Friday, April 24, 2009

Man on radio

BBC Radio 4 has a programme called More or Less, all about numbers. On 24 April 2009 the programme opened with a conversation between me and Tim Harford, talking about energy numbers. Tim likes the book (in fact he likes it so much that he gets its name wrong!) After me, he talks to a lady from the Sustainable Development Commission who graciously dismisses my book for being full of big equations and too technical. Or something. Can anyone understand what she's on about?
If you are quick, you can listen to the podcast.
I also wrote an article for the BBC website, 'Saving the planet by numbers'.


commentor said...

SDC lady is part of the problem - damn hippies who object to arithmetic and want to grind their left-wing axe instead of solve the actual problem.

Michael S. said...

I'm surprised to find out how much space wind farms require. Can they be combined with e.g. farmland? (Are they too noisy?) Will they get any more efficient in future?

Why is the picture of a roof-mounted turbine captioned "Installing windmills on your rooftop could be a waste of time and money." The "could" doesn't seem to correspond to your text.

David MacKay said...

Michael asked "why does the BBC article say 'could'?"
Good question! I think this caption was supplied by the BBC editors - perhaps the same editors who struck out the sentence "windmills on roofs are such an awful waste of money, anyone who promotes them should be strung up".
Wind farms certainly can be combined with farmland, and in my experience they are not noisy. But some people say they are noisy. I don't expect big improvements in efficiency, no.

Mike said...

I'm relieved to find it wasn't only me who found the lady from SDC incomprehensible. I recall she was introduced as Rebecca Willis, who has a first class degree in Social and Political Sciences from Cambridge, according to the SDC web site.

I would expect some Maths to be required for such a degree, even from Cambridge :-)

Ruth said...

At last! I just heard your talk on 'More or Less' and finally felt I was edging to an understanding of sustainability in terms of the effects of different individual actions. Mind you, our grannies (and others who are sensitive to the size of their power bills) could probably also have told us that switching down the thermostat (winter) and opening windows(summer) would save energy to a greater extent than the bells and whistles we are often exhorted to use. Our farmer neighbours in NYorks, who are also sensitive to costs, are plugging heatpumps, too. Shame that the North Yorks Moors planning authority refused permission for us to install solar water heating on the roof of our house'because of the detrimental impact on the village roofscape...'

I too was unable to understand what the woman from the Sustainability Commission was saying.

Annz said...

Congratulations, the programme was very good, especially as it was supported by your short article and the link to your book.

At the risk of saying the obvious, I think that the problem the lady, from the Sustainable Development Commission had, was that she didn't like at least one of the conclusions suggested by your sums.
I would infer that she presumably couldn't dispute the sums sensibly.

(In passing, of course, the kilowatt-hours you suggest are clearly not the only numbers that should be considered, but if they don't add up, it really doesn't matter whether the rest do.)

For her, paying any attention to your numbers risks

(a) implying that anyone sticking a micro wind turbine on their roof can't do sums,
(b) people realising that a number of other changes propounded (e.g. switching off a mobile phone charger) are going to have a negligible effect
(c) that it is fairly unlikely that wind farms will resolve the problem
(d) that nuclear power might actually be part of the least worst solution.

I suspect that she finds at least one of the above less than palatable, and/or finds some of the sums a bit challenging. If the sums don't support the solution she wants, the sums must be wrong! Or misleading. Or confusing. So one possible response is to try to dismiss you as a nerd. After all, she could point to important people who couldn't possibly have arrived at the same conclusion as you...

You are threatening her paradigm (qv in a different field and level Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions). So you must be wrong. QED.

What is really interesting is that the Sustainable Development Commission she represented is, according to its website,

"the Government's independent adviser on sustainable development, reporting to the Prime Minister, ..."

Well, if this is an example of the independent advice the government gets... I wonder how much it costs?

PS An encouraging real contrast to her was the reference to Alan Sugar having cast a breath of fresh air on "110%" effort.

Mark Brinkley said...

Excellent piece. And I concur with everyone else's comments about Rebecca Willis's contribution. I think the SDC have tied themselves into a knot by opposing nuclear power and not really having "done the math" on the outcome of such a stance.

And the SDC is a government funded quango. Sustainable Development - WITH hot air!

PS from what I remember of Social & Political Science at Cambridge in 1974, you don't need any maths!

dave said...

I think that all of us, myself and the SDC included, fail to appreciate the vast and largely unseen (particularly by those living in cities) energy infrastructure that is supporting our (insanely indulgent) lifestyles. Think oil refineries, huge tankers, power grids, control stations, etc. etc. As a result we are lulled into thinking that things are not as bad / big and hard to change as they really are. MacKay exposes this. The SDC lady clearly hasn't read his book or even his 10 page synposis. The policy implications are pretty clear, I think.

Rupert said...

She definitely didn't like your conclusions. How come Tim didn't let you at her to test her on her times tables and a little O level physics? I was left wanting more. Let's hope Evan Davies gets you on the Today program and lets you at Mr. Brown!

Rupert said...

Michael S. this is what happens when wind turbines are sited on or near farmland.
David's black and white map of where you can site onshore turbines in the UK is spot on.

zigzag said...

The SHOWT web site makes me sad and mad in about equal measures. How can they be so narrow-minded?

After reading David's excellent book, I had a look at the conservatives' web site to see if they had taken notice... No: they are proponents of decentralized micro-generation.

What is the best way to get the message out to both the narrow-minded and the ill-informed? I like the idea of David MacKay on the Today programme!

dave said...

Decentralised microgeneration is fine as long as it's solar hot water, PV or wood for heat (with local wood supply). CHP and wind, as MacKay shows, are red herrings. However it is not sufficient in itself - we also need those desert solar stations, wind farms and nukes.

I predict that within the next 10-15 years as peak oil starts to bite and the era of cheap oil is over, perhaps politicians and the public will all start to wake up to the reality that we have been living in an artificial fossil-fuelled dream-world for the last 100+ years. Business as usual is simply not an option. I just hope that we have enough time to adjust...

Damon said...

Dave: (micro)wind is probably OK for a small fraction of the UK population, eg the manse at the Butt of Lewis etc, even a few urbanites, but yes PV or solar hot water is a much better bet, or wood where people have it locally to be burnt in efficient modern stoves.

And the SDC woman who seems to feel that numbers are optional! Pah! OK, let's see how optional she feels they are on her own energy bill by moving the teeny-weeny decimal point around or cutting her off when the wind drops. If she was trying to say that the bare numbers are not enough by themselves, OK, but goodness!



booby-cosine said...

Unbelievable, that a person in her position can make such statements.

This is genuinely concerning.

Lets review what she said:

"its not about giant equations"

"its not about which mix of electricty generation we need"

"its essentially about how we can lead happy lives whilst using less than 1/4 of the carbon than we do at the moment; for me its not a technical question, its a profoundly political one"

This is retarded, but I'll make the assumption that she doesn't have malevolent intentions and try and interpret her nonsense:

She presents the view that she is worried that your numbers are diverting people's attention away from the big changes that need to be done because the bovine masses cannot understand numbers. There is a danger that if these masses just hear numbers then the social change will be disasterous so we need to explain things to them in terms of shopping trolleys or something. ??

She should have said something like: "Mackay's book is spot on, his technical analysis clearly indicates the big changes that we need to make in our lifestyles and the big technical challenges we face. We must therefore rally the politicians to promote this message through to the people and also think about how best to deal with the social and economic implications."

I don't understand why she was dismissive of David's book. IF her view is just that we shouldn't forget the social and economic implications, THEN I don't see why this is incompatible with the technical content. It is not incompatible, rather the contrary is true; these things are inexorably linked.

Bert Rustle said...

David MacKay wrote ... a lady from the Sustainable Development Commission who graciously dismisses my book for being full of big equations and too technical. Or something. Can anyone understand what she's on about? ...The argument she presents is not an Argument as one would construct in science, namely a sequence of deductions constrained by logic but without constraints on the conclusion.

An often repeated approach is to frame the debate so as to restrict conclusions to those which the proposer deems politically desirable; indeed she states that "it is not a technical question it is a profoundly political one". The Scientific Method may well produce conclusions at odds with her political aims, so she discounts it.

Regarding the current energy situation, various groups appear to view such situations as crises of opportunity in which to implement the fashionable ideology of the day. Their view seems to be that "events dear boy, events" is ascribed to everything of consequence, as devoid of human influence as sunspots but which nonetheless provide a plausible cloak for their grab for political power.

If one is not getting flak, then one has probably not been spotted over the target. As soon as your work is successfully employed against such Reality Denial as she exhibits you will be getting flak. Furthermore it will probably be directed at you personally, rather than your Arguments.

Steve Cayzer said...

Allow me to make a point in Rebecca Willis' defence. Yes, it was a poorly presented counter argument. And yes, there absolutely is a need for the sort of analysis David is doing. But I did think she alluded to one valid danger, which is that if everyone decides to 'breathe a sigh of relief and leave it to the experts' then we are stuck.

Technological innovation without behaviour change is doomed to failure.

Which, as booby-cosine pointed out, is actually a point synergistic with the book. I notice that David is on the case here too:

Robert Anderson said...

I downloaded this podcast a while ago and didn't listen to it till last week. I liked your contribution but Rebecca Willis's remarks made me furious. I agree with most of the previous comments about what was wrong with what she said so I won't go on about it. I suspect that now the success of your book has made you register on the political radar you will have put up with more of this sort of thing. Good Luck!