-white issues: as a student I attended several marches in which we demanded more money for ourselves as students. I also attended single-issue protests such as demonstrations against nuclear power and nuclear weapons. How does this translate into something as complex as climate change- which has been characterised as a wicked problem -something with no straight forward solution and where the responses can very easily turn into boondoggles which make things worse. The problem with the climate change movement is that it has basically tried to position itself in much the same way, and so takes the form as a campaign against fossil fuels- which pretty quickly becomes a campaign against capitalism. This is clearly seen in the current Guardian advocacy series on climate which draws heavily on Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything. There is an interesting review of Klein’s book by Joseph Heath here. Heath points out that Klein is more concerned about how decarbonisation is achieved rather than actually achieving it- and because her whole thesis rests on the assumption that “climate science has handed them the most powerful argument against unfettered capitalism…” (is there a scientific consensus on this?) this means primarily taking pot shots at the fossil fuel industry. No surprise to see this reflected in the posters carried aloft on last weekend’s march, with one of the causes du jour, the anti-fracking movement jumping on the climate change bandwagon:     Embedded image permalink This is a profound confusion- a switch to natural gas that would be enabled by fracking in the UK and elsewhere is likely one of the fastest ways to reduce CO2 emissions, by replacing coal which emits twice the CO2. Science communicator and researcher Alice Bell posted her own home-made placard on Twitter after due thought and consideration: Why indeed- oh, well maybe to get to work, keep warm, eat and stuff like that was my reply. Fossil fuels are useful- extremely so- it is not stupid to use them, in fact it would be stupid not to. You might need them to travel to your next climate march for example- or use them as feedstocks to make plastic placards (ful marks to Alice for using recycled cardboard for hers). How about this one? Embedded image permalink Chicks dig guys with unreliable and intermittent performance? I don’t think so- not the chicks I have known in any case. We cannot just ban fossil fuels in the same way we banned or heavily regulated CFCs through the Montreal Protocol – in that case, the technology already existed for replacements and in any case CFCs were not the life-blood of the global economy in the same way that fossil fuels are. A March Against Fossil Fuels is more symbolic of a March Against Reality:   Despite the much-touted “consensus” on the science climate change, there is no consensus on what to do about it, and the many difficulties of replacing fossil fuels are not easily explained on simplistic placards aimed at herding  protestors with a single unified message. Moreover, Klein- along with much of the marching environmental movement- is strongly opposed to the one technology that could ultimately replace fossil fuels, for much the same reasons- capitalism. So, Klein invokes the scientific authority of James Hanson for his warnings of the dangers of climate change- but in the same breath rejects entirely his advocacy for CO2-free nuclear power as a solution. That technology is nuclear power. The fact is, as Kirsty Gogan of Energy for Humanity explains in the video below, most western nations could have already decarbonised their economies with nuclear power, as the French did more than 30 years ago- but the environmentalists stopped them. Now, if there was a march demanding “Nuclear Power Now!” – that would be a march I could believe in.

When 97% is not enough

This study is a teachable moment, a future textbook example of scientific scams…
The people who conducted the Cook study don’t understand rudimentary epistemology, or what counts as evidence of anthropogenic climate change….
They’re willing to do absolutely stunning, unbelievable things to score political points.

-Jose Duarte

Cook did achieve something. Anyone who, for whatever reason, wants to argue that climate researchers are incompetent, secretive and dishonest has found a prime example in John Cook.

Professor Richard Tol

We all know that the science on climate change is settled, right? Anyone with any doubts can simply refer to the 97% consensus “study” by John Cook and Nuccitelli of the SkepticalScience website.

That study has come under a lot of criticism- inappropriate sampling techniques, failure to release data, and other methodological issues.

Professor Richard Tol, whose own papers were rated as part of the study, writes:

Cook and co selected some 12,000 papers from the scientific literature to test whether these papers support the hypothesis that humans played a substantial role in the observed warming of the Earth. 12,000 is a strange number. The climate literature is much larger. The number of papers on the detection and attribution of climate change is much, much smaller.

Cook’s sample is not representative. Any conclusion they draw is not about “the literature” but rather about the papers they happened to find.

Most of the papers they studied are not about climate change and its causes, but many were taken as evidence nonetheless. Papers on carbon taxes naturally assume that carbon dioxide emissions cause global warming – but assumptions are not conclusions….

The data is also ridden with error. By Cook’s own calculations, 7% of the ratings are wrong. Spot checks suggest a much larger number of errors, up to one-third.

Cook tried to validate the results by having authors rate their own papers. In almost two out of three cases, the author disagreed with Cook’s team about the message of the paper in question.

These are serious basic flaws that anyone with a rudimentary understanding of methodology- especially for the social sciences- should readily be able to comprehend. Yet not only did this study pass peer review, it has been cited thousands of times and is the go-to reference to “prove” the consensus on climate change. More than anything else, it provides the rational behind the constant refrain we hear of “deniers” leveled at anyone daring to even so much as ask questions about “the consensus.”

Cook tells us

Once our paper (Cook et al. 2013) was published, our results generated a great deal of interest. Distributing press releases from the universities of myself and my coauthors led to media coverage in over 28 countries, including a number of non-English speaking countries (thank goodness for Google Translate). Interest peaked when President Obama’s Twitter account tweeted about our research to 31 million followers (Obama 2013b). Several weeks later, President Obama mentioned the 97% consensus in a landmark speech on climate change (Obama 2013a).

Our paper was ranked as the 11th most talked about scholarly paper in 2013 (Altmetric 2014). Sadly, we were pipped out of the top ten by a paper about Sudoku. Our research was also listed in the top 5% of all scholarly papers…

The influence of this paper has been huge, and in online debates on climate change I can pretty much guarantee it being leveled at me every time, often along with the redundant comment, “I can’t believe we are even discussing climate change! The science is settled!”

Sure, the science is settled- but only in so far as we know that CO2 is a human gas, and as we burn more fossil fuels and put more CO2 into the atmosphere, we can expect the earth to warm. But continue much beyond that, and all bets are off.
There is no consensus on how much CO2 will cause how much warming;
no consensus on how many other natural and man-made effects will either add to or reduce the warming;
no consensus on specific impacts;
and especially, there is no consensus on policy– what, if anything, we can or should do about it, which is not, of course, a question for science alone.

Recently another critique appeared of the Cook consensus paper- not so much a rebuttal or refutation as an evisceration.
Jose Duarte is a social psychology doctoral candidate at Arizona State University specializing in methodological validity in social science. He seems to have been surprised at what he found when he came to examine the Cook paper. His findings have lead him to call for the paper’s withdrawal. Duarte’s powerful and uncompromising use of language makes his views worth quoting at length:

This study is a teachable moment, a future textbook example of scientific scams.

This paper is vacated, as a scientific product, given that it included psychology papers, and also given that it twice lied about its method (claiming not to count social science papers, and claiming to use independent raters), and the professed cheating by the raters…

The people who conducted the Cook study don’t understand rudimentary epistemology, or what counts as evidence of anthropogenic climate change….

Those of you who have shaped yourself into pretzels defending this study should be ashamed….

Duarte particularly points to the fact that the raters themselves- all “volunteers from the SkepticalScience team” in Cook’s own words- were themselves political activists, rating papers in their own area of activism- something he can scarcely believe could actually happen at all, never mind pass peer-review;
and that many of the papers examined were not climate science papers at all, but included one paper on cooking stove design in Bangladesh, as well as psychology papers, marketing papers and general endorsements of climate change from the general public.

“Nuccitelli” [one of the co-authors] Duarte tells us, “thinks that if a psychology paper uses the phrase “climate change denial”, it could count as scientific endorsement of anthropogenic climate change. We should linger on that. This is a staggering level of stupidity with respect to what would count as scientific evidence of AGW. ” (emphases added.)

he continues:

I get the impression that Cook and company don’t think they’re militant political activists, as though being a staunch leftist is the default rational position, not partisan (even though they talk about politics more than science on some of their pages, savage skeptical scientists, Republicans, and oil companies, ignore scientific evidence and papers that conflict with their views, ignore a large swath of economics, and are just off the charts in their “denier! denier!” hostility) — if you seriously think that the only “partisans” are people who disagree with you, then you’ve not yet achieved mature adulthood….

I think some of you who’ve defended this “study” got on the wrong train. I don’t think you meant to end up here. I think it was an accident. You thought you were getting on the Science Train. You thought these people — Cook, Nuccitelli, Lewandowsky — were the science crowd, and that the opposition was anti-science, “deniers” and so forth. I hope it’s clear at this point that this was not the Science Train. This is a different train. These people care much less about science than they do about politics. They’re willing to do absolutely stunning, unbelievable things to score political points. What they did still stuns me, that they did this on purpose, that it was published, that we live in a world where people can publish these sorts of obvious scams in normally scientific journals….

If our science category or camp includes people like Cook and Nuccitelli, it’s no longer a science category. We won’t have credibility as pro-science people if those people are the standard bearers. Those people are in a different category, a different camp, and it won’t be called “science”. Those climate scientists who have touted, endorsed, and defended the Cook et al. study – I suggest you reconsider. I also suggest that you run some basic correction for the known bias, and cognitive dissonance, humans have against changing their position, admitting they were wrong, etc. Do you really want to be on the historical record as a defender of this absurd malpractice? It’s not going to age well, and as a scientist, certain values and principles should matter more to you than politics.

There have been several previous studies on the scientific consensus on climate change before, but many of them suffer from much the same methodological flaws, and most ask much the same binary questions- is human-caused CO2 warming the planet or not?

Duarte comments:

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (2014) broke my heart, by releasing a wildly unscientific report that cherry-picked only the studies that gave it the inflated consensus figures it wanted — many of which are so bad as to be inadmissable. When scientists want to review a body of research, they conduct a meta-analysis that includes all the research that meets certain criteria of rigor and validity. The AAAS strangely chose not to perform a meta-analysis — they simply ignored most studies, and cherry-picked four studies that gave them the inflated, shock-value numbers they wanted. Among the four was an obsolete one-page study from 2004 that doesn’t clearly describe its methods (Oreskes, 2004, yes, really, one page long). That is, they skipped past all the more recent and credible studies from the intervening decade (e.g. Harris (2007), Bray and van Storch (2008), and others) to reach all the way back to a junk study from 2004. I’ve never seen such behavior – we clearly can’t do anything with mysterious one-pagers from 2004. This isn’t what I expected.

NASA come to the same conclusion, apparently based on the same three cherry-picked studies:

W. R. L. Anderegg, “Expert Credibility in Climate Change,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Vol. 107 No. 27, 12107-12109 (21 June 2010); DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1003187107.

P. T. Doran & M. K. Zimmerman, “Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Eos Transactions American Geophysical Union Vol. 90 Issue 3 (2009), 22; DOI: 10.1029/2009EO030002.

N. Oreskes, “Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” Science Vol. 306 no. 5702, p. 1686 (3 December 2004); DOI: 10.1126/science.1103618.

The Doran paper was not the actual study, but merely cites a survey by an MSc student, Zimmerman. Barry Woods explains:

a survey of 10,256 with 3146 respondents was whittled down to 75 out of 77 “expert” ‘active climate researchers’ (ACR) to give the 97% figure, based on just two very simplistic (shallow) questions that even the majority of sceptics might agree with.

Lawrence Soloman examined the Andregg paper:

To encourage a high participation among these remaining disciplines, the two researchers decided on a quickie survey that would take less than two minutes to complete, and would be done online, saving the respondents the hassle of mailing a reply. Nevertheless, most didn’t consider the quickie survey worthy of response – just 3146, or 30.7%, answered the two questions on the survey:

1. When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?

2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?

The questions were actually non-questions. From my discussions with literally hundreds of skeptical scientists over the past few years, I know of none who claims that the planet hasn’t warmed since the 1700s, and almost none who think that humans haven’t contributed in some way to the recent warming – quite apart from carbon dioxide emissions, few would doubt that the creation of cities and the clearing of forests for agricultural lands have affected the climate. When pressed for a figure, global warming skeptics might say that human are responsible for 10% or 15% of the warming; some skeptics place the upper bound of man’s contribution at 35%. The skeptics only deny that humans played a dominant role in Earth’s warming. …

As for the second question, 82% of the earth scientists replied that that human activity had significantly contributed to the warming. Here the vagueness of the question comes into play. Since skeptics believe that human activity been a contributing factor, their answer would have turned on whether they consider a 10% or 15% or 35% increase to be a significant contributing factor. Some would, some wouldn’t.

In any case, the two researchers must have feared that an 82% figure would fall short of a convincing consensus – almost one in five wasn’t blaming humans for global warming – so they looked for subsets that would yield a higher percentage. They found it – almost – in those whose recent published peer-reviewed research fell primarily in the climate change field. But the percentage still fell short of the researchers’ ideal. So they made another cut, allowing only the research conducted by those earth scientists who identified themselves as climate scientists.

Once all these cuts were made, 75 out of 77 scientists of unknown qualifications were left endorsing the global warming orthodoxy. The two researchers were then satisfied with their findings. Are you?

This paper by Bodenstein in PNAS concluded:

The study by Anderegg et al. (1) employed suspect methodology that treated publication metrics as a surrogate for expertise. Credentialed scientists, having devoted much of their careers to a certain area, with multiple relevant peer-reviewed publications, should be deemed core experts, notwithstanding that others are more or less prolific in print or that their views stand in the minority. In the climate change (CC) controversy, a priori, one expects that the much larger and more “politically correct” side would excel in certain publication metrics. They continue to cite each other’s work in an upward spiral of self-affirmation. The authors’ treatment of these deficiencies in Materials and Methods was unconvincing in the skewed and politically charged environment of the CC hubbub and where one group is in the vast majority

Thomas Fuller comments:

the worst part of this is the violation of the rights of those they studied. Because Prall keeps lists of skeptical scientists on his weblog, obsessively trawling through online petitions and published lists of letters, and because those lists were used as part of the research, anyone now or in the future can have at their fingertips the names of those who now or in the past dared to disagree.

The Joe Romm’s of this world have already called for this list to be used to deny funding, tenure and grants to scientists. And it will be. It doesn’t matter that the nature of the letters and petitions they signed varied widely, from outright skepticism to really innocuous questioning of the state of the science.

The paper is tagged ‘Climate Deniers.’ Now, so are they.

The question is, why do these “consensus” studies? Why do such appallingly awful studies when it is quite possible to do informative and useful studies (see van Storch 2008) ?

Note that Solomon shows how the sample size in the Andregg survey was whittled down, and the questions simplified, until the magic number of 97% consensus was reached. Basically, you can get any number you want depending on what questions you ask. The reason the questions asked in each of  these studies are set at such a low bar should be obvious: the further away you get from the “Are humans causing Global Warming?” sort of question- which nearly all so-called “climate skeptics” would readily agree to anyway- the lower the figure would be. Add in “dangerous” it will drop; add in “impacts” it will drop; add in “Kyoto” and you will get a very different answer.
Somehow while 83% or 86% or even 91% are still very large majorities, they are not enough.
  These studies are made-to-order, to get to the magic 97% which means “done deal, no wiggle-room”. They have to be able to claim game, set, match- any nuance must be removed, there has to be a straight-forward unimpeachable black-and-white message for policy makers, so they can say to the public “We have to Act. {And we are not going to ask you how you think we Should Act.]  You can’t argue with The Science.”

That is why the methodology doesn’t matter. It is getting to the end result that matters. If Cook had had no other choice, he would have just invented the entire study from his desk. In light of the scrutiny that is now being drawn to his methods, this would probably have been a better option.

The strategy of fabricating a near-100% “consensus” was chosen for specific reasons- the thinking goes like this: if people know that the Science says climate change is Dangerous We Have to Act (which is actually NOT the questions asked in the surveys) then people won’t ask questions about HOW we act, ie what policies to follow- because the policy in question has already been decided: Kyoto. According to this line of thinking, there is a straight line from science to policy. Is AGW happening? yes- now we go straight to Kyoto without passing Go. The politics and science are merged seamlessly with the sledge-hammer of “97%”.

Cook himself says explains here:

Law and psychology professor Dan Kahan questioned whether communicating the scientific consensus was an optimal approach, given that it may provoke a negative reaction from those dismissive of climate change (Kahan 2013). In response, I outlined the evidence for both the efficacy and importance of consensus messaging (Cook 2013b). Consensus information increases both acceptance of human-caused global warming (Lewandowsky, Gignac, and Vaughan 2013) and support for climate policy (Bolsen, Leeper, and Shapiro 2013). But crucially, consensus messaging was shown in an Australian experiment to partially neutralize the biasing influence of ideology with conservatives showing a greater increase in belief in human-caused global warming than liberals (Lewandowsky, Gignac, and Vaughan 2013). A study with U.S. participants found that the increase in perceived consensus in response to consensus information was greatest among conservatives (Kotcher et al. 2014)…

Consensus information increases both acceptance of human-caused global warming…and support for climate policy…

This clearly shows that Cook is motivated to use the consensus message to drive policy- he doesn’t say which policy, so how can he say understanding the consensus would lead to greater acceptance of it? Acceptance of policy depends on what it is, and how much it will cost! This is why the hand-flapping “we have to Act!” is so disingenuous- the policy has already been decided, when Cook says “support for climate policy” he means Kyoto, as if there is only one approach and it follows directly from the 97% consensus.

An article in Scientific American earlier this summer reinforces the obvious with respect to Cook and his agenda:

There’s no doubt that Cook regards climate change as a moral issue.

“As a father, I realized that we are handing over a world to our children that is worse than the world we were given,” he said over the phone from Brisbane, Australia. “And as a Christian, I saw climate change as a social justice issue.”

Curry has a discussion about the history of the use of consensus in this way here:

The role of consensus in this decision making is described by Oreskes (2004): “If we feel that a policy question deserves to be informed by scientific knowledge, then we have no choice but to ask, what is the consensus of experts on this matter? If there is no consensus of experts—as was the case among earth scientists about moving continents before the late 1960s—then we have a case for more research. If there is a consensus of experts—as there is today over the reality of anthropogenic climate change —then we have a case for moving forward with relevant action.

Again, what does “relevant action” mean? Kyoto.

So the wider questions raised are whether policy follows directly from science; what role can or should science have in directing policy; and so on. Cook, Oreskes, and the rest of Climate Orthodoxy have already decided the answer to this, but in following this agenda they have seriously compromised the scientific process and the integrity of science itself.

It is no surprise if people are losing faith in public science if this kind of thing is going on, all the more so since apparently much of the rest of the scientific community- with the majority of the “skeptics” community acting as bullyish gate-keepers- has chosen to circle the wagons to support Cook and his methods -not the *scientific consensus* but the political consensus.

Duarte again:

Cook’s initial response was to say that they weren’t political. I was dumbfounded that he thought he could get away with that, or even more, that he might actually believe it. People who talk about Republicans more than science on some of their issue pages are definitely political. People who use the word denier, or denialist, or denialism, are definitely political, and they’ve made a very strong commitment to their worldview….

A big problem with the cheap thrill of “denier! denier!” is that you’ve made it much harder for your future self to cleanly process evidence that doesn’t fit that narrative. From the perspective of that future self, you didn’t just disagree with other people on this issue — you called them deniers. That’s a bigger thing to be wrong about, from your future self’s perspective — you’ve got more skin in the game. You wouldn’t just be wrong, you’d be someone who was wrong and who smeared your opponents, which will be harder to cop to. The dissonance will likely be greater, and if so, you’ll be more biased. This is ancient and stable social psychology findings. See my collaborator Jon Haidt’s book “Righteous Minds” for a complete take.

Whatever about the cooked-up Cook study, the idea of “communicating science” by forcing the idea of a “consensus” down people’s throats has also received criticism from many quarters. Cook’s response to Kahan is above, but Kahan’s real point is that “the implicit message is that the people who disagree with 97 percent of scientists must be very stupid.”

Tol points out

Consensus is irrelevant in science. There are plenty of examples in history where everyone agreed and everyone was wrong. Cook’s consensus is also irrelevant in policy. They try to show that climate change is real and human-made. It is does not follow whether and by how much greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced.

Political scientist David Victor of the University of California said in a recent talk:

First, we in the scientific community need to acknowledge that the science is softer than we like to portray. The science is not “in” on climate change because we are dealing with a complex system whose full properties are, with current methods, unknowable. The science is “in” on the first steps in the analysis—historical emissions, concentrations, and brute force radiative balance—but not for the steps that actually matter for policy….

Second, under pressure from denialists we in the scientific community have spent too much time talking about consensus. That approach leads us down a path that, at the end, is fundamentally unscientific and might even make us more vulnerable to attack, including attack from our own. The most interesting advances in climate science concern areas where there is no consensus but the consequences for humanity are grave, such as the possibility of extreme catastrophic impacts. We should talk less about consensus and more about the consequences of being wrong—about the lower probability (or low consensus) but high consequence outcomes.

Ultimately, banging on about a consensus in climate change is misleading and uninformative, concealing far more than it reveals.

Of course, I reject Victor’s reference to “denialists” in this sense, and it is ironic since he fails to draw the conclusion his own analysis should lead him to:

If scientists, “science communicators” and policy makers are wondering where the “denialists” come from, or why trust in public science may be waning, yet still rally round, cite or defend in any way “studies” like that of Cook, they need only look at themselves.

Kinsale Horticulture

Sustainable Horticulture at Kinsale

Thirteen years ago a new course started at Kinsale College of Further Education. Called “Practical Sustainability” the course aimed to draw together a wide range of different skills and disciplines including permaculture design, sustainable woodland management, ecology and conservation, gardening and horticulture, natural building and community development.

This ambitious course went from strength to strength and within just a few years became one of the largest and most popular courses of any subject in the whole country, attracting students from all over Ireland, Britain, Europe and North America.


Potager garden with theatre behind

…..Read the full story here

Feedback on the Cult of Perma

My last post generated a couple of interesting responses from within the permaculture community.
Most notably on Twitter, Rafter Sass Ferguson drew my attention to him with this odd comment:

I thought this odd, since on his own website Liberation Ecology Ferguson states

I’m Rafter Sass Ferguson, and I do agroecology, political ecology, and permaculture.

which confirms at least one of my main points, that permaculture is a political ideology and movement rather than a science. Ferguson responded that “for me, unlike you, “political” and “social movement” are not naive epithets or kneejerk dismissals.” – but his next tweet seemed even more bizarre:

Yet Ferguson is committed to gaining scientific credibility for permaculture- the same science that he blithely accuses me of “fetishising.” In fact, he has just had a paper called Permaculture for Agroecology accepted by the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. One of the main themes of this interesting paper, which reviews three decades of permaculture in the academic literature, is the uneasy relationship between permaculture and science. Indeed, Ferguson covers many of the same points that I do:

The manuscript follows a stratified definition of permaculture as design system, best practice framework, worldview, and movement.

Ferguson refers to the “agro-ecological transition”, by which I presume he means a political shift away from large-scale industrial agriculture towards a perhaps socialist movement of smallholders and small farmers as exemplified by La Via Campesina.

In his paper, he quickly identifies that the lack of a clear definition for permaculture is one of the main stumbling blocks:

the difficulty of providing a clear and distinguishing description of permaculture can cause confusion and hinder rigorous and systematic discussion.

He goes onto note that

While permaculture has a distinctive description of the techniques for which it advocates, few if any of those techniques originated from within the permaculture milieu. Permaculture practices are often adopted from or inspired by traditional agroecological systems, as in the case of tropical home gardens and the permaculture “food forest” (Mollison and Holmgren 1978).


even suggesting that

The “herb spiral,” a mound garden design proposed by Mollison for the production of culinary herbs, may be the only practice to have emerged from the permaculture movement itself (Mollison 1988).


In other words, “permaculture”- as a land-use design system- is almost indistinguishable from agro-ecology, and yet Ferguson seems determined to nevertheless carve out a distinctive niche for it as one approach to agro-ecology. While acknowledging that permaculturalists frequently exaggerate yields from their preferred polycultures, and tend to ignore the challenges (such as far more labour requirements) of establishing complex systems, he does not address in the paper (or elsewhere that I have found) the issue of lower yields in some agro-ecological systems.

He discusses at length much of the same issues that I cover, also quoting Chalker-Scott with regard to plant guilds and invasive species:

In response to internal and external criticism from native plant advocates over the extreme versions of this position (Grayson 2003; Holmgren 2004; Hemenway 2009), many permaculturists have moderated their views on species selection and regard nativity as an important consideration alongside functional criteria (Jacke and Toensmeier 2005; Hemenway 2009). Conflicts on this topic continue, however (Gehron and Webster 2012).

Ferguson notes that permaculture has been largely isolated from main-stream science, with obvious consequences:

The permaculture literature assigns the blame for this isolation on the inability of scientists and institutions to comprehend or appreciate the radical proposals put forth by permaculture…
there are cumulative effects from decades of relative isolation that go beyond the lack of research on permaculture systems. These include the lack of awareness, in the perma- culture literature, of contemporary developments in relevant science, the accompanying persistence of idiosyncratic or misleading terminology, and the potential for influence of pseudo-scientific theories. The idiosyncratic use of scientific and scientific-sounding terms, together with permaculture’s heterodox stance on issues such as species selection, has persuaded some writers to label permaculture as a pseudo- science (Chalker-Scott 2010).

In short, Ferguson largely agrees with the points that I have made, making his refusal to engage with me- despite initiating the twitter exchange himself- all the odder.

Ferguson has also discussed the definition of permaculture on a couple of recent blogposts, debating Toby Hemenway’s article (which I quoted at the start of my own post). Hemenway himself joins in the comments:

I have never argued that it is a design science. It’s not a science, because we rely on pragmatic “does it work or not?” methods far more than on a scientific search for falsification or mechanism. And I don’t think of it as a discipline. Disciplines have boundaries, and permaculture is highly inter-disciplinary. I find it most useful—meaning most productive of insight, guidance toward valuable work, and having broadest application—to think of it as a design approach, which, because it links and transcends disciplinary boundaries, can be used to solve virtually any challenge we’re facing. “Approach” is not a great word, but it’s the best I have been able to come up with. Permaculture is a pattern of strategy development for arriving at sustainable solutions to almost any problem.

Right- so it is not a science, just anecdotal, which means it is undoubtedly making a lot of mistakes and is of limited use in the first place; but as a “design approach” permaculture can solve all our problems! “Cult” flashes large in my minds’ eye when I hear such grandiose claims- this is surely a self-fulfilling prophecy in which any “solution” (as if we can even agree on what constitutes such) to any problem can be retrospectively identified as being “permaculture”.

(See also this comment under The Cult of Perma: “Permaculture is an integrated response to how best to be.” And how exactly is that, and how do we know it is the best?)

The discussion goes back and forth as to whether permaculture is a “movement” or just a design practice; Ferguson is adamant it should be explicitly seen as a movement and hence inherently political- the self-reliant community of small-farmer agro-ecologist collectives juxtaposed with large-scale industrial corporate agribusiness- while Hemenway obviously disagrees (though not, as I argued in my first post, particularly coherently).

One commentator points out that

Science is not based in ethics; Permaculture is. Permaculture is not only a design science.

These ethics- “Earth Care, People Care and Fair Shares” – are probably the most vague part of the whole permacultural literature, quite abstract and undefined. “Earth Care” and “People Care” are clearly in conflict with each other in practically every environmental issue you could name, once you buy into Mollison’s initial premise that society is in over-shoot and the only way out is a radical change of direction, as indicated by permaculture. For example, fracking for shale gas will look after people by giving them cheap energy, but at some environmental (hugely exaggerated) cost;
industrial farming has liberated billions from the drudgery of peasant agriculture, but at a cost of loss of biodiversity and pollution, and the expense of non-renewable fossil fuels.

Predictably, despite paying lip-service to science and its value for giving credence to permaculture, Ferguson is more than happy to spread pseudo-scientific misinformation about GMOs:

How I wonder does he equate the wooly permaculture “ethic” of People Care with his support for a movement dedicated to lying about health risks even when this hinders the development of humanitarian projects such as Golden Rice, a biofortified rice variety which could save millions from blindness and death, but which is fiercely opposed by most of the environmental movement?

This is the contradiction at the heart of all environmentalism, at least the Dark Green type, which I think clearly includes permaculture: People Care very often conflicts with Earth Care. I have never seen this obvious issue discussed anywhere within the permaculture community, and until it is confronted, permaculture will remain a misanthropic cult.

Interview with Professor Pamela Ronald

I met up with Professor Pam Ronald from UC Davis in Dublin yesterday for the Alchemist Aperitif cafe discussion, part of the Euroscience Open Forum.

Pam is the author, with her husband Raoul Adamchak, of the ground-breaking book Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, and is Professor in the department of Plant Pathology and the Genome Center at the University of California, Davis, where she and her colleagues were recipients of the 2008 USDA National Research Initiative Discovery Award for their work on flood tolerant rice. She also serves as Director of Grass Genetics at the Joint Bioenergy Institute.

Pam Ronald (center) in Dublin

I had visited Professor Ronald at her home in California last summer, so was delighted to hear she would be coming to Dublin, where she is speaking today Friday 13th as part of The Great Debate: The Battle to Feed a Changing Planet.

She kindly agreed to a short interview in which I asked her about her work, and the future role genetic engineering can play in sustainable agriculture, which you can listen to below:

Professor Pamela Ronald in her lab in UC Davis last year