Karl Popper

Karl Popper

According to Karl Popper, a respected 20th century philosopher famous among the scientific fraternity, true scientific theory makes predictions that can be empirically tested.

The superhero status of testable predictions has made good sense to me ever since I was exposed to it as an undergraduate back in the Carboniferous. Unless a theory can be tested it falls to the lowly status of opinion where only dubious predictions live; admittedly an overcrowded residence these days.

An idea, supposition or prediction attains the lofty moral position of a scientific theory a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained — if it can be empirically tested, ideally through manipulations in controlled conditions with heaps of replication.

This much is grasped by most students of science, even the naive ones around when the trees were laid down for coal. It is the basics of the scientific method taught in every good high school.

Unfortunately, this is often as far as it goes. But there is more.

What Popper also realised was that scientists can never prove a theory to be true because the next test might contradict all that preceded it. Observations can only disprove a theory they cannot prove it. Empirical tests can only falsify.

This is way more subtle. Evidence from a controlled experiment might reject the hypothesis the experiment was designed to test but the alternative outcome (where evidence is not sufficient to reject the hypothesis) does not make the alternative (accepting the hypothesis) true. Empirical tests can only disprove, never prove.

Suppose I have a large field that I subdivide into twenty equally sized fields.

Into 10 of these small paddocks, chosen at random, I place five sheep for five days, remove them for 10 days and then put them back in. This rotational grazing goes on for a year. The other 10 paddocks contain no sheep at all.

The hypothesis is that grazing by sheep will decrease the amount of carbon in the soil. So before the sheep are introduced several soil samples are taken from all the small paddocks and tested for their carbon content. More soil samples are taken at the end of the year and their carbon content statistically compared with carbon content in the soil samples taken at the start.

It turns out that after a year the average carbon content from the grazed paddocks averages about 3%, slightly more than it was at the start, a small but statistically significant increase. In the paddocks without sheep, soil carbon also increased too but by no more than would be expected by chance (as determined by the statistical properties of the numbers generated from the soil carbon samples).

The hypothesis – sheep grazing will decrease the amount of soil carbon in the soil – is rejected given the empirical evidence.

The evidence is enough to reject the hypothesis and the temptation is to accept the theory that sheep actually do good things to soil carbon. Only Karl Popper would wriggle a little in his coffin if you made this call because should you do this experiment again, who knows what the outcome would be.

This example is phrased to follow the conventional wisdom. Current theory is that livestock grazing will reduce soil carbon over time as the animals metabolize the primary production and the farmer removes animals or their fleeces to market making for a net loss in soil carbon over ungrazed paddocks.

But if we rephrased the hypothesis as ‘grazing by sheep will increase the amount of carbon in the soil’ and the results of the experiment stay the same, then we accept the hypothesis. Again we are tempted to accept the theory that grazing by sheep is good for soil carbon levels only this time by claiming the results are a proof not a falsification.

Popper gets to wriggle again.

Interesting isn’t it. Even when science is done through determined experiments the outcome is not a given. Conclusions are also dependent on how the empirical test is conceived. This is why theory only gets such a lofty badge when there is repetition of empirical tests sufficient to reduce doubt but even then there is no proof, only falsification.

The sheep grazing example is naive of course and was phrased around hypothesis testing rather than theory. In reality, theory only achieves acceptance after many tests of many specific hypotheses. The process of iteration provides the rigor that allows scientists to rest easily at night without Popperian spectres messing with their dreams.

Only the example is also real.

We are not actually sure of the theory in this case despite the importance of grazing to food production and the reality that soils need as much carbon as possible to maintain that production.

Falsification is very difficult to do in environmental and ecological science, especially where soil is concerned. There is very little in the way of Popperian truth where fields, paddocks and remnant native vegetation is concerned. There have been way too few tests leaving fertile ground for opinion.

However, the risk in leaving issues of food security to opinion should scare the socks off you.

Changing the quilt

Changing the quilt

If you are fortunate enough snag a window seat on a commercial flight, gaze out of the window for a while as the aircraft defies all logic and ascends to the clouds. Once away from the suburbs you will see a patchwork quilt below, a pattern made by humans — the farmers who produce our food and fibre.

Over generations, these stoic folk have cut down trees to grow crops or raise livestock and when we look down from the sky what we see are rectangular patches of browns, tans and dull greens. Occasionally there is a darker, almost black patch, that in places might stretch to the horizon or could just be an isolated blob of irregularity. Sometimes ribbons appear that amble across the landscape ignoring the straight lines of the field edges.

It is actually quite a sight, something to marvel at really.

It has only taken a few hundred years to sow this quilt together into a pattern that represents production and progress. It tells you there is wheat and sheep and cotton down there on the doona; wheat that ends up in the sandwich presented to you by the smiling cabin crew member.

If the quilt did not exist then folk would go without.

Only this marvel also feels tainted. As we think about the regular rectangles, it is clear that In making the quilt, wilderness was lost. The trees, wildlife, and many an ecological process strained or curtailed and the pristineness is gone forever.

Ouch, that feels worrisome somehow.

Loss is such a loaded word. It is sad and painful, far more painful than the joy of gain because it takes us closer to the primal fear: the loss of our existence.

What? Has Alloporus completely lost the plot and turned into Confused Confucius? It’s rhetorical people, get over it. The world is what it is, populated by 7.5 billion humans beings all trying their best to have their version of a good time. Nobody is thinking about the loss of existence.

Ah, there you have it. Nobody is thinking about the loss of their existence.

Otherwise, we would be paying way more attention to the details of the quilt.

Are the patches the right size and shape and in the right configuration to ensure our future? Big might be good for efficient use of machinery but small means less wind fetch or the uniformity that gives pests their opportunity.

Are the colours right? A sandy brown colour everywhere suggests bare soil that when it is dry and windy might end up in New Zealand. Green hues suggest a crop or a pasture with production happening. Ribbons connect patches of native vegetation that provide any number of useful services to the surrounding fields.

And, in the end, will the quilt keep us well fed?

So book a window seat once in a while and marvel at the landscape below for it is quite remarkable. Then whisper a few pointy questions to yourself as you munch through your in-flight chicken sandwich.

Species

Species

…the fact that ecological communities constantly experience temporal turnover, and that consequently some species will not only fluctuate markedly but also become either locally or globally extinct, is something that, while well appreciated by ecologists generally, is often omitted from popular news stories. 

Mugurran et al 2010

By research paper standards this is an accessible quote. You may only need to read it a couple of times to get the gist. It means what it says.

Everything in nature changes and species disappear from both the backyard and from the planet.

Ask any ecologist who has more than a few minutes of fieldwork on their resume if they agree with this premise and they will say yes. There is change over time. They would concede that if you stare at a patch of nature long enough, it will start to move. Organisms will come and go, sometimes never to return, their place taken by an equivalent.

In my own garden that backs onto eucalyptus forest in the Blue Mountains of NSW I have seen this happen with the seasons as the grass stops growing in winter, during drought when even the trees droop, and also through the decade we have lived in the house.

When we moved in the garden was blessed with tree creepers, fairy wrens and wagtails. There were regular visits by resplendent satin bower birds and even occasionally a lyre bird or two. I have stared at a frogmouth in its daytime roost and had glossy black cockatoos drop casuarina cones on my head. Delightful.

Then, three years ago the noisy miners arrived. An especially aggressive social breeder that with brazen behaviour worthy of a panzer corps will chase all the other species away. Only the big beaked cockatoos and the butcher bird are unmoved.

None of the aforementioned chorus are extinct but they are not longer in my garden.

More recently some new neighbors moved in next door. They have a nervous pointer and a black labrador with a limp. The swamp wallaby no longer hops up from the creek to pick at our herb garden.

There are several important things in this simple everywhere reality of ecological change.

The first is change itself.

Nothing in nature has ever been or ever will be stable. It is not how nature works. At times the dynamic is subtle and hard to see with human perception of time and space. Typically though we can see, smell or hear it. All it takes is a little patience and some observation.

If a human who might live three score years and ten can perceive this change with just a little patient observation, then…

the second important thing is that change is fast.

Incredibly fast on an evolutionary or geological time scale. Happenings that take decades are the blink of an eye equivalent for a planet that is billions of years old.

Such rapidity means that the idyllic lilly pond with the weeping willow tickling the water will not be there in a thousand years or so. Sedimentation and succession will make dryland of it unless there are humans with the spare time to occasionally dig it out.

This is the third important reality, stability requires inputs.

The main reason that nature is so dynamic is due to entropy, more strictly, the constant struggle organisms must undertake to counteract it. It takes an enormous effort to keep things the same. Energy must be pumped in to prevent chaos.

Humans have, of course, become true masters of this use of energy to counter entropy. We have figured out where to find and use external fuel sources to change the world to suit ourselves. It’s our superpower. But it has also duped us into believing that we can keep things the same, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We even think we can save species from local or real extinction.

This is the fourth of the important things, the often crazy notion that we can save species from ourselves, the most severe new driver of ecological change in aeons.

Change as the norm is “omitted from popular news stories” because the acknowledgement not only questions our god-like ability to rule the planet, it would mean admitting our role in the acceleration of change.

After all, the noisy miner spread with the suburb.

Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

It is a short time into the future, nowhere near an aeon. Against all likelihoods, Homo sapiens did not join the hundreds of thousands of species that have crossed the extinction finish line because miraculously there was a meme that spread through the social fabric of every nation on the planet faster than pictures of Harry and Meghan.

The meme said, “ecological communities constantly experience temporal turnover”.

The miracle of course was twofold. People not only understood this gibberish but they extended it to the practicalities of the real world.

Everyone recognised change everywhere and embraced it. They let species move around, leaving some places and moving into others. They saw vegetation as fluid not as a vase on a shelf, still but fragile.They realised that there were some species that would go extinct and that if a particularly cute one was popular enough to save, then this was going to need effort specific to that species. It was a choice.

And they saw the whole landscape, all at once, despite its altered state, and they focused on what that landscape could do, not what was in it.

It was truly remarkable.

It even made the news.

POTUS

POTUS

The POTUS has continued to distribute his unique brand of international relations around the world, including a summit with Vladimir Putin. In that meeting he chose to be conciliatory and ignore recent excesses by the Russians, even to the point of publicly accepting the ‘it wasn’t us’ excuse.

This is not what Americans do. They are bold, brash and brave. They bully their way to the moral high ground and hold it with god by their side. They don’t acquiesce for that smacks of weakness.

In saying what he did when questioned during the summit, Trump poked a fair few commentators, for example

“You can love Trump, you can be thrilled he vanquished Hillary, you can be right that Obama’s foreign policy was clownish, but call it here: this was atrocious and no American president should ever behave this way.” Karol Markowicz, New York Post columnist

There is a growing consensus across the land tonight … that the president threw the United States under the bus” John Roberts, Fox News White House correspondent.

European allies are uneasy. US-Russia relations are uncertain. And the US political world – and even the White House’s own communications team – is unsettled. Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

This could go any number of ways from here.

First, Trump is nothing if not consistent. He always does what the mainstream least expect so as not to appear mainstream to his support base. He also goes far enough so that even the least perceptive among his followers believes he’s different and doing it all for them. No coincidence that this style also soothes Trump’s own immediate and end game aches — he will leave office far wealthier than when he arrived and his post-presidency earnings will be staggering. On this route expect more of the same. An indelicate parade of gaffs designed to upset convention.

Second, Trump could go a step too far. An action or the combined weight of actions could see his base upset enough to rejoin the mainstream incredulity. Except he has been pretty extreme so far and no one comment or behaviour has even dented his armour plated followers. So, short of committing a felony on live TV, any one action is unlikely to change much. The weight of actions could be a problem if the actions were cumulative but, perhaps by design, they are dispersed across any number of issues and, whilst they all smell a bit off, the nose is an accommodating customer. New smells become familiar ones pretty quickly. A step too far is always possible and yet ,in this age of the instant, it might have to be a stride before the POTUS is irreparable.

Third, a felony is actually called. Be that from a murky past, electioneering or something yet done, if Trump is actually indicted it might undo him. Only might, because the evidence will have to be so solid, clean and fresh as a daisy in a summer field. Anything less will not stick to teflon. Why else is the ‘fake news’ ploy played so keenly. Few of that famous support base would believe anything said or written or even judged in court if it went against their core. It would be fake. And this is the truly clever play that was hard to do in the past. Spreading disinformation meant paying off journalists or dropping leaflets from airplanes or buying media companies. It was costly, risky and did not always work. Now all you need is a tweet. ‘Fake news’ is a the ultimate risk mitigation that will be played right to the end.

Fourth, a political renaissance happens in the US bringing a surge of interest in scholarship and values. Yeah, exactly. This is the least likely way things will go, akin to claiming an intercession from the virgin Mary.

Blessed be the fruit.

So what will happen?

Alloporus suspects that the limit is far away in the distance. A two term POTUS delivering an increasingly isolated and insular country that will, ironically perhaps, be more stable than in its expansionist past, is more likely than not. It will take much fake news, many intentional and unintentional blunders, and some heavy covering up to get there but the path is clear enough.

Welcome to the atrocious bus.

Average CEO salary

Average CEO salary

Here is a startling average CEO salary info graphic from the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors reported in a recent ABC post on CEO pay deals reaching their highest level in 17 years

That’s 11 blokes, and they are all blokes, paid $187 million between them.

An average CEO salary on the list might make the recipient declare $327,000 per week to the tax man.

As is usual on this blog, we’ll try and put these incomprehensible sums of money into context.

A delivery driver for Dominos starts at $15 per hour and might earn as little as $200 per week. That $187 million is roughly 6,309 person years worth of time for money at delivery driver rates working a 38 hour week.

Is the CEO worth the time of 631 people at the bottom end of the staffing pyramid?

A CEO would argue his case with vigor. Decisions, risk, and responsibility are all his and he’ll claim that this comes with an unfair level of stress. Indeed the jobs of all the workers depend on his calls that keep the company stable and trading profitably.

The delivery boy just has to get the pizza to the customer before it goes cold.

Disparity between those making decisions and those following them is nothing new. Throughout history leaders of all hues were in privileged positions that came through the support of their followers. People like being led and they are usually quite grateful for it.

If the leader takes people where they want to go, in the case of Domino’s Pizza Enterprises this was to a 7% profit increase despite lower than expected sales and a 9% loss in the share price, then they are happy and perhaps overlook what that direction might cost. More importantly they might not consider if the cost was worth it or even fair.

Then, of course, it’s a question of who is being led toward happiness. Not that many presumably given that the whole thing is legally designed to generate profit for shareholders who chomp on the profit dividends.

I suspect that average CEO salary will start to smell pretty soon. The majority of people are not led by ASX200 CEOs and they don’t understand why such remuneration levels exist. Indeed, I would be asking questions if I were a shareholder in any of these enterprises. Ironically I probably am without knowing it through the aforementioned superannuation investors.

At some point though, the majority will start to say enough is enough. There was an inkling of this with the Occupy Wall Street movement against wealth inequality, corruption and the influence of corporations on government. Not least the propping up of companies with public funds only for these companies to give bonuses to their executives.

And then that effort faded.

It will surely come again.

And anyway, what’s so special about pizza? What makes Mr Meij worth 33% more than the next highest earning CEO?

Maybe it’s the healthier, tastier menu.

Death and taxes

Death and taxes

Death and taxes are certainties. After more than 30 years of professional life, I have learned that there are a few more items on the definites list.

I know now that, in fact, the world is full of certainties beyond death and taxes. Our lives are fundamentally predictable. Business is business, people are people, trains are often crowded, and coffee is a requirement. Accident and novelty notwithstanding, I can be pretty sure what tomorrow will bring.

This is not to say that I readily accept this reality. I am much more inclined to fear the future as something entirely unpredictable and out of control. It seems that my biology requires risk, perhaps to keep me on my toes and on the lookout for lions and the snake in the grass.

My good fortune is that my chosen profession is founded on evidence, the raw material to understand, mitigate and avoid risk. I am trained to find as much certainty as is humanly possible and then to apply that certainty to first reduce risk and ultimately help alleviate fear.

A noble profession you would think.

At some level, I like to think so. Gathering evidence to inform decision making seems like a calming exercise that should benefit the many. Thinking, researching and evaluating my way through environmental problems should be a good thing to do in a world where resources are finite and demand voracious.

Science, the gathering and evaluation of evidence, surely is our best source of certainty. It bounds events through understanding and generates evidence that makes life predictable.

Imagine my shock when in an article from the Alliance for Useful Evidence I came across this quote from a senior UK policymaker…

One insider’s view of policymakers’ hierarchy of evidence
1. Expert evidence (including consultants and think tanks).
2. Opinion–based evidence (including lobbyists/pressure groups).
3. Ideological evidence (party think tanks, manifestos).
4. Media evidence.
5. Internet evidence.
6. Lay evidence (constituents’ or citizens’ experiences).
7. Street evidence (urban myths, conventional wisdom).
8. Cabbies’ evidence.
9. Research evidence.
Source: Phil Davies, former Deputy Chief Social Researcher, 2007.

Classic British cynicism this list may be. A caricature of reality it may be. Satire it must be. And it is probably all of the above. Only it is also alarmingly close to the truth.

For a decade or more I have worked with policymakers a lot and I would say that the list and the ranking of sources are accurate. It may not be what policymakers say they want. Many are keen to involve themselves in evidence-based policy but very few of them know where to get the evidence or how to evaluate it. They are easily swayed by ‘evidence’ sourced from within their everydayness, and that often includes the Uber driver.

They are not familiar with the peer-reviewed literature. They are not avid readers of systematic reviews and none of them knows how to estimate a likelihood.

The reality is that most of them do not have the tools to separate opinion from evidence.

It is a huge problem for me and, I suspect, for you too.

The policies that become the laws that determine what we can and cannot do, what society allows and tolerates and the big decisions on how we use or abuse the natural resources that we rely on for our wellbeing should be firmly grounded in evidence, not opinion.

The problem with Mr Davies’ list is that eight of the nine sources are contaminated by opinion. The ‘evidence’ may or may not be based on fact and could cease to be evidence altogether when all it is based on is the worldview of Joe citizen.

Opinion, a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge

Arguably far too many of our laws are judgement calls that have little or no evidence to back them up. A law to protect the koala because it is going extinct when there is no evidence for this peril.

Here is another certainty to add to taxes, crowded trains and coffee. Policymakers will not use real evidence.

Why?

Because they are not trained in how to tell the difference between what they are exposed to and the truth. In their minds, the two are muddled and confused to the point of being indistinguishable.

Aid

Aid

In 1970, The 0.7% ODA/GNI target was first agreed and has been repeatedly re-endorsed at the highest level at international aid and development conference

What on earth does this mean?

Well ODA is overseas development aid, the amount of money governments spend to support people in other countries through official agencies. Here is the agreed definition of ODA

  1. provided by official agencies, including state and local governments, or by their executive agencies; and
  2. each transaction of which a) is administered with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as its main objective; and b) is concessional in character and conveys a grant element of at least 25 per cent (calculated at a rate of discount of 10 per cent).”

GNI is the acronym for gross national income, the total domestic and foreign output claimed by residents of a country. It’s a combination of gross domestic product discounted for overseas earnings and repatriations.

Australia has a GNI just shy of $47,000 per capita and with a population of 24.13 million, that’s a little over $1 trillion ($1,134 billion) per annum.

A tidy sum.

The ratio of ODA to GNI is an indicator of how much money is spent on overseas aid as a proportion of income available. Proportionality is important here because it encodes the notion that it’s not the absolute dollar amount that matters but the proportion of the dollars available that becomes a test of innate fairness.

And for a long time the global community has settled on 70c in every $100 as a reasonable target spend.

This graphic from An Australian Institute report Charity still ends at home found that in 1974 Australia allocated 0.45% of GNI to foreign aid, sliding to just 0.23% today, and projected to fall even further to 0.20% by 2021

0.23% of Australia’s GNI is about $5 billion per annum or 10% of the recently announced budget for new submarines

Official development assistance (ODA) and a proportion of gross national income (GNI)

The rich get richer, maybe

Australia’s GNI has doubled in the past 20 years. We are getting richer by the day despite what the media and various advocacy groups would tell us. Of course, those dollars don’t buy what they used to is very true. The cost of living goes up alongside income and not always proportionately. It depends very much on your situation. Home owning baby boomers who have paid off their mortgages are not seeing these numbers the same way as a hipster barista pouring double shot macchiatos at 7am on a chilly July morning.

However, the fact that the ratio has, on average, gone down and markedly in recent times, to around half the long term OECD average effort, and less than a third of the agreed 0.7% target ratio, is instructive.

It means that we have budgeted more for the absolute dollar spend than the proportion. If we allocated the OECD average there is close to $5 billion more in hard cash. A sum that buys tangible amounts of medicines, water purifiers, schools and the like. More than enough to make a real difference.

This is a choice. It is a hard one certainly for there are any number of local uses for that $5 billion in social welfare alone. We could easily justify that this money has gone to the local disadvantaged and underprivileged individuals all across Australia funding drug clinics, special education programs, social justice and support for mental health or any number of worthy causes that need help to help others.

If we are encouraged to buy local, why not spend local too?

Because there is a bigger picture to see here. Throughout human history, people have stuck to their tribe and found adversaries in others. Skirmishes between nomadic groups became conquering armies and global wars for resources and dominance of my tribe over yours. Society is always on the brink of this kind of conflict.

One of the very few ways we have to dampen this tendency is to be kind to those who are different to us. It is not innate. And so it is never an easy thing to do but supporting others, even if it can easily be corrupted into a play for influence, actually helps the global glue. An interdependency that reduces the risk of conflict. We see it in commerce and we should also seek it through aid.

That we are looking inward is a disturbing trend. It may seem logical as times get harder but it will not work. Spending less on others weakens us and them. It makes us more vulnerable and we know what happens then.