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Logical fallacies and the environment: the gambler and the sharp-shooter

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2014-04-07-Gamblers-Fallacy

You’re playing dice, and you’ve rolled four ones in a row.  On your next throw, you’re going to be thinking “there’s no way I’ll roll a one again, the odds are against it”.  If you think your odds are less that one in six, you’re committing a gambler’s fallacy.  Likewise, the odds of getting heads on a coin toss are one out of two – regardless of what has been tossed before.  Committing a gambler’s fallacy is assuming that independent events are linked; one coin toss, one dice toss are independent of the previous ones.

The problem has to do with true independence.  In games of chance, coins and dice are supposed to be fair.  But are they?  When there is a long and improbable run, the suspicion may be that coin or the dice is loaded.  If that is the case, the improbable event (yet another four, or another head) is actually the one more likely to happen.

The psychology behind it is complex, and leads us to assume that selecting the numbers “1,2,3,4,5” for a lottery ticket is a poorer choice than “11, 13, 21, 30, 33”.  We like patterns and seek them unconsciously; therefore, accepting true randomness is difficult.

We can also be fooled into thinking that something is “due”.  For instance, after dealing a number of cards, you may say that an ace is due to come up if you’ve been drawing twenty cards before (the chance of drawing an ace increases as the rest of the pack gets smaller).  This reasoning is correct, because there are only a 52 cards – and we’re not replenishing the pack and reshuffling after each draw.

Gambler's fallacy in reverse: the odds are not independant

Gambler’s fallacy in reverse: the odds are not independant

Compare this with a game of rock-paper-scissors.  This is an instance where the outcome of one draw is quite dependant on the previous ones; a skilled player tries to outsmart his opponent’s guess, but there is no randomness in the decision.

A form of gambler’s fallacy can be seen in our response to natural events.  For instance, consider the odds of getting flooded.  You are told that “This was the storm of the century.  In fact, our statistical analysis shows that the odds of a storm of such intensity and duration is actually of happening only once in 230 years”.  The natural reaction is to rebuild: another storm like this just can’t happen in your lifetime, can it? The odds are so low.  But there are at least two problems with that reasoning.

The first problem is a gambler’s fallacy reasoning.  Whatever the odds of that storm were, the fact that you just got flooded has no impact on the odds of another storm just as bad occuring again next year.

The second problem has to do with our estimate of the odds.  It’s not like a coin toss; the odds are approximated based on what we have observed historically.  But, specially in places where weather data has not been collected for a long time (as in BC), these may be poor estimates, specially when it comes to rare events.  Further, using odds assumes that the conditions – the coin, so to speak – are constant; but we now know that climate is changing.  In a constant climate, each new storm adds to the data, giving us more accurate odds; but in a changing climate, the conditions for which these odds have been calculated may no longer apply.

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Another fallacy, related to the gambler’s fallacy, is the Texas sharp-shooter fallacy.  The name comes from the image of a person shooting at random inside a barn.  The shooter looks at the wall filled with bullet holes and draws a target around where some of the holes are grouped, to show how precise his shooting is.

The sharp-shooter fallacy can occur in cases where clusters of rare diseases are found and an environmental pollution cause is suspected.  For instance, clusters of rare cancers have formed the basis for the popular movies Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action, both based on true legal cases against alleged polluters.  But the problem with clusters is that they can also occur at random; as with a bunch of random shots, some are bound to be closer together.  A statistical test must be done to test the possibility that the appearance of a cluster is due to mere randomness.

In these celebrated court cases, it is usually relatively easy to demonstrate that pollution has taken place; it is much harder is to show that the pollution is likely to be the cause of the disease cluster.  Questions such as “if this groundwater was tainted so badly, why didn’t everyone who drank from it get sick?” must be addressed on a probabilistic basis.

This has been a problem for the cases of bile duct cancer exposed by Dr John O’Connor in Fort Chipewyan, for instance.  The six cases reported in the town of 1200 had very low odds of occuring.  Was pollution from the tar sands the cause?  This remains an open question, because the low numbers make it very difficult to determine the odds conclusively.  Clustering, in this case, may be random, but may also be due to an unknown genetic factor.  Critics have said that the level of statistical confidence used in such cases (99% confident) is unnecessarily high. (See http://oilsandstruth.org/rare-cancer-strikes)

The best description of the cluster problem I’ve encountered in a popular book is in Dan Fagin’s Toms River (2013, Bantam Books) about the cluster in the New Jersey town of the same name (See http://danfagin.com/).

Also see ludic fallacy http://fallacyaday.com/2011/09/ludic-fallacy/ about the coin example.

Note: As instructors we’re expected to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions. Previous post in the series: appeal to tradition.

 

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Written by enviropaul

March 26, 2016 at 11:59 am

All the garbage of Barcelona

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The garbage inlets in front of Sant Catalina market

The garbage inlets in front of Santa Caterina market

Barcelona could be the most progressive of Spanish cities and has everything you expect from a European city: great art and food, unique architecture and culture, as well as wonderful urban design, street life, transit, biking, ecotourism, solar energy…it’s all there, and I hope to get to describe that at some later time.  But here I want to describe something that caught my eye: how Barcelona handles garbage.  It sucks, literally, and that’s pretty cool.

I first saw them in front of the new Santa Caterina market, two strange cylinders sticking out of the sidewalk.  They’re about the size of a domestic water heater, and have a small trap door at the front.  This is where you put your garbage: one for organics, the other for true garbage.  What is different here, though, is that these cylinders aren’t garbage cans: they are inlet tubes connected to an underground network of vacuum pipes.  Put in your bag, and whoosh, the vacuum sucks it away and conveys it to a receiving station.

This system has several advantages: it is quiet and efficient, and the inlets take up far less room than big garbage or recycling bins on crowded streets.  And, mostly, there’s no need of garbage trucks; this is a particular advantage in the old historic city, where narrow, curvy streets can’t accommodate large trucks, but where a lot of garbage is produced since the residential density is high. And here at the market, where a lot of organic waste is generated, it’s wonderfully appropriate.  But doing without the pollution and noise of the garbage trucks is a plus anywhere.

Happy garbage nerd on his holidays

Happy garbage nerd on his holidays

In Barcelona I saw these tubes in other neighbourhoods as well, in Poblenou and Raval.  These used to be run-down areas, and the new systems is one of the way that neighbourhoods can be improved.  The system is not perfect, of course; there is still a need of street cleaners, as apparently people still put their garbage on or around the inlets instead of inside them.  And of course, installing them involves a major retrofit project that can’t be done overnight.  So there are still a number of small garbage trucks going around other neighbourhoods (such as Poble Sec, where we stayed).  These are pretty fun to watch, actually – there’s even a YouTube video of one of them picking up garbage.  A number of these trucks are now powered by hybrid drives, making them quieter and reducing pollution.

I never did find out where the garbage in El Raval or La Ribera is sucked to, but the destination in the Forum area of Poblenou is pretty obvious: the large waste treatment plant near the waterfront.  This plant, made up of an incinerator and an MBT facility, shares the waterfront with a marina and the largest single solar collector in all of Europe.  At the MBT plant organic waste (food and garden waste) produces methane, while paper, metals, etc, are removed from the waste and recycled.  The incinerator takes care of the rest.  And, of course, this being Europe, the plant produces both electrical power and heat for the district.  But it is unique in two ways: first, this being warm and sunny Spain, there is as much of a need for cooling as for heating, and the treatment plant provides both through its network system.  Second, the combination of MBT and incinerator means that very high energy efficiencies are possible (in Metro Vancouver, the controversy was an either-or, MBT or incinerator; nobody seemed to have considered the possibility of the combination of both).

The incinerator and MBT plant in the Forum area

The incinerator and MBT plant in the Forum area

In practice, that means that in the Poblenou-Forum area, your household, one of over six thousand , gets air conditioning in summer and heating in winter thanks to the garbage that has been whisked away in pneumatic tubes.  That prevents the release of over 15,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, more than halving the amount of fuel that would otherwise be needed.  And you thought garbage was boring?  Not in Barcelona.

 

The technical details (numbers for nerds):

The vacuum system:  3.6 km of pipe, 125 outlets, 91 receiving tanks, 2 lines (garbage and green waste); 20 to 30 kPa vacuum can propel bags at 70 km/hr over 2 kilometers.  400,000 residents served since 2002.  System by Swedish company Envac.

The waste plant: Incinerator (built 1975) and mechanical-biological treatment plant (built 2006) in Forum area treat about 360,000 tonnes MSW/yr, and produces 24 MW electrical power, 180,000 MWh/yr.  Biogas production from organic waste: 108,000,000 nm3/yr.  Paper, cardboard, glass, PET, HDPE, ferrous metals, non-ferrous metals, plastic film, cartons, recovered from waste.  Heat from process recovered for district heating.

District heating:  69 MW absorption chillers (producing water at 5.5C), 47 MW heaters (90C); 84% overall efficiency;  13 km distribution pipeline; cooling and heating for 6000 residences, plus office buildings, a hospital, shopping centres; reduction of 15,000 tons CO2/yr.

The garbage: Barcelona residents produce about 500 kg per year per capita, and pay about 75 Euro per household.  Landfills used to be prevalent, over 1000 uncontrolled landfills in Catalunia in 1991, all closed since 2000; 30 are left, all regulated.  Since 2000, landfilled portion shrank from 70% to 30% in 2008; source separation increased from 12% to 32% in the same period.

The district heating and cooling system

The district heating and cooling system

More details can be found here, here, here, and here.

Written by enviropaul

March 22, 2016 at 7:31 pm

Logical fallacies and the environment: appeal to tradition

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antiq2“We’ve always done it this way!” is often invoked as a reason to refuse to change.  It can be quite appealing because it is tied to identity politics, for instance “My people have always believed this” or “my family has always voted liberal”.  But it does not, of itself, constitute a logical argument and is considered a logical fallacy (Argumentum ad antiquitatem is the fancy name of the fallacy).

As the slide on the left shows, the fact that something is traditional is not, of itself, a guarantee that it is a good thing.  Running the bulls at Pamplona, corridas, and rodeos have come under fire recently because of animal welfare considerations.  An appeal to tradition, in this case, means that the justification for the practice is the need to uphold tradition; in other words, “this is what we do; we wouldn’t be who we are if we didn’t do this”.  However, this is not a valid argument when moral standards (say, genital mutilation) or circumstances (eg, a watershed becoming urbanized) change.

“This dike has always protected us from floods” is said by people at risk of flooding who are reluctant to relocate or reinforce a dike.  This is a valid argument only under static conditions: the dike is a solid as always, and outside conditions have not changed.  But it is a fallacious argument when storms become more violent because of climate change, or when conditions upriver have changed (say, from forestry to open land, or from farmlands to suburban developments).

This is a fallacy that often appears in climate change discussions.  “Climate change is real: look, this type of butterfly never used to come this far north before.”  Well, maybe it did, but no one noticed (too few observers in the past); or maybe they have moved north because another butterfly disappeared; or maybe a freak strom has blown them in.  An anecdote such as this is not sufficient to demonstrate the effects or existence of climate change.

But conversely, saying that the weather has always changed, or that there was a worse drought in the thirties, does not disprove the existence of climate change.  Only a statistical analysis of the odds can throw some light on climate change.  Statements such as “the odds of such a storm occuring here are less than one in a million, and may be an indication that the climate has changed” are more credible.

The expressions “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” or “Leave well enough alone” often accompany an appeal to tradition.  True as these sayings may be sometimes, preventative maintenance may well be justified sometimes (the New Orleans dikes weren’t broken before Hurricane Katrina).

None of this demonstrates that tradition is necessarily flawed, however (this is the opposite fallacy, appeal to novelty).  In environmental assessment work the concept of Traditional Environmental Knowledge (TEK for short) is extremely important. TEK embodies indigenous knowledge of sustainability of natural resources, biological diversity, or past rare events such as floods or volcanoes.  It usually relies on a tradition of recounting stories (usually oral ones) based on first hand observations.  For instance, sustainable forest harvesting on Haida Gwaii is largely based on TEK.  Robins have been seen in the arctic, but there is no word in Inuktituk for robin; this is seen as valid information about climate provided from TEK; in contrast to the butterfly example above, lack of a word in a traditional language indicates absence over millenia.

However, appeal to tradition runs squarely into the concept of shifting baselines, coined by fisheries expert Daniel Pauly.  The problem is that tradition may not be that old; every generation has its own expectations of what is normal.  Old maritime fishing stories recount how abundant cod was fifty years ago, as opposed to now; but records indicate that the abundance of cod fifty years ago was actually relative, as there was still much more cod one hundred years ago, and so.  The normal situation – the baseline – is simply how things appeared to one generation when young, but does not indicate a static situation, but rather a shifting one; because of the short time horizon, this is different from TEK.

antiqu

Note: As instructors we’re expected to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions. Previous post in the series: the slippery slope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written by enviropaul

March 21, 2016 at 5:15 pm

District heating from the Burnaby incinerator

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Metro Vancouver's WTE, better known as the Burnaby incinerator

Metro Vancouver’s WTE, better known as the Burnaby incinerator

It looks like Metro Vancouver has finally found a use for the waste heat from the Burnaby incinerator:  district heating.

District heating is a type of centralized heating, where a power plant produces heat (steam or hot water) and sends it through pipelines to heat a number of buildings in a district – hence the name.  Anyone who has been to UBC may have seen puffs of steam risng from grates on Main Mall.  These puffs were from the old district heating system, where steam pipes running from the power plant on North Campus would supply heat to the buildings.  Now a more efficient hot water distribution system has replaced the aging steam system, and all of the 800,000 square meters of floor space from the many buildings are heated by the network.

UBC’s is not the only district energy system in Metro (there are several others) but they are much more common in Europe.  Economies of scale mean that these systems are often far more efficient than separate building or home furnaces can be.  This means that fuel costs are lower, and fewer greenhouse gas emissions are produced, for the same amount of heat.

These systems can also be easily adapted for cogeneration of heat and electricity; if you’re going to burn fuel to generate heat, why not use the fuel to also produce power?  The electricity from a cogen is free, so to speak, since the fuel was going to be burned anyways.  UBC’s new system uses a cogen that can produce up to 60 Megawatt.

East Fraser development

East Fraser development

What does this have to do with incinerators?  Well, in Europe many incinerators are a source of heat for district heating  (as well as producing electricity).  It makes sense; the fuel may not be as efficient as natural gas, but hey, it’s free.  Incinerator operators, accordingly, prefer the moniker “waste-to-energy” (WTE) for their facilities.

The Burnaby incinerator was originally designed to produce steam for a neighbouring paper facility.  But with the factory went bankrupt and now the incinerator produces electricity, but now there is no taker for the heat.

But this will soon change: ParkLane Homes’ East Fraser Lands, a new residential development by the Fraser on the old MacBlo site, has contracted for a district energy system from the incinerator.  According to the contractor’s website,

When completed, River District Energy will serve approximately 710,000 square meters of floor space with an alternative thermal energy solution designed for the many LEED Gold buildings in the development. Metro Vancouver`s planned Waste To Energy Facility in Burnaby will supply River District Energy with the renewable thermal energy needed to serve their customers with heat without the carbon footprint found in most other conventional heating systems today.

Laying out the district heating network

Laying out the district heating network

In Canada the environmental community is divided on the merits of WTE.  Some, like David Boyd (author of The Optimistic Environmentalist), like the European approach (few people in Europe oppose these systems).  Others, like Ben West or the CCPA, fear the potential air pollution.  But this is a red herring, in my opinion; very little pollution is released (personally, I would rather live downwind from the Burnaby incinerator than from a large diesel bus depot).  A more serious argument, though, is the cost of WTC facilities.  But Europe’s experience shows that a well integrated system, where both electricity and heat have a role to play in urban districts, are actually community assets.

The East Fraser Lands district energy system is a first step in the right direction.  Hopefully, there’ll be more to come.

Written by enviropaul

March 19, 2016 at 2:06 pm

Logical fallacies and the environment: the slippery slope

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The slippery slope is a logical fallacy that uses gravity as an analogy. It’s like a rolling snowball: once you set it in motion on a snowy slope, a snowball keeps on growing as it gathers snow and soon becomes uncontrollable. It is a common argument behind the idea of “gateway drugs”, for instance, or opposition to same-sex marriage. It is also called the camel’s nose fallacy.

camelsnose03_490For instance, some people use the slippery slope argument in their opposition to a ban on incandescent lights. “They want to ban these lights, but everybody likes them! Pretty soon they’ll be banning flashlights, and street lights, and then you won’t even be allowed to go out at night!” Uh, no. The ban is in place because incandescents are inefficient, use too much electricity, and indirectly contribute to climate change, and the ban is made possible because of the numerous alternatives.

One may not be in favour of the ban, for a variety of reasons. For instance, one may argue that this measure is unnecessary in BC because our electricity is abundant and does not generate GHGs; or that the sacrifice is too high because the alternatives produce poorer quality light. These are debatable propositions which can be weighed in a logical fashion. But invoking the slippery slope is an emotional argument that relies on the fear of over-regulation – not a logical argument.

Other common examples of the slippery slope argument in environment debates include:
Once you let them put a small tax on carbon, they’ll keep increasing it until you can’t afford a tank of gas anymore.
• If you allow any logging (or hunting or mining) on park land, you can kiss the whole park goodbye.
• Environmentalists are trying to regulate people’s behaviour. Once that start, everything people do comes under the microscope and you’ll find freedom restricted everywhere. Green environmentalism is just red communism in disguise.

The slippery slope fallacy is closely related to the so-called law of unintended consequences. There is no such law. Any action, sometimes, may produce unexpected or unwanted results, but there are also many occasions where no such effect arises. Commuting by car does entail a risk of accident; this not unforeseen (though in the overwhelming majority of cases no such thing happens). Driving instead of walking leads to back problems and excess weight issues, which is unfortunate, but not at all unexpected.

EPT students once presented a motion to Vancouver Council requesting a ban on single use plastic bags. One of the councillors replied with “but what about the law of unintended consequences?”; in other words, this is like the slippery slope, except that does not even bother to outline possible bad outcomes, but instead simply relies on a fear of the new. Who knows what could happen if anything changes! This “law” is often invoked in the defense of the status quo.

Some people have drawn a parallel between the “law of unintended consequences” and the precautionary principle. This is also a faulty analogy.

The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy entails a risk of important harm (to people or to the environment), then it should not be deployed until its safety has been clearly demonstrated. For instance, a new pesticide or a new drug should not be allowed on the market until it is shown to be safe (toxicity to non-target organisms and other side effects small, and risks manageable). The onus is usually on the proponent of the new action or policy or substance to quantify the risks and demonstrate that they are small.

The precautionary principle has been derided in some circles as “a recipe for paralysis”. This would be true if the onus was to demonstrate that there is zero risk prior to acceptance, which is clearly impossible. In fact, all the precautionary principle requires is that the risk be assessed and weighted against benefits before applying. This is in contrast with the “law of unintended consequences”, which implies that the risk can never be known.

slippery_slope

Note: As instructors we’re supposed to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions. Previous post in the series: non-sequitur.

Written by enviropaul

March 14, 2016 at 10:21 am

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The weir on the Elbe

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Just before reaching Hamburg, the Elbe River encounters a major obstacle on its way to the sea: the dam at Geesthacht. It is actually the only dam that the river encounters through its 630 km course across Germany. And thought it is a very low dam, as dams go, it is quite a sight.

I wanted to see it for myself. I find the Elbe fascinating. It may not have the mystique of the Rhine or the Danube. But here, in the middle of the tamed and regulated nature of northern Germany, the Elbe remains wild, unpredictable, and quite capable of regularly wreaking havoc.

Technically, the Geesthacht dam is a weir, since it rises only four meters above sea level . It was built in 1960 in an attempt to regulate the flow of the river. The Elbe is notorious for its wild swings between high and low flows (over twenty times higher). The very low levels can be an obstacle to navigation (during the summer of 2015, we saw the shores exposed, the flow reduced to record lows; in contrast, the record high flows of June 2013 can be seen here). The weir, with its articulated vanes, ensures that the flow stays at the minimum level that ships and barges need – or so it is hoped. A double set of locks enable river traffic to travel all the way between Hamburg and Prague. Hamburg, just downstream, is a deep-water port. To accommodate ocean-going ships, the river is continuously dredged up to Hamburg. In the 50s, Hamburg was planning to dredge its harbour deeper for the new generation of container ships. There was concern that this could lower the river level upstream, stranding river traffic; hence the decision to build the dam.

Repairs on one of the weir's vanes

Repairs on one of the weir’s vanes

The original design was meant to be higher, at 5.65 meters above sea level. With such a drop it would have made sense to produce hydroelectricity, another source of green energy for the country. Why was this not done?

As it is, the weir backs up the waters about 30 kilometers upstream. But the original higher design would have raised the level of the Elbe all the way into what used to be East Germany. In the middle of cold war tensions, the East Germans protests were heeded. Nevertheless, the more modest level agreed upon was enough for year-round ship traffic in the Elbe-Lübeck canal, as well as for the intake of the Geesthacht pumped energy storage plant.

But the protests against the proposed hydroelectricity were of local origin: fishermen and biologists worried that the turbines would turn the river fish into mince meat. I find it remarkable that their concerns were heard back then. At the time, the Elbe was grossly polluted; there were barely any fish of significance living in the river. But the turbines could have been the last straw for the few fish clinging to life. The proponents backed down, a decision remarkable for its foresight.

Fish passages on both sides of the river

Fish passages on both sides of the river

There is a causeway above the weir, and this is what I wanted to see – or rather, feel the raw power of the rushing waters. Tall dams are impressive, but they are static monuments of concrete. Not so the Geesthacht weir. Here, everything is about the dynamic waters. In december when I visited, there was well over one thousand cubic meters of water flowing over the bridge, every second. That’s a thousand tonnes of rushing liquid pushing over the weir, jumping over it. The causeway, barely two meters above, thrummed with energy.

But what about the fish? They have been spared the turbines, but no fish can swim upstream against such rushing waters. A fish passage was installed on the south side of the river – a nice, meandering slow stream, very natural looking. Unfortunately it was never up to the task and whatever fish populations existed were badly impacted by the construction of the weir. Grass carp, catfish, flounder and a few other fish were found to use the passage, but trout and pike, in particular, were missing. As for the hoped-for return of sturgeon, the passage was just too small.

The new fish passage, on the north side of the river, opened in 2010. It was built by the power company Vattenfall, in compensation for habitat lost to the Moorburg power plant (habitat compensation, in German, goes by the mouthful ökologische Schadensvermeidungs- und -begrenzungsmaßnahme). This new passage is 550 meters in length, 45 separate pools, and is the largest fishway in Europe. The design challenges were fairly daunting: the fish way has to be large enough for the biggest fish (the three meter long atlantic sturgeon), while having a current that can accommodate the weakest swimmers such as migrating stickleback, smelt, and eel. The strong tides mean that the water level in the downstream end has a high range, something that had to be mitigated in order to allow small eels through (eels need a surface against which to push through). It is hoped that the new fish passage will allow not only sturgeon, but also salmon and the endangered maraena whitefish, to recolonize the river.

The new fish passage

The new fish passage

One can only hope. With the new fish passage, Vatenfall is angling to resurrect the hydroelectric project. They suggest installing low speed, large clearance turbines so as to spare fish, with a fish deflection system. Call me dubious.

mittens crabs on the old fish passage

mittens crabs on the old fish passage

But there’s another character that has found the old fish passage totally fine: the invasive chinese mitten crab. During migration time (yes, crabs too migrate), their numbers are so large that people gather to watch the spectacle. A very impressive sight, if a bit creepy: the introduced crab is very destructive 9among other things, its digging habits cause shoreline erosion). The waters behind the weir also hold the biggest concentration of another invasive species, the zebra mussel, this one coming via the Czech republic. These two mean that the ecological balance of the Elbe has shifted. But I expect the Elbe, only partially tamed by the weir, still has many surprises in store.

Technical details can be found here, here, and here.

Written by enviropaul

March 13, 2016 at 5:08 pm

Logical fallacies and the environment: squirrel! (I mean, non-sequitur)

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Non sequitur is latin for “does not follow”, and it applies to every case where the conclusion does not follow from the premises. In general terms, all logical fallacies are a form of non-sequitur.

In common speech, though, a non-sequitur refers to a statement that has very little relevance to what was said before (also known as a red herring). It is common rhetorical device used to distract from the issue – or create humour (as in Bloom County, above a bit of satire on how politicians abound in non-sequiturs).

A non-sequitur often has the following form: A is true (here’s evidence for A). Therefore, C must be true.

Here are a few examples:
Look at their house! They must be loaded! (Maybe they’re heavily in debt)
“You say you’re gonna leave, you know it’s a lie, cuz that’ll be the day when I die.” (Apologies to Buddy Holly, but the “cuz” has no business being there)
Did you know taxes are so high you have to wait until July 1rst before making money for yourself? These solar programs just have got to go. (solar=taxes? Uh?)
“I’m so thrilled with my lab results!” “Well, nobody’s perfect.” (What do you reply to that?)
Meat is murder! Did you know Hitler was a vegetarian? (A nicely absurd compilation of ad-hominem and non-sequitur)
Here is a scientific proof of the existence of God. (The non-sequitur here is not the mention of God; rather, it is in “scientific proof”, which is an oxymoron. Logic and math produce proofs; experimental science establishes likelihoods.)
Humans have nothing to do with climate change. Climate was warming in the Middle Ages. Before that, there was an ice age. (Natural climate variability and human-induced change are independent; this type of non-sequitur is an implied either-or fallacy)

Here’s another one, from a speech by denier Patrick Moore: [T]here is no definitive scientific proof, through real-world observation, that carbon dioxide is responsible for any of the slight warming of the global climate that has occurred during the past 300 years, since the peak of the Little Ice Age. If there were such a proof through testing and replication it would have been written down for all to see. (Aside from the inappropriate “scientific proof”, the problem with this statement is the request for testing and replication. This sounds good, but has no business in a discussion of global climate, since we don’t have an array of interchangeable planet Earths with which to conduct replicable experiments. That being said, all elements of climate science such as CO2 absorption of infrared radiation have been fully tested and replicated. Note the clever mention of “Little Ice Age”, hinting, without stating so, that natural variability must be the main factor – another non-sequitur, as mentioned above.  Here is the source for Moore’s speech.)

A thorough analysis of a non-sequitur can be a challenge.  For instance, here’s a pair of statements:

People hate traffic jams! There should be more electric cars.
or
There should be more electric cars! People hate traffic jams.

First, note that the order of the statements matter. The second statement is usually interpreted as a response to the first.

In the first instance, it is clear that electric cars is a non-sequitur to traffic jams, which are presented as a problem. This is true, unless one makes the following links: a) People hate traffic jams because they hate breathing polluted air; b) electric cars do not pollute the air, and c) therefore, electric cars are the solution to (the air pollution problem of) traffic jams.

In the second case, the emphasis is on cars; more cars, electric or otherwise, will create more traffic jams. Since traffic jams are bad, there should not be more cars, whether electric or not – so the second statement is relevant in this case. But if the first statement is interpreted to say that there should be a higher proportion of cars that are electric, then the mention of traffic jams is irrelevant – a perfect non-sequitur.

Non-sequiturs often require a bit of mental gymnastics to tease out a possible link between two statements. They can be used for the purpose of distracting from a weak argument (a la Patrick Moore above); but they can also be used to spark imagination – forcing creative thinking to create the links, so to speak. In fact, creative thinking (aka lateral thinking, brainstorming, thinking out of the box) usually produces a number of non-sequiturs, as the imagination is let free. So non-sequiturs may bring a glimpse of a solution to a thorny problem. Often, a creative approach consists of questioning one of the premises of the problem, by asking “what-if” type questions. Non-sequiturs have their place – just not in logic arguments.

One has to be weary: unspoken, hidden links are often what makes non-sequitur statements attractive to the conspiracy-minded individual. The concept that there is a hidden truth that makes the link between the two apparently unrelated statements, and that this truth is revealed only to a chosen few (including you, of course), can be very seductive. It’s just that, as Mr Spock would say, it is highly illogical.

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Note: As instructors we’re supposed to instill in our students critical thinking abilities. So this semester I included in my Environmental Issues class a review of some common logical fallacies with examples taken from the environmental scene. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t find such a collection through a Google search. So I started crafting my own by collecting examples of logical fallacies that occur in environmental news and discussions. Previous post in the series:the strawman.

Written by enviropaul

March 7, 2016 at 12:43 pm