Saturday, April 28, 2018

GWPF Newsletter: BBC Axes ‘Human Planet’ After Admitting Scenes Were Faked

The Scientific Importance of Free Speech

In this newsletter:  

1) BBC Axes ‘Human Planet’ After Admitting Scenes Were Faked
The Daily Telegraph, 26 April 2018
2) Adam Perkins: The Scientific Importance of Free Speech
Quillette, April 2018

3) To Solve The Science Crisis, We Need A Science Court
Henry H. Bauer, National Association of Scholars, 25 April 2018
4) Capell Aris: Beware The Lure Of Solar Battery Stores
CapX, 27 April 2018

Full details:

1) BBC Axes ‘Human Planet’ After Admitting Scenes Were Faked
The Daily Telegraph, 26 April 2018

The BBC has withdrawn Human Planet from distribution after admitting that the series faked scenes of an Indonesian hunter harpooning a whale. In all, there have been four fakery stories surrounding the series.

Benjamin is show leaping from the boat with a harpoon CREDIT: BBC

The natural history programme is currently available on Netflix but will be withdrawn within 24 hours while the corporation conducts an “editorial review”.

It is the second Human Planet fakery story this month. It emerged that film-makers had staged scenes of a rainforest tribe supposedly living in a treehouse 140 feet from the ground.

The opening episode of the 2011 series visited the Indonesian island of Lembata and focused on a young man named Benjamin Blikololong. He was shown jumping into the sea during a sperm whale hunt, and viewers were told he had succeeded in harpooning it.

A voiceover from John Hurt said: “Benjamin’s moment has arrived.” After he leapt into the water brandishing the weapon, Hurt said: “He’s got it.” Viewers are then Blikololong received a larger share of the whale meat because he “struck the decisive blow”.

But a journalist writing a book on the whale hunters, who live on the tiny island of Lembata, met Blikololong and heard that he had not harpooned the whale. He then contacted the BBC.

In a statement, the corporation said: “The BBC has been alerted to a further editorial breach in the Human Planet series from 2011.

“In Episode 1, Oceans, a Lamaleran whale hunter named Benjamin Blikololong is shown supposedly harpooning a whale. On review, the BBC does not consider that the portrayal of his role was accurate, although the sequence does reflect how they hunt whales.

“The BBC has decided to withdraw Human Planet from distribution for a full editorial review.”

In all, there have been four fakery stories surrounding the series.

Full story

2) Adam Perkins: The Scientific Importance of Free Speech
Quillette, April 2018 

Editor’s note: this is a shortened version of a speech that the author was due to give last month at King’s College London which was cancelled because the university deemed the event to be too ‘high risk’.

A quick Google search suggests that free speech is a regarded as an important virtue for a functional, enlightened society. For example, according to George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Likewise, Ayaan Hirsi Ali remarked: “Free speech is the bedrock of liberty and a free society, and yes, it includes the right to blaspheme and offend.” In a similar vein, Bill Hicks declared: “Freedom of speech means you support the right of people to say exactly those ideas which you do not agree with”.

But why do we specifically need free speech in science? Surely we just take measurements and publish our data? No chit chat required. We need free speech in science because science is not really about microscopes, or pipettes, or test tubes, or even Large Hadron Colliders. These are merely tools that help us to accomplish a far greater mission, which is to choose between rival narratives, in the vicious, no-holds-barred battle of ideas that we call “science”.

For example, stomach problems such as gastritis and ulcers were historically viewed as the products of stress. This opinion was challenged in the late 1970s by the Australian doctors Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, who suspected that stomach problems were caused by infection with the bacteria Helicobacter pylori. Frustrated by skepticism from the medical establishment and by difficulties publishing his academic papers, in 1984, Barry Marshall appointed himself his own experimental subject and drank a Petri dish full of H. pylori culture. He promptly developed gastritis which was then cured with antibiotics, suggesting that H. pylori has a causal role in this type of illness. You would have thought that given this clear-cut evidence supporting Warren and Marshall’s opinion, their opponents would immediately concede defeat. But scientists are only human and opposition to Warren and Marshall persisted. In the end it was two decades before their crucial work on H. pylori gained the recognition it deserved, with the award of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

From this episode we can see that even in situations where laboratory experiments can provide clear evidence in favour of a particular scientific opinion, opponents will typically refuse to accept it. Instead scientists tend cling so stubbornly to their pet theories that no amount of evidence will change their minds and only death can bring an end to the argument, as famously observed by Max Planck:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

It is a salutary lesson that even in a society that permits free speech, Warren and Marshall had difficulty publishing their results. If their opponents had the legal power to silence them their breakthrough would have taken even longer to have become clinically accepted and even more people would have suffered unnecessarily with gastric illness that could have been cured quickly and easily with a course of antibiotics. But scientific domains in which a single experiment can provide a definitive answer are rare. For example, Charles Darwin’s principle of evolution by natural selection concerns slow, large-scale processes that are unsuited to testing in a laboratory. In these cases, we take a bird’s eye view of the facts of the matter and attempt to form an opinion about what they mean.

This allows a lot of room for argument, but as long as both sides are able to speak up, we can at least have a debate: when a researcher disagrees with the findings of an opponent’s study, they traditionally write an open letter to the journal editor critiquing the paper in question and setting out their counter-evidence. Their opponent then writes a rebuttal, with both letters being published in the journal with names attached so that the public can weigh up the opinions of the two parties and decide for themselves whose stance they favour. I recently took part in just such an exchange of letters in the elite journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. The tone is fierce and neither side changed their opinions, but at least there is a debate that the public can observe and evaluate.

The existence of scientific debate is also crucial because as the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman remarked in 1963: “There is no authority who decides what is a good idea.” The absence of an authority who decides what is a good idea is a key point because it illustrates that science is a messy business and there is no absolute truth. This was articulated in Tom Schofield’s posthumously published essay in which he wrote:

[S]cience is not about finding the truth at all, but about finding better ways of being wrong. The best scientific theory is not the one that reveals the truth — that is impossible. It is the one that explains what we already know about the world in the simplest way possible, and that makes useful predictions about the future. When I accepted that I would always be wrong, and that my favourite theories are inevitably destined to be replaced by other, better, theories — that is when I really knew that I wanted to be a scientist.

When one side of a scientific debate is allowed to silence the other side, this is an impediment to scientific progress because it prevents bad theories being replaced by better theories. Or, even worse, it causes civilization to go backward, such as when a good theory is replaced by a bad theory that it previously displaced. The latter situation is what happened in the most famous illustration of the dire consequences that can occur when one side of a scientific debate is silenced. This occurred in connection with the theory that acquired characteristics are inherited. This idea had been out of fashion for decades, in part due to research in the 1880s by August Weismann. He conducted an experiment that entailed amputating the tails of 68 white mice, over 5 generations. He found that no mice were born without a tail or even with a shorter tail. He stated: “901 young were produced by five generations of artificially mutilated parents, and yet there was not a single example of a rudimentary tail or of any other abnormality in this organ.”

These findings and others like them led to the widespread acceptance of Mendelian genetics. Unfortunately for the people of the USSR, Mendelian genetics are incompatible with socialist ideology and so in the 1930s USSR were replaced with Trofim Lysenko’s socialism-friendly idea that acquired characteristics are inherited. Scientists who disagreed were imprisoned or executed. Soviet agriculture collapsed and millions starved. […]

Today, there are many reasons to be concerned over the state of free speech, from the growing chill on university campuses to the increased policing of art forms such as literature and film. Discussion of scientific topics on podcasts has also attracted the ire of petty Lysenkoists. But there is also cause for optimism, as long as we stand up for the principle that no one has the right to police our opinions. As Christopher Hitchens remarked.

“My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line, and kiss my ass.”

Full text 

3) To Solve The Science Crisis, We Need A Science Court
Henry H. Bauer, National Association of Scholars, 25 April 2018

The “crisis of irreproducibility” is only a symptom. The central crisis concerns the role of science in society, namely, that what official sources are now disseminating as supposedly reliable is actually untrustworthy in many ways on many matters — about health risks and drugs, for instance, or global warming.

There are two interlocking facets of this crisis. One is the actual nature of contemporary scientific activity, which conduces to untrustworthiness. The other is society’s ignorance of and misunderstandings about the nature of contemporary scientific activity, related to pervasive ignorance of and misunderstandings about the history of science. A further complication is that fundamental changes have taken place in science during the era of modern science (usually dated from about the 17th century), and society as a whole is ignorant of that.

In some  respects, society’s views about science, the conventional contemporary wisdom about science, would not be so inaccurate about early modern science, but they are badly misleading about contemporary science. In a seriously oversimplified nutshell:

The circumstances of scientific activity have changed, from about pre-WWII to nowadays, from a cottage industry of voluntarily cooperating, independent, largely disinterested ivory-tower intellectual entrepreneurs in which science was free to do its own thing, namely the unfettered seeking of truth about the natural world, to a bureaucratic corporate-industry-government behemoth in which science has been pervasively co-opted by outside interests and is not free to do its own thing because of the pervasive conflicts of interest. Influences and interests outside the scientific community now control choices of research projects and decisions of what to publish and what not to make public.

The enormous expansion of support for science following WWII stimulated the training of increasing numbers of people for scientific work, and the consequent demands for resources for research have far outstripped what is available, bringing cutthroat competition and the associated evils of dishonesty including an increased frequency of outright fraud; illustrated by the need for an Office of Research Integrity and related regulations and activities.

These details about how science has changed explain why this crisis is with us now.

The crisis with respect to the hard sciences has come because of these changes in the character of scientific activity, of which the irreproducibility crisis is only a symptomatic part. For example, that the unproven hypothesis of human-caused climate change is so widely believed and acted on is not owing to misused statistics or irreproducibility: it is owing to the outdated reliance on “science” as reliable, the taking as automatically true what official sources say about science, the ignorant assumption that computer models can substitute for reality; and it illustrates President Eisenhower’s prescient warning, in his farewell address, that “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite”.

Society needs an independent, disinterested procedure for adjudicating scientific claims. The best candidate appears to be a Science Court, proposed more than half a century ago and discussed on a number of occasions since then.

Full post

4) Capell Aris: Beware The Lure Of Solar Battery Stores
CapX, 27 April 2018

Like a murder of crows encircling roadkill, government subsidies are always going to attract some fairly disreputable attention. Businesses big and small, and individuals rich or wannabe rich, will flock to even the hint of a free lunch. It’s just easier than making an honest living.

Solar feed-in-tariffs are a case in point. In just one of the absurd and damaging steps taken to combat global warming, Gordon Brown’s government decided, in its dying years, to encourage householders to install solar panels on their roofs. With the economics of solar panels wildly against such a move, the only way to make it happen was to offer absurd prices for the power generated. It worked, and in the space of a few years a new industry came into being, but one only sustained by government diktat. What’s more, it represented a huge bung to the middle and upper classes, since only the comparatively wealthy could afford to pay for a photovoltaic system.

Worse still, there was never even the slightest chance that rooftop solar would ever make a meaningful difference to the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions. As the late David Mackay pointed out in his widely respected book Renewable Energy Without the Hot Air, there are simply not enough south-facing rooftops or enough light in our northerly climes for rooftop solar to ever be anything more than an empty gesture. From the start, the whole industry represented an embarrassing exercise in virtue signalling.

Eventually, a semblance of sanity was restored when the parlous state of the public finances forced a reverse, and the resulting 2015 reduction in tariff levels led to a dramatic fall in installations. However, there are still a lot of rooftop solar installations around, and with those who signed up before 2015 still receiving the absurd original tariff level, there are a lot of middle-class homeowners with solar money burning holes in their pockets. The crows have noticed, and are gathering again.

The rooftop solar field is currently being circled – perhaps somewhat surprisingly — by the big motor manufacturers. The auto industry — benefiting from another stream of government subsidies — has been working away at another uneconomic technology, namely electric vehicles. Along the way, they have developed considerable expertise in cutting-edge battery technology, and they are now realising that there is a potentially valuable cross-selling opportunity.

They just need to convince homeowners that a battery store alongside their solar panels would make their homes even “greener” and thus more worthy of mention at suburban dinner parties.

At the front of the queue of businesses looking to enter the field is Elon Musk’s Tesla. It is perhaps not surprising that a business built on government subsidy would be the first to spot another state teat to which it could attach itself. However, BMW and other more commercial household names are also said to be watching the market closely.

Once again, though, it is the economics that are problematic, and homeowners should beware. The costs and benefits of installing a battery store alongside a rooftop solar system do not stack up. Although government policies have pushed the typical electricity bill up to £500 per year, a battery can still only save a fraction of that amount.

Meanwhile, large battery stores do not come cheap and, moreover, they wear out too quickly. Once you start weighing up the costs and benefits, the picture looks bleak. In fact, battery costs would have to fall by half just to break even over their lifetimes. They would have to fall even further to provide any sort of a return.

Still, the cynic in me wonders whether Whitehall’s green blob will not see this apparently knotty problem as being relatively straightforward to solve. It simply requires a new stream of subsidies. Worse still, government ministers, in their present mood, are probably quite happy to go along with the idea.

Capell Aris is a power engineer. His report on battery stores, 'Battery Wastage: Why battery storage for rooftop solar doesn’t pay' was recently published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

The London-based Global Warming Policy Forum is a world leading think tank on global warming policy issues. The GWPF newsletter is prepared by Director Dr Benny Peiser - for more information, please visit the website at

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