The “delusion” of scientific research

Have you noticed how often we see one story about science proving something just to have another story a few months later proving the opposite? What is going on? 

 

The big myth is that science produces accurate results – recent research by John  Ioannidis titled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” has demonstrated that the majority of scientific findings are wrong.

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“Old wives tales” developed and persisted because they had practical benefits over time, Dismiss them at your peril.

Then there is the myth of “scientific discovery”. How often do we hear the words “scientists discovered …..”

 

And in most cases this is as accurate as saying Columbus discovered America. What about the people who were living in America when he arrived there. 

 

Science is usually a follower rather than as discoverer

What most people have forgotten is that science is more of a process of trying to find out how existing processes work than discovering new processes. More often than not, science follows technology rather than the other way around.

Take for example the invention of the steam engine by James Watt. If James had believed in the science of the day it would never have been built and we would still be stuck in the dark ages. According to the laws of physics at that time his invention couldn’t work. But clearly it did. And that lead to the rewriting of the laws of thermodynamics by Carnot. 

We don’t say Carnot discovered the steam engine we say Watt’s did. So what has happened to our society that we now so often fall into the trap of crediting scientists for discovering something that already exists? Clearly the media has a role in this. The headline “science discovers ….” is likely to gain more attention than “scientists who were examining the existing phenomenon of X think that they have a way of understanding how it works. However this is only provisional and someone else may come up with a better approximation in the future”.

But it is more than the media. For we are now allowing people and businesses to patent nature.

This makes me so angry that I fantasise about teaching the limited world view that facilitates this process a lesson. My fantasy involves mirroring the process that is currently used to patent nature –   I research breathing and then patent it or some aspect of it. That way, everyone in the world would have to pay me for every breath they take. In my fantasy this would be unacceptable to the masses and it would lead to the recognition of the delusion and danger of the current system and its abolition.

It is impossible for science to be totally objective because it is performed by subjects

Many scientists and people believe that science is an absolute process – a study of “reality”. But exactly who is studying the reality and what are they using? People are doing the studying using their minds, their consciousness. They are using their cognition and this is subject to many different biases.

For example, David Sackett (1) identified 7 areas where experimental bias can occur and he documented 56 different possible types of bias in these areas.

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“Financial Depth” and sophistication or “diminishing Marginal returns” and Collapse

 

 

 

The thing about data is that it can made to say what ever you want it to say. A few weeks ago I read a quote to the effect – statistics is boring science fiction. It appealed to my sense of humour.

 

A few weeks ago I was looking through the latest report on Global Finance by the McKinsey Global Institute.- Mapping Global capital markets (the 5th edition).

In this report they present a concept they call the  “Map of Global Financial Depth”. Basically it is plot of per capita GDP of various countries versus the value of all the finance that was required to generate these GDPs (as a percentage of the GDP).

 

As their graphic indicates there appears to be a trend which they have called financial depth  – a mark of sophistication and modernity.

In essence, the data appears to be saying that countries with high per capita GDP can only achieve this with high financial depth. The very way that the graphic is presented, with a positive trend line that starts to increase vertically at the end, equated with a “mature” market, suggests that high “financial depth” is something to aspire to.

mckinsey-financial-depth-or-declining-productivity-of-debt

 

 

But hang on a moment. This data is saying something else too. It is saying that there are diminishing marginal economic returns.

 

 While Indonesian’s manage to generate one dollar of economic output with one dollar of finance for an annual per capita income of about $6.000 and the Czech’s generate $25,000 using $1.50 of finance to generate every dollar, modern economies require $4.50 of finance to generate every dollar of income.

 

Have a look at this data presented in a slightly different format and for one country – the USA – over an extended time period. The reality of the diminishing marginal productivity of capital is very clear – moreover it is trending “downwards” rather the Mckinsey “upwards ” chart. And,  if you take the liberty of projecting the trend line over time we might find that as soon as 2014 we are in a position where additional capital actual starts to destroy the economy!!

 

 

Diminishing marginal productivity of debt - usa

Diminishing marginal productivity of debt - usa

 

 

 

 

The USA economy could start start shrinking as early as 2014

The USA economy could start start shrinking as early as 2014

 

 

 

 

And the problem with this is that it was this  phenomenon that caused the collapse of 24 complex societies in the past. Joseph Tainter studied the development and subsequent collapse of 24 complex societies and came to the conclusion that as they became more complex they required an increasing amount of energy to run. Unfortunately he noticed that in each case, there was a diminishing marginal energy return As the complexity of each society increased problems arose that required solutions that were increasingly complex and increasingly expensive . At the point where the energy return on the energy invested in new solutions dropped below zero the society collapsed.  

 

The key driver of human progress has been our capacity to harness energy. For example, some estimates suggest that our current modern western lifestyle requires the equivalent of 140 slaves per person – the rate for the USA today is around 300. We have only managed to achieve this through cheap, non-renewable, fossil fuels. It is no coincidence that the industrial revolution and our capacity to harness coal as an effective energy source occur at the same time. 

 

Where will this energy come from in the future?

 

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My take on this data is that it indicates how we are, and have been,  “consuming our future” in an unsustainable way.

Free-market capitalism may have finally collapsed. The question of how this is about to play out in global society is unclear but I am expecting substantial societal collapse as a consequence.

Anyone who believes that governments will be able to rescue the world from a depression has not understood the economics and the psychology of the situation.

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Inflation in Zimbabwe – winners and losers

Yesterday I was talking to an old friend of mine in Zimbabwe, a white guy who used to live next door to me. I asked him what life was like there and how inflation was effecting life.

 

Inflation: To the moon and back but a money spinner for the wealthy

 

When I left Zimbabwe, one Zimbabwe dollar was about equal to one US dollar. Apparently, at the current exchange rate, if you piled up all the one dollar Zimbabwe bills it would take to buy one US dollar on top of each other they would more than reach the moon and back!! 

 

For people like my father who get a government pension, the total annual amount is apparently not enough to buy one coffee a month.

 

But on the other hand there are people who are making big money out of inflation. He gave an example of a common friend who had borrowed the equivalent of US$300,000 for one year from a bank in Zimbabwe. Apparently the moment he got the money he managed to convert it into US dollars. When the time came to pay the money back at the end of the year it cost him the equivalent price of two coffees in US dollars. In other words he had made US$300,000 in one year for the price of two coffees and all he had done was borrow in Zimbabwe dollars, convert to US dollars and hold.

 

So who is losing out on this deal – the average person on the street who has their money in the bank. Yet another case of privatising the gains and socialising the loses. The Zimbabwean equivalent of a Wall street banker.

 

So if you think life is tough in Zimbabwe it is for many but for many others it is still the “good life”. If you simplistically measure the quality of life by the antiquity of the cars people drive then apparently Zimbabwe is doing better than New Zealand!

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Quiz: Are you a COMMUNIST or a CAPITALIST?

Quiz: Are you a Communist or a Capitalist?

 

To find out simply answer these questions.

 

1. Do you want fewer and fewer options as a consumer as small independent businesses and genuine free enterprise are marginalised or crushed?

 

2. Do you want the public to be at the mercy of a small cartel of unaccountable despots?

 

3. Do you want to be continuously assaulted by relentless propaganda?

 

4. Do you want your economic system to be doomed to end in failure?

 

If you answered YES to most or all of these questions then YES you are a communist or a capitalist.

 

If you like this sort of satire it is from a 4 part series titled Silly Money by Bremner, Bird and Fortune. Replays are available on Googlevideo

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High-speed broadband growth unsustainable: expert – Is “cloud computing” another securitisation delusion?

For me cloud computing looks like another securitisation folly.  And new research out of the University of Melbourne that shows that the current high speed broadband growth is unsustainable makes me think I am on the right track.

 

To date all I have heard is the positive side of the cloud computing story. 

 

The main argument is that Cloud computing is going to cost us less because of centralisation. For example when we run software as a service, instead of as individual programs on our computers, we will no longer have to worry about the costs involved with updating the software. It will all happen centrally. Moreover we will be able to share servers with others  –  the old economies of scale argument.

While I accept these arguments I disbelieve the thesis that cloud computing will be cheaper in the “long run” and when all “externalities” are included.

 Cloud computing involves an evolutionary step – evolution implies an increase in complexity and increased complexity costs more. The fact that it appears to be costing less tells me that the people who are adding up the costs have either done their sums incorrectly or they have excluded some costs.

 

So what costs could they have excluded?

 

Let me take a guess. I reckon that as cloud computing takes off, we will suddenly see costs increasing faster than people expected. There will also be additional costs that they never thought about.  And finally, they have excluded the costs of fixing the problem if, and when, there is a big collapse.

 

Cloud computing is like securitisation in that it increases vulnerability and risk to the recipient – it doesn’t reduce it.  If something goes wrong in the cloud, everyone connected to that cloud goes down. System resilience declines as centralisation increases.  And something like a collapse of a computer system will harm more than just the isolated computer system – as computers become more embedded in everyday processes the potential for an “isolated”  computer crash to have an impact on systems that were perceived to be “unrelated” increases.

 

I wonder if security costs have been considered effectivily. My thoughts are that as the volume of traffic in the “cloud” increases it will become increasingly vulnerable to being corrupted by a virus. This is especially true because of the “virtualisation” that much of the cloud is based on. With information flowing in and out of clouds from everywhere, there will have to be some virus check on the data . My intuition tells me that the relationship between this cost and traffic volume will be non linear and that for this reason costs will end up much higher than predicted.

 

Has the analysis included all the direct and indirect infrastructure that will be required to make cloud computing a reality or has this been takes as pre-existing? It looks like their may have been some false assumptions made about the ability of the existing infrastructure to deliver the bandwidth required for cloud computing. Research by scientists at the University of Melbourne say that the growth of the high speed broadband, on which the whole of cloud computing us dependant, is unsustainable. The only way for it to work is if more money is put into the infrastructure and use more energy.

 

This research, which shows that the growth in demand for high speed broadband services could make services slower, is to be presented at a Symposium on Sustainability and the Internet this week. 

The university’s Dr Kerry Hinton says it shows the growth of the internet is not sustainable.

“We’ll find that the network will actually grind to a halt, the reason being that the machines at the core of the internet that actually route the packets through the network, they can chew up more and more energy,” he said.

“We’re getting to the stage that the amount of energy they consume is so great that we can’t get the power into them and we can’t get the power out of these machines.

“If we plan carefully and start thinking ahead and making sure the technology we use is becoming more energy efficient, so we make the internet more sustainable, then we should be okay.

“But the key message is if we don’t plan ahead and start thinking what does this mean, and we continually roll out more and more services through the internet, that’s when the trouble will start.”

 

Beware of gods bearing false promises. The moral of the story is that if  something is more complex it will cost more. Joseph Tainter did a study of the collapse of 24 complex societies. These societies all collapsed for the same reason. They all reached a point where their demand for energy outstripped their capacity to supply it. We forget that economic progress is a function of per capita energy use. Every time these societies hit a new problem they solved it with a solution that was more complex that the problem. This drove the energy demand up.

How sustainable is our economic infrastructure? We have built a whole system on the basis of cheap energy from fossil fuels. What will happen when the price of energy increases? How much of what we do will be sustainable or even the best way to do something?

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What has the UNs idea of Sustainable cities and sub-prime got in common?

 

 

The Economist Magazine has an article titled Sub-prime with the subtitle: Greener thinking for the poorer cities.

 

I like the title “sub-prime” but for a different reason. And I would use the subtitle – “Shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic”.

 

The article talks about World Habitat Day which was marked by a prize rewarding smart urban planning. Habit is a United Nations’ organisation tasked with improving our urban fabric. In the next 20 years 2 billion people are going to move into cities from the land. That is equivalent to almost one third of the current global population.

 

human-enegy-use-over-time1

 

“It’s the equivalent of adding a Pittsburgh, Manchester, or a Hanoi to the planet every week,” says Michael Cohen of the New School in New York, one of a group of urbanisation experts gathered at Habitat’s headquarters in Nairobi recently to help the agency map out a plan to raise public awareness of a potentially grim future.

The group apparently had a problem agreeing what Habitat’s tentative campaign slogan of “sustainable urbanisation” meant. Apparently, one thought is to emphasise the positives of cities. They can be the solution instead of the end game. Properly managed they can slash emissions, grow knowledge and creativity, and haul billions of poor out of poverty. Really – raising people out of poverty? For how long? That is what the sub-prime housing market in the USA was supposed to do and for a while it looked like it was working – housing prices could keep on increasing for ever couldn’t they! House price multiples of 9 times median earnings were suddenly sustainable in the long term even though historically the sustainable ratio was more like three. 

 

When is humanity really going to wake up to the fact that it is running up an ecological debt – and probably has been doing so since the 1980’s.

 

wwf-humanities-ecological-f

 

“Sustainable cities?” – really. 1984 double speak – hire the spin doctor and create a music clip for MTV, recruit a Hollywood star and everyone will live happily ever after?.

 

It seems like these guys at the UN are smart enough to be able to identify the underlying facts about the nature of the demand of cities on our ecological support system but then fail to take the next step and identify the consequences.

 

From a big picture perspective, these new cities are the equivalent of the new housing stock created by the sub-prime lending in the USA. They are adding to an unsustainable debt burden to the planet that will eventually burst.

 

 Just like the sub-prime housing debt market in the USA was the straw the broke the camel’s back of an unsustainable global financial debt, the sub-prime ecological debt market, created by new cities, will be the straw the breaks the back of an unsustainable global ecological debt. People moving from the land to the cities will at least triple their energy consumption

 

The earth is heading for it’s Titanic iceberg moment. This time we have the data. We don’t need rocket science to work this one out. The mathematics is very simple. 

 

Consider this question. Imagine there is a pond with lilies growing in it. The surface area of the pond covered by the lilies doubles each day. The pond starts empty and is fully covered by the lilies on day 30. On what day is the pond half covered by lilies? The answer is day 29. In other words right up until day 29 everything looks fine and we still have a lot of room to play with. Then it all goes wrong very quickly.

 

We are not dealing with linear issues – moreover we don’t just have the one exponential issue –  we have multiple exponential growth factors combining with each other like population growth, energy consumption and per capita consumption on non renewable resources. We might well ask ourselves – if we use the lily in the pond model, what day are we on?

 

The powers that be – like this example of the UN – are smart enough to get the basic numbers right, this is not the issue. It is what happens to those numbers – how they are interpreted – that is the issue. Analysis will show that the global and national institutions that run the show have a world view that was shaped by past experience. This is normal. The problem though is that what we called “progress” and successful in the past, in a planet where the global human population was much smaller and only a small proportion of that enjoyed the benefits of that progress and success, has now turned into a problem which threatens our survival in this new environment.

 

As Einstein said – you can’t solve a problem with the same level of thinking that caused it. Progressive, enlightenment thinking, reductive science, competition, free-markets, democracy – these are belong to the world view or thinking that delivered us this personal freedom and economic growth that we take for granted and are even today fighting for. 

 

I don’t want to go back to an authoritarian or war lord past or live in a cave. So what is to be done?

 

Clearly we are finding it difficult to come to terms with the fact that our world view is inadequate. The first step is to acknowledge this and change our language. We need to stop calling free-markets a success and stop deluding ourselves that the growth of cities can be sustainable.

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Is the gym contributing to the unhappiness epidemic? RX – Yoga

Happiness is relative – it is the natural state that occurs when unhappiness is absent. Therefore the best way to become happy is not to seek to acquire happiness but to develop the skills to remove the causes of unhappiness.

 

I was reading a news story in the New York Times yesterday about the latest research findings on happiness. It was titled “What happy people don’t do”. In a nutshell the discovery was that happy people spend a lot of time socialising, going to church and reading newspapers — but they don’t spend a lot of time watching television, a new study finds.

 

That’s what unhappy people do. And data show that people who spend the most time watching television are least happy in the long run.

This got me thinking about Television and the gym – could there be unintended consequences of the usual gym workout routine? Could the gym be making people unhappy?

If you go to the modern gym the chances are you will see television screens everywhere. And if you go into the actual gym area you will see most people staring at these television screens while they are working out. Recent research found that 70% of gym members watch TV when they go to the gym and they watch 40 minutes on average per visit.

 

Why are people watching TV while they are exercising? Because what they are doing is boring. Watching TV keeps them distracted and detached from what is going on.

 

Another way to read this is that many people are actually paying money to train themselves to disconnect their minds and their bodies. They are training themselves in mindlessness and distraction. And now the latest research shows that by watching more television they are probably training themselves to be more unhappy too. 

 

Yoga is the antithesis of the gym/TV gig. Yoga is a training in mindfulness – it is mental, physical and emotional training rolled into one and  interconnected. You learn be present, to live in the present moment and to connect with the flow of life. You learn to become yourself and express yourself. You learn to connect vs. disconnect. You learn to focus and pay attention vs. training for distraction.

 

Yoga can be a practice that transforms your life. The purely physical aspects of yoga, like the physical aspects of working out at the gym, will slide away if you stop practising. And many forms of yoga don’t really get much past this anyway – especially when they are taught in the gym environment and by people with a minimal training qualification. On the other hand, the promise from yoga schools that weekend, one day, one week or one month courses will transform your consciousness are straight out right lies and fly in the face of yoga. 

 

The real long term benefits from yoga come from learning a new way to relate to yourself and to life. We are trying to teach you a generic approach and skill that you can apply to the whole of your life. That is what we encourage you to practice. The real practice of yoga has nothing to do with “perfecting” certain physical positions in terms of how they look from an external perspective – that approach teaches “conformit”y and the idea that self value comes from being perfect in the eyes of  standards set by an external authority. In Yoga we are teaching you to connect to, and express yourself from, an “internal reference point” – to be internally directed rather than externally directed.

 

Our desire is for you to learn to  connect to, and align yourself with, the actual flow of life and the reality of what is happening. 

 

 Three  key qualities we want you to develop are concentration, clarity (discrimination) and equanimity.

 

Yoga is ultimately about relationships and, as the happiness study shows, it is relational activities that contribute to happiness. One of my teachers, TKV Desikachar, once said to me: ” from the perspective of yoga it is more important for your students to fix their relationships with their mothers than to be able to do any yoga postures or breathing exercise”

 

And a few final thoughts about happiness. Happiness is a relative concept. The state of happiness exists relative to the state of unhappiness. If unhappiness were to disappear then happiness would also disappear.  If you doubt this I suggest that you reflect on your own experience. When you are happy do you consciously register the fact? How much of your time do you spend thinking about how happy you are? I imagine very little to none. When we are happy we aren’t usually aware of it. But unhappiness is the opposite – when we are unhappy we are aware of it and think about it – but we don’t generally think  “how do I become happy” – we think “how do I get rid of this unhappiness” . 

 

If we were constantly happy we would become used to it just like we become used to anything that doesn’t change – it would be the normal state and life would be become flat. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aspire to be happy.

 

Maybe we would be happier if we focused on first avoiding doing the things that made us unhappy rather than trying to work out what makes us happy. But then where would the whole happiness industry be? 

 

I have in front of me right now a brochure for the fourth annual conference on “Happiness and it’s Causes – Tools and Techniques for a happier life”. Somehow I don’t think that “Unhappiness and it’s causes – tools and techniques for removing unhappiness” would sell as well. Happiness is now a consumer item – something to buy, something that is acquired, rather than the natural state that exists when unhappiness has been removed. Feel free to go along and get scalped.

 

As a caveat I should mention that we do have an aspect to yoga practice where we learn to generate positive internal self talk, positive images and positive emotional states. These practices are done with the intention of training consciousness and development of concentration, clarity and equanimity.

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