New Hans Rosling video at TED on the HIV epidemic

May 15, 2009

Hans Rosling, of GapMinder fame and earlier posts, just debuted a nice new video demonstrating the spread of HIV virulence in the world.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Rosling demonstrates how the truth behind the data is often more complex than it seems.  He uses the examples of Tanzania and Kenya, which have a dramatic variation in HIV incidence rates between the wealthy and poor (with wealthier Tanzanians remarkably more infected than the poor) and even with a country (with a single Kenyan province accounting for the vast majority of HIV infection rates).

This presentation raises a few extremely important points, with which readers of this blog will no doubt be familiar:

  • Resolution matters: Issues of data availability are endemic to development, but making policy and plans on averages is always, always, always a bad idea and invariably produces a poor understanding of reality.  This is true in spatial terms (Kenya) and social terms (Tanzania).  I would add temporal terms as well.
  • Visualisation matters: Even if you have the best data in the world, how you manage and present it makes as much, if not more, impact than the data itself.  Rosling is a master at this, a la Tufte in his earlier days.
  • Narrative matters: The impact of the data and the visuals are only as good as the narrative understanding that draws them together.

An excellent presentation as always.  I wish all development briefings were this clear.

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Scientists: stop criticising each other on how you communicate with the masses

April 27, 2009

A leading expert on the public understanding of science argues that scientists should stop criticising each other’s attempts to communicate science to the masses.

From the BBC:

Kathy Sykes, professor of sciences and society at the University of Bristol, has argued that experts are always attacking each other either for “dumbing down” or being elitist. She discusses her comments with Ben Goldacre, who writes a science column for the Guardian.


Sir David King, “We are being misled over the economic impact of climate change”

April 27, 2009

The government’s former chief scientific advisor Professor Sir David King has expressed concern that the government is being “misled” on the economic impact of climate change as the information they are using – Lord Stern’s review – is “out of date”.

Professor King discusses the possible ramifications, from the BBC:


New theory for largest known extinction in the history of the Earth: climate change

April 6, 2009

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The culprit?  Climate change.

About 250 million years ago, nearly 90 percent of the animal and plant species on land became extinct. Previously it was thought that volcanic eruptions, the impacts of asteroids, etc. was the cause.  

Russian researchers have found evidence that airborne pollutants from dried giant salt lakes may have been the real cause, releasing “halogenated gases [which] changed the atmospheric composition so dramatically that vegetation was irretrievably damaged.”

What does this mean?  As temperatures changed, massive salt-water lakes began to dry up, causing the air to mix with salt and form dangerous compounds previously thought created only in industrial processes.  These toxic gases damaged plants, wiping out the forests and plains, with animal life following soon there-after.

From the press release:

In their current publication the authors explain the similarities between the complex processes of the CO2-cycle in the Permian Age as well as between global warming from that time and at present… Forecasts predict an increase in the surface areas of deserts and salt lakes due to climate change. That is why the researchers expect that the effects of these halogenated gases will equally increase.

According to the forecast from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), increasing temperatures and aridity due to climate change will also speed up desertification, increasing with it the number and surface area of salt seas, salt lagoons and salt marshlands. Moreover, this will then lead to an increase in naturally formed halogenated gases. The phytotoxic effects of these substances become intensified in conjunction with other atmospheric pollutants and at the same time increasing dryness and exponentiate the eco-toxicological consequences of climate change.


Kim Stanley Robinson on valuing the future to avoid catastrophic collapse

March 31, 2009

future

“Am I saying that capitalism is going to have to change or else we will have an environmental catastrophe? Yes, I am.”

Author Kim Stanley Robinson argues here that capitalism is a “multi-generational Ponzi scheme” that is ruining the planet and has to change if human civilization is to survive.  

Taking a futures perspective, Robinson writes, “the main reason I believe capitalism is not up to the challenge is that it improperly and systemically undervalues the future.”  On the longer scale, resources (including carbon) are underpriced, causing us to charge less for them than what they cost (an argument presented well by Buckminster Fuller, who calculated the true cost of oil based on the time of production at over a billion dollars per barrel).  “When this is done deliberately to kill off an economic competitor,” he writes, “it’s called predatory dumping; you could say that the victims of our predation are the generations to come, which are at a decided disadvantage in any competition with the present.”

…the promise of capitalism was always that of class mobility—the idea that a working-class family could bootstrap their children into the middle class. With the right policies, over time, the whole world could do the same. There’s a problem with this, though. For everyone on Earth to live at Western levels of consumption, we would need two or three Earths. Looking at it this way, capitalism has become a kind of multigenerational Ponzi scheme, in which future generations are left holding the empty bag.

You could say we are that moment now. 

Robinson argues that instead of trying to produce a “pyramid of wealth”, we should aim for a more broad-based economy of productivity that reduces inequality and accurately prices the cost of materials based on their unavailability to future generations.

Believe in science.”

Robinson’s first recommendation for change include actually believing, and valuing, what our scientists are telling us.  

“We need to trust our science. We do this every time we fly in a jet or rush to the doctor in hope of relief from illness…  Science is telling us that if we keep living the way we do, we will trigger an unstoppable and irreversible climate change that may de-ice the planet and acidify the oceans, causing mass extinction.

His main point is that the we are talking about the end of the world here.  There can be nothing more serious.

“It took tens of millions of years for Earth to recover from previous mass extinctions,” he argues, and despite our technological power and ever increasing intelligence, we are rapidly approaching the point where human society could be destroyed by climate change.  We need to start acting like it.

Seeing in a new way

Robinson’s point is well presented.  He concludes with a firmly futures-oriented question.  “Does the word postcapitalism look odd to you? It should, because you hardly ever see it. We have a blank spot in our vision of the future.”  This is the core message of scenario planning and futures work.  You can’t see the future because you don’t want to see it; your beliefs and morals prohibit you from seeing what you don’t want to see, leaving your surprised and disturbed when things don’t go the way you expect.

Choosing not to study a successor system to capitalism is an example of another kind of denial…  We have persistently ignored and devalued the future—as if our actions are not creating that future for our children, as if things never change. But everything evolves. With a catastrophe bearing down on us, we need to evolve at nearly revolutionary speed. So some study of what could improve and replace our society’s current structure and systems is in order. If we don’t take such steps, the consequences will be intolerable. On the other hand, successfully dealing with this situation could lead to a sustainable civilization that would be truly exciting in its human potential.

Well said KSR.  The future is in our hands, but only if we look beyond what we want to see, acknowledge that we are creating our own grave, and that in order to survive we must change the system; belief systems, social systems, economic systems, and organisational systems.  Otherwise we are well and truly doomed.

Full article here.


NASA, space storms and social collapse

March 27, 2009

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The New Scientist reports on a recent NASA study evaluating the risk of solar plasma flares.

Not your average humanitarian issue but interesting none the less:

It is midnight on 22 September 2012 and the skies above Manhattan are filled with a flickering curtain of colourful light. Few New Yorkers have seen the aurora this far south but their fascination is short-lived. Within a few seconds, electric bulbs dim and flicker, then become unusually bright for a fleeting moment. Then all the lights in the state go out. Within 90 seconds, the entire eastern half of the US is without power.

A year later and millions of Americans are dead and the nation’s infrastructure lies in tatters. The World Bank declares America a developing nation. Europe, Scandinavia, China and Japan are also struggling to recover from the same fateful event – a violent storm, 150 million kilometres away on the surface of the sun.

It sounds ridiculous. Surely the sun couldn’t create so profound a disaster on Earth. Yet an extraordinary report funded by NASA and issued by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in January this year claims it could do just that.

 

Full report, “Severe Space Weather Events–Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts” (for purchase).  

Full article, “Space storm alert: 90 seconds from catastrophe


Beddington: World faces perfect storm in 2030

March 25, 2009

In a statement which has already gotten much press elsewhere, the UK’s chief scientist Prof. John Beddington suggests we face a “perfect storm”of crisis drivers by 2030.

The Guardian reports, 

A “perfect storm” of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions, the UK government’s chief scientist will warn tomorrow.

“We head into a perfect storm in 2030, because all of these things are operating on the same time frame,” Beddington told the Guardian.

“If we don’t address this, we can expect major destabilisation, an increase in rioting and potentially significant problems with international migration, as people move out to avoid food and water shortages,” he added.

It is music to our ears to hear such well placed politicians and scientists reflecting the realities of tomorrow’s complex, interlinked and massively vulnerable world.