Category Archives: Education

To Reykjavik for the Nordic Congress of General Practice

Back home now after a week in Iceland. Primarily for The 20th Nordic Congress of General Practice, a huge event with 1,500 delegates in the magnificent new Harpa Conference Centre and Concert Hall for which I and four fellow GPs ran a workshop on the subject ‘Doctors as Social Activists’. Link to my presentation

Views of the astonishing Harpa conference centre

I was describing my efforts since retirement to challenge organised climate change denial. Link to my presentation

1,500 Nordic GPs coming out for coffee break from one of the plenary sessions in the main hall

This was the very opposite of a freebie because we paid all our own expenses and discovered, having dutifully followed the advice to book flights and accommodation well in advance, that all five of us would have to pay the £700 registration fee for the conference.

This was on top of Reykjavik being, with Tokyo, currently the most expensive capital city in the world, even without the devalued pound, so that everything – food, trips, entrance to exhibitions, goods in shops – was more than twice as expensive as at home. Nonetheless, Lesley and I gritted our teeth, tightened our belts (I lost 3½ lbs on the trip) and took the opportunity to see something of this fascinating country and its admirable people.


Apart from the conference we were lucky to be in Reykjavik for Iceland’s National Independence Day (from Denmark : 1944). In spite of a cold wind and intermittent downpours, the atmosphere was festive and friendly. We felt it a real privilege to be there. We heard the President give a speech and then an actress gave a beautiful recital of a poem in Icelandic. Then there was a parade to the fair-ground around the lake, where there were circus acts and the world’s oldest strong-man competition.


The houses and buildings in Reykjavik were extraordinarily varied, often brightly painted, and quite a few had large murals painted on them.


The famous Hallgrimskirkja cathedral dominated from the top of the city, It was striking outside, although the concrete was currently under repair – testifying to the extreme harshness of the climate. The inside was serenely beautiful, with the most magnificent modern organ I have ever seen, being played while we were there.


We were unlucky with the weather, but we shared a car for a day out to the Snaefellsjoekull National Park north of the city, and took a coach trip around the ‘Golden Circle’ on our last day – our only really sunny day.

The Golden Circle is very much a tourist route but you see the junction between the American and the Eurasian tectonic plates (separating at about a centimetre a year) at the Þingvellir National Park, the magnificent Gullfoss Falls, and the geysers at the Haukadalur Geothermal Area.

Everywhere you see beautiful blue lupins, apparently a recent, deliberate introduction to stabilise and enrich the soil (lupins of course being nitrogen-fixers) which are proliferating at an incredible rate and seem to be broadly welcomed.  You can see them in the foreground and in the hills in the picture bottom right above. We were told that the country was 85% covered by trees when the Vikings arrived, but they cut them all down for fuel, housing and ships.

 

One thing which surprised us was the sheer size of the country – more than 300 miles East to West and 200 North to South. So we only saw a small part close to Reykjavik.

And this yellow door was the entry to our little room, with its blind to make it dark when it ought to have been night.

The Rocky Mountaineer – one of the world’s great rail journeys

SPOILER ALERT If you are ever likely to do this wonderful journey, just do it. For heavens sake just discover it for yourselves.

Otherwise – on we go.  By all means enjoy this feeble attempt to record a few of our impressions.

From the moment we stepped out of our taxi at the dedicated terminal at Vancouver we knew we were doing something special. Continue reading The Rocky Mountaineer – one of the world’s great rail journeys

the biggest science scandal ever

The journalist Christopher Booker has a way of trumpeting his discovery of what turn out to be non-existent science scandals.  Here he is on February 7 this year:

one

Two

This article, headed “The fiddling with temperature data is the biggest science scandal ever”, turned out to be a misleading account of perfectly proper adjustments to readings from outdated measuring equipment which Mr Booker mistakenly thought showed that scientists were tampering with the historical record and trying to deceive the world about the need for action over climate change. [Full explanation of his errors here].

Mr Booker is rather given to this kind of language. Six years ago he ran an article in the Sunday Telegraph with the eerily similar heading “This is the worst scientific scandal of our generation“. The full text of this article, dated 29 Nov 2009,  is still on the ST website  [here if you want it]

Christopher Booker in the Sunday TelegraphThat ‘worst scientific scandal of our generation‘ wasn’t a scandal either, although Booker wasn’t alone in trumpeting it and calling it by the ridiculous misnomer, Climategate. And in a curious coincidence of hyperbole (unless they were hand-in-glove) another journalist, James Delingpole, wrote an article in The Spectator the following week [here if you want it] referring to the same events as  ‘the greatest scientific scandal in the history of the world‘. Gosh!

Another curious coincidence was the timing: these journalists, and a few others, broke the news of this 2009 ‘scandal’ – based as it was on a perverse interpretation of a ten-year-old stolen email, selected from thousands and quoted out of context – just three weeks before the Copenhagen Climate Summit of that year. It was therefore perfectly timed to undermine the political will so essential to making that crucial conference a success. What is certain is that Climategate – later described by Professor Sir Paul Nurse (see below) as ‘the scandal that never was’, did indeed play a part in securing the limp outcome which was so bitterly disappointing to all but climate change deniers.

At least four independent enquiries subsequently exonerated Dr Phil Jones and the Climatology Department of the University of East Anglia of all the charges of dishonesty which had been levelled so viciously against them. But the clearest description I have found of what actually happened was contained in a BBC Horizon programme by Professor Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Nobel laureate. This programme is no longer available online but I prepared a transcript of some crucial sections at the time and posted them [here]. This extraordinary account makes it clear that Dr Phil Jones’ Department was the object of a coordinated campaign to undermine its authority as a world-leading centre for climatological research, and to undermine the credibility of the warnings it, and by implication climate science in general, was giving.

That 2009 campaign by Mr Booker and others of his persuasion was all too successful. The worry is now that they have their (short) sights on undermining the climate talks which are scheduled for this year. They must not be allowed to succeed this time – the world cannot afford another Copenhagen. You might even say that the concerted effort in which they have played a not-insignificant part – either as collaborators or, hopefully, as dupes – to deceive the world over the most serious existential threat mankind has ever faced, really is ‘the biggest science scandal ever’.

What happened to the nation that bred Lord Nelson?

Every spring the Alton Society which I belong to organises a voluntary litter-pick to tidy up the town. This year it has  been decreed from on high that all the volunteers must now sign  a legal disclaimer before taking part.

Rather than accepting that this is another step on the great march of progress I thought that it was completely misguided. I care deeply about the dreadful problem of littering in this country and in our town and as an active member of the committee of the Society I have always seen this event one of the best things we do. I definitely wanted to contribute as usual. So I made a point of doing my litter-pick that morning (last Saturday) on my own responsibility, using my own equipment, and I didn’t sign anything for anybody.  So there.

Here are my reasons why I think this apparently naughty behaviour is establishing an extremely important principle.

First a picture:

Litter pick pic 1
The organised litter pick – volunteers assemble (photo by my wife)

Here are my reasons:

  1. The document is not signed to protect the volunteer, it is to protect the organisers from the fear of litigation
  2. It is assumed that failure to perform this ritual would invalidate the organisers’ insurance, but this protection is illusory because insurance companies are notorious for finding reasons not to pay out.
  3. This is an example of treating a tiny relative risk (the risk of the organisers being sued by a volunteer who hurts themselves) as an absolute risk which must be protected against, irrespective of the cost, financial and otherwise (see below).
  4. Signing the form does not make it the slightest bit less likely that an actual accident will happen.
  5. By taking responsibility for my own actions I was able to clear rubbish in a place which would probably have required a road closure if done by a public employee, and in another which probably involved trespass.
  6. I am told that many of the volunteers who did sign the disclaimer agreed that it was completely bonkers. This brings proper precautions into contempt and breeds cynicism.
  7. It also feeds the growing trend to see all accidents as someone else’s fault and for people to feel they are victims and entitled to compensation.
  8. Cultivating the belief, particularly among young people, that you can only pick up litter if you have joined a group, donned protective clothing and signed to make someone else take responsibility for your actions, is counterproductive to the real object of the exercise – to change the culture so that we have a litter-free town.
  9. It is noteworthy that people who believe proper precautions and rules should be strictly adhered to, as I do, are the same ones who oppose the paying of lip service to token precautions.
  10. This kind of obsessional aversion to minute, theoretical risks is an affront to people, again like me, who are properly concerned about the all-too-common denial of the unimaginably-larger risk of global warming.
  11. I worry about the next logical step – the next click of the ‘ratchet of progress’. I understand those who signed the disclaimer, including the MP and other dignitaries, mainly did so without reading it. And that it was actually a general-purpose disclaimer which included the hazards of cliff edges and seashores.
    I worry that when the next step is taken down this logical road it will be just as impossible for people like me to argue against it without appearing equally irresponsible.
    For example: it is not hard to imagine that in a few years time someone will decide that it is no longer good enough just to obtain token signing of a meaningless mantra in this way, and organisers will start being required to provide video evidence that they really did line the volunteers up and show them how to cross the road. It will then be just as impossible to argue against this increment of  progress and avoid accusations that you have failed in your duty of care by not going along with it. Especially in court after an accident, with a lawyer bent on apportioning blame,  however freakishly unlikely that accident may actually have been. At that time the manifest failure to comply with the ludicrous ritual automatically becomes the crime, regardless of any other circumstances.
  12. As I said in my 2001 book Friends in Low Places, after giving an imaginary example of mindless regulations blighting the professional lives of teachers:
    That is hardly an exaggeration and certainly not a joke, the reality is beyond parody – and certainly beyond a joke.
  13. And that’s my last reason – I wrote two books and numerous articles about this sort of thing, and lots of people said they agreed with me. So I simply had to make a protest last Saturday to be true to myself – even though it added loneliness to the squalor of the morning’s work.

 

Litter pick pic 2
All my own work. Six big bags and there’s a second recovered supermarket trolley out of shot. That strange mixture of disgust and satisfaction.

But, as I said in my first book, The Paradox of Progress, one person taking a stand achieves something amazingly powerful – it stops anybody ever saying again that ‘everybody goes along with it in the end’. That’s why I solemnly record that one person didn’t go along with it this time.

‘2071’ by Duncan Macmillan and Professor Chris Rapley, CBE

This is an extraordinary production. And, the Royal Court run being completely sold out, we were lucky to see it yesterday.

It is extraordinary because it is not presented by any sort of actor but by a top international scientist, and one who obviously believes that doing this – presenting climate science as clearly as he can to two London theatre audiences a day – is the most important thing he has to do at the moment. And as we read from the free handout that one of his many professional roles is Chairman of the Science Policy Advisory Committee of the European Space Agency, we could well imagine, on what was the day of maximum tension after their triumphant comet landing, Professor Rapley would rather have been much closer to the action .

But onto the stage he walked, without the slightest showmanship, sat down, and talked quietly for 70 minutes about the situation that faces the world.

Behind him, and perfectly synchronised with his words, were steadily-evolving images, graphs and diagrams on a huge, kaleidoscopic back-drop.

2071 - Chris Rapley

The fact that these graphics were almost entirely monochrome made the occasional use of red extremely striking. The sound track was equally subtle; gently supporting the narrative and punctuating it with hanging silences while he took a sip from his water glass. In all it was a deceptively sophisticated telling of a story which is, of course, far too dramatic to require theatricality. To my mind it was perfectly judged, and absolutely convincing.

Professor Rapley had been Director of the British Antarctic Survey and was particularly authoritative about the collapse of Antarctic Ice Shelves; now happening far more rapidly than ever expected. And as past Director of the Science Museum and Chairman of University College London’s Policy Commission on Communicating Climate Science he presented a masterly overview of all aspects of his subject. He described this year’s report from the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change, with its unequivocal call for action, as the most audited document in history. One easily-understood implication of this report being that three quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground if humanity is to avoid the potentially disastrous consequences of a more than 2°C rise in global temperature over pre-industrial levels. We have already had 0.8°C of that.

There were lots of young people in the audience, as well as older folks like us. But deniers were not at all in evidence. One day such people must realise that they have grandchildren too (Professor Rapley’s oldest will be the age he is now in 2071 – hence the title). Unfortunately, as things stand at the moment, that is going to be too late.

What are we doing to our climate? Some links for people attending my talk today…

As promised, here are some links for people who attended my talk at St Mary’s, Clapham on Wednesday 18 June, 2014

1. Hilarious video showing what a statistically valid ‘debate’ about climate change would actually look like: http://tinyurl.com/k5uslqx (4.9 million views and counting – updated January 2015))
Sending up the folly of ‘false balance’ in reporting of climate change issues by media such as Fox News and (disgracefully) the BBC:

2. IPCC reports : Climate Change 2014

The links take you to the menu for each report – I particularly recommend the videos, and especially the first one.

Working Group 1: The Physical Science Basis http://preview.tinyurl.com/kfwycog

259 authors from 39 countries

Key messages:

  1. The warming of the Climate system is unequivocal
  2. Human influence on the climate system is clear
  3. Continued Greenhouse gas emissions will cause further climate change

“Therefore we conclude: Limiting climate change requires substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Working Group 2: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability http://tinyurl.com/nxk7lab

309 authors from 70 countries

Adaptation and mitigation are complementary

Working Group 3: Mitigation of Climate Change http://tinyurl.com/nk68shs

235 authors from 57 countries

Global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut in half by mid-century and further after that.

Complete transformation in the energy system – especially electricity generation.

The atmosphere is a common resource – free dump for greenhouse gases

We need a broad portfolio of approaches

3. The five stages of Climate denial (beautifully exemplified in the Murdoch press, including The Wall Street Journal ) http://tinyurl.com/lz2ltaj
Stage 1: Deny the problem exists   it does
Stage 2: Deny we’re the cause we are 2b: deny the scientific consensus it’s 97%
Stage 3: Deny it’s a problem it is
Stage 4: Deny we can solve it (too expensive, will hurt the poor, etc.) the exact opposite of the truth
Stage 5: Say it’s too late anyway it isn’t, quite, no thanks to Murdoch

4. Five pieces of ice news revealing earth’s ice cover is in serious decline http://tinyurl.com/qeo8dfe

  1. Antarctic ice melt is twice as fast as 10 years ago
  2. West Antarctic Glaciers are collapsing and it’s “unstoppable” – 2-3 metre sea level rise may take several centuries
  3. The Greenland Ice sheet could melt faster than previously thought
  4. Other ice caps and glaciers in the northern hemisphere are melting faster too
  5. Soot from forest fires contributed to unusually large Greenland surface melt in 2012

5. Northern hemisphere hits carbon dioxide milestone in April Reuter report 26 May http://tinyurl.com/l5aa4vy Read the denialists’ comments at the bottom if you’ve got a strong stomach.

Who is the most dangerous of all… ?

Letters to the Guardian are not available online so I have taken the liberty of copying and posting one which is in today’s paper under the heading Fantasies shaping children’s futures :
“If what you want is to understand Michael Gove as a public figure in charge of the nation’s educational needs, there is little point in debating what he might call his “ideas” (Letters, 4 February). One needs rather to focus on three things. First, and notwithstanding the acquired, but now melting, patina of Oxford cleverness, his manifest stupidity, apparently incorrigible. Only an idiot could seriously maintain that a day will come, causally engineered by none other than Michael Gove himself, when it will be impossible to distinguish state schools from fee-paying schools – a deft account of the sheer idiocy of this view is provided by Peter Wilby (Comment, 4 February).“Second, his fantasy life, that of a man lost in translation between past and present, and more precisely the fantasy, bordering on obsession, of the arriviste, wannabe toff drooling over the lexicon of long ago while dreaming of the glory days of “prep” and “lines”. Third, the political ambition. Despite all the guff about linking educational “standards” and “social mobility”, everything that Gove does as secretary of state for education serves a very precise purpose. Gove wants to be the next leader of the Tory party and one day perhaps prime minister.

“How do you use the education brief to best serve that end? By playing to the Tory right and making an educational offer to those sections of the electorate which, in the context of recession, no longer feel able to afford private education for their children. It is only a matter of time before the sharp-elbow classes swamp the academies and the free schools. Reintroducing the “common entrance” exam at 13 (another of the terms in the vocabulary of Gove’s regressive fantasy life; the common entrance, I ask you!) will seal the deal on that front.

“The rest is dross. Gove is not only the silliest member of the government; given that his compulsions and ambitions are currently shaping the future of millions of children, he is also the most dangerous. The priority has surely to be not debating him, but getting rid of him.

Professor Christopher Prendergast
King’s College, Cambridge
And this is the letter I have just submitted in response:
Editor,
Professor Prendergast finishes his otherwise superb letter (6 February) by suggesting that Michael Gove is the most dangerous member of the government. The competition is hot and the bar is high but the Secretary of State for the Environment, Owen Patterson, is surely far more dangerous. Yet even so the ultimate prize must go to the man who appointed such a known global warming denier to such a crucial position at such a crucial time.
J A R Willis