an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘skepticism

discussing mental health and illness

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Canto: I’ve been told I’m on the autism spectrum, by someone who’s not on it, presumably, but who’s also not an expert on such things, but I’m not sure who is.

Jacinta: Well of course we’re all on the autism spectrum, it depends on your location on it, I suppose, if you need to worry. ‘You’re sick’ is one of the oldest lines of abuse, but I’m reminded of a passage in The moral landscape, which I’m currently rereading. He describes a funny-but-not-so-funny piece of research by one D L Rosenhan:

… in which he and seven confederates had themselves committed to psychiatric hospitals in five different states in an effort to determine whether mental health professionals could detect the presence of the sane among the mentally ill. In order to get committed, each researcher complained of hearing a voice repeating the words ’empty’, ‘hollow and ‘thud’. Beyond that, each behaved perfectly normally. Upon winning admission to the psychiatric ward, the pseudo-patients stopped complaining of their symptoms and immediately sought to convince the doctors, nurses and staff that they felt fine and were fit to be released. This proved surprisingly difficult. While these genuinely sane patients wanted to leave the hospital, repeatedly declared that they experienced no symptoms, and became ‘paragons of cooperation’, their average length of hospitalisation was 19 days (ranging from 7 to 52 days), during which they were bombarded with an astounding range of powerful drugs (which they discreetly deposited in the toilet. None were pronounced healthy. Each was ultimately discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia ‘in remission’ (with the exception of one who received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder). Interestingly, while the doctors, nurses and staff were apparently blind to the presence of normal people on the ward, actual mental patients frequently remarked on the obvious sanity of the researchers, saying things like ‘You’re not crazy – you’re a journalist’.

S. Harris, The moral landscape, p142

Canto: Well, that’s a fascinating story, but let’s get skeptical. Has that study been replicated? We know how rarely that happens. And there are quite a few other questions worth asking. Wouldn’t most of the staff etc have been primed to assume these patients had a genuine mental illness? And surely only a small percentage would have had the authority to make a decision either way. Who exactly had them committed, what was the process, and what was the relationship between those doing the diagnosis and those engaging in treatment and daily care? Was there any fudging on the part of the pseudo-patients (who were apparently also the researchers) in order to prove their point (which presumably was that mental illness can be easily shammed)? And wouldn’t you expect other patients, many of whom wouldn’t believe in their own mental problems, to be supportive of the sanity of those around them?

Jacinta: Okay, those are some valid points, but are you prepared to accept that a lot of these mental conditions, such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder (the name speaks volumes), attention deficit disorder, narcissistic whatever disorder and so on, are a little flakey around the edges?

Canto: Maybe, but with solid centres I’m sure. Depression is probably the most common of those mental conditions, and too much skepticism on that count could obviously lead to disaster. Take the case of South Korea, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. There appears to be a nationwide skepticism about mental health issues there, which clashes with high stress levels to create a crisis of care. Professional help is rarely sought and isn’t widely available. It raises the question of the value of skepticism in some areas.

Jacinta: I wonder if the rapid advances in neurophysiology can help us here. Mental health is all about the brain. In the above quote, the pseudo-patients were mostly diagnosed with schizophrenia. That’s surprising. In my naïveté I would’ve thought there was a neurological test for schizophrenia by now.

Canto: Well, the experiment described in The moral landscape dates from the early seventies, but currently there’s still no diagnostic test for schizophrenia based on the brain itself, it’s all about such symptoms as specific delusions and hallucinations, which could still be shammed I suppose, if anyone wanted to. But what about borderline personality disorder – I was told recently that it’s very real, in spite of the name.

Jacinta: Well, there appears to be a mystery about the causes, and a general confusion about the symptoms, which seem to be rather wide-ranging – though I suppose if a patient displays several of them you can safely conclude that she’s stark staring bonkers.

Canto: Yes that’s a thing about mental illness, quite seriously. You don’t need to be an expert to notice when people are behaving in a way that’s detrimental to themselves and others, especially if it’s a sharp deviation from previous behaviour. And if it’s a slow descent, as quite often depression can be, it’s harder to pick from that person’s standard lugubrious personality, so to speak. And in the end, maybe the labelling isn’t so important as the help and the treatment. But then, people love a label – they want to know precisely what’s wrong with them.

Jacinta: I suppose the difficulty with mental illness and labelling, as opposed to labelling other more ‘physical’ illnesses or injuries, is the near-ineffable complexity of the brain. For example, I notice that among the symptoms of borderline personality disorder are apparent behaviours that don’t really cohere in any way. This site places the symptom of uncertainty and indecisiveness along with extreme risk-taking and impulsiveness, and then there is fear of abandonment, and other odd behaviours which seem to head in different directions, seeming to have one thing alone in common – being extreme or abnormal.

Canto: Yes, again, behaviour that tends to harm the self or others.

Jacinta: At the moment, I think there are still too few connections between neurology and psychiatry and the treatment of mental illness, though it’s a matter of enormous complexity. I had thought, for example, that the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine was essential to our understanding of schizophrenia, but more recent research has found that the neurochemistry of the condition involves many other factors, including glutamate, GABA, acetylcholine and serotonin. There’s so much more work to be done. But we also need to be very aware of the social and cultural conditions that tip people over the edge into mental illness. Changes in the way our brain is functioning might be seen as proximal causes of an increase in depression and suicide, but it’s more likely that the ultimate causes have to do with the stresses that particular organisations, societies and cultures impose upon us.

Written by stewart henderson

June 30, 2019 at 12:45 pm

Always chemical: how to reflect upon naturopathic remedies

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most efficacious in every case

So here’s an interesting story. When I was laid up with a bronchial virus (RSV) a few weeks ago, coughing my lungs up and having difficulty breathing, with a distinct, audible wheeze, I was offered advice, as you do, by a very well-meaning person about a really effective treatment – oregano oil. This person explained that, on two occasions, he’d come down with a bad cough and oregano oil had done the trick perfectly where nothing else worked.

I didn’t try the oregano oil. I followed my doctor’s recommendation and used the symptom-relieving medications described in a previous post, and I’m much better now. What I did do was look up what the science-based medicine site had to say about the treatment (I’d never heard of oregano oil, though I’ve had many other plant-based cures suggested to me, such as echinacea, marshmallow root and slippery elm – well ok I lied, I found the last two on a herbal medicine website).

I highly recommend the science-based medicine website, which has been run by the impressively-credentialed Drs David Gorski and Steve Novella and their collaborators for years now, and which thusly has a vast database of debunked or questionable treatments to explore. It’s the best port of call when you’re offered anecdotal advice about any treatment whatsoever by well-wishers. Not that they’re the only people performing this service to the public. Quackwatch, SkepDoc, and Neurologica are just some of the websites doing great work, but they’re outnumbered vastly by sites spreading misinformation and bogus cures, unfortunately. It’s almost a catch-22 of the internet that you have to be informed enough to use it to get the best information out of it.

As to oregano oil specifically, Scott Gavura at science-based medicine proves a detailed account. I will summarise here, while also providing my own take. Firstly people need to know that when a substance, any substance –  a herb or a plant, an oil extracted therefrom, or a tablet, capsule or mixture,something injectable or applied to the skin, whatever – is suggested as a treatment for a condition, they should consider this simple mantra – always chemical. That’s to say, a treatment will only work because it has the right chemistry to act against the treated condition. In other words you need to know something (or rather a lot) about the chemistry of the treating substance and the chemistry of the condition being treated. It’s no good saying ‘x is great for getting rid of coughs – it got rid of mine,’ because your cough may not have the same chemical cause as mine, and your cough in February 2007 may not have the same chemical cause as your cough in August 2017. My recent cough was caused by a virus (and perhaps I should change the mantra – always biochemical – but still it’s the chemistry of the bug that’s causing the problem), but no questions were asked about the cause before the advice was given. And you’ll notice when you look at naturopathic websites that chemistry is very rarely mentioned. And I’m not talking about toxins.

Gavura gives this five-point test for an effective treatment:

When we contemplate administering a chemical to deliver a medicinal effect, we need to ask the following:

  1. Is it absorbed into the body at all?
  2. Does enough reach the right part of the body to have an effect?
  3. Does it actually work for the condition?
  4. Does it have any hazardous, unwanted effects?
  5. Can it be safely eliminated from the body?

The answer to Q1 is that oregano oil contains a wide variety of chemical compounds, particularly phenolic compounds (71%). It’s these phenolic compounds that are touted as having the principal beneficial effects. However, though we know that there’s some absorption, we don’t have a chemical breakdown. We just don’t know which phenolic compounds are being absorbed or how much.

Q2 – No research on this, or on absorption generally. Topical effects (ie effects on the skin) are more likely to be beneficial than ingested effects, as the oil can maintain high concentration. This would have no effect on a cough.

Q3 – According to one manufacturer the oil has ‘scientifically proven results against almost every virus, bacteria, parasite, and fungi…’ (etc, etc, but shouldn’t that be bacterium and fungus?). In fact, no serious scientific research has ever been conducted on oregano oil and its effectiveness for any condition whatsoever. So the answer to this question is  – no evidence, beyond anecdote.

Q4 – There have been reports of allergic reactions and gastro-intestinal upsets, but the naturopathy industry is more or less completely unregulated so you can never be sure what you’re getting with any bottle of pills or ‘essential oils’. As Gavura points out, the lack of research on possible adverse effects, for this and other ‘natural’ treatments, is of concern for vulnerable consumers, such as pregnant women, young or unborn children, and those with pre-existing conditions.

Q5 – At low doses, there’s surely no concern, but nobody has done any research about dosing up on carvacrol, the most prominent component of oregano oil, which gives the plant its characteristic odour. Other organic components are thymol and cymene.

 

So there’s no solid evidence about oregano oil, or about the mechanism for its supposed efficacy. But what if my well-wisher was correct, and something in the oregano oil cleared up his cough – twice? And did so really really well? Better than several other treatments he tried?

Well, then we might be onto something. Surely a potential billion-dollar gold-mine, considering how debilitating your common-or-garden cough can be. And how, if not cleared up, it can leading to something way more serious.

So how would a person who is sure that oregano oil has fantastic curative properties (because it sure worked for him) go about capitalising on this potential gold-mine? Well, first he would need evidence. His own circle of friends would not be enough – perhaps he could harness social media to see if there were sufficient people willing to testify to oregano oil curing their cough, where other treatments failed. Then , if he had sufficient numbers, he might try to find out the causes of these coughs. Bacterial, viral, something else, cause unknown? It’s likely he wouldn’t make much headway there (most people with common-or-garden coughs don’t go to the doctor or submit to biochemical testing, they just try to ride it out), but no matter, that might just be evidence that the manufacturer was right – it’s effective against a multitude of conditions. And yet, it seems that oregano oil is a well-kept secret, only known to naturopathic companies and health food store owners. Doctors don’t seem to be prescribing it. Why not?

Clearly it’s because Big Pharma doesn’t support the stuff. Doctors are in cahoots with Big Pharma to sell attractive pills with long pharmacological names and precise dosages and complex directions for use. Together they like to own the narrative, and a multi-billion dollar industry is unlikely to be had from an oil you can extract from a backyard plant.

Unless

Our hero’s investment of time and energy has convinced him there’s heaps of money to be made from oregano oil’s miraculous properties, but that same investment has also convinced him that it’s the chemical properties that are key, and that if the correct chemical formula can be isolated, refined and commercialised, not only will he be able to spend the rest of his life in luxury hotels around the globe, but he will have actually saved lives and contributed handsomely to the betterment of society. So he will join Big Pharma rather than trying to beat it. Yes, there would have to be a massive upfront outlay to perform tests, presumably on rats or mice at first, to find out which chemical components or combinations thereof do the best job of curing the animals, who would have to be artificially infected with various bugs affecting the respiratory system, or any other bodily system, since there are claims that the oil, like Lily the Pink’s Medicinal Compound™, is ‘most efficacious in every case’.

But of course it would be difficult for any average bloke like our hero to scratch up the funds to build or hire labs testing and purifying a cure-all chemical extract of oregano oil. Crowdsourcing maybe, considering all the testimonials? Or just find an ambitious and forward-thinking wealthy entrepreneur?

Is that the only problem with the lack of acceptance, by the medical community, of all the much-touted naturopathic cures out there? Lack of funds to go through the painstaking process of getting a purefied product to pass through a system which ends with double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled human studies with large sample sizes?

Permit me to be sceptical. It’s not as if the chemical components of most herbal remedies are unknown. It’s highly unlikely that pharmacologists, who are in the business of examining the chemistry of substances and their effects for good or ill on the human body, haven’t considered the claimed cornucopia of naturopathic treatments and the possibility of bringing them into the mainstream of science-based medicine to the benefit of all. Yes, it’s possible that they’ve missed something, but it’s also possible, indeed more likely, that people underestimate the capacity of our fabulous immune system, the product of millions of years of evolution, to bring us back to health when we’re struck down by the odd harmful bug. When we’re struck down like this, we either recover or we die, and if we don’t die, we tend to attribute our recovery to any treatment applied. Sometimes we might be right, but it pays to be skeptical and to do research into a treatment, and into what ails us, before making such attributions. And to do so with the help of a good science-based medical practitioner. And remember again that motto: always chemical. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 24, 2018 at 10:18 am

is this the best use of journalism?: attn Katie McBride and Outline magazine

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Rat Park, in colour

Jacinta: Now we’re going to do something slightly unpleasant but wholly necessary: take someone to task, as teachers must occasionally do.

Canto: Yes, it relates to a previous post, a recent one, about Rat Farm and the war on drugs.

Jacinta: In writing that post we happened upon an article entitled  ‘This 38-year-old study is still spreading bad ideas about addiction” – which kind of shocked me with its provocative title. It was written by Katie MacBride and published by Outline, an online magazine. I only skimmed the article at the time, bemused to find the Rat Park experiment still creating such negative vibes after all these years, but some obvious problems in the article stood out, even on the most cursory reading, so I’ve decided to revisit it with a more careful analysis, with Canto’s help.

Canto: Well the first red flag with the article comes with the first words, before even the title. Pop science. In other words, this article, or rather its subject, should be filed in the category of ‘pop science’, as opposed to real science. This is designed to instil prejudice in the reader from the outset, and is clearly a cheap trick.

Jacinta: Yes, and for an immediate antidote to this kind of cheapsterism, I’d advise anyone to read the Wikipedia article on the rat park experiment, which is calmly and reasonably presented, as is usual. And let me here heap praise on Wikipedia for its general reliability, its objectivity and its pro-science approach. It’s one of the greatest gifts the internet has provided to our world, IMHO.

Canto: The next red flag comes with the title – ’38 years old and still spreading bad ideas’…. As if the date of the study is relevant. There are a number of landmark psychology studies even older than Bruce Alexander’s Rat Park, and also ‘flawed’ – of which more later, – which continue to resonate today for obvious reasons…

Jacinta: Yes, for example Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiments, over fifty years ago now, and the Stanford Prison experiment of 1971. These, and Alexander’s Rat Park experiment, deserve to be regarded as landmark pieces of work because they make you think. And they often overturn previous thinking. They shake our complacency.

Canto: And what about the latter part of the title, that Alexander’s work is still spreading bad ideas?

Jacinta: It’s interesting that she claims this, considering that the main reason Alexander embarked on this study was to combat bad ideas – particularly the war on drugs itself, and the prevailing view, promoted by the likes of Harry Anslinger and his zero tolerance approach to drugs such as cannabis and cocaine, that use of these drugs led inevitably to a kind of madness that was extremely harmful to self and others. Remember the rat adverts of the time, which showed rats dropping dead after regularly imbibing morphene-laced water, with the message ‘this could happen to you’.

Canto: Yes, and the rats may well have been choosing the drug over plain water because, like many lab rats of the time – hopefully things have changed – the conditions they were kept in made their life something of a living hell. What Alexander’s experiment showed was that, given a far more enriched environment, rats made far less simplistic and self-destroying choices. That’s all. So how could this be a ‘bad idea?’

Jacinta: MacBride doesn’t say. But to be fair, Alexander’s thesis may have been that opiates aren’t addictive at all, which is not what his results showed – they showed that environment matters hugely in respect to the willingness to get hooked on drugs. And that’s a really really important finding, not a ‘bad idea’.

Canto: And we’re still on the title of MacBride’s essay, which is followed by a tiny summary remark, ‘The Rat Park study was flawed and its findings have been oversimplified, but it keeps getting cited.’ Any comments?

Jacinta: Yes – as a regular listener to the podcasts of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (SGU) over the years, as well as a reader of Ben Goldacre and other science-based critics of medical/psychological studies and experiments, I can safely say that every piece of research or experimentation, since the dawn of time, is flawed. Or imperfect. Or limited. Some more than others. of course. So to say the study is flawed is to say nothing at all. Every episode of SGU, and I’ve listened to hundreds, features one piece of published research or other, which Steve Novella picks to pieces to determine whether it’s very or mildly interesting, or a piece of rubbish, but even with the best study, the mantra is generally ‘needs more research’. So a critic needs to show how an experiment is flawed, and how those flaws affect the results. And MacBride’s effort to do this is pretty abysmal.

Canto: Okay, before we examine that effort, I’d like to quote something from early on in MacBride’s article:

The Rat Park study undermined one popular misconception about addiction, that chemistry of drugs is the single most important factor in addiction. But instead of pushing the popular understanding forward, it merely replaced that misconception with a new one: that environment is the most important factor.

What do you make of that? Do you think it a fair description of the study?

Jacinta: It’s an odd description, or mis-description, of the study. The first sentence you quoted isn’t problematic. The study did undermine the idea that it was all about chemistry. Or rather it would have, had anyone paid attention to it. It should have, as MacBride implies, but instead of then regretting that the study didn’t have any impact, she presents it as deserving of oblivion. It doesn’t make much sense.

Canto: The quote claims that it’s a misconception that environment is the most important factor in drug addiction. Do you agree?

Jacinta: I don’t know if it’s the most important factor, but it’s obviously an important factor, and the Rat Park experiment provided strong evidence for this. It seems MacBride is confusing Alexander’s possible claims or commentary on the study with the study itself. The study doesn’t prove that environment is the most important factor, but it certainly makes you think about addiction in a very different way from the horrific but dumb rat ads  that prompted it. It makes you think, as all good studies do, and that’s something MacBride seems extremely reluctant to admit. And I wonder why.

Canto: But MacBride does provide cogent criticisms of the study, doesn’t she?

Jacinta: Well, she quotes one particular critique of the study, by a Dr Sam Snodgrass, who found that the Rat Park environment, in which rats were no longer isolated and therefore mated, as rats are wont to do, would have rendered the findings questionable. According to Snodgrass, “You can’t have one group of subjects mating and with pups and compare it to a group that doesn’t engage in these behaviors and say that the difference between the two groups is caused by environmental differences.” But I beg to differ. An environment in which you’re isolated and unable to have sex is obviously very different from an environment in which you breed as normal – especially for rats. As to the rat pups ruining the experiment, I think if you looked closely at any rat study in which rats get to live together and breed, the actual experiment would be more messy than the published results indicate, but I doubt the problems would be so great as to invalidate those results.

Canto: And what about attempts to replicate the experiment?

Jacinta: Well there seem not to have been enough of them, and that’s not Alexander’s fault. Above all, similar experiments should have been conducted with different drugs and different concentrations etc. And of course rats aren’t humans, and it’s hard to bridge that gap, especially these days, as lab testing of other non-human animals (and rats too) is increasingly frowned upon, for good reason. I note that MacBride briefly mentions that others did replicate Alexander’s results, but she chooses to focus almost wholly on those who found differences. She’s also quite brief in describing the obvious parallel, presented in much greater detail in Johann Hari’s Chasing the scream, of American soldiers taking heavily to heroin in the alienating environment of Vietnam and giving them up on their return to what was for them an obviously more enriched environment. The facts were startling – 20 time the heroin addiction in Vietnam, as MacBride admits – but not much is made of them, as she is more concerned to pour cold water on Rat Park, so to speak.

Canto: Yes it’s strange – MacBride admits that the war on drugs has been an abject failure, but her obsession with criticising Rat Park prevents her from carrying through on that with, for example, the alternatives to this American approach in Europe. She mentions the again startling fact, reported by the Brookings Institute, that the combined hardcore user rate for hard drugs was approximately 4 times higher in the US than in Europe, after decades of the US war on drugs, but fails to note that the Rat Park experiment was one of the main inspirations in implementing more humane and vastly more successful policies, not only in Europe but, more recently, in some US states.

Jacinta: Yes MacBride is clearly concerned to get everyone’s facts straight on the opioid epidemic that’s currently gripping the US, and about which I honestly know little, but I think she has gone overboard in seeking to vilify the Rat Park study, which surely has little to do with that epidemic. The Rat Park experiment hardly promotes drug-taking; what it does strongly suggest, as does Johann Hari’s book, is that environment is one of the most important factors in determining a person’s willingness to escape into drugs. My own personal experience tallies with that, having been brought up in a depressed and disadvantaged region, hard-hit in the seventies by economic recession, and watching the illicit drug trade take off around me, as houses and gardens became more and more derelict.

Canto: Yes, it’s hard to understand why she’s focusing so negatively on Rat Park, when the problem is really one of interpretation, insofar as there is a problem. And I don’t know how it relates negatively to the opioid crisis. Maybe we should find out more about this crisis, and do a follow-up?

Jacinta: Maybe, but it’s so hard trying to fix the world’s problems… but of course that’s what we’re here for…

 

Written by stewart henderson

April 13, 2018 at 11:53 am

all renewable energy by 2050? Hang on a tick

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Sir David McKay, who died in 2016 of stomach cancer, aged 49. A great loss.

The late Sir David McKay, physicist, engineer, sustainable energy expert, Cambridge professor and Royal Society Fellow, has just become known to me through his 2012 TED talk and a lengthier exposition of the same ideas presented at Harvard. These talks were designed, to ‘cut through some of the greenwash’ and provide a realistic account of what can be done, on both the supply and the demand side, to reduce fossil fuel consumption and transform our energy economy.

As I need to keep saying, I’m far from an expert on this stuff, and I’m always impressed by the ingenious developments in the field and the promise of new technology, in batteries and other storage systems – like the compressed air underwater energy storage system being trialled in Lake Ontario, Toronto. But McKay’s contributions are helping me to think more realistically about the enormity of the problem of weaning ourselves from fossil fuels as well as to think more practically about my own domestic usage and the demand side more generally.

While McKay was no renewable energy sceptic or climate change denier, his ‘arithmetical’ view of the future poured a lot of cold hydro on the rosy idea that we’d be living in an all-renewables-powered biosphere within x decades. So I want to take a closer look at some aspects of what he was saying (he also wrote a highly-regarded book, Sustainable energy – without the hot air, available free online).

I particularly want to look at two forms of renewable energy that he talked about; wind and solar. He also talked at some length about two other energy sources, biofuels and nuclear, but I’ve never been much keen on biofuels, which in any case seem to have been largely taken off the menu in recent years, and nuclear, as McKay admits, has a popularity problem – a massive one here in Australia, unfortunately. What I say here about wind and solar will be gleaned largely fromMackay’s Harvard talk, but I’ve downloaded and plan to read his book in the near future.

Mackay has calculated that the current energy production of wind turbines in windy Britain is about 2.5 watts per square metre, and by multiplying per capita energy consumption by population density, you get power consumed per unit area, which for Britain is about 1.25 watts per square metre. This suggests that to cover the consumption of Britain solely by wind, you’d need an area, on land or sea, half the area of Britain. This is clearly not feasible, though of course nobody in Britain, I hope, was ever expecting to have all their energy needs provided by wind. The situation is vastly different for South Australia, two thirds of which is currently powered by wind. SA has vastly more land than Britain and vastly less people.

Though I’m sure it’s possible to quibble with Mckay’s figures and calculations, what he brings to the issues, I think, is a global, as well as a particular perspective that can be lost when you focus, as I have, on local success. For example, South Australia has been very successful in its deployment of wind power over a short period of time, and it’s easy to get carried away and think, if we can do it, why not state x or country y? But SA is a state with a small population and a very large area, and plenty of wind to capture. This just can’t be replicated in, say, Massachussetts, with more than three times the population, a thirtieth of the area, and little wind.

So McKay wasn’t offering global solutions, nor was he dismissing local ones. He was simply pointing out the complexity of the problem in physical and arithmetical terms of weaning ourselves from fossil fuels, as well as getting us thinking about our personal responsibilities on the demand side. Solar isn’t much of a national solution in Britain, though it could be in Australia, which could be a net exporter of renewables, as Elon Musk has suggested, but to which countries, and how exactly do you export solar energy? You’d need conversion and transmission and bilateral agreements. All of this while fighting entrenched interests and upsetting long-standing arrangements. Having said this, more people are hopping on the renewables bus and it’s almost becoming unfashionable, in most western countries outside of Australia, to be dismissive of them, a noticeable change in the last decade.

So what’s the point of this post? It’s to heed McKay’s advice that we need to recognise the complexity of the problem, to keep all possible reasonable solutions on the table, to become more aware, as individuals, communities and states, of our energy consumption, and to recognise that there’s never going to be a one-type-fits-all fix. Environments and needs vary widely, so we need to find particular solutions and we also need to find ways of joining and mixing those solutions together in effective networks. It all sounds pretty daunting, but the fact is, we’re already moving in the right direction, and there’s much to be positive about. Technology and engineering are international, and those in the business are hunting out solutions across the globe and thinking of harnessing and adapting them to their own region, in the process building communication, sharing information and expertise and raising consciousness about energy supply and consumption. And another positive is the endless innovation that comes with thinking about energy solutions in new ways, like small, cheap solar panels to provide energy in developing regions, backyard or small-scale wind-turbines in suitable locations, processing waste to fuel, new developments in batteries and EVs, and so on. So, while there aren’t major, mind-blowing solutions to our fossil-fuel dependence in the offing, we are making progress, incrementally, and the effects of climate change, as they become more impactful, will no doubt accelerate our progress and innovation. We have no option but to think and act positively.

portable solar panels can be surprisingly useful, and cheap

In a future post I’ll look at the demand side, following McKay and many others. Having just moved house, and sadly leaving solar panels behind, it’s time to find out where my meter is, and check our consumption.

 

On Trump’s downfall: Fire and Fury, the overly-discussed tell-all book about Trump and the White House, is unlikely to affect Trump’s base though it will hopefully toughen the opposition. Trump’s rating remains below 40% and nothing much has happened so far this year. There’s talk of Oprah Winfrey standing for the Presidency in 2020 – please no! – but Trump will be in jail by then and Americans will have lost their appetite for ‘celebrity’ candidates. I’m looking out for Elizabeth Warren.

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2018 at 9:03 am

Why science?

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why is it so?

Ever since I was a kid I was an avid reader. It was my escape from a difficult family situation and a hatred or fear of most of my teachers. I became something of a quiet rebel, rarely reading what I was supposed to read but always trying to bite off more than I could chew in terms of literature, history, and occasionally science. I did find, though, that I could chew almost anything – especially in literature and history. And I loved the taste. Science, though, was different. It certainly didn’t come naturally to me. I didn’t know any science buffs and in fact I had no mentors for any of my reading activities. We did have encyclopaedias, though, and my random reading turned up the likes of Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur and other Big Names in science. Of course I was more interested in their bios than in the nature of their exotic researches, but in my idealised view they seemed very pure in their quest for greater understanding of the material world. I sometimes wished I could be like them but mostly I just dived into ‘literature’, a more comfortable world in which ordinary lives were anatomised by high-brow authors like Austen, Eliot and James (I had a fetish for 19th century lit in my teens). I took silent pride in my critical understanding of these texts, it surely set me above my classmates, though I remember one day walking home with one of the smartest kids in my class, who regaled me with his exploration of the electronics of a transistor radio he was pulling apart at home. I remember trying to listen, half ashamed of my ignorance, half hoping to change the subject to something I could sound off about.

Later, having dropped out of my much-loathed school, I started hanging out, or trying to, with other school drop-outs in my working-class neighbourhood. I didn’t fit in with them to say the least, but the situation worsened when they began tinkering with or talking about cars, which held no interest for me. I was annoyed and impressed at how articulate they were about carbies, distributors and camshafts, and wondered if I was somehow wasting my life.

Into my twenties, living la vie boheme in punk-fashionable poverty among art students and amateur philosophers, I read and was definitely intrigued by Alan Chalmers’ unlikely best-seller What is this thing called science? It sparked a brief interest in the philosophy of science rather than science itself, but interestingly it was a novel that really set me to reading and trying to get my head around science – a big topic! – on a more or less daily basis. I was about 25 when I read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in which Hans Castorp, a young man of about my age at the time, was sent off to an alpine sanatorium to be cured of tuberculosis. Thus began a great intellectual adventure, but it was the scientific explorations that most spoke to me. Wrapped up in his loggia, reading various scientific texts, Castorp took the reader on a wondering tour of the origin of life, and of matter itself, and it struck me that these were the key questions – if you want to understand yourself, you need to understand humanity, and if you want to understand humanity you need to understand life itself, and if you want to understand life, you need to understand the matter that life is organised from, and if you need to understand matter…

I made a decision to inform myself about science in general, via the monthly magazine, Scientific American, where I learned at least something about oncogenes, neutrinos and the coming AIDS epidemic, inter alia. I read my first wholly scientific book, Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and, as I was still living la vie boheme, I enjoyed the occasional lively argument with housemates or pub philosophers about the Nature of the Universe and related topics. In the years since I’ve read and half-digested books on astronomy, cosmology, palaeontology and of course the history of science in general. I’ve read The origin of species, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and at least four biographies of Darwin, including the monumental biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. I’ve also read a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace, and more recently, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, which traces the search for the cause of the random variation essential to the Darwin-Wallace theory. And I still read science magazines like Cosmos on a more or less daily basis.

These readings have afforded me some of the greatest pleasures of my life, which would, I suppose, be enough to justify them. But I should try to answer the why question. Why is science so thrilling? The answer, I hope, is obvious. It isn’t science that’s thrilling, it’s our world. I’m not a science geek, it doesn’t come easily to me. When, for example, a tech-head explains how an electronic circuit works, I have to watch the video many times over, look up terms, refer to related videos, etc, in order to fix it in my head, and then, like most people, I forget the vast majority of what I read, watch or listen to. But what keeps me going is a fascination for the world – and the questions raised. How did the Earth form? Where did the water come from? How is it that matter is electrical, full of charge? How did language evolve? How has our Earth’s atmosphere evolved? How are we related to bananas, fruit flies, australopithecines and bats? How does our microbiome relate to obesity? What can we expect from CRISPR/Cas9 editing technology? What’s the future for autonomous vehicles, brain-controlled drones and new-era smart phones?

This all might sound like gaga adolescent optimism, but I’m only cautiously optimistic, or maybe not optimistic at all, just fascinated about what might happen, on the upside and the downside. And I’m endlessly impressed by human ingenuity in discovering new things and using those discoveries in innovative ways. I’m also fascinated, in a less positive way, by the anti-scientific tendencies of conspiracy theorists, religionists, new-agers and those who identify with and seem trapped by ‘heavy culture’. Podcasts such as The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Skeptoid and Australia’s The Skeptic Zone, as well as various science-based blogs like Why Evolution is True and Skeptical Science are fighting a seemingly never-ending fight against the misinformation churned out by passionate supporters of fixed non-evidence-based positions. But spending too much time arguing with such types does your head in, and I prefer trying to accentuate the positive than trying to eliminate the negative.

And on that positive side, exciting things are always happening, whether it’s battery technology, cancer research, exoplanetary discoveries, robotics or brain implants, more developments are occurring than any one person can keep abreast of.

So I’ll end with some positive and reassuring remarks about science. It’s not some esoteric activity to be suspicious of, but neither is it something easily definable. It’s not a search for the truth, it’s more a search for the best, most comprehensive, most consistent and productive explanation for phenomena. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as the scientific method – the methods of Einstein can’t easily be compared with those of Darwin. Methods necessarily differ with the often vast differences between the phenomena under investigation. Conspiracy theories such as the moon landings ‘hoax’ or the climate science ‘fraud’ would require that scientists and their ancillaries are incredibly disciplined, virtually robotic collaborators in sinister plots, rather than normal, questing, competitive, collaborative, inspired and inspiring individuals, struggling desperately to make sense and make breakthroughs. In the field of human health, scientists are faced with explaining the most complex organism we know of – the human body with its often perverse human mind. It’s not at all surprising that pseudo-science and quackery is so common in this field, in which everyone wants to live and thrive as long as possible. But we need to be aware that with such complexity we will encounter many false hopes and only partial solutions. The overall story, though, is positive – we’re living longer and healthier, in statistical terms, than ever before. The past, for the most part, is another country which we might like to briefly visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. And science is largely to be thanked for that. So, why not science? The alternatives do nothing for me.

The SGU team – science nerds fighting the good fight

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2017 at 6:18 am

What’s Weatherill’s plan for South Australia, and why do we have the highest power prices in the world? Oh, and I should mention Elon Musk here – might get me more hits

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just a superhero pic to rope people in

I’ve written a few pieces on our electricity system here in SA, but I don’t really feel any wiser about it. Still, I’ll keep having a go.

We’ve become briefly famous because billionaire geek hero Elon Musk has promised to build a ginormous battery here. After we had our major blackout last September (for which we were again briefly famous), Musk tweeted or otherwise communicated that his Tesla company might be able to solve SA’s power problems. This brought on a few local geek-gasms, but we quickly forgot (or I did), not realising that our good government was working quietly behind the scenes to get Musk to commit to something real. In March this year, Musk was asked to submit a tender for the 100MW capacity battery, which is expected to be operational by the summer. He has recently won the tender, and has committed to constructing the battery in 100 days, at a cost of $50 million. If he’s unsuccessful within the time limit, we’ll get it for free.

There are many many South Australians who are very skeptical of this project, and the federal government is saying that the comparatively small capacity of the battery system will have minimal impact on the state’s ‘self-imposed’ problems. And yet – I’d be the first to say that I’m quite illiterate about this stuff, but if SA Premier Jay Weatherill’s claim is true that ‘battery storage is the future of our national energy market’, and if Musk’s company can build this facility quickly, then it’s surely possible that many batteries could be built like the one envisaged by Musk, each one bigger and cheaper than the last. Or have I just entered cloud cuckoo land? Isn’t that how technology tends to work?

In any case, the battery storage facility is designed to bring greater stability to the state’s power network, not to replace the system, so the comparisons made by Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg are misleading, probably deliberately so. Frydenberg well knows, for example, that SA’s government has been working on other solutions too, effectively seeking to becoming independent of the eastern states in respect of its power system. In March, at the same time as he presented plans for Australia’s largest battery, Weatherill announced that a taxpayer-funded 250MW gas-fired power plant would be built. More recently, AGL, the State’s largest power producer and retailer, has announced  plans to build a 210MW gas-fired generator on Torrens Island, upgrading its already-existing system. AGL’s plan is to use reciprocating engines, which executive general manager Doug Jackson has identified as best suited to the SA market because of their ‘flexible efficient and cost-effective synchronous generation capability’. I heartily agree. It’s noteworthy that the AGL plan was co-presented by its managing director Andy Vesey and the SA Premier. They were at pains to point out that the government plans and the AGL plan were not in competition. So it does seem that the state government has made significant strides in ensuring our energy security, in spite of much carping from the Feds as well as local critics – check out some of the very nasty naysaying in the comments section of local journalist Nick Harmsen’s articles on the subject (much of it about the use of lithium ion batteries, which I might blog about later).

It’s also interesting that Harmsen himself, in an article written four months ago, cast serious doubt on the Tesla project going ahead, because, as far as he knew, tenders were already closed on the battery storage or ‘dispatchable renewables’ plan, and there were already a number of viable options on the table. So either the Tesla offer, when it came (and maybe it got in under the deadline unbeknown to Harmsen), was way more impressive than others, or the Tesla-Musk brand has bedazzled Weatherill and his cronies. It’s probably a combo of the two. Whatever, this news is something of a blow to local rivals. What is fascinating, though is how much energetic rivalry, or competition, there actually is in the storage and dispatchables field, in spite of the general negativity of the Federal government. It seems our centrist PM Malcolm Turnbull is at odds with his own government about this.

So enough about the Tesla-Neoen deal, and associated issues, which are mounting too fast for me to keep up with right now. I want to focus on pricing for the rest of this piece, because I have no understanding of why SA is now paying the world’s highest domestic electricity prices, as the media keeps telling us.

According to this Sydney Morning Herald article from nearly two years ago, which of course I can’t vouch for, Australia’s electricity bills are made up of three components: wholesale and retail prices, based on supply and demand (39% of cost); the cost of poles and wires (53%); and the cost of environmental policies (8%). The trio can be simplified as market, network and environmental costs. Market and network costs vary from state to state. The biggest cost, the poles and wires, is borne by all Australian consumers (at least all on the grid), as a result of a massive $45 billion upgrade between 2009 and 2014, due to expectations of a continuing rise in demand. Instead there’s been a fall, partly due to domestic solar but in large measure because of much tighter and more environmental building standards nationwide as part of the building boom. The SMH article concludes, a little unexpectedly, that the continuing rise in prices can only be due to retail price hikes, at least in the eastern states, because supply is steady and network costs, though high, are also steady.

A more recent article (December 2016) argues that a rising wholesale price, due to the closure of coal-fired power stations in SA and Victoria and higher gas prices, is largely responsible. Retail prices are higher now than when the carbon tax was in place in 2013.

This even recenter article from late March announces an inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) into retail pricing of electricity, which unfortunately won’t be completed till June 30 2018, given its comprehensive nature. It also contains this telling titbit:

A report from the Grattan Institute released earlier in March found a decade of competition in the market had failed to deliver better deals for customers, with profit margins on electricity bills much higher than for many other industries.

However, another article published in March, and focusing on SA’s power prices in particular (it’s written by former SA essential services commissioner Richard Blandy), takes an opposing view:

Retailing costs are unlikely to be a source of rapidly rising electricity prices because they represent a small proportion of final prices to consumers and there is a high level of competition in this part of the electricity supply chain. Energy Watch shows that there are seven electricity retailers selling electricity to small businesses, and 12 electricity retailers selling electricity to households. Therefore, price rises at the retail level are likely to be cost-based.

Blandy’s article, which looks at transmission and distribution pricing, load shedding and the very complex issue of wholesale pricing and the National Energy Market (NEM), needs at least another blog post to do justice to. I’m thinking that I’ll have to read and write a lot more to make sense of it all.

Finally, the most recentest article of only a couple of weeks ago quotes Bruce Mountain, director of Carbon and Energy Markets, as saying that it’s not about renewables (SA isn’t much above the other states re pricing), it’s about weak government control over retailers (could there be collusion?). Meanwhile, politicians obfuscate, argue and try to score points about a costly energy system that’s failing Australian consumers.

I’ll be concentrating a lot on this multifaceted topic – energy sources, storage, batteries, pricing, markets, investment and the like, in the near future. It exercises me and I want to educate myself further about it. Next, I’ll make an effort to find out more about, and analyse, the South Australian government’s six-point plan for our energy future.

References and more reading for masochists

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-10/tesla-boss-elon-musk-pledges-to-fix-sas-electricity-woes/8344084

http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/business/sa-government-announces-who-will-build-100mw-giant-battery-as-part-of-its-energy-security-plan/news-story/9f83072547f41f4f5556477942168dd9

http://www.smh.com.au/business/sunday-explainer-why-is-electricity-so-expensive-20150925-gjvdrj.html

http://www.skynews.com.au/business/business/market/2017/03/27/accc-to-find-out-why-power-prices-are-so-high.html

http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/south-australia-will-have-highest-power-prices-in-the-world-after-july-1-increases/news-story/876f9f6cefce23c62395085c6fe0fd9f

http://indaily.com.au/news/business/analysis/2017/03/07/why-sas-power-prices-are-so-high-and-the-huge-risks-of-potential-fixes/

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/graham-richardson/jay-weatherill-must-come-clean-on-elon-musks-battery-deal/news-story/f471b33ebdf140a71b41e0b0bea7894f

http://www.news.com.au/technology/environment/climate-change/why-higher-electricity-prices-are-inevitable/news-story/042712e35c08bf798ed993d13ee573ea

Written by stewart henderson

July 14, 2017 at 10:55 am

any day now, any way now, they shall be released….

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The New York Times describes the current US Prez as a billionaire, but is he? How can such a bumbling oaf be so super-rich? In the same NYT article, by Alan Rappeport, the Prez was quoted as bragging, when still a candidate, that he understood his country’s tax laws ‘better than anyone who has ever run for President’ – clearly as truthful a remark as everything else he’s ever said. His subsequent remarks on the tax system he promised to fix have been typically vague when not entirely ridiculous. A one-page tax plan of sorts was released in late April, which promised massive tax cuts to businesses and individuals, but it was massively short on details on how such cuts would be targeted and absorbed without a massive blow-out of the deficit. Anyway, it’ll be massive cause the US Prez likes massive. The administration has promised a thoroughly detailed plan by the end of August, but fellow-travellers who’ve been involved in meetings – mostly Republicans – remain thoroughly sceptical.

Meanwhile the Prez hasn’t released his own tax returns in spite of promising to do so. In mid-April some 100,000 citizens demonstrated against this interesting behaviour while high-profile critics such as Sam Harris have wondered why the release hasn’t been forced upon him. Could it be that the Prez is above the law? This is of particular concern because investigative journalists and historians such as Anne Applebaum and Timothy Snyder, people with solid Russian connections, have cast doubt on the Prez’s fortune and raised questions about his indebtedness to Russian money-makers, and possibly Putin’s mafioso government. And of course tax cuts to the rich might just ease the economic burden on the Prez himself, supposing he has one.

Apparently there’s a 40 year tradition of Prezes releasing their tax returns. When I read this in Rappeport’s NYT article I was immediately disheartened, as it became clear that it was only a tradition, which is far from being a law. And the Prez, as we know, is no traditionalist, with respect to such fakeries as the rule of law, a free press, human rights and the like. But I hatched an idea this morning as I heard about the Prez’s tweets on the London knife attacks, taking the opportunity to shore up his base with dog whistles on crazy immigrants, and attempts to mock the London Mayor by deliberately misconstruing his remarks. My idea is for certain high profile critics to take to Twitter (which I never use myself) or other social media platforms, and to address him directly, on a daily basis, with remarks like ‘have you released your tax returns yet, Herr Prez?’, and to get everyone else to do the same – a sort of global crowd-sourcing project. After all, though the Prez isn’t a traditionalist, he is a populist, and imagine how he would respond to hundreds of thousands, growing to millions, of people tweeting the same request every day, flooding social media platforms around the world… You may say I’m a dreamer, but really, imagine….

 


 

Written by stewart henderson

June 5, 2017 at 9:26 am