Archive for October, 2016

We need to talk about bullshit

October 6, 2016

[If you are offended by my use of the word ‘bullshit’: I apologise.
Please leave this post now and do not read any further]

Friends and Colleagues: We are being showered with bullshit.

My consciousness of this has been raised by a paper in the journal Judgment and Decision Making: On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit by Gordon Pennycook and colleagues. Thanks to Stephen Giblin for the link.

Before discussing sub-genres of bullshit, the authors clarify precisely what they mean by bullshit in general. They write eloquently:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines bullshit as, simply, “rubbish” and “nonsense”, which unfortunately does not get to the core of bullshit. Consider the following statement (a):

“Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.

Although this statement may seem to convey some sort of potentially profound meaning, it is merely a collection of buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure. The bullshit statement is not merely nonsense,as would also be true of the following (b), which is not bullshit:

“Unparalleled transforms meaning beauty hidden abstract”.

The syntactic structure of a), unlike b), implies that it was constructed to communicate something. Thus, bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth.

The authors focus on what they call pseudo-profound bullshit and try to identify the factors that lead people to be receptive to such statements.

We focus on pseudo-profound bullshit because it represents a rather extreme point on what could be considered a spectrum of bullshit. We can say quite confidently that the above example (a) is bullshit, but one might also label an exaggerated story told over drinks to be bullshit. In future studies on bullshit, it will be important to define the type of bullshit under investigation

Their analysis is interesting, and occasionally amusing as they generate meaningless statements using a website ‘bullshit generator

But my own interest is in the bullshit I encounter every day. It consists of syntactically correct structures about work, science or technical activities. These sentences slip through my first layer of ‘nonsense filters’. And it then requires active thinking to evaluate and reject the content – and that can be hard work.

Of course, I could use an agile methodology to incisively shortcut the usual appraisal process. And if I did that in a dynamic way, it might be more effective.

Did you see what I did there? The above paragraph is bullshit. It sounds like it might possibly mean something. But the words themselves do not convey that meaning.

They do fill up the space on the page making it appear that something has been said, but it hasn’t.

Once again the eloquence and insight of the authors helps us to see the essence of bullshit. I have edited their words below because I think their comments apply to all bullshit, and not just pseudo-profound bullshit:

Despite the lack of direct concern for truth … bullshit betrays a concern for verisimilitude or truthiness.

We argue that an important adjutant of bullshit is vagueness which, combined with a generally charitable attitude toward ambiguity, may be exacerbated by the nature of recent media. As a prime example, the necessary succinctness and rapidity of “Twitter” (140 characters per “Tweet”) may be particularly conducive to the promulgation of bullshit.

Importantly, vagueness and meaning are, by definition, at cross purposes, as the inclusion of vagueness obscures the meaning of the statement and therefore must undermine or mask “deep meaning” (i.e., profundity) that the statement purports to convey.

The concern for “profundity” reveals an important defining characteristic of bullshit (in general): that it attempts to impress rather than to inform; to be engaging rather than instructive.

Their conclusion that bullshit attempts to “impress rather than inform” seems to me to cut to the heart of it.

I have often thought that human beings are ‘meaning machines’: we seek out nuggets of meaning in the world around us, digesting information with a voracious appetite, and discarding vast amounts of irrelevant information.

But if we are exposed to too much bullshit, it clogs up our senses, and makes it harder to recognise and communicate meaning. It is a kind of intellectual pollution.

I am really grateful to these authors for taking the time to analyse the key characteristics of bullshit.

With my consciousness raised I hope to recognise bullshit more easily, and to avoid ingesting it. Or worse still – producing any.

Friends: I leave you with the words of the late great Jake Thackray singing ‘The Bull’


The Bull by Jake Thackray

On my farm, the bull is the king of the yard;
He’s big and bad and fast, he’s strong he’s . . . hard.
All my other animals would readily concur
That he is the one you salute, he’s the one you call “Sir”.
But my hens, a noisy, flighty flock –
Led, of course by my unsubmissive cock –
Whenever His Majesty the bull importantly goes by
They dance along behind him and they cry:
“Beware of the bull!”

The bull, the bull is the biggest of all.
He is the boss, he is, because he’s big and we are small.
But the bigger the bull, bigger the bull, bigger the balls.
The bigger the bull, the bigger and quicker and thicker the bullshite falls.

Beware of the bull! The dancing cock is right:
Beware of whoever looks down upon you from a height.
Beware of His Honour, His Excellence, His Grace, His Worshipful,
Beware of His Highness, because of the bull.
For if the boss, the chief, the chap at the top
Should let a single lump of claptrap drop,
The greater the weight and the height he is, the harder it will go
With a grander splat! on the bleeders below.
Beware of the bull!

The bull, the bull is the biggest of all.
He is the boss, he is, because he’s big and we are small.
But the bigger the bull, bigger the bull, bigger the balls.
The bigger the bull, the bigger and quicker and thicker the bullshite falls.

The hero arrives, we hoist him shoulder-high.
He’s good and wise and strong, he’s brave, he’s . . . shy.
And how we have to plead with him, how bashfully he climbs
Up the steps to the microphone – two at a time.
Then down it comes: slick, slithery pat!
If you must put people on pedestals, wear a big hat.
The tongue he’s got is pure gold, the breast is pure brass,
The feet are pure clay – and watch out for the arse.
Beware of the bull!

The bull, the bull is the biggest of all.
He is the boss, he is, because he’s big and we are small.
But the bigger the bull, bigger the bull, bigger the balls.
The bigger the bull, the bigger and quicker and thicker the bullshite falls.

At long last, the revolution comes
And in no time at all we’re erecting podiums.
Comrades with chests of medals by the balcony-full;
After the Red Flag, the galloping bull.
The Saviour came especially from on high
To face up to the punters eye-to-eye.
No sooner is he dead and gone, there’s blessed pulpits-full;
Bestride the holy lamb, behold the bull.
Beware of the bull!

The bull, the bull is the biggest of all.
He is the boss, he is, because he’s big and we are small.
But the bigger the bull, bigger the bull, bigger the balls.
The bigger the bull, the bigger and quicker and thicker the bullshite falls.

These well-known men, so over-glorified –
There’s one of them here his name’s on the poster outside –
And he’s up here like this, and you are all down there.
Remember his cock and his bull and mutter: “Beware!”
For when they’ve done, we clap, we cheer, we roar:
“For he is a jolly good fellow! Encore! More, more!”
How glorious it would be if before these buggers began
We all stood up together and solemnly sang:
“Beware of the bull!”

The bull, the bull is the biggest of all.
He is the boss, he is, because he’s big and we are small.
But the bigger the bull, bigger the bull, bigger the balls.
The bigger the bull, the bigger and quicker
And the bigger and quicker and thicker
And the bigger and quicker and thicker and slicker the bullshite falls.



°C and C are not the same!

October 5, 2016
Sometimes one has to write to the papers!

Sometimes one has to write to the papers!


Sometimes I am unable to stop myself writing to the papers.

Some issues – such as people not using measurement units correctly  – are just too important to let pass.

And people referring to temperature units incorrectly induces apoplexy!

For the record, the degree Celsius is an SI unit for temperature: the degrees C********e and F********t are not.

Their use in everyday language is understandable – many people use the F-word occasionally – and in the correct context, it gives no offence.

But for newspapers and media outlets to do so is outrageous!

And using the abbreviation C instead of °C is just wrong.

As I wrote to The Guardian recently:

Dear Guardian,

The measurement system that underpins all of our physical measurements of the world around us is called the International System of Units, widely referred to as ‘the SI’.

It is a staggering achievement, used daily by hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers.

It provides a standard way of comparing measurements around the globe and of referring to those measurements. So why has The Guardian invented its own system of units?

To refer to a temperature of 25 degrees Celsius, the standard abbreviation is 25 °C. However The Guardian routinely refers to this as 25C, using the symbol ‘C’ which refers to the SI ‘coulomb’, an amount of electric charge. Why?

You might argue that your meaning is clear in context. And generally it is. But why be wrong when you can be right so easily?


Michael de Podesta

National Physical Laboratory.

P.S. In MS Windows™ systems, the degree symbol is [ALT] + 2 + 4 + 8 on the number keypad and in MacOS the degree symbol is [ALT] + [SHIFT] + 8. In iOS, on numeric keypad use a long press on the zero key to reveal the degree symbol.

P.P.S. There should also be a space between the number and its unit, but I didn’t want to mention that in case you thought I was being pedantic.

More seriously, reporting measurements in the correct units aids clarity of understanding and establishes the basic competence of the author.

Reporting, as The Guardian did this week, that:

“the 2016 temperature is likely to be 1.25C above pre-industrial times, following a warming trend where the world has heated up at a rate of 0.18C per decade.”

merely establishes that the writer knows nothing about measurements.

This is not a matter of style, it’s a matter of just being wrong.


[October 5th 2016: Weight this morning 73.5 kg: Anxiety: Low. I don’t know why, but I just felt OK today :-)]

Uncertain Uncertainty and Variable Variability

October 4, 2016
Graph prepared by John Kennedy illustrating the effect of some of the uncertainties. Any one of the blue of the blue lines - or an un-drawn similar line - could be what actually happened. We don't know - but all of them show significant warming.

Graph prepared by John Kennedy illustrating the effect of some (but not all) of the uncertainties in the data. Any one of the blue lines – or an un-drawn similar line – could be what actually happened. We don’t know – that’s the nature of uncertainty. The significant thing is that even considering the confounding factors, all of the estimates show significant warming.

Variable Variability

One of the real pleasures of attending WMO CIMO TECO last week was the chance to meet some of my heroes. And among them I finally met Victor Venema.

Victor is climate scientist whose primary interest is in identifying and removing biases from the instrumental temperature record. He is – in the very best sense of the word – a sceptic.

His blogVariable Variability – is one of my few ‘must reads’.

Uncertain Uncertainty

Victor’s last article drew together many representations of our instrumental temperature record to ask the question: what makes people pay attention to the fact that OUR PLANET’S SURFACE IS WARMING UP!

This shocking fact has gone from being widely denied or ignored to being widely accepted and ignored.

The aim of all the presentations Victor draws together is to fairly communicate the reality of the uncertainty of the conclusions drawn – but also that the warming trend is strong when compared with these uncertainties.

Alternative Reality

But Victor’s page does not (yet!*) contain the beautiful representation at the head of this page.

The animated graph was devised by John Kennedy from the UK’s Met Office and illustrates many of the possible curves – alternate realities – that are consistent with the data.

There are more curves that would be consistent with the data but John wasn’t quite sure how to represent them.

One of the most important ‘uncertain uncertainties’ that John didn’t include is called ‘coverage uncertainty’. It arises from the fact that the instrumental record derives from thermometers that are not optimally positioned around the globe.

When I wrote to him to ask permission to use the graph he said:

The coverage uncertainty has, I suspect, an important low-frequency component. We know HadCRUT4 has a tendency to slightly under-represent Arctic areas, which have been relatively warm these past 10 years. Over time, the balance of land and ocean changes too and we know these warm at different rates. The coverage uncertainty also has a high-frequency component too.

I will get round to writing a blog post about the wiggles at some point, but in the meantime I’m interested in what people think about it. Lots of the animated presentations that I see don’t obviously add anything beyond what the standard static time series graph would show, so one concern I have is, does it add anything to that? Is there any way we can improve the representation of uncertainty in our graphs and other visual aids, particularly where there are more complex error structures that can affect the interpretation?

I love John’s attitude. Critical of his own work and looking for feedback to improve it.


Certain Certainties

I think the animation does add something. Each line represents a possible ‘reality’ that is consistent with the data we have.

The animation shows which features persist from one ‘possible reality’ to another.

In general, a year which is hotter than it’s predecessor, stays hotter in all ‘realities’.

Critically, none of the realities consistent with the data reverse or cancel the overall warming trend.

And that makes it essentially certain that the warming trend is real. And that the world really is hotter than it has been for a long, long time.


*The image is there now!


October 3, 2016

The hall for WMO CIMO TECO early on the first day before anyone turned up. (Except for the VIPs in the middle of the picture!)

I spent last week in Madrid at the WMO CIMO TECO 2016.

The acronym stands for:

  • World Meteorological Organisation (WMO)
  • Commission on Instruments and Methods of Observation (CIMO)
  • Technical Conference (TECO)

For the last couple of years I have sat with two of the WMO ‘Expert Teams’ (A2 and C1) as a representative of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, the BIPM.

My presence on these teams, and at the conference, is the result of an agreement between BIPM and WMO to formally recognise each other’s structures.

I see my personal role as to make sure that the voice of metrology – measurement science – is heard in the technical committees of WMO that make recommendations about the measurement procedures that underpin meteorological and climatological work.

There are still cultural differences between metrologists and meteorologists. But I felt my presence at this conference was a heartfelt attempt to break through these cultural barriers.

I was really honoured to be able to speak to the conference on its first day on the effects of the forthcoming redefinition of the kelvin, and of the impacts of the latest measurements of the errors in the temperature scale used by meteorologists (and everyone else).

These impacts are small or zero, but meteorologists should be aware of these changes because temperature is the most significant meteorological measurement.

  • The PowerPoint file for my presentation is here (.pptx file).
  • The paper (.pdf) accompanying the talk is here.

I spent a long time removing content from the presentation until  I had removed as much extraneous material from the talk as I could.

But I did leave in one slide that might at first sight seem superfluous but which I felt really earned its place.


The last slide

Having told people that they would be unaffected by the latest developments in thermometry, I felt I needed to explain why the work was still important.

I explained that if my work had been polishing a lens to make an image clearer, then nobody would even ask me why I was doing it: it would be obvious. You don’t know what details will be revealed until you have the sharpest image possible.

What my new measurements do is analogous. They allow us to ‘see’ small differences between quantities that previously appeared the same. And they allow us to see that a property of two materials is really the same – and to wonder why.

It is like removing a ‘blur’ from our perception of the physical world.

I have converted the last slide’s animation into a six-second movie below.


The downside of all this preparation was a certain level of anxiety. But my anxiety about that presentation has now evaporated – and I am already anxious about the next thing!

Only 82 days until Christmas, and then I can take a break.

[October 3rd 2016: Weight this morning 72.9 kg: Anxiety: High: back to work!]


Grammar Schools:Their formula for success revealed!

October 2, 2016


Thanks to everyone who responded to last week’s article on Grammar Schools. I feel I am slowly becoming able to articulate what I think about this.

An article in The Guardian today has clarified things further:

Latymer grammar school asks parents to make up financial shortfall

The gist of the story is that Latymer School, a Grammar School with 96% A*-C pass rate at A-level, has asked its parents for more money. The Guardian quotes the school as saying:

“We are now appealing to all parents and carers of current students to support the school either by making a new or increasing an existing voluntary regular donation. Typically the amount you would pledge would be £30-£50 per month (£360-600 per annum) over the period your child attends Latymer. This averages out at between £1.89 and £3.15 per school day and is considerably less than the average fees of an independent school.”

It seems like a perfectly reasonable request. I think Tiffin School asked – but did not require – something similar.

The contribution amounts to roughly £50,000 per school year (i.e. about £350,000 per year across all seven school years). But not all schools have parents who could afford such a contribution.

And isn’t the point of state schools that parents don’t have to pay directly?

Latymer has been able to keep going in the last couple of years despite cuts to their budget because of the Latymer Foundation, which clearly has substantial funds available.

In a  June 2015 letter to parents available on the school web site, the trustees write:

 To balance the budgets over the next two years, the Foundation will underwrite the school deficits for 2015/16 and 2016/17 for potentially in excess of £1million. The funding will help buffer the impact of the significant drop in funding and increased costs for the next 18 months.

Over half of this sum relates to one-off capital and non-recurring revenue expenditure. However, the school will need to use this window of time to plan for and adjust to the, as yet unknown, longer term forecast of revenue and capital funding streams being made available by central government.

The Latymer Foundation wishes to express its thanks to the large number of parents who have been donating to the Standards Fund over many years and whose continuing contributions make this funding support possible.

So it seems that there are two elements to the success of Latymer, and by inference, other successful Grammar Schools. We can summarise this simply:

Money + Selection = Success


I arrived at the money connection at the end of the previous article where I pointed out that private schools cost approximately twice as much as state schools.

But what about the role of selection?

Grammar schools select children who – at the relevant age – can display a particular kind of mental agility. Typically – as Latymer’s appeal suggests – this also selects parents with an ability to contribute financially to the school.

But did anyone else notice Ed’s radical suggestion in the discussion of last week’s article? He proposed selection by behaviour rather than ability.

He suggested that schools selected the 95% of children who – given the right culture – are capable of benefiting from an academic education.

An alternative statement would be that we identify the 5% of children who disrupt every class they are in, and do something – I have no idea what – to engage them in a way which doesn’t disrupt the education of the majority.


In the end, its about the money

The education of the majority of people is a critical cultural endeavour. Our culture is our collective treasure.

We need more than an elite capable of understanding the technology our our brave new world. We do need that elite – but we need a culture in which their enhanced skills make sense.

But this costs money.

And when we see how expensive it is in the private sector – supposedly the most efficient provider of services – is it any surprise that the state sector struggles on half that level of funding? Maybe the formula is even simpler:

Money + Selection = Success

[October 2nd 2016: Weight this morning 74.0 kg: Anxiety: Medium]

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