Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Precautionary principle and vested interests

I'm noticing some interesting parallels between two very controversial topics normally supported by very different camps. The one is invading, or liberating Iraq, the other is action over climate change.

The case for invading Iraq was put forward by politicians. They portrayed it as if they were acting based on information from the experts in intelligence and military employed by various government funded institutions. The threat was Saddam Hussein and the notion that he had weapons of mass destruction. This threat had been established by the experts based on evidence. The evidence wasn't open to the public eyes for various reasons. One reason was the fact that it's sensitive information that could compromise the security and intelligence sources of many nations. Another reason is that it's not necessary to release it, since various experts in the field of intelligence, military and politics have had a look at it and they are the experts who are better qualified than the public over this matter.

The case for implementing treaties between nations in order to force a curb on carbon emissions were put forward by politicians. They portrayed it as if they were acting based on information from the experts, the climate scientists employed by various government funded institutions. The threat is that if we keep on developing as we are, with transportation, heating, manufacturing and electricity running on fossil fuels from oil, gas and coal, we are going to pump so much CO2 into the atmosphere that it will heat up and change the weather catastrophically. It will significantly alter the climate and increase the effects of weather based natural disasters, droughts and displace people because of rising sea levels. This threat has been established by thousands of scientists working for various government funded institutions and by the IPCC, an organisation established by the UN for the purpose of studying the risks of climate change caused by human activity. Some of the data they work with is not completely open to the public, and they've had various reasons for not sharing it, but it doesn't matter since all the experts agree and they have peer-reviewed each other's data.

The case for invading Iraq and toppling Saddam was based on the opinions of the experts, even though they didn't have conclusive proof to show to the public, and Saddam was accused of keeping it secret. The precautionary principle was put forward for action. The logic is that even though they can't prove beyond reasonable doubt the level of threat that Saddam posed to the region or the rest of the world, the risk of doing nothing is that he could use these weapons and expand his power and end up doing terrible things to the world. These things could be comparable to the atrocities of the world wars less than 100 years ago. We were told that we have to invade now to ensure this won't happen, we can't just 'do nothing'.

With global warming the same precautionary principle is used. It is said that if we do nothing, and follow the 'business as usual' approach, the potential effects are catastrophic. Doing something about it, they say, is like buying insurance for your house.

We know with the Iraq war, doing something about it cost a lot. We actually don't know how much it has cost yet in total. I believe we'll learn even more lessons in hindsight regarding the cost. The cost was not only money, but also the respect the world lost for the US and the UK which will constrain them diplomatically in the future. It certainly cost a lot more than what they told the public, and likely more than they believed themselves. The fact that the US economy was going through a massive boom on the back of low interest rates at the same time as it was fighting a very expensive war might teach us more about other causes of the recession.

After the Iraq war, it now appears that Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately we'll never know for sure, especially since the person who is the most likely to know, Saddam himself, has been executed. Even with that, we still can't say conclusively that it was the right thing to do or not, it's still open for debate. What we do know is that hundreds of thousands of people died violently, and it cost a lot of money.

There are many things we can learn from this. One is that the public often know better than the experts, even if they don't have the information the experts have. Especially if the experts, the organisations they work for and the politicians have the potential to gain power and money by stressing the issue. Going to war was never a decision that the public had a chance to vote on, and neither is action over climate change. In the UK and the US both the main opposition parties were supporting the war, or during the elections they were all promising action over climate change. The IPCC, CRU, GISS etc. are all organisations that have seen their budgets increase exponentially on the back of global warming hysteria, and people like Al Gore and Rajendra Pachauri both have serious vested interests in many companies that will make fortunes on the back of a cap and trade system.

The precautionary principle is either useless, or dangerous, if you don't weigh in the costs and all the right alternatives correctly. Especially if your data is biased. I always see the parallel between the precautionary principle and Pascal's wager. Pascal justified spending his life on religion by weighing up the pros and cons of the potential of Christian faith, where the reward is a good eternal life. The problem was that he didn't calculate in the probability of picking the wrong religion out of the number of different religions around the world. The probability would be very high that we was going to pick the wrong one, but based on the information he received in the part of Europe that he lived, his data was biased.

I believe our approach to these major issues with such low levels of certainty involved, should really be closer to buying insurance, with the cost worked out correctly based on the uncertainties of the event happening, and the uncertainties around the proposed solutions. The insurance should not cost more than the house.

For example, instead of spending a fortune on invading, damaging and then building up Iraq, it would have been cheaper to put together a treaty specifying that the rest of the world will take any means necessary to remove Saddam from power if it turns out conclusively that he has weapons of mass destruction. The evidence could have been with his first use of it, which could have been terrible. However, even if he was evil and insane enough to wipe out Israel in one go, he would have been hesitant to have done it knowing the majority of the world is an allied force that will wipe him out in retaliation. I also believe such a deal would have had a better chance to get support from the entire UNSC. I also don't see how you could distinguish the value of the risk of Israel being hit first compared to the value of the risk of the people of Iraq dying in the efforts to remove their dictator. It also would have been cheaper to make sure the world is armed better to fight off this potential threat if it happens, than using the ammunition on the people and infrastructure of Iraq.

With regards to climate change, let's pay for insurance now in the form of investing in things that will help us mitigate the effects if it happens. Weather related natural disasters affect poor people more, so let's make sure poor people are richer instead and make sure a richer world is ready to withstand any other changes in climate. We know, even without man made influences, the world has suffered a lot of natural catastrophic climate change events and it has happened quickly without warning in the past. I feel it's cheaper to prepare for it, and safer, than to try eliminate one of the potential causes of it happening. Just like before the Iraq war, we aren't able to predict the real effects of our action in advance. The risk of not being able to predict the cost of these actions are not like buying insurance at a price that makes sense.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

E-numbers are not Evil-numbers

The E-numbers system is a European system to abbreviate various substances included in food products, and appears on the packaging. It seems like people are naturally suspicious of these codes, probably because they appear to indicate something very artificial and we would rather trust something that's more natural. For some, it's more than just a suspicion, which offers an opportunity to market products as being 'Free from E-numbers'.

I suppose the original purpose of E-numbers was to actually allow product manufacturers to use less printing space on their packaging to list the ingredients, and to eliminate ambiguity. This is particularly useful when printing information on small or multi-lingual packaging. Unfortunately it seems like this effort to help the consumer be more informed has backfired.

E-numbers are intended to be used to list any ingredient that has an E-number, but commonly used to list additives with long chemical names. Some of these can indeed be harmful, while some people are allergic to others, but many, or even most, are not only perfectly safe, but something you should actually want. The E-numbers in the range E200-E299 are preservatives, including sulphur Dioxide (E220) and carbon dioxide (E290). The range E300-E399 are antioxidants, including Vitamin-C (E300) and Vitamin-E (E306) and so on. These are chemicals found in many natural sources like fruit and herbs.

In other words, all sparking mineral water contains E290. In fact, a sparkling drink with vitamin-C would contain both E290 and E300. Many organic food products contain E-numbers, it's just never listed like that. In organic products, the full name of the plant material is used, even though the plant can contain dosens of substances which have their own E-numbers. Many natural ingredients derived from natural processes like fermentation have an E-number (e.g. xanthan gum). Even many of the popular food colours, like beta-carotene (E160a), are also sold as beneficial supplements to maintain and improve your health, or occurs naturally in carrots.

The substances that are normally obtained in a synthesized form, are usually based on something we used to extract from natural plant materials. The synthetic process is cheaper, and contrary to popular irrationality, a cheaper process means it's more efficient and has less of an impact on the environment. In other words we don't have to grow and destroy loads of styrax trees to obtain benzoic acid any more, just like we don't have to harvest many willow trees to eat the bark, instead of using simpler raw materials to produce aspirin.

Many people believe, mistakenly, that foods, medicines and supplements that are naturally produced are somehow potentially less harmful to their health than something synthetically produced. Having some unnatural sounding numbers for these substances make it seem even worse. However, all of this shows a clear lack of understanding what the E-numbers really are, and a general lack of understanding of food chemistry, and just general irrationality.

Most of the time decisions about what we eat are not based on logic, or even on being rational. It's a very emotional thing. We base our food decisions on knowledge, but knowledge that we select emotionally. If we care about our health, and most of us for the environment too, we are influenced by information presented to us that reminds us, emotionally, of wholesomeness. Cold, hard chemicals would appear to be the opposite to us.

It would be perfectly normal to list freshly squeezed organic orange juice to contain E300. However you will probably find it hard to sell. Actually this resistance to E-numbers has gone quite far. I've just had a quick look through all the food I have at home, and so far I could only find two items listing E-numbers, and the one is probably very old stock. I only have one 'organic' product at home. Not even the Coca-Cola products list the E-numbers any more, and I remember these being the first products I noticed with these codes.

Consumer choice wins, even though consumer choice is not entirely rational, or at least not in line with my own choice. Personally I would have preferred that all the products that I'm actually allergic to list the E-numbers, instead of some leaving them out again since there is no space.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Clay on a plate

I got a bit of clay today, put it on a plate, and made the following little video.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Some time lapse videos from Gibraltar

I've been toying with running scripts on my digital camera, and making time lapse movies from them. I thought it would be a good way to make little videos to go with the music I make.

and a slightly older one...