Science and Sanctions

This may seem an odd title in that most people consider science far away from describing human activities. I am not suggesting the scientific method should govern all of human activities, but I think that a little more attention to its methods would help humanity (and I try to show a little of this in my novels, although I am unsure that most would notice). The first important point, of course, is to clarify what the scientific method is. Contrary to what you may see on TV programs, etc, it is not some super geek sitting down solving impossible mathematical equations. Basically, the scientific method is you form propositions, perhaps manipulate them, then check with reality whether they might be correct. The most important feature here is, check the evidence.

What initiated this post was news that the US House of Representatives has passed a bill that will impose new sanctions on Russia, including (according to reports here) the forbidding of any help with Russia’s oil and gas industry, and President Trump has signed it into law. So, what are the premises behind this?

The first one is that foreign countries will oblige and help carry them out.

The second, presumably, is that Russia will now fall into line and do whatever the sanctions are intended to make it do.

The third is, if Russia cannot export more oil or gas, their prices will rise.

The fourth is, removing Russian hydrocarbons from the international market will lead to further markets for US hydrocarbons. Note the US now has the capacity to be a major exporter, thanks to fracking.

The first two depend on each other, and obviously, seeking evidence of the future is not practical, nevertheless we can look at the history of sanctions. Are there any examples of countries “bending the knee” in response to sanctions when they probably would not have done it anyway? I cannot think of any. Obviously, sanctions are less likely to effective if foreign countries refuse to cooperate, which is why the two are linked. The two most recent examples of sanctions are Iran and North Korea. Both have been imposed for sufficient time, and the question is, how effective are they?

In the case of Iran, one objective is claimed to have been met in that Iran argues it no longer has the capacity to make nuclear weapons, however it also claimed that was never its intention. Everyone seems to delight in arguing whether either of those statements is true, but in my opinion nuclear weapons are a poor strategic objective for Iran. I also believe they are a poor option for North Korea, but seemingly someone has to show Kim that is so. For either of them, what would it gain? Iran has opted (if truthful) to avoid nuclear weapons, but then again, what has it gained from doing so? The sanctions America imposed are still largely there. As for the effectiveness of sanctions, it appears that Iran is doing reasonably well, and a number of countries are buying its oil, including China. So I conclude that sanctions are not particularly effective there.

North Korea does not seem in any immediate hurry to “bend the knee” to the US and while it has suffered the harshest sanctions, apparently over the last few years its exports have increased by at least 40%, mainly to China. President Trump has accused China of not helping, and he is correct, but being correct does not get anyone very far. The obvious question is, why is North Korea chasing after better weapons? The answer is obvious: it is at war with the US and South Korea. The Korean War never ended formally. The sides agreed to a ceasefire, but no permanent treaty was signed, so one of the actions that America could have taken in the last sixty years or so would have been to negotiate a formal peace treaty. You may well say, the US would never launch a preemptive strike against North Korea. You may well be right, but are you that sure? From North Korea’s point of view, the US has launched cruise missile attacks frequently against places it does not like, it has significant military bases in Syria, it invaded Iraq, and so on. You might argue that the US was justified because these countries were not behaving, and you may well be right, but from North Korea’s point of view, it is at war with the US already, so it has decided to do what it can to defend itself. One approach to end this ridiculous position would be to at least offer a treaty.

The third and fourth premises are probably ones the US Congress does not advertise, because they are full of self-interest. Apparently there is enough liquefied natural gas able to be produced to substitute for Russian gas in Europe. So, why don’t they sell it? Competition is a good thing, right? The simplest answer is price and cost. Europe would have to build massive lng handling facilities, and pay a lot more for their gas than for Russian gas. And it is here that these sanctions may run into trouble. The Germans will lose heavily from the loss of Russian gas, in part because their industries are involved in expanding the Russian fields and pipelines, and of course, they would have to pay more for gas, and some equipment would need changing for the different nature of the gas.

So, if we return to the evidence, I think we can conclude that these latest attempts at sanctions are more based on self-interest than anything else. There is no evidence they will achieve anything as far as pushing Russia around goes. It is true, if imposed, they would hurt Russia significantly, but they would also hurt Europe, so will Europe cooperate?

Trump and Climate Change

In his first week in office, President Trump has overturned President Obama’s stopping of two pipelines and has indicated a strong preference for further oil drilling. He has also denied that climate change is real. For me, this raises two issues. The first is, will President Trump’s denial of climate change, and his refusal to take action, make much difference to climate change? In my opinion, not in the usual sense, where everybody is calling for restraint on carbon dioxide emissions. The problem is sufficiently big that this will make only a minor difference. The action is a bit like the Captain of the Titanic finding two passengers had brought life jackets so he confiscates them and throws them overboard. The required action was to steer away from a field of icebergs, and the belief the ship was unsinkable was just plain ignorant, and in my opinion, the denial that we have to do something reasonably dramatic about climate change falls into the same category. The second issue is how does science work, and why is it so difficult to get the problem across? I am afraid the answer to this goes back to the education system, which does not explain science at all well. The problem with science for most people is that nature cares not a jot for what you feel. The net result is that opinions and feelings are ultimately irrelevant. You can deny all you like, but that will not change the consequences.

Science tries to put numbers to things, and it tries to locate critical findings, which are when the numbers show that alternative propsitions are wrong. It may be that only one observation is critical. Thus Newtonian mechanics was effectively replaced by Einstein’s relativity because it alone allowed the calculation of the orbital characteristics of Mercury. (Some might say Eddington’s observation of light bending around the sun during an eclipse, but Newton predicted that too. Einstein correctly predicted the bending would be twice that of Newton, but I think Newton’s prediction could be patched given Maxwell’s electrodynamics. For Newton’s theory, Mercury’s orbit was impossible to patch.)

So what about climate change? The key here is to find something with the fewest complicating factors, and that was done when Lyman et al. (Nature 465: 334-337, 2010) measured the power flows across ocean surfaces, and found there was a net input of approximately 0.6 W/m2. That is every square meter gets a net input of 0.6 Joules per second, averaged over the 24 hr period. Now this will obviously be approximate because they did not measure every square meter of ocean, but the significance is clear. The total input from the star is about 1300 W/m2 at noon, so when you allow for night, the fact that it falls away significantly as we get reasonably away from noon, and there are cloudy days, you will see that the heat retained is a non-trivial fraction of the input.

Let us see what that means for the net input. Over a year it becomes a little under 19 MJ for our square meter, and over the oceans, I make it about 6.8 x 1021 J. There is plenty of room for error there (hopefully not my arithmetic) but that is not the point. The planet is a big place, and that is really a lot of energy: about a million million times 1.6 tonnes of TNT.

That has been going on every year this century, and here is the problem: that net heat input will continue, even if we totally stopped burning carbon tomorrow, and the effects would gradually decay as the carbon we have burnt gradually weathers away. It would take over 300 years to return to where we were at the end of the 19th century. That indicates the size of the physical problem. The fact that so many people can deny a problem exists, with no better evidence than, “I don’t believe it,” is our current curse. The next problem is that just slowing down the production of CO2, and other greenhouse gases, is not going to solve it. This is a problem that has crept up on us because a planet is a rather large object. It has taken a long time for humanity’s efforts to make a significant increase to the world’s temperatures, but equally it will take a long time to stop the increase from continuing. Worse, one of the reasons the temperature increases have been modest is that a lot of this excess heat has gone into melting ice. Eight units of water at ten degrees centigrade will melt one unit of ice, and we end up with nine units of water at nought degrees Centigrade. The ice on the planet is a great restraint on temperature increases, but once the ice in contact with water has melted, temperatures may surge. If we want to retain our current environment and sea levels, we have some serious work to do, and denying the problem exists is a bad start.

Why do we do science?

What is the point of science? In practice, most scientists use their knowledge to try to make something, or solve some sort of problem, or at least help someone else do that. (Like most occupations, most junior ones turn up to work and work on what they are told to work on.) But, you might say, surely, deep down, they are seekers of the truth? Unfortunately, I rather fancy this is not the case. The problem was first noted by Thomas Kuhn, in his book, “The structure of scientific revolutions”. In Kuhn’s view, scientific results are almost always interpreted in terms of the current paradigm, i.e. while the data are reproduced properly, they are interpreted in terms of current thinking, even if that does not fit very well. No other theory gets a look-in. If a result does not conform to the standard theory, the researcher does not question the standard theory. The first effort is to find some way of accommodating it, and if that does not work, it may be listed as a question for further work, in other words the researcher tries to persuade someone else to find a way of fitting it to the standard paradigm rather than taking the effort to find an alternative theory.

According to Kuhn, most science is carried out as “normal science”, wherein researchers create puzzles that should be solved by the standard paradigm, in other words, experiments are set up not to try to find the truth, but rather to confirm what everyone believes to be true. This is not entirely unreasonable. If we stop and think for a moment, an awful lot of such research is carried out by PhD students, or post-doctoral fellows. The lead researcher has submitted his idea as a request for funding, and this is overseen by a panel. If you submit something that would not get anywhere within the current paradigm, you will not get funding because the panel will usually consider this to be a waste of time. On top of that, if you are going to include a PhD student in this work, that student needs a thesis at the end of his work, and that student will not thank the supervisor for coming up with something that does not produce results that can be written up. In other words, the projects are chosen such that the lead researcher has a very good idea as to what will be found, and it will be chosen so that it is unlikely to lead to too great an intellectual challenge. An example of a good project might to make a new chemical compound that might be a useful drug. The project might involve new synthetic work, there will be problems in choosing a route, but the project will not founder on some conceptual problem.

Natually, the standard paradigm clearly must have much going for it to get adopted in the first place. It cannot be just anything, and there will be a lot of truth in it, nevertheless as I mentioned in my first ebook, part 1 of “Elements of Theory”, any moderate subset of data frequently has at least two theories that would explain the data, and when the paradigm is chosen, the subset is moderate. If all that follows it to investigate very similar problems, then a mistake can last. The classic mistake was Claudius Ptolemy’s cosmological theory, which was the “truth” for over 1600 years, even though it was wrong and, as we now recognize, with no physical basis. If you wish to find the truth, you might follow Popper and try to design experiments that would falsify such a theory, but PhD theses cannot be based like that as it is too risky that the student will find nothing and fail to get his degree through no fault of his.

What brought these thoughts on was a recent article in the journal Icarus. The subject was questioning how the Moon was formed. The standard theory of planetary formation goes like this. After the star forms, the accretion disk that remains settles the dust on the central plane, and this gradually congeals into larger bodies, which further join together when they collide, and so on, until you get planetesimals (objects about the size of asteroids) then, apart from the asteroids, eventually embryos (objects about the size of Mars) which gravitationally interact and form very eccentric orbits, and then collide to form planets (except for Mars, which is a remaining embryo). All such collisions once planetesimals form are random, and the underpinning material could have come from a very large region, thus Earth was made from embryos formed from material beyond Mars and Venus. The Moon was formed from the splatter arising from a near glancing collision of a Mars-sized body called Theia with Earth.

If you carefully measure the isotope ratios of samples of meteorites, what you find is that all from the same origin have the same isotope ratios, but those from different parts of the solar system have different ratios. As an example, oxygen has three stable isotopes of atomic weights 16, 17 and 18. We have carbonaceous chondrites from the outer asteroid belt, a number of samples from Vesta, some from Mars, and of course unlimited supplies from here. The isotope ratios of these samples are all the same from one source, but different between sources. We also have a good number of samples from the Moon, thanks to the Apollo program. Now, the unusual fact is, the Moon is made of material that is essentially identical to our rocks, at least in terms of isotope ratios.

This Icarus paper carried out simulations of planetary formation employing the standard theory, and showed that since the Moon is largely Theia, the chances of the Moon and Earth having the same ratio of even oxygen isotopes is less than 5%. So, what conclusion do the authors draw? The obvious one is that the Moon did not form that way; a more subtle one is that planets did not form by the random collision of growing rocky bodies. However, they drew neither. Instead, they really refused to draw a conclusion.

I should add that I have in interest in this debate, as my mechanism outlined in Planetary Formation and Biogenesis has the planets grow from relatively narrow zones, although the disk material is always heading towards the star to provide new feed. The Moon grows at the same distance as Earth (at a Lagrange point) from the star and hence has the same composition. The concept that the Moon formed at either L4 or L5 was originally proposed by Belbruno and Gott in 2005 (Astron. J. 129: 1724–1745) and I regard it as almost dishonest not to have mentioned their work, which predicts their result provided the bodies form from local material. Unfortunately, the citing of scientific work that contradicts the standard theory is not exactly frequent, and in my view, does science no service. The real problem is, how common is this rejection of that which is currently uncomfortable?

You may say, who cares? It may very well be that how the Moon formed is totally irrelevant to modern society. My point is, society is becoming extremely dependent on science, and if science starts to become disinterested in seeking the truth, then eventually the mistakes may become very significant. Of course mistakes will be made. That happens in any human endeavor. But, do we want to restrict them to unavoidable accidents, or are we prepared to put up with avoidable errors?