Sunday, June 29, 2014

Scepticism is Essential to Good Science

I am, as I claim in the sidebar to this blog, something of a science nut. I read widely on a range of scientific issues, often delving into a level of detail that most non-scientists would avoid. My favourite scientific discipline is physics, particularly the fields of cosmology and quantum mechanics and I like to think I have an understanding of these fields that eludes the casual reader. I don't claim that my understanding is due to any particular intellectual strength but rather a perseverance when it comes to deciphering scientific jargon together with some grounding in university-level mathematics. So I was very interested to read in this Quanta magazine article that a group of scientists are challenging the consensus around quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics is the area of physics that covers the behaviour of particles at the smallest scale. It is established scientific wisdom that sub-atomic particles do not behave as do larger objects with 'classical' physical properties. The properties of particles at the quantum level are said to be 'probabilistic', that is they cannot have a particular position and velocity at any one time but rather only a probability of being in a set position and velocity. But the Quanta article suggests that 80 years after Danish physicist Niels Bohr and others of the 'Copenhagen' school gave us the probabilistic interpretation of quantum mechanics, a classical explanation of the behaviour of sub-atomic particles is rearing its head again. If it is proven right (and we are a very long way from that), it will justify Albert Einstein's own scepticism about the probabilistic interpretation when he famously said, 'God does not play dice'.

It is not unusual for long-held, consensus scientific theories to be overturned by new evidence. Indeed, that is the way of science. Copernicus and Galileo overturned the earth-centric view of the cosmos, Einstein himself overturned the belief that the speed of light could not be constant, and in 1982 the long-held modern medical consensus that stress is the primary cause of stomach ulcers was overturned by Australian scientists Dr. Barry Marshall and Dr. Robin Warren, who correctly identified a bacteria, Helicobacter pylori, as the culprit.

Which, of course, brings me to climate change. We are told by such luminaries as President Obama that there is a 97% consensus amongst scientists that climate change has a predominantly anthropogenic (i.e. human) cause. The 97% figure comes from this paper by John Cook and others that was based on their review of scientific literature. Leaving aside the thorough debunking of the research that has been done by the likes of meteorologist Anthony Watts, when faced with such as a claim of scientific consensus we should ask, so what? 

Einstein apparently said that 'genius abhors consensus because when consensus is reached, thinking stops', and I agree with him on that. When introduced to the climate change debate by a well-known (pro-anthropogenic) New Zealand scientist about ten years ago, I decided to do my own investigation. Hundreds of published scientific papers and articles later, I am as sceptical as ever on the theory that all, or even most, climate change in the modern era is man-made. Physical experiments have proven that mankind's carbon emissions have some impact on heat retention in the atmosphere, but the dire predictions of ever-increasing global temperatures resulting from mankind's emissions depend on feed-back mechanisms that have not been proven. In fact the slow-down (or complete absence, depending on how you look at the trends) of global temperature rises since the mid-late 1990s has proven that the mechanisms do not work as climate science models up till then predicted.

I don't know where the on-going search for knowledge in the fields of quantum theory and climate change will lead us but, as John Bush, the MIT professor of applied mathematics in the Quanta article says, 'time will tell...the truth wins out in the end.' In the meantime I will, like Einstein, remain a sceptic.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

On Innovation

Two articles in the Wall Street Journal this week have got me thinking about the subject of innovation, or the lack of it, in Western economies today. The first was this article in the Wall Street Journal quoting molecular geneticist Jan Vigj in his book The American Technological Challenge who said that the number of inventions in America has dropped markedly since 1970 [and hat tip to Mark Steyn who said a similar thing in his book America Alone]. The second article was this one about Uber, the Internet-based taxi booking service that is challenging regulators and established taxi companies in 100 cities and 36 countries around the world.

To understand why the West is not innovating, we need to go back to the Renaissance to appreciate why the West has been so economically successful in the first place. Economic historian Niall Ferguson has identified six 'killer apps' that he believes underly the enormous growth of Western economies over the past 500 years, viz. political and economic competition, the scientific revolution, the rule of law, modern medicine, education and the work ethic. Ferguson expounds on his theory in his book, Civilization, and goes on to say that the erosion of these achievements is responsible for the decline of the West in recent decades relative to emerging economies such as China, which have increasingly adopted these values.

In my view Ferguson's six killer apps can be further reduced to just three things - individual rights, capitalism and the rule of law. In other words, the classical liberal values that became entrenched in the political and economic systems of Britain and the Netherlands in the 17th Century through the writings of John Locke, and that were picked by in the 18th Century in America by the likes of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

The innovative human mind is like a packet of dried seeds - without the right soil, water and sunshine, they will either remain inert or any shoots that do sprout will soon wither and die. The environmental conditions in which the human mind flourishes are the freedom to live and work as one chooses (subject only to the right of others to do the same), the freedom to enjoy the fruits of one's labour, and the protection of laws that guarantee these freedoms for all people. These are the classical liberal values mentioned above that we have so abrogated in the West today. It is little surprise, therefore, that we are losing our innovative edge.

The exception over the past decade or two has been in the realm of information technology and the Internet. Often compared to the 'Wild West', the on-line world has remained lightly regulated with few barriers to entry or innovation. On-line businesses like Uber are able to innovate precisely because they sit outside the highly-regulated traditional markets they are challenging. In the West we have in effect two parallel operating environments - the traditional political and economic environments in which innovators face huge regulatory hurdles in getting their products and services to market, and the on-line environment in which heavy-handed government involvement has been largely absent until now.

The United States provides the starkest example of this dichotomy. Traditional 'bricks and mortar' markets such as banking, manufacturing, transportation and medicine are subject to overbearing bureaucratic control and as a result American companies in these sectors are struggling to maintain their global leadership. Most economic growth in the United States in the last couple of decades has come from lightly-regulated 'digital' sectors such as software, entertainment and on-line services. But this is starting the change. The desire of Western governments to heavily regulate even the on-line world is starting to choke innovation in these sectors.

Western governments, including that in my own country, New Zealand, like to think the answer is more government. They like to think they can pick winners and encourage innovation through government investment and subsidies to certain industries. But history shows us that governments are poor gamblers when it comes to innovation. The clearest example of this in recent years is government investment in so-called 'green' businesses such as solar panel manufacturers. In the United States and Europe in particular, such investments have been disastrous.

Governments have a role to play in providing the fertile environment for innovation, i.e. in maintaining the institutions that uphold the classical liberal values that are responsible for Western political and economic success, but the most important thing they can do to encourage innovation is simply to get out of the way.