Monday, February 28, 2011

Fracking in NB

New Brunswick, compared to many areas of the world, has experienced relatively little oil and gas exploration. However, the past few years have seen an uptick in interest in shale based gas (see map above). As a result of a controversy surrounding oil and gas exploration around Sackville, hydro-fracking was a significant, albeit minor, issue in the last New Brunswick election.

The NYTimes has a long article, Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers, based on a significant amount of investigative research documenting the negative effects of fracking as a method of extracting gas. Limiting the ability to explore, as the Sackville residents achieved, is wisest. But, where exploration does occur, the need for significantly greater regulation is obvious.

Friday, February 18, 2011


1) “‘Nature with a Capital N’?: Humouring Feminist Ecocriticism in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake”
Alison Toron

Friday, February 25, 2011 at 3:30 pm, Tilley Hall, Room 5

Margaret Atwood has long been recognized for her examination of wilderness, landscape, and environmental issues as a means of exploring ideas around nation, culture, and identity, particularly gender identity. Atwood is also well-known for her humour, often expressed in puns, wordplay, irony, wit, parody, and satire. In her work of speculative fiction, Oryx and Crake (2003), Atwood grapples with science and technology as destructive elements while weaving gender analysis around several issues, particularly the sexual exploitation of young women. Foregrounding the secondary narrative of Oryx’s experiences as a victim of child sexual exploitation, I argue that Atwood’s dry humour is being used as an arena in which to explore the intersection of feminist and environmentalist discourses. Although feminists have criticized the metaphorical association of women’s bodies with nature for its essentialism, Atwood is self-conscious in her use of this trope, revealing its constructedness and stressing its positive potential for the field of feminist ecocriticism. In order to further temper the potential essentialism in associating women with nature, Atwood engages in a sustained critique of socio-biological theory, demonstrating that socially applied evolutionary theories are malleable and can be manipulated to suit the interests of those in power. Thus, she treats socio-biological explanations for human behaviour with a healthy dose of humour and irony as she creates a cautionary tale about biotechnological fantasies of grandeur. Using a feminist ecocritical perspective, this paper will examine Atwood’s use of humour in Oryx and Crake as a means of remobilizing the nature-woman literary trope while deconstructing socio-biological assumptions.

2) Miscellaneous talks by Michael Ruse

Monday, Feb. 21, 3 p.m.
- Department of Biology Colloquium “What Every Biologist Needs to Know about the Philosophy of Biology" Room 303 Tilley Hall Wednesday, Feb. 23, 3:30 p.m. - Informal reception with the University Community, Alumni Memorial Building, Tartan Lounge, President's Room

Thursday, Feb. 24, noon - Lunch with faculty, staff and students (light refreshments provided, McConnell Senior Common Room, "Science, Religion, and the Contemporary University"

Thursday, Feb. 24, 5 p.m. Reception, 5:30 p.m. - Pacey Memorial Lecture: "Science and Religion: Why Can't the Americans be like the Canadians?" Alfred G. Bailey Auditorium, Room 102, Tilley Hall Dr. Ruse is a philosopher of biology, internationally known for his work on the creation/evolution controversy and his role in the science-religion debates. He was a key witness in the 1981 case before the American Supreme Court, which challenged the Arkansas state law permitting the teaching of "creation science" in the school system. Today Dr. Ruse engages in debates with defenders of intelligent design like William A. Dembski, , but he also criticizes the so-called "new atheists" like Daniel Dennett. His latest book, Science and Spirituality, contends that there is no necessary contradiction between science and religious faith. Currently the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University, Dr. Ruse spent much of his career at the University of Guelph.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Peak Oil Saudi Style

One of the less discussed aspects of the peak oil debate is the link between data quality and the utility of the peak oil projections. This was well understood by M. King Hubbert, the methods originator, but has received less emphasis in more recent forecasts. Hubbert originally applied the his method to the US in 1956 and continued to develop the method for several decades thereafter. Throughout this period Hubbert focused on estimates of US peak oil and openly acknowledged the method was essentially useless for forecasting world peak oil. His reasoning had nothing to do with any inherent limitation in the method but, rather, on concerns about the quality of the data necessary for estimating a global peak. At the time of the Cold War, data on proven reserves and past production from behind the Iron Curtain was sketchy at best. Without quality input data, Hubbert knew the predicted global peak would be of questionable value and, hence, he focused his attention on the US case where data was readily and comparatively transparently available.

Fast forward to the present. Subsequent to the collapse of the Soviet Union, quality data about proven reserves and past production in the large areas of the world have improved dramatically. The major exception to this claim is the Middle East. In the 1950's and 60's oil production in the Middle East was essentially under the control of large multi-national oil companies which had their headquarters in the US and Europe. As a result, the information was comparatively public and subject to scrutiny to insure its validity. One major result of the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, however, was to shift control of production from these foreign firms and re-establish control with the Arab states. Since that time, knowledge about reserve additions and other key figures have been closely held by the individual states and, hence, the quality of the information necessary for making informed projections of peak oil from these areas has become increasingly poor.

This is the background to a series of diplomatic cables that were recently released on Wikileaks and display US concerns about a looming peak in Saudi production -- something that the Saudi's claim in of little immediate concern. Simply put, the cables show that the US fears the Saudi's have been fudging the data and that the amount of oil remaining is significantly less than they claim.

The Guardian has provided a nice summary of the cables and their concerns with links to the key documents.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Complexity and Forecasting the Future

Predictions of the future are notoriously prone to error. Up to this point, two major accounts have dominated discussions of why that is the case.

The classic explanation, offered by William Ascher in Forecasting: An Appraisal for Policy Makers and Planners provides detailed evidence documenting 1) that the core assumptions incorporated into the forecasting model are far more important than the methodology used, 2) that 'assumption drag' (the continued reliance on old and outdated core assumptions) is responsible for many of the most spectacular failures of prediction and 3) that failure to incorporate expert judgment (e.g. through the use of a method that mechanically applies past trends and structural relations without incorporating 'intuition') typically decreases the accuracy of the forecast.

The second account, presented in Phillip Tetlock's Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, extends the emphasis on subtlety and complexity implicit in Ascher's recognition of the importance of expert judgment. Tetlock divides experts into two types -- hedgehogs who are poor at making accurate forecasts and foxes who are more successful. Low scorers look like hedgehogs: thinkers who “know one big thing,” aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains, display bristly impatience with those who “do not get it,” and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters, at least in the long term. High scorers look like foxes: thinkers who know many small things (tricks of their trade), are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible “ad hocery” that require stitching together diverse sources of information, and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess.

Here is more from Tetlock himself:

Aside from the emphasis on complexity and subtlety, both these accounts share a materialist philosophy. They see forecasting as the act of understanding and predicting the empirical world of human activity and the institutions created, reproduced, or destroyed by that activity. The success of the forecast is wrapped up in the match between the sophistication and 'core assumptions' of the forecasting model and the material operation of the world.

The flip side of materialist philosophy is idealism -- the notion that ideas cause behavior rather than the other way around. This is the fundamental way in which complexity theorist John Casti's Mood Matters distinguishes itself from previous assessments of the practice of forecasting.

Here is some material from the book's website, followed by Casti's summary of the book's main thesis. There is an interesting correspondence between Casti's argument and the emerging recognition within the environmental community that effective climate change policy can't be forged around a doom and gloom philosophy (if you don't enact cap-and-trade, we're doomed) discussed here a few weeks ago.

Most people think that the outcome of elections causes the mood of the country to change. The opposite is true: The mood of the country determines the outcome of elections.

Most people think that a plethora of happy popular music on the charts makes the public happy and that a plethora of depressing popular music on the charts makes the public depressed. The opposite is true: A happy public pushes happy songs up the charts, and a depressed public pushes depressing songs up the charts.

Most people think that a productive economy makes people optimistic and that an unproductive economy makes people pessimistic. The opposite is true: Optimistic people make a productive economy, and pessimistic people make an unproductive one. Most people think that peace makes people content and tolerant while wars make people angry, fearful and patriotic. The opposite is true: Content and tolerant people make peace, while angry, fearful and patriotic people make war.

It sounds so simple, yet no one in the social sciences has made this case-until now. Mood Matters tells the story of why human events happen the way they do and not some other way, showing how it is the collective mood of a population, its social mood, that biases the events that we can expect to see. If you want to understand how information flows from the individual human impulse to herd together in groups to the overall social mood in a population that gives rise to events, read this book!