Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Belief in 'Wind Turbine Syndrome' seems unrelated to the presence of wind energy

Doing an opinion poll isn't an ideal way of establishing whether two phenomena are causally linked. Which is why, when investigating the reality of the phenomenon known as 'wind turbine syndrome', the National Health and Medical Research Council turned to peer-reviewed scientific literature, rather than asking the Australian population whether they believe it's real.

Sometimes, though, opinion polling can give us an interesting insight into the political manifestation of the syndrome, which was created as a campaigning tool for wind farm opponents, and subsequently began to drown out other more legitimate concerns communities had with large-scale clean tech developments in their neighbourhoods.

Polling conducted by a bipartisan organisation in the United States (as far as I know, the first of its kind) examined the attitudes of 2,477 voters on clean tech issues, including their attitudes on wind turbine syndrome, focusing on states in the Mid-West.

Their findings are fascinating, but I'm going to focus on their question around 'wind turbine syndrome'.

It's clear that the concept of 'wind turbine syndrome' hasn't taken hold in any of the states - the percentage of people who suspect the syndrome is a real condition is quite low. What interests me is how these findings relate to the installed capacity of each state - wind power has grown rapidly in the last decade, in America, as can be seen in this great US energy department graphic:

We can see an interesting trend when we compare current installed capacity to the poll's findings on 'Wind Turbine Syndrome' belief:

Alright, so what's going on?

An article in Midwest Energy News offers some insight around why there's no relationship between the presence of wind turbines and belief in wind turbine syndrome:

"The highest percentage believing [claims about wind turbine syndrome] (21 percent) was in Wisconsin, a state which has far fewer wind farms and where some political leaders have in recent years been hostile to renewable and distributed energy"

As I said earlier, this gives us more insight into the political and social existence of this phenomenon, rather than questions about its physiological feasibility. The times and places at which 'wind turbine syndrome' emerges give us a fascinating and insightful clue as to why its existence is seemingly unlinked to the operation of wind turbines.

Which brings me to something in the article I disagree with:

"Advocates say the key is using science and information to address residents’ fears and debunk myths"

Sort of. It's necessary, and the communication of science has to be done better than ever. But it's not sufficient, and it's not necessarily the 'key'. If someone adopts a belief for social, political or ideological reasons, scientific information won't be enough to cancel it out. That's why information like the polling above is so important.

It's a warning: ignore sociology and psychology, and you'll draw the gap between reality and perception even wider.

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Man Who Nearly Reviewed The Renewable Energy Target

With the recent completion (and subsequent panning) of the government-commissioned review of the renewable energy target, it's interesting to dig into what could have been, had Abbott picked someone else to lead the review.

The review ended up being helmed by an ex-oil businessman, who also happens to be a climate sceptic (is that relevant? Well - would you review medical funding by hiring someone who rejects the existence of disease?) 

It could have been much worse - Renew Economy reported a while ago that then Institute of Public Affairs 'head of deregulation' Alan Moran was the Abbott government's front-runner for heading the review.

Moran ticks the climate skeptic box without trouble. But he made some incredible errors when talking about the impact of the scheme on household bills, inflating it to about 4 times of its real value. This error was published in several major news outlets. 

This, from Abbott's first choice to review our only clean tech policy. 


A few weeks back, an article in The Australian declared that the Institute of Public Affairs ‘deregulation unit’ head, Alan Moran, had been let go, on the basis of some offensive tweets:

“On August 17, Dr Moran accused federal Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek of backing the investigation into Mr Shorten for reasons of ambition. “Tanya Plibersek backs rape probe into unnamed senior Labor figure. Can only be ‘cus he is a rival for leadership?’’ Dr Moran tweeted. He sparked outrage when he tweeted this month: “Is there ever anything but evil coming from Islam?’’”

A few days prior to this, Moran was responsible for the creation of an odd myth, in an opinion piece written for the Australian Financial Review (AFR):

“In terms of the direct impact on electricity consumers, the burden of renewable requirements this year is estimated by the energy regulator to add 12 per cent to the average household’s electricity costs. That’s about $260 per year.”

$260 per year? That doesn't sound right.

The myth infected Andrew Bolt, who picked up on the mysterious $260/yr value. From there, furious climate change deniers and anti-renewable netizens hollered outrage into the self-constructed void in which they dwell.

On Friday, four days after his piece in the AFR, Moran wrote another piece, this time for the Herald Sun, in which he’s billed as a ‘prominent energy economist’. He repeats the claim:

“Finally we had various government renewable energy requirements, including the Commonwealth’s Renewable Energy Target, which added 12 per cent to the price”

To put it nicely, Moran’s "12%" value is really, really weird.

The day before his original piece, the AFR published an infographic explaining the impost of the RET on consumer electricity bills:

Perhaps Moran has accidentally combined solar feed in tariffs (FiT) and the RET? That only brings us up to 6% of retail electricity bills, half of Moran’s 12%.

I tried tweeting at Moran, to determine where he’d sourced his values, and who this mysterious ‘energy regulator’ was. His responses were baffling and evasive, but he did offer some clues as to where he'd sourced his data.

As he reveals above, Moran is referencing the IPA’s submission to the RET review, authored by himself, which features a table from the Australian Energy Market Commission's ‘Residential Electricity Price Trends’ report from earlier this year.

Confusingly, he cites ‘16.67’ cents as the total cost of a kilowatt hour of electricity, when the table in the IPA’s submission (and the original report from which it’s sourced) shows that it’s around 27-28 cents, depending on the year:

The only explanation I can offer is that Moran has mistaken Tasmania’s ‘network costs’ on page 104, somehow, for the total average cost of an average electricity bill in Australia - it's the only time the value "16.67" shows up in the report.

If we use Australia's data, and we average FY14 and FY15, (and remove half of the carbon price for this year), we can get to Moran’s “12%” - by including all environmental schemes, rather than just renewables:

Compared to the $260 Moran cites, only $80 is attributable to the Renewable Energy Target, the subject of his article. The remaining $180 is due to programs that have nothing to do with the Renewable Energy Target: the carbon pricing mechanism, state level schemes and the feed-in tariff.

Something went horribly wrong with Moran's maths. Because of this, several media outlets published outright falsehoods on their pages. 

The AEMC remind us:

“The renewable generation that is supported by the LRET also tends to offer its capacity into the wholesale spot market at a low price. In regions where there is significant entry of renewable generation, the net effect of this behaviour may be an overall reduction in wholesale spot market prices”

The fact that undermines opponents of the RET scheme is that every single piece of modelling, no matter how biased the assumptions, shows that the impost of the RET on electricity bills is small.

Even the RET Review’s own modelling estimates that over the life of the scheme consumers will be better off under the existing RET legislation:

Moran may have mistaken Tasmania’s network costs for the total electricity cost, or he may have classified all environment schemes as ‘renewable’, and derived the percentage that way. It doesn’t matter. 

The error gives us an insight into what the outcome of the RET review may have been like, had Abbott gone with his original choice.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

UNSW Guest Lecture - The Benefits of Blending Engineering with Communication

This is adapted from a presentation given to UNSW students at the Climate Change Research Centre. Many, many thanks to them for asking me to come along. Universities are fun.



The Herald Sun has the highest circulation of any daily newspaper, in Australia. It has a daily readership of 1.5 million. Not too long ago, an economics writer working for the Herald Sun decided to publish an article about wind power. In it, he writes:

“On Monday, all the wind farms in Southern Australia, all the hundreds of turbines scattered across South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania, altogether produced exactly zero — nothing, nada, zip, zilch — power for two hours smack in the middle of the day……..That included those two hours, from 3pm to 5pm, of absolutely no power”

I work at a company called Infigen Energy, and part of my current job is assembling and disseminating articles that discuss renewable energy. This article came up in my media monitoring sweep, and I felt an instant thrill. It’s not often that you see articles in the media that attempt to discuss the actual operation of wind energy in this level of detail. So, did the author get it right? Did the entire Australian wind farm fleet simultaneously drop to zero megawatts of power output?

When you access wind farm generation data hosted by the east coast market operator, known as AEMO, you can see that the actual output of wind farm was around 20 megawatts. The total installed capacity of the wind farm fleet is around 3,000 megawatts, so it’s obviously quite low. But it’s not zero, so the content in the article in the Herald Sun was demonstrably false.

Here’s the other thing – even if the combined power output of all wind farms were to drop to zero, it doesn't really mean anything. There are two reasons for this.

First, wind farms are not distributed across all possible high-wind sites on the Eastern seaboard. Modelling commissioned for AEMO shows that there's a variety of locations in Australia you need to build your wind farms to ensure a proper spread. We're not there yet.

Obviously, this isn't modelling isn't 100% wind power. It’s mix. It’s assumed that there will be times when wind speeds are low across the fleet, and that we can account for these rare occurrences using other low-carbon or zero carbon technologies.

Even without considering the presence of other technologies, we can quantify the frequency with which our wind energy fleet sees periods at which the output is low. Here’s a chart of the percent of time, each month, that the fleet spent below 50 megawatts. As you can see, as the installed capacity of wind farms increased over the past three years, the amount of time that fleet-wide low-wind occurred was low.

This is a pretty interesting mistake. These articles tend to get re-blogged and tweeted and cited in a variety of places, meaning it has a real impact on how people view technology like wind energy. It’s pretty important to compare it to better, more accurate coverage of technology.


This article, published in The Australian, looks at the same month – July – but it reports on data for the entire month, rather than a single two hour period.

43% of South Australian electrical energy was sourced from wind power, for the month of July. This is the highest ever percentage of power from wind energy in a single state for a month.

This article considers the energy output of wind power, not the power output. Wind power varies when you examine it on a short time scale, but when you look at contribution over time, you can see that it contributes pretty significantly to the energy mix.

We have two articles here, about the same month, that seem to reach extremely different conclusions.

One decries wind energy as a useless, ideological totem – something that fails with obscene regularity. The other article, wielding the same month and the same data, declares that it’s the best performance of wind power in the history of the technology in the country. The fact that wind speeds change over time seems to be dealt with very differently, despite the facts being the same in each instance. 

There are a couple of clips I’d like to play here, to illustrate how engineering problems are understood by politicians. In this case, I’m going to instance a politician who currently holds the highest office in Australia. This is a clip of Tony Abbott talking to the Australian Steel Institute in 2011:

And, let’s follow up that clip with another clip.

Yep. You can use sunlight to melt steel. Whilst it's no steel mill, it's enough to demonstrate Abbott's hope and desires around the absence of clean tech in industry and manufacturing are false (incidentally, BMW will partly power their proposed electric car manufacturing plant with a wind farm) 

2011 wasn’t the last time he said it either. It’s become his favourite talking point when asked about the viability of renewable energy – a pithy phrase that’s summoned quite regularly.


The logic underpinning this sound bite is that if a resource varies over time, then it is disqualified from comprising any percentage of our national electricity grid. What do we do when the sun doesn’t shine, and the wind speeds are low? Don’t we want reliable baseload generation in the electricity market?

In a letter written by a wind farm opposition group in South Australia, we find traces of the article I mentioned in the Herald Sun, mixed in with Tony Abbott’s catch phrase – “When the wind doesn't blow, the power doesn’t flow”.

It’s pretty clear that media, politics and the public are intertwined. Within each of the three categories, there are times where people have a good understanding of the technicalities of renewable energy, and there are times where people have an extremely bad understanding of the technicalities of wind energy.

These three areas of public discourse have a shaky and fragile relationship with the hard engineering that underpins the coal face (excuse the term) of our efforts to decarbonise our energy system. The key to understanding why science and emotion collide in these worlds lies in an operational federal government scheme known as the renewable energytarget.


This policy was introduced by the Howard government in 2001, and since then, it’s been split into two parts – the LRET, or large scale renewable energy target, and the SRES, or small scale renewable energy scheme. Combined, these two schemes aim to ensure we get at least 20% of the total energy over the course of a year from energy sources that aren’t coupled to greenhouse gas emissions. These energy sources include hydro, wave, tide, ocean, wind, solar, energy crops, ag waste, food waste, black liquor and a range of others.

So, we started at a point where we had 0% of the total energy made by our machines from clean tech. We want 20% of electrical energy made by different machines – ones that aren't coupled to greenhouse gas emissions.

But if we build the machines, will we need the electricity? What if we have too much electricity?

An example of a 'bid stack', showing offers of generation at differing prices, stack from lowest price to highest price. 

This is what’s called a bid stack. Every five minutes, the market operator, AEMO, figures out exactly how much power it needs, measured in megawatts.

This is what’s called ‘dispatch’. One of AEMO’s responsibilities is the reliable supply of power to meet the demand we create when we turn on our TVs and laptops. They also need to ensure there’s extra capacity in case something goes offline – whether that’s a single power station or a transmission line transporting electricity from place to another.

But that’s not the only thing they do. They also need to deliver the power at the cheapest possible price.

So, every five minutes, each generator on the electricity market, regardless of fuel type, submits a bid – they offer a certain number of megawatts at a certain number of dollars. AEMO wants the final price to be as cheap as possible – so they fill up the stack of required megawatts from the cheapest to the most expensive. So coal, which is generally the cheapest, offers their megawatts at the lowest price. Gas is a bit more expensive, and so it fills the stack even further.

If demand is high enough, they'll call on diesel generators, which are expensive. The price is set by the generator that gets slotted in just before they hit the required amount of for demand.

Power output by fuel type in South Australia, over the past few days, showing wind crowding out generation from fossil fuels. 

Things get interesting when you add renewable energy. The RET scheme works by requiring retailers to purchase clean energy generation certificates, which are known as LGCs. They pass the cost of these through to the consumer – they make up about 3% of your electricity bill. I’ll come back to these a bit later. The certificates offset the expensive cost incurred by companies building wind farms and solar panels when building the machines. But once they’re built, the fuel is free. So when we submit our bid every five minutes, our bid more than just cheap – it’s zero dollars. However much renewable energy resource is available is dispatch first because we’ve submitted the lowest bid.

A snapshot of wholesale electricity prices on the 26th of August

Because we’re filling the stack with cheap clean energy, and because the cost of building expensive machines is offset through the certificate scheme, the price that ends being set by the last generator that slots into the stack is a lower price than it would have been, had there been no renewable energy. If prices are decreased more than 3%, then clean technology has already made up for the 3% price impact on retail electricity bills.

During the rare times when there’s no wind output or no solar output, things are just business as usual. So, prices are either normal, or lower - on average, that means prices end up lower. 

What I've just described is known as the merit order effect, and the heatwave we experienced during January this year is an excellent example of this effect at play. The chart shown here is the output of wind farms during the week. Because there were times where wind power pushed the bid stack upwards, it meant the slice of super-expensive generation at the top of the bid was cut out of the dispatch run. An energy retailer named Meridian energy analysed power output and wholesale price during the week, comparing actual price to what the energy market would look like without wind in the system.

Sinclair Knight Mertz, the modellers involved in this, found that wind contributed to 6% of volume in Victoria and South Australia, but reduced wholesale prices by 40%. When prices are already high due to extremely high demand, that reduction ends up being a very large dollar value, in the order of millions.

Another example of the actual outcomes of the addition of renewable energy technology to the grid – the crowding out effect of fossil fuel generation I cited above. The chart above shows output by fuel type in South Australia in the final weeks of July and early August. You can see, quite clearly, that there is less gas dispatched in South Australia during that week. The extent to which this occur depends on the output of wind farms. But because wind speeds are nearly always high enough to have some output, this effect is almost always occurring.

An example of cherry-picking in media discussion about power output - this instance occured during the heatwave in January. Source

Consistently, those opposed to wind power, whether they’re embedded in the media, politics or just public opinion, choose time periods where power output is low. It’s a meaningless assertion, but it’s a quick fix – it betrays a disconnect between the engineering of the electricity grid – in that the system can handle variable output technology quite easily.

“Based on experience to date and analysis of likely future outcomes, AEMO considers that it is technically feasible to integrate the renewable energy likely to emerge from the existing RET settings while maintaining the security of the power system”

AEMO state quite clearly in their RET submission that it doesn’t matter that when the wind don’t blow, the power don’t flow – the system is designed to absorb that variability. Additionatelly, AEMO uses an advanced wind power forecasting system.

It’s important to remember that communicating the science and engineering underpinning this particular aspect of our reaction to climate change requires a fairly dedicated effort not only to analytical honesty, but to finding the ability to communicate with the same passion that the doubters do.

Monday, 1 September 2014

The RET Review: Rendering a Carbon-Intensive Utopia for Climate Deniers

The panel charged with reviewing Australia's renewable energy target concluded, simply, that we ought to increase greenhouse gas emissions and protect fossil fuels. The conclusions exist to render a perfect energy system -  coated with carbon. 


As you move through open world computer games, the software renders only the world in front of your view. Everything behind your head doesn't exist. Everything past those mountains in the distance exists only when you climb over and look.

If you stand still, nothing needs to exist bar the things rendered in front of your face.

The review of the renewable energy target, instigated by Prime Minister Abbott and written by a panel hand-picked by the PM's office, exists to ensure the only future we render is one that's cloaked in carbon. The thought of an energy system that's even partly powered by low-carbon machines is one that threatens the worldview of those who reject the science of climate change.

As many have pointed out, the RET review found, simply, that the scheme was successful at reducing carbon emissions by adding clean technology to the grid, at minimal cost to consumers. Despite this, the panellists recommended that the scheme is either axed immediately, or axed slowly.

The logic for this recommendation lies in the fact that lowering carbon emissions means profits fall for fossil fuels, and that renewable energy companies, instead of not existing, make money from generating power.

For a long time, the Abbott government has been declaring their support for the Renewable Energy target, and promised, prior to the election, that the scheme had their full support. Mark Butler, the shadow environment minister, compiled these in a press release:

Look, we originated a renewable energy target. That was one of the policies of the Howard Government and yes we remain committed to a renewable energy target … we have no plans to change the renewable energy target.
Tony Abbott, 29 September 2011 
But the Opposition Leader told the party room that people saw generating renewable energy as an important issue and the Coalition had to commit to it.
The Australian, 20 June 2012 
“We will be keeping the renewable energy target. We’ve made that commitment. We have no plans or proposals to change it... We have no plans or intention for change and we’ve offered bipartisan support to that.”
Greg Hunt, speech, 27 February, 2013 
It has been interesting to note the claims being made about what the Coalition will or won’t do. All of it is simply conjecture. The Coalition supports the current system, including the 41,000 giga-watt hours target.
Simon Birmingham, Speech to the Clean Energy Week Conference, 24 July 2013
Breaking an election promise to kill an industry that has near-zero (and eventual negative) impact on electricity prices, creates jobs and is extremely popular with the public seems like a poorly calculated move. But the logic underpinning the move to scrap the RET isn't logical - it's tied inextricably with the landscape of climate change denial in Australia.

Dick Warburton, the head of the panel that authored the final report, has been variously described as a climate change sceptic, climate change denier, and climate change critic. Yesterday, whilst being interviewed by Andrew Bolt, Warburton stated that:

"Well, as I read the facts that are coming through, the temperatures have not risen since 1998, there's been just a flat area, even though carbon emissions have gone up, but the temperature has not"
Via SkepticScience - the reason a 'pause' is cited to argue against climate science

That the head of a renewable energy review is spouting long-debunked anti-scientific climate denial talking points on national television ought to precipitate some nervousness in us.

Can you imagine Abbott conducting a review of car safety, and appointing someone who rejects the causal relationship between car crashes and injury? There's no reason to suspect he wouldn't, if industry wealth was threatened.

The subtle anti-scientific justifications for the RET review explains why messaging has been so confused. During Warburton's interview with Bolt, he states that "Electricity prices will continue to rise" if RET isn't modified - this directly contradicts the findings of the modelling commissioned for the report:

The first option offered by Warburton is the outright cessation of the large-scale renewable energy target scheme. Buried in the text of the report:

"With less renewables in the electricity mix, the wholesale electricity price would initially drop, but would then increase from 2018 onwards and would outweigh the savings from avoided certificate costs by around 2020; causing retail electricity prices to be higher than if the RET remained"

Warburton is literally calling for higher household electricity prices, whilst stating that he's scrapping the RET to avoid price increases. Peter Hannam writes for the SMH:

"The Warburton panel appears to be calling for the most expensive option for the large-scale component. According to its own modelling, provided by ACIL Allen, closing the scheme to new entrants would be $302 more costly than the current setting for households over 2015-2040. By contrast, raising the goal to 30 per cent by 2030 would leave households $297 better off"

Even more confusingly, Warburton goes on to cite the forthcoming decrease in wholesale electricity price (due to renewable energy) as further evidence for an *increase* in price, in the future. What? It's a garbled conglomerate of underhand fallacies and heavy-handed mistakes.

In an equally confusing interview with Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast, Warburton claims Abbott's Direct Action policy is a suitable replacement for the RET - a policy that hasn't been passed into legislation, let alone written, modelled or examined.

Warburton isn't just championing higher electricity prices - both LRET options he recommends will result directly in increased carbon emissions:

The only consistency in messaging so far has been the repetition of the word 'billion' with force - the number preceding this angry mantra is the amount of money the fossil fuel generators will lose in the process of the alteration of Australia's energy system to a safer, cleaner mix. They inject unmasked feeling and fervour into these words, because they're talking about the monetary outcome of a world where climate science is real, rather than a conspiracy borne of grant-hungry scientists and scheming environmentalists.

If climate change isn't a fraudulent conspiracy, then we do indeed need to re-balance our energy mix, incentivise clean technology, and penalise those gaining wealth from damaging humanity. A 'cross-subsidy', in a world rendered such, is simply the outcome of over-investment in injurious technology.

Their world needs to be protected - the barricades must be strengthened and the foundations must be buttressed. A new conspiracy theory about dastardly scientists from the weather bureau grabbing weather stations and moving them to 'fake' a global warming trend, presumably cackling maniacally whilst doing so, gets a near-daily run in The Australian. These sit alongside Tony Abbott's business advisor Maurice Newman, unironically warns of global cooling (in his response to criticism, he complained of the weather bureau's 'unscientific rounding').

Today, Chris Mitchell, the editor-in-chief of The Australia, angrily inquired:

“Why are the views of environmental activists privileged above the role of economic growth, which inevitably creates better ­environmental, employment and social outcomes for the wider community?”

The perplexing disparity between the actual information in the RET review modelling, and Warburton's recommendations makes sense only when we consider the urgency with which the climate change denial community needs to preserve the incumbency of fossil fuel generators, and strengthen our dependence on fuels that damage societies, economies and atmospheres.

It can't go on forever. Most of us are rendering a future of technological improvement, rather than technological stagnation.

We can't stand still forever. Actively stifling our completely human need for improvement isn't something that will be readily forgiven. Not by us, nor those who inherit the thin film of atmosphere we inhabit. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The Bureau of Meteorology is engaging in an evil conspiracy.......TO BE ADORABLE

I think everyone should read the Bureau of Meteorology statement, published in response to a fairly disjointed theory being furiously bandied by increasingly desperate climate change deniers, that implies the BoM is intentionally moving weather stations to 'fake' a warming trend.

But I'm worried people won’t read it.

So, here it is, altered to incorporate fluff balls. Everything has been peer-reviewed to ensure maximum daintiness.

Statement via Graham Readfern’s excellent piece for The Guardian
Pictures via this and this.


Contrary to assertions in some parts of the media, the Bureau is not altering climate records to exaggerate estimates of global warming.

Our role is to make meteorological measurements, and to curate, analyse and communicate the data for use in decision making and to support public understanding.

To undertake these tasks, the Bureau employs highly skilled technicians and scientists and invests in high quality monitoring equipment.

The Bureau measures temperature at nearly 800 sites across Australia, chiefly for the purpose of weather forecasting. The Australian Climate Observations Reference Network – Surface Air Temperature (ACORN-SAT) is a subset of this network comprising 112 locations that are used for climate analysis. The ACORN-SAT stations have been chosen to maximise both length of record and network coverage across the continent. For several years, all of this data has been made publicly available on the Bureau’s web site.

Temperature records are influenced by a range of factors such as changes to site surrounds (eg. trees casting shade or influencing wind), measurement methods and the relocation of stations (eg. from a coastal to more inland location). Such changes introduce biases into the climate record that need to be adjusted for prior to analysis.

Adjusting for these biases, a process known as homogenisation, is carried out by meteorological authorities around the world as best practice, to ensure that climate data is consistent through time.

At the Bureau’s request, our climate data management practices were subject to a rigorous independent peer-review in 2012. A panel of international experts found the Bureau’s data and methods were amongst the best in the world.

The Bureau’s submissions to the review were published on the Bureau’s website, as were the findings of the review panel. The Bureau’s methods have also been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Both the raw and adjusted ACORN-SAT data and the larger unadjusted national data set all indicate that Australian air temperatures have warmed over the last century. This finding is consistent with observed warming in the oceans surrounding Australia. These findings are also consistent with those of other leading international meteorological authorities, such as NOAA and NASA in the United States and the UK MetOffice. The high degree of similarity is demonstrated in Figure 1 (above).

The Bureau strives to ensure that its data sets and analysis methods are as robust as possible. For this reason we place considerable emphasis on quality assurance, transparency and communication. The Bureau welcomes critical analysis of the Australian climate record by others through rigorous scientific peer review processes.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Renewable energy can't power industry, except when it can, er, just ignore that

I came across this wonderful little clip yesterday:

"There is no way on God's Earth that you can have a solar powered steel mill just as there's no way you can have a wind powered manufacturing plant"
- Tony Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia 
Abbott issued this decree to the Steel Institute in 2011.

This is a video of a solar powered steel mill:

And this BMW manufacturing plant is powered by wind turbines:

"Wind turbines providing power to the BMW Leipzig Plant"

"In July 2013, the BMW Leipzig plant took four wind turbines into service on the factory premises. These Nordex wind turbines have a total power output of 10 MW. This is more than is required for future production of electric cars.....The power needed for the production will be produced on the plant premises by four wind turbines"


Monday, 11 August 2014

Pseudoscience: When You Really, Really Really Hate Data and Deduction

Last week, Senator Eric Abetz, a senior figure in the Australian government, told a panel show that abortion causes breast cancer:

"I think the studies, and I think they date back from the 1950s, assert that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer."

Abetz' massively awkward attempt to engage with medical science were instantaneously labelled as 'anti-science' on Twitter:

It seems logical to label something so monumentally ignorant as 'anti-science'. It's harmful to citizens who receive conflicted medical advice from their television, but it also creates unnecessary work for doctors and scientists who might better spend their time dealing with actual science, rather than refuting inane theories spouted by the scientifically illiterate.

The thing is, I'm not sure I like the term 'anti-science' (though I have repeated it myself in the past). Too often it's used in the case of a single issue, like medicine, or climate science, as an angry rhetorical reflex - of course you think abortion causes breast cancer, you hate science, don't you?

I seriously doubt most people who reject any of these fields of scientific inquiry are truly anti-science. I suspect Abetz is perfectly comfortable with, say, astrophysics, or x-ray crystallography, or chemistry.

But there's still some element of truth to the phrase. I just think it needs to be tweaked.

One of the best examples of what could be classed as something truly 'anti-scientific' is the enjoyably unhinged website 'Natural News', run by a chap named Mike Adams.

Recently, Natural News decided to adopt the issue of 'wind turbine syndrome', and in true Natural News style, they did it in an auto-parodic hurricane of lunacy:

"The blades are known to make infrasounds (sic), vibrations that we cannot consciously "hear" but still have an effect on the inner ear.....Symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, headache, difficulty concentrating and insomnia"

Natural News is an incredible collection of pseudoscience. Namely, they're strong advocates of homeopathy, and they're rabid opponents of vaccination. The issue of 'wind turbine syndrome' is a natural fit for Natural News, because being a proponent of 'wind turbine syndrome' necessitate a certain hostility towards a core scientific concept - waiting for evidence before forming conclusions.

Natural News in a nutshell

This is something I came across again quite recently, reading a blog post on windturbinesyndrome dot com. To awkwardly give anecdotal evidence more weight than one normally would in the process of scientific inquiry is the defining feature of a truly 'anti-data' approach, and it features strongly in this post authored by a doctor in Vermont named Sandy Reider:

"Before concluding, I would like to emphasize that the bulk of scientific evidence for adverse health effects due to industrial wind installations comes in the form of thousands of case reports like the patient I described. One or two sporadic anecdotal cases can legitimately be viewed with a wait-and-see skepticism, but not thousands where the symptoms are so similar, along with the ease of observing exposure and measuring outcomes, wherever these projects have been built.  
I agree with Epidemiologist Carl Phillips, who opined that “these case reports taken together offer the most compelling scientific evidence of serious harm.  Just because the prevailing models have failed to explain observed adverse health effects does not mean they do not exist”"

This is an interesting concept. It excises a core component of scientific investigation - that we need to deduce causal relationships, through controlled studies, before we make assertions about their existence. It also implies that the only necessary information needed to declare the confirmed existence of 'wind turbine syndrome' is the possibility that it's real.

A cursory trawl through Google shows that 'wind turbine syndrome' isn't the only medically contentious issue that Reider is involved in. He's a listed homeopath, as shown on this website, and he's left a comment on this post about 'tautopathy' (a practice predicated on the idea that side effects to medicine can be treated through the issuing of doses of that same medicine).

Similarly, Reider has written content advocating against vaccination, with the implication being that the process is likely to cause harm or injury. In a piece re-published on a website called 'The Refusers', Reider writes:

"Current immunization policy relies on the oft-repeated assertion that vaccines are safe and effective. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute of Medicine, and even the American Academy of Pediatrics have acknowledged that serious reactions, including seizures, progressive encephalopathy, and death, can and do occur.
The federal vaccine injury court, which was established at the same time that vaccine manufacturers were exempted from liability, has to date paid $2.6 billion dollars in compensation for vaccine injuries. And there is ample reason to believe that the incidence of vaccine injury is strongly underreported."

The fallacy being used here is elegantly explained by blogger Kathy McGrath:

"Sometimes vaccine critics will use Vaccine Court injuries as evidence of harm. But law courts do not determine causation  -  medical science does.   In Australia, all claims would need to go through a lengthy civil process. I think that the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) in the US appeals to people who misunderstand the process and may think they can take advantage of the system. 
If you take a look at the numbers of vaccine reactions , the rate of compensation of vaccine injuries in the American vaccine court means that 99.99999999% of Americans are vaccinated without issue"

The key part of Reider's writing is this: "there is ample reason to believe that the incidence of vaccine injury is strongly underreported". It's an appeal to the absence of evidence. It's the idea that information, collated and analysed in a controlled fashion so as to remove the influence of subjectivity and bias, is as cold, heartless and toxic as a pill produced by big pharma.

Two sentences penned by Reider in a submission to a US senate committee neatly summarise what seems to be a genuine anti-data attitude:

"I  have to tell you that from my clinical perspective, no amount of hype or spin will convince me that the  adverse  effects of persons living too close to a large wind turbine are simply psychosomatic"........"The adage 'absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence' comes to mind" 

One cannot declare a conclusion whilst simultaneously citing a lack of evidence as reason to believe that conclusion. If there is truly an absence of evidence, as Reider states, then how is he justified in telling patients that their suffering is caused by wind turbines?

This inverse rule is a paradox: No data is needed to reach a strong conclusion about 'wind turbine syndrome', and no data can exist that could ever reverse that strong conclusion:

The denial of deduction and causation is a necessary component in the concrete acceptance of extremely weak hypotheses, such as those underlying homeopathy, anti-vaccination fear-mongering, anti-abortion pseudoscience dating back to the 1950's, or 'wind turbine syndrome'.

Abetz' efforts on The Project saw him appealing for the rejection of prevailing consensus, despite attempts to backpedal. Unfortunately, for Abetz, the reason that medical science works so well is because scientific facts are deduced using careful testing. The scientific method isn't perfect, but it's an extremely useful tool for deducing the shape of reality.

Reider's last paragraph is something I can imagine has been hurtling through Abetz's mind for the past five days. It's the freedom to ignore data, and to let truth be guided by our desires, rather than our science.

"For better or worse, in today’s “information age” we are perhaps too fascinated by computers and mountains of data, but truth is truth, wherever you find it, even in small places"