Friday, November 10, 2006

Ocean Circulation: New evidence (Yes), slowdown (No)

Sometimes journalists are so focused on a particular story that they 'hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest'. There was a perfect example of this last week in the Guardian reporting from the RAPID Climate Change conference in Birmingham (UK) which I was attending. The conference, whose theme was observations, modelling and paleo-climate related to the Thermohaline and Meridional overturning circulation (MOC) in the North Atlantic, could have been expected to attract media attention (particularly in the Europe) and indeed it did. However, the Guardian story, which started "Scientists have uncovered more evidence for a dramatic weakening in the vast ocean current that gives Britain its relatively balmy climate" was in complete opposition to the actual evidence presented and I wasn't the only person to notice. How could the reporting be so wrong?

First, a bit of background: RAPID is a focused research program being run mainly out of the UK, but with contributions from Norway, the Netherlands and from the US. One of their main achievments has been to set up a mooring array (which consists of a dozen or so permanently attached monitors of temperature, salinity and pressure) that can continuously monitor the circulation in the North Atlantic across a section at 26øN. Measurements taken as the moorings were first installed were highlighted in the Bryden et al paper last year. As readers will no doubt recall, that publication, suggesting that a long term decrease in the MOC was underway, was greeted by a media storm. We cautioned at the time that the results were preliminary and, specifically, that the internal variability was probably high enough to make it unlikely that the changes had risen above the noise.

At the meeting this week, Bryden and colleagues gave an update of the work, specifically focusing on the first year of data from the moored array. This is the first time that there has ever been such a continuous set of estimates across the whole Atlantic and so reports of the size and nature of the variability were eagerly anticipated. And they did not disappoint! There were two key observations: first, that the approximations that had been used in the Bryden et al study were actually valid, and secondly, that the variations day by day varied by around 5 Sv (1 Sv is about 10 times the flow of the Amazon). The mean over the year for the MOC was 18 Sv - very close to what was expected and in the middle of recent estimates - and significantly, larger than the value seen in the 2004 snapshot. Given that degree of 'noise', this implies that no conclusions about trends over recent decades can be supported.

Other results presented supported this basic picture: transport estimates at different latitudes were not coherent with the initial results, model variability in the best ocean models was large (suggesting that detectability of a MOC slowdown before 2030-2050 was unlikely), and temperature, salinity and velocity changes in the overflow waters beteen Greenland and Europe showed significant connections to the North Atlantic Oscillation but no obvious trends. A number of records that had seemed to be trending strongly when first looked at, now seem to be simply more variable than first thought. This was something of a theme at the conference - the closer we look at the ocean, the more dynamic it appears.

So why was the Guardian story so wrong? Well, the nature of variability invariably implies that there are periods when the values are above the mean, and periods when it is below the mean. The minimum values appeared to be during a 10 day interval in November 2004 when the inferred deep western boundary current appeared to be very weak indeed. But then it came back. Now, recall that we have never seen this quality of data before and explanations for the variability (deep eddies? waves?) are not yet available. Thus, no-one has any clue whether this is normal or unusual - right now it's simply an interesting phenomenon. Picking this out of the results is therefore a little perverse. The big story should have been the phenomenal effort that has gone into exploring this important issue, the much improved context for previous measurements and a welcome reassessment of the significance of previous results. It's a shame the Guardian missed it.


Free church parking banned as 'discriminatory'

A thin excuse for anti-Christian attitudes. They could have extended free parking to the 1% who are of other faiths if discrimination was the concern

A city council is to impose new car parking charges for Sunday morning church services so they are not 'discriminatory to other faiths and religious praying days'. Plymouth City Council had allowed free parking in some car parks for church-goers, but now has brought in a œ1-an-hour charge so they do not offend other faiths. The move has angered church groups in the city, and a protest letter has been sent to the authority.

A council parking representative replied, explaining that free parking would be discriminatory. "The basis of your representation was rejected on the grounds that the current free parking on a Sunday morning is discriminatory to other faiths and religious praying days," they said. "Dispensation is not given to other religions."

Church regular Mary Hooker, 66, said: "It is rather unforgiving. I have been going to church for 50 years and I have never had to pay."

The 2001 census survey revealed that the combined total of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs in Plymouth amounted to 1.1 per cent of the population. The city has one Mosque which serves all of the Muslim population, estimated to be around 800, Plymouth also has one Buddhist centre, serving about 470 people, and one Synagogue for nearly 200 practising Jews in the community. There are 150 Christian churches in the city.

The charges are part of a range of changes to car parking tolls across the city. The income from all of the Sunday charging proposals will be approximately 144,000 pounds.

The rector of Plymouth's biggest church, St Andrew's, has said that the authority's reasoning "betrays a total lack of understanding of the multi-faith agenda and serves only to divide communities." The Rev Nick McKinnel said: "It does seem extraordinary to invoke other faiths as a reason to charge those who go to church."


British Left attacks charities

They want everybody to be dependant on the government

Next week, the new Charities' Bill will finish its passage through Parliament. It should become law before the end of the year. In spite of being billed as "the biggest review of charity legislation in the past 400 years", it has generated very little comment. This is surprising, because the Bill will vastly increase the power of the Charities' Commission to dissolve charities, confiscate their endowments and assets, and give them to what the Commission considers a more genuinely "charitable" cause.

That threat is alarming and real. It used to be taken for granted that organisations devoted to education, to religion, or to the relief of poverty, were automatically providing a "public benefit". The new legislation dissolves that assumption. Even more worryingly, it also leaves it up to the Charities Commission to decide what constitutes a "public benefit". There is no guidance in the legislation on how that slippery notion should be defined. Ministers and members of the Commission have referred to "case law", but there is almost none, precisely because, for the last 400 years, there has been so firm a consensus that education, religion and the relief of poverty constitute public benefits.

It means that the Commission will be able to use whatever definition of "public benefit" it likes. The motive behind redefining that notion seems to have been the desire to ensure that charities benefit all the public, not just some small section of it. That is why, for instance, schools and hospitals that charge fees are being threatened with the withdrawal of their charitable status: they are said only to benefit people who can afford to pay, and not the whole of the British public.

In fact, every charity benefits a portion of the population rather than all of it: charities for disabled people benefit those who are disabled; hospital charities benefit sick people; charities for women benefit women rather than men. and so on. Charities for starving farmers in the Third World do not benefit the "public" in this country at all. And as for charities for animals, they do not benefit people of any description, unless you count the pleasure some people get from knowing that animals are being cared for.

So will the Charities' Commission now declare the RSPCA and the hundreds of other organisations that dispense money and care only for animals, or only for men, or only for children, or only for people in the Third World, as ineligible for charitable status because they do not benefit the whole British public?

The preposterousness of that idea is obvious, and it demonstrates that the "public benefit" test will, in practice, simply amount to the bureaucrats on the Commission deciding whether they approve of the aims of a given organisation. If they do, it will be allowed charitable status and reap the enormous benefits that flow from it, from tax-breaks to the possibility of organising public collections. If they do not, the Commission will declare the organisation no longer a charity. And then, under the new Bill, its endowments can be seized and given to a charity of whose aims the bureaucrats do approve.

This is a terrifying extension of arbitrary, unaccountable state power, albeit under the guise of a quango rather than a government department. The charity sector is one of the few parts of modern Britain that actually functions pretty well at the moment. It is vigorous and effective, and provides services worth billions every year, largely because the Government hasn't managed to get its paws all over it. This new law is going to change that. Unfortunately, it now seems too late to do anything about it. And this time, the whole British public will be the loser.



In a riveting speech to The New Culture Forum last night, the writer and broadcaster Douglas Murray warned that Britain was in danger of taking the path to cultural defeat if it continued to stifle criticism of, and debate about, the threat of fundamentalist Islam.

Speaking to a packed audience at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies - an audience which included Lord Trimble, Paul Goodman MP and many high-profile journalists - Murray declared that just as there was no right to respect, so there was no right not to be offended. `I believe we must speak out - and for very immediate reasons. Silence on the problems of Islam elevates Islam. It affords it a unique place in our culture that it does not deserve and should not have. You do not have to be believers in a thing to propagate it. We do so by our silence. Our fear and self-censorship are complicity: they act as a votary.

`Every day cartoonists in the Western free press portray democratic leaders of the West as baby-killers, baby-eaters and homicidal maniacs,' he told the meeting, which was chaired by the NCF's director Peter Whittle, and which also included a lively audience discussion. `At least we now know why they don't draw cartoons even touching on Islam. ` `Cutting-edge' novels routinely and boringly lambaste the traditions of the West or pretend that the Western tradition doesn't even exist. But write a novel mentioning Mohammed, and Salman Rushdie can explain the consequences to you.'

Murray, who wrote the critically praised book `Neoconservatism: why we need it', went on to explain how the canard that by mentioning the problem, you are yourself the problem, had sunk deep and was the degraded response of a people whom seemed, to him, to be asleep.

He talked in depth about the experience of the Netherlands, where, almost exactly two years ago, Theo Van Gogh, the director of the short film Submission, about women's experience under Islam, was murdered in the street by an Islamic fanatic. The audience then watched a screening of the film, which because of the perceived `sensitivity' of the subject matter, has rarely been seen since van Gogh's death.

Murray explained that the uproar and protest which followed in Holland had, however, proved to be short-lived. `Some writers and public figures took the decision to stop mentioning Islam,' he went on. `One friend of mine, a prominent newspaper columnist before van Gogh's murder, vowed never to write about Islam again. I asked him once how he felt about the decision he had taken and he was clear: `The terrorists have won' he said.

After talking about the rapid demographic changes in Holland, and quoting a government report from 2004 which concluded that by 2017 the majority of the people in the country would be non-Dutch, Murray left the audience with a serious question. `Europeans are going to have to start asking: do we want to keep what we have? Do we want to salvage something? Or is there genuinely nothing which we wish to save?' he said. `I recommend to you - go to Amsterdam and walk around. Look at the woman in the burkha, and the druggy baby-boomer running the cannabis cafe and ask yourself who is going to be running this place in twenty years time.'


Bright Britons deserting universities

Universities will be dominated by foreign academics soon unless more British graduates are persuaded to stay in higher education, the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge has told The Times. Alison Richard - who has a quarter of her staff and more than half of her postgraduates from overseas - raises the prospect of universities depending increasingly on foreign academics for regeneration.

The situation across the country is most acute in science, technology and mathematics, as fewer British students are recruited to undergraduate courses, which restricts the pool going on with postgraduate study. Professor Richard's comments are echoed by Universities UK, the umbrella group of vice-chancellors, which cautions that the danger of relying wholly on non-British researchers in some subjects is not only that they go home, but also that the lack of home-grown talent spirals downwards into less interest in schools.

While Professor Richard, an anthropologist who has returned to England after 30 years at Yale, delighted in the cosmopolitan make-up of her staff, she said that she was concerned that the brightest students did not want to follow in her shoes. "What does it say about the perception of universities in this country if an ever-falling proportion of really bright British undergraduates is not considering continuing with this as a career?" she said. "We will always be able to staff Cambridge with brilliant people from all over the world, but if you can't get your own students then British universities will carry on, of course - but without their own."

For the past two decades the number of overseas students undertaking postgraduate research at Cambridge has risen each year. Last year 53 per cent of its postgraduates were foreign students. At undergraduate level overseas students made up only 15 per cent of the total, and overall more than one in four (27 per cent) of all its students came from abroad. "Twenty-five per cent of Cambridge's academics are from outside the UK and it's a wonderful cosmopolitan international mix and I think it's quite splendid that we are as international as we are," she said. "Now the question is - if it were 75 per cent from outside the UK would that be a `bad thing'? I don't know how to answer that question. "So should we be troubled if none of our brightest British undergraduates goes on to further studies and PhDs? Actually, if the truth be told, that does trouble me."

Professor Richard says that lecturers' historic poor salaries are partly to blame, as is the old public opprobrium of universities as irrelevant ivory towers. While that has changed, she says universities are still underfunded and competing with a more exciting world. Although it is not a problem for all disciplines, Professor Richard is clearly concerned about the lack of children studying science, technology and maths (STEM) at a higher level at school. Currently roughly 39 per cent of STEM postgraduates at British universities are from overseas.

Drummond Bone, president of Universities UK, agreed that an overreliance on foreign academics in those subjects was a concern. "The long-term issues for UK business, industry and universities are very serious, because some proportion of overseas academics will stay in Britain, but a good number will go home," he said. "In some subjects we can already see this - especially in maths - where we're seeing huge numbers of people from Eastern Europe in the staff. They are very good, but there is a shortage of home-grown talent."

Professor Bone, who is also Vice-Chancellor of Liverpool, said that the danger was that Britain would not generate its own core of academics. He said this problem had already been encountered in Australia, where some universities were dependent on Asian academics. Last week a study found that nearly two thirds of British academics had considered leaving the country to work overseas and that more than half had considered abandoning university life completely for a better-paid job in the private sector. The biggest gripe among lecturers was bureaucracy, with one in three spending at least 16 hours a week on paperwork.


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