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Some stories are just incredible

Studying for my degree in the late 1990s, I was required to do a paper called “Research Methods and Interpretation.” A better title would have been: “Fine-tuning your bullshit detector.” It comes in pretty handy when I stumble upon mistakes, bad practice, or outright fraud in research papers.

Researching From Smoke to Mirrors, I found a classic. Some people in the 1990s were trying to prove building roads was a bad idea. They had lots of traffic data. They wanted to prove that roads create traffic. But they couldn’t prove it wasn't the other way around. One day, a guy called Mark Hansen hit on a solution. Hansen told his statistical model traffic congestion could not possibly encourage roading authorities to build new roads or widen existing ones. Armed with this information, the computer happily churned out statistics on how many newly-built lane-miles caused how much traffic congestion.

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. So, I read it again. Yup. Hansen used rhetoric to arbitrarily decide A causes B. Apparently inspired by the fact that Hansen got away with this nonsense, lots of other researchers published follow-up studies.

Robert Cervero called Hansen out in 2003: “Many induced-demand studies have suffered from methodological problems that, I believe, have distorted their findings,” he wrote. Cervero is no car-lover. It's probably more accurate to call him a public transport enthusiast. Randall O'Toole writes in his book, "Gridlocked", about several other anti-car scams Cervero has exposed, though I have not yet had time to check all of the examples O'Toole mentions.

A few weeks ago I was reminded of another interesting case. The IPCC’s encyclopedic: “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis,” contains a table entitled: “Anthropogenic nitrogen fixation”. This table gives year-by-year data for the amount of nitrogen converted into fertiliser, starting from 1910. Nitrogen fixation in 1910 was zero. The amount gradually increases from there. Problem? Humans have been fixing nitrogen for thousands of years. By starting the table in 1910, the IPCC has allowed other writers (including some who consider themselves scientists) to create a myth among gullible greenies that nitrate runoff didn’t happen before the advent of the Haber-Bosch process, which was invented in 1909. Before Haber-Bosch opened the door to industrial fertiliser production, farmers and foresters relied on biological nitrogen fixation. Nitrogen fixing plants, such as red clover, harbour bacteria that convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonium nitrate. We are learning that in natural and plantation forests, the nitrogen-fixing bacteria inhabit symbiotic fungi living in the root systems of forest trees.

The IPCC acknowledges the role of biological nitrogen fixation in agriculture, and there is no reason to think anything's wrong with their report. However, I emailed a comment suggesting that in future, the data should be clearly labelled "industrial nitrogen fixation", and they should publish another table listing the available data on biological nitrogen fixation.

Why? Because leaving out the word "industrial" allows people to mis-use the data.

Here's an example from John Bellamy Foster's book, "The Ecological Rift":
“Before the rise of industrial capitalism (more specifically before the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process early in the twentieth century), the amount of nitrogen removed from the atmosphere was 0 tons.”
Total, complete, and utter bullshit. Without biological nitrogen fixation, agriculture and forestry could never have happened.

The thing is, ammonium nitrate is highly soluble. All terrestrial ecosystems leach nitrates into streams and rivers, which means that even in undisturbed natural forests, those nitrogen-fixing bacteria have to keep on fixing on, like microscopic energizer bunnies that never run down. Some farms, in some places, leach too much, which is why some streams and rivers in New Zealand are overloaded with nitrates. But it’s wrong to imply, as many writers do, that natural ecosystems do not leach nitrates.

One of the worst outright frauds doing the rounds right now is the deadly traffic myth. Last year the International Agency on Research on Cancer classified diesel exhaust as a carcinogen, based on a long-term study of people who used diesel machines in  underground mines. That study involved machinery without modern exhaust treatment systems. It supports the introduction of anti-smog technology. The technology has already been invented and is mandatory on new road vehicles in many countries. Still, that hasn’t stopped some people jumping up and down and hating on diesel engines. Which is probably why the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe recently put out a paper analysing the situation. They said (among lots of other things): “From the data and facts... we conclude with a high degree of reliability that it is misleading to claim that people’s exposure to diesel engines of road motor vehicles is the cause of increased risk of lung cancer.”

The truth: Car-haters are chucking their toys out of the sand-pit because technologists have pretty-much eliminated environmental constraints on road transport. Some technologies will take time to come into reality. Solar crude oil exploits a vast resource, more than big enough to satisfy future demand, even when everyone has a car, and trucks have totally replaced freight trains. But don’t expect solar crude oil to be commercialised before 2040 at the very earliest. Anti-smog technology has delivered enormous air quality improvements in the USA and Europe, but the full impact has not yet been seen, because lots of older vehicles without the good anti-smog technology are still being used.

I see a lot of dodgy studies that pretend to be scientific. Some, like induced traffic studies, rely on dodgy methodology. Others, such as the nitrate and diesel stories, cherry-pick data.

The most interesting thing, for me, is how some people embrace this garbage as if it were divine revelation. “See. Told ya. Technology is bad. So there!”

They can hate on technology all they want, as long as they don’t try to use fraudulent stories to restrict other people’s liberty.


Kevin Cudby is a Wellington-based Freelance Writer and Parametric Modelling Consultant who loves writing about cool new technology. Email him to discuss your requirements: hello {a}

Some stories are just incredible

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