06 December 2009

Crying Over Nothing

Climategate, the recent row over the hacked emails of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, was an early Christmas gift to climate change sceptics. Immediately upon the release of the emails, sceptics pounced upon the details and cried foul over bias and conspiracy to suppress data that denies climate change.

Now, for someone outside the sphere of scientific research, he or she might think that it is a very merry cooperation and everyone providing a polite slice of their knowledge and research in an orderly fashion. Yet this is quite far from the truth, as I myself have witnessed.

Research is often messy. Too many a times researchers use published data and methods in their own studies without waiting for verification from other sources. Of course, publications being peer-reviewed, most of the time they are alright, but occasionally they may be overthrown by other researchers who pointed out flaws in reasoning or experimental methods. This is part and parcel of research, and it's pretty much accepted so long as the mistake is unintentional. Once in a while, there will be major upheavals -- such as the fabrication of cloning data by Hwang Woo-Suk -- which may upset many studies that are based on the original publication.

Furthermore, researchers may have bias. They may speak out strongly against certain approaches which does not quite conform with their ideas. Personally, I've encountered this problem before. Some may be hostile, some may be polite; but a healthy research environment is able to tolerate conflicting viewpoints under the same roof. And an ideal researcher should be one that may disagree with a direction of research, but still allow it to go ahead.

Such is the nature of research. And thus those personal emails naturally would contain information and communications that do not appear clean to a regular reader. It would take someone in the research environment to really sieve out real misdemeanour from personal disagreements. In fact, other than the initial outcry over words that suggested at fabrication, there is no concrete evidence of such actions. And the fact that sceptics cannot find anything definite after so long perhaps suggested that there is really none.

If you still need an expert report on the situation, the top scientific journal Nature has found no conspiracy in the leaked emails. In fact, with regards to the suppression of the publication, the editorial reports:

In one of the more controversial exchanges, UEA scientists sharply criticized the quality of two papers that question the uniqueness of recent global warming (S. McIntyre and R. McKitrick Energy Environ. 14, 751–771; 2003 and W. Soon and S. Baliunas Clim. Res. 23, 89–110; 2003) and vowed to keep at least the first paper out of the upcoming Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Whatever the e-mail authors may have said to one another in (supposed) privacy, however, what matters is how they acted. And the fact is that, in the end, neither they nor the IPCC suppressed anything: when the assessment report was published in 2007 it referenced and discussed both papers.

And I think the most illuminating statement is "whatever the e-mail authors may have said to one another in (supposed) privacy, however, what matters is how they acted." It squares very well with what I've said above: that the research process is messy, and researchers have personal preferences; but ultimately, when they presented their data to the public, everything is cleaned up in a fair manner.

24 October 2009

350? Too Audacious a Target?

Today is the International Day of Climate Action, an event organised by 350.org. It aims, as I understand it, to raise awareness for climate change and the fact that we have exceeded the safe limit of amount of carbon in the air: 350 parts per million (ppm). The organisers advocate people globally to participate in an action that displays the number 350 prominently, and the Singapore arm of the movement intend to take an aerial photograph of supporters forming a massive 350 in Hong Lim Park.

However, I see a potential confusion here. Firstly, from what I know, this ppm thingy is a measure of how much carbon is in the air. It is a number that takes into account numerous factors, including stuff like carbon removal by forests. If you perform an ideal experiment and measure the composition of the atmosphere, this number is what you'll get for carbon dioxide.

Then there's another thing: carbon emissions, which is one part of this composition picture. Carbon emissions is the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by human activities. While this number is, of course, linked to the atmospheric composition, it is not directly connected. A drop in emissions today will not ensure a drop in carbon dioxide composition in the atmosphere tomorrow.

Think of it this way: imagine a bucket with a source and a sink. While water flows in from the source, it is drained by the sink, and these two forms a balance. In an oversimplistic view, this is the pre-industrial age atmospheric carbon picture (oversimplistic because there are ice ages and all sorts of other factors that cause carbon composition to fluctuate) - with the source being the (natural) emissions, the sink being carbon removal capabilities like forests, and the amount of water being the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In comes the industrial age, and the source is increased tremendously and the sink decreases. The water level thus rose and is still rising. So even if we turn off our "extra" source and put in more sinks, it's gonna be some time before the water level reverses and returns to the original level. In fact, there is a projection which predict that this reversal will not come before a thousand years have elapsed.

In short, carbon composition will lag behind changes in emissions. Already, the composition of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 390 ppm, way higher than the target, and in all realistic hopes, 350 ppm is too fanciful a number to dream for. Looking at the top chart below, obtained from an article by Michael Raupach et al. in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

we can see that we have to cut our emissions drastically to even achieve 450 ppm (dashed green line) in the next century. Even 650 ppm looks way far off (dashed blue line). The various A and B lines are projections based on different scenarios (of which, if you want to know, can be found in the article). Even if we switch to clean technology completely - as described by A1T (solid green line) - we cannot even reach 450 ppm in a hundred years' time (though we will be captured by the error bars of 650 ppm). But the most realistic projection is A1B (orange line), which is based on a balance of fossil fuel and clean technology.

Now, much as I advocate environmentalism, I feel uncomfortable about brandishing 350 as the number. In all honesty, no climate scientists are able to tell you in certain terms what the magical number ought to be. In fact, 350 ppm is the lowest safety limit I've heard of; other predictions range up to 650 ppm, but I think that number is really skirting the cliff's edge. Nonetheless, that is already a difficult target to reach, as evidenced by the chart above. So there is no reason for inaction. Especially if you care.

15 October 2009

The Right to be Right

This is a blog post for Blog Action Day 2009 on the topic of climate change.

Environmental action often entails a change in lifestyle, most of which involves some inconveniences. For example, sorting out recyclables from trash and bringing them to the nearest recycling bin necessitates hassle. Buying compact fluorescent lamp which are more energy saving will result in a higher initial cost. Spending a night without air-conditioning will lessen the comfort of your sleep.

These undertakings of an individual alone have hardly an impact on the environment at all. The consequent reduction in carbon footprint is a drop in the entire ocean of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Alright, sure, there is the typical argument that the collective effort can have a marked change - as exemplified by events such as Earth Hour - but this argument does not induce much motivation in many people. This is an unfortunate truth - that a cumulative reward at the cost of compromise in personal lifestyle, particularly when the reward demands others to do the same, is not embraced by most people - and the past calls for environmental efforts have demonstrated that. Moreover, it is a vicious cycle: if most people does not want to take action, then there will be no collective benefit, and thus there is no practical incentive for the individual to be green, thereby sinking the situation into a deeper inertial hole. Some say it is up to governments to take action, but let us not forget that the government is subjected to people's desires, so there is only limited wiggling space for them to impose environmental restrictions on the people.

Such a dilemma reminds me of a course I took during my last semester at NUS. It was a geography module called Environmental Sustainability (module code: GE3239), and the lecturer once mentioned that Singapore unsheathes the argument that the effects in restricting our emissions is so negligible on the global scale that it matters very little how much we try to quell our carbon output. This is an iconic pragmatic argument, and it is not wrong in that perspective. After all, that bit Singapore contributes is truly minimal and it is the grand total of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere that counts. The climate does not go looking at the per capita emission.

Then is there any reason for the individual, which, in such a position, differs not so much from Singapore in the example above, to go green? There certainly is: environmental action grants the person a moral right to, at the very least, make a environmental statement. In the end, climate change is going to affect us all in some ways or other, and it would be hypocritical for one to be concerned if he does not observe and reduce his carbon footprint. Regardless of how small one's contribution is to the environmental cause on the large picture, in doing so he allows himself to say that he is concerned, that something has to be done, that it is unfair for the US to have such disproportionately high carbon output. One's effort will not make any practical difference if others do not do their part, but it gives him the right to be right.

Making an effort for the environment does not entail an upheaval in lifestyle. Steps can be small, little at a time, a bit here and there, and all in all one can shed his carbon footprint by a significant share. Below is a suggested list of a few actions that you can do - all of which I personally do - to slash your carbon emissions. These actions are not the typical feel-good slacktivisms such as Earth Hour or clicking one button on Facebook.

  • Go vegetarian or semi-vegetarian. Meat turns out to be a major carbon source, and cutting it not only benefits the environment, but also your health. Join the ranks of Albert Einstein, Sir Paul McCartney, Christian Bale and Carl Lewis.
  • Bring an environmental bags or regular plastic bags when shopping. In addition, I always tuck a small, folded plastic bag into a compartment in my sling pouch or backpack, in case I wanted to buy something on the spot.
  • Turn off the computer monitor, put the computer to standby or hibernate/shut down, as opposed to letting it idle off when you need to leave it for a period. How long a period it should be is up to you; for me, it is roughly one minute, five minutes and fifteen minutes respectively.
  • Try without the air-conditioner. It is a major electricity hog, and most people do not need it. And there are some nights, especially rainy ones, in which a fan is more than sufficient. You do not have to swear it off - Singapore's heat can be notorious - but how about raising the threshold of your heat tolerance?

These actions address more than mere climate change, which is the topic of this year's Blog Action Day. Certainly, climate change is one glaring symptom of this environmental disease, but other environmental issues (which may share the same root cause as climate change) ought not be neglected. Examples: depleting resources, vanishing biodiversity, destruction to coastal habitats, overfishing; and the actions listed above do address these issues and more. So do take heart and take action.

30 July 2009

The Paradox of Thio Li-Ann's Anti-Gay Stand

(Disclaimer: this post is not a writeup arguing for gay rights. Neither is this an opinion concerning Thio's withdrawal. It won't even be a rebuttal of her arguments. Any attempt at these is merely a repetition of what many others have written. Also, what is argued below is my own guesswork, and anyone with a better idea are welcomed to correct me.)

One of the recent news that has been hitting the headlines online is Thio Li-Ann's withdrawal from New York University as a visiting professor due to two reasons: low enrolment for her class and a hostile environment, both of which probably stemmed from her public anti-gay stand. Her arguments against gay rights were often ridiculed by many netizens for their gaps in logic. In fact, her parliament speech regarding the repealing of section 377A were so flawed that even the conservative Straits Times, often accused of filtering forum letters in favour of opponents of gay rights, has an editorial which lambasted her (here is an article commenting on this).

Yet, she held on to them and insisted on her opposition to gay rights. I find this situation rather curious, because she, being a professor of law, ought to either have an excellent argument for her case, or see that she is wrong. This paradox has baffled me for quite some time, but I think I've figured out why she stuck to her weak arguments: it is a consequence of trying to argue in Singapore's secular setting but retaining her stand that comes from her personal belief (and interestingly, she has attacked Singapore's secularism recently with a straw-man argument).

I remember reading an editorial at the start of this year in either Science or Nature (can't remember which) - considered by many as the top two journals in science - in which the author argues that the Obama should appoint scientists in his administration because they are trained to make "correct" judgements. His point is that a proper science training should teach the scientist not to favour, assume or even expect a particular conclusion before the experiment. A scientist, in positions of power, will therefore analyse the situation objectively based on all avaliable data and make a stand based on his analysis. This will ensure that the decision made is the best possible for the country. He contrasts this with lawyers, which are trained to pick up a particular stand and construct arguments to support it. This is, of course, rather an unfair opinion against lawyers because there is a difference between one's derivation of his stand and one's academic training, but his underlying assumption about decision-making is clear: in choosing a stand, we should analyse the arguments before making a conclusion.

There is also the joke that puts economists in the same bad shoes. It goes like this: a mathematician, a statistician and an economist were at a job interview. They were asked what two plus two is. The mathematician says, "four", and the statistician says, "on average, four". The economist, on the other hand, surreptitiously asks the interviewer, "well, what do you want it to be?" The punchline is about the wrong way of making a stand: choose the conclusion you want, before finding arguments to prop it up (and ignoring evidence that contradict that stand).

So are the arguments of the opponents to gay rights formed as such? Assembled top-down from the conclusion instead of constructed bottom-up from basic principles and evidence? Are these people like the accused lawyer in the editorial or the economist in the joke? Not necessary: they may have a different premise. Gay right proponents may have the premise that there ought to be no discrimination based on sexuality. But opponents to gay rights, such as those who have been in the spotlight recently like Thio, may have the premise that goes: "the Bible is right". If we start from this premise, it is naturally a conclusion that being gay is wrong.

Now, all this is fine and good if one applies that conclusion to oneself, but the problem comes when one tries to apply the conclusion to others, on a society-wide setting. There will inevitably be contradictions which springs from differences in premises. So in a country like Singapore we practise secularism - meaning all arguments that are forwarded in society must either be independent of system of belief or applies to all systems of belief. As a result their arguments will no longer work, because not everyone can accept the premise that "the Bible is right". Consequently, these opponents try to find an argument that is founded upon secular premises to support their stands so they can push their ideas upon the society.

But that is precisely what the economist did.

14 June 2009

Meteor Attack!

I noticed this news yesterday from the Daily Telegraph:

14-year-old hit by 30,000 mph space meteorite
A schoolboy has survived a direct hit by a meteorite after it fell to earth at 30,000mph.

Gerrit Blank, 14, was on his way to school when he saw "ball of light" heading straight towards him from the sky.

A red hot, pea-sized piece of rock then hit his hand before bouncing off and causing a foot wide crater in the ground.




Okay, the subtitle of the article is "A schoolboy has survived a direct hit by a meteorite after it fell to earth at 30,000mph." The first question that pops into my mind is: how on Earth does the boy or the newspaper know that the meteorite is going at 30,000 mph? That's about 10,000 m/s, which is damn bloody fast. It can cover the length of Singapore in about 4 seconds. And second question: direct hit? Even if it's granular sized, the kinetic energy and momentum involved would've blown up his hand. And then the article also threw up some numbers which, if you'd think about it, is highly fishy.

Definitely, either this is a sham that made it to the news, or there are gross inaccuracies in that article, which is rather shameful because The Daily Telegraph is somewhat a reliable source of news. I searched around and found a more reliable analysis of this article by someone from Discover magazine:

A boy claims he was hit by a meteorite

Okay dudes, all the more reason to carry an umbrella even if it is not raining.

28 May 2009

More Opposition MPs: How Will This Change Voting Patterns?

In what is probably the biggest change in the political system in recent years, the government has announced that the lower limit for the number of opposition members of parliament will be raised from three to nine. This means that, in future elections, if the opposition parties capture less than nine seats, the rest will be filled up with NCMPs from the losing team with highest proportion of votes.

The first question that springs to my mind is, why does the government do this? I mean, are the PAP MPs looking for more targets to abuse in parliament? Well, there is the most straightforward possibility that the PAP really wants more checks and balances against themselves. Uh... okay, scrap that.

Obviously, this move will ultimately benefit them in some ways. But how? It seems to be a response against the rising voices of "checks and balances" and the employment of it as a rationale for supporting the opposition in elections. So PAP is trying to say, "Yo! You guys there who vote for the opposition because of the 'checks and balances' reason. There's no more need to do that with this new change!"

Now, does this hold water? It comes down to what it all means when people say they want "checks and balances". Basically, to me at least, it seems that this "checks and balances" imply that the PAP cannot pass bills in parliament at will. That is, the PAP controls less than two-thirds of the seats in parliament. In this case, the new measures cannot convince a rational individual to forgo "checks and balances" as a consideration when voting. Even with nine opposition MPs, they still cannot block any bill if the PAP MPs vote unanimously. What's more, NCMPs have limited voting powers.

However, is that all to "checks and balances"? Could someone want "checks and balances", and yet mean something less than a third of opposition MPs in parliament? It could very well be, if this person assumes "checks and balances" as more questions asked in parliament sessions. More specifically, they want bills to be scrutinised. They want "failures" like the recent losses in Temasek Holdings to be dissected. They want issues to be debated more thoroughly. And perhaps, they trust PAP MPs to vote on their individual capacities on non-partisan matters.

So how much votes will this new change bring for the PAP? Definitely, those hardcore fans of either camps are not going to budge. PAP is aiming at the middle of the spectrum, at people who may vote for the PAP, but at the same time lean towards the opposition for "checks and balances". For the person who takes that to mean "less than 66% of MPs belong to PAP", it's not gonna work. But how much does this group of people comprise in the electoral roll? How many people interpret "checks and balances" as the second meaning? How many people have no idea of what they want when they demand "checks and balances"?

On a side note, I welcome the new change to smaller GRCs, so long as it does not imply an increase in the number of ministers!

02 May 2009

The Aftermath of the AWARE War

As with all wars, there is celebration on the side of the victors, and bitterness on the side of the defeated. But as these emotions fade, what will emerge is the vast destruction done to the people and the infrastructure. Lives lost, buildings bombed, resources wasted... a scene of ruin that greets both sides.

In a similar sense, a war has broken out in Singapore's civil society, a struggle for power for one of Singapore's most prominent interest group. The dispute in AWARE has culminated in the EGM, which dragged overtime for several hours, and eventually tilted against the favour of the new AWARE committee, triggering their resignation.

But what has been destroyed in this AWARE war? One thing for sure, Constance Singam has identified that the trust that was implicit in the organisation is gone now. Like a shattered vase, there is no way to restore its original state; even with masterful reparations, cracks will forever be there.

But I think it goes beyond that. The trust amongst different interest groups in society may be under strain. And I am not talking about groups that sit on opposite sides of an issue, like evolutionists and creationists. After all, AWARE does not fight for gay-rights, yet it was on this issue that triggered the entire affair. This has shown that even if a group is only tangentially concerned with a minor issue, it is liable to be taken over by other groups. So the lesson that other groups, observing this AWARE war, can learn is to guard themselves against such a takeover by any other groups with an alternative motive. And with that, the trust is gone. And maybe... maybe, it's not so bad a thing after all.

But what will this mean, beyond all that trust and everything? Is society more polarised between pro-gays and anti-gays now? Will the battle for gay rights be more difficult now? Is it really a victory for supporters of the so-called Old Guards, especially when there were signs of rowdiness and rude interruptions? The words, the insults and the name-calling... how much of this whole saga can we call it a step forward for democracy?

Is this war really over? Or will it lead, just like World War I, to another more devastating showdown?

25 April 2009

The Problem with the New AWARE EXCO

Undoubtedly, you would've heard of the whole nasty business that is going on in AWARE right now.

Personally, my take is this: the initial silence and lack of communications to the public, as well as the hostilities towards and dismissals of the previous EXCO members, are all worrying signs. Moreover, it is evident that there will be a change of ideals, but the new EXCO has yet to announce this agenda of theirs. Recent press conferences did shed some light on their directions, but this is only weeks after the takeover, and there were still many burning questions yet to be answered to satisfaction.

This seems to signal a "I know best, so just shut up and follow" attitude which is disturbing to say the least. Since AWARE is an activist group, communication ought to be one of the most important facet of its operations. Even as I grant the new EXCO a chance to prove and establish themselves, they have been utterly disappointing thus far.

Many of the new EXCO members have expressed concern with AWARE's pro-gay stance, which is of course valid. But AWARE is not about gay rights; it's about female rights. These people - as well as the supposed coordinator of the takeover, Thio Su Mien - were outspoken against gay rights with their frequent letters to the press, but they have done nothing similar for female rights, as far as I know.

AWARE has done much for feminine rights in Singapore. I hope the upcoming EGM will clear up certain hazy issues and allow us to, at the very least, know more about the new EXCO's plan for this organisation.

By the way, if you too find the new EXCO's actions questionable, here are two links to a website that seeks answers from them and a petition that you can lend your support to:


19 February 2009

Election in 2009? The Chances Involved

The recent updates to the electoral rolls and polling districts suggest the possibility of an election sometime in the near future, perhaps in this year. This will probably place it within the current financial cesspool.

So what chances are the PAP taking by having it at this moment? There are numerous incidents which reflects unfavourably to the governing authority. From Mas Selamat to GST increase to ministerial pay hike to the enormous losses of our sovereign wealth funds, there are plenty of issues that can invoke the ire of Singaporeans.

Indeed, these are rich fields for the opposition to harvest on. It wasn't too long ago that these happened, and if the opposition reminds the people properly, the voters will no doubt possess some dissatisfaction of the PAP when making their choices. However, the emphasis here is on "properly", because there is the danger of harping on it so much that it becomes another James Gomez incident.

Nonetheless, I think these factors pale in comparison with one single concern of the people: the economy. Like it or not, economy is always a chief factor in the voter's mind, and this is not restricted to Singapore. Even in the recent US election, the economy is the top priority in many people's mind. The polls showed both candidates close in the race until the economic diarrhea. The only exception I can think of in recent times is the 2007 Australian elections, where the excellent economy failed to secure Howard his re-election bid, but then again there were numerous other elements (some related to money) that overrode this factor.

This is the key strength of the PAP, and this economic crisis gives them a good chance. After all, with their financial security at stake, most people are less likely to take risks. Indeed, the PAP has a very legitimate claim that they have excellent track record in managing the economy, and this argument will sell rather well at this time. After all, I can easily imagine people saying, "Who cares about what our sovereign wealth funds have lost, so long as I can have my job secure and my investments recover?"

Furthermore, the PAP has a powerful argument that, in this crisis, there should be no dilly-dallying in parliament. Bills which will help the economy ought to pass in the greatest efficiency and the presence of opposition members in parliament will only serve to hinder the speed at which help reaches Singaporeans. Certainly, the opposition can counter by saying that any good policies will not face any delays and bad policies are better not passed. But this is a dangerous line to tread because all this while they have been telling the people to vote them into parliament so as to scrutinise such policies. I'm not arguing against the merits of having opposition in parliament; I'm merely highlighting the delicacy of the issue.

And needless to say, any special financial assistance by the government to the people will reflect well on the PAP during the election. In fact, it kills two birds with one stone: instead of a recession package and an election package later on, they can combine both into one.

I'm not sure what the opposition can do with regards to the economy. One possibility is to draft up a detailed and viable economic plan that will help Singaporeans in this current recession, and publicise it thoroughly and extensively. Even if it doesn't get passed in parliament - and it probably won't - it will show that the opposition is not there just to oppose. They can propose sound and viable ideas on their own, and therefore their presence in parliament won't jeopardise the country's route to recovery. The point is to let people know that they are well-equipped with economic knowledge, though usual problems (e.g. media bias) remain.