25 June 2008

A tale of two meetings

Filed under: climate change, collaboration, Nuclear energy, SitP, solar energy, Spiked — David Wood @ 10:31 pm

In the past, I’ve enjoyed several meetings of the London Skeptics in the Pub (“SitP”). More than 100 people cram into the basement meeting space of Penderel’s Oak in Holborn, and listen to a speaker cover a contentious topic – such as alternative medicine, investigating the paranormal, the “moon landings hoax”. What’s typically really enjoyable is the extended Q&A session in the second half of the meeting, when the audience often dissect the speaker’s viewpoint. Attendee numbers have crept up steadily over the nine years the group has existed. It’s little surprise that the group was voted into the Top Ten London Communities 2008 by Time Out.

Last night, the billed speaker was the renowned (many would say “infamous”) climate change denier, Fred Singer. The talk was advertised as follows:

Global Warming: Science, Economics, and some Moral Issues: What Al Gore Never Told You.

The science is settled: Evidence clearly demonstrates that carbon dioxide contributes insignificantly to Global Warming and is therefore not a ‘pollutant.’ This fact has not yet been widely recognized, and irrational Global Warming fears continue to distort energy policies and foreign policy. All efforts to curtail CO2 emissions, whether global, federal, or at the state level, are pointless — and in any case, ineffective and very costly. On the whole, a warmer climate is beneficial. Fred will comment on the vast number of implications.

Since this viewpoint is so far removed from consensus scientific thinking, I was hoping for a cracking debate. And indeed, the evening started well. Singer turned out to be a better speaker than I expected. Even though he’s well into his 80s, he spoke with confidence, courtesy, and good humour. And he had some interesting material:

  • A graph that seemed to show that global temperature has not been rising over the last ten years (even though atmospheric CO2 has incontrovertibly been rising over that time period)
  • A claim that all scientific models of atmospheric warming are significantly at variance with observed data (and therefore, we shouldn’t give these models much credence)
  • Suggestions that global warming is more strongly influenced by cosmic rays than by atmospheric CO2.

(The contents of the talk were similar to what’s in this online article.)

So I eagerly anticipated the Q&A. But oh, what a disappointment. I found myself more and more frustrated:

  • Quite a few of the audience members seemed incapable of asking a clear, relevant, concise question. Instead, they tended to go off on tangents, or went round and round in circles. (To my mind, the ability to identify and ask the key question, without distraction, is an absolutely vital skill for the modern age.)
  • Alas, the speaker could not hear the questions (being, I guess, slightly deaf from his advanced age); so they had to be repeated by the meeting moderator, who was standing at the front next to the speaker
  • The moderator often struggled to capture the question from what the audience member had said, so there were several iterations here
  • Then the speaker frequently took a LONG time to answer the question. (He was patient and polite, but he was also painstakingly SLOW.)

Result: lots of time wasted, in my view. No one landed anything like a decisive refutation of the speaker’s claims. There were lots of good questions that should have been asked, but time didn’t allow it. I also blamed myself, for not having done any research prior to the meeting (but I had been pretty busy on other matters for the last few days), and for not being able to do my usual trick of looking up information on my smartphone during a meeting (via Google, Wikipedia, etc) because network reception was very poor in the part of the basement where I was standing. In conclusion, although the discussion was fun, I don’t think we got anything like the best possible discussion that the speakers’ presentation deserved.

I mention all this, not just because I’m deeply concerned about the fearsome prospects of runaway global warming, but also because I’m interested in the general question of how to organise constructive debates that manage to reach to the heart of the matter (whatever the matter is).

As an example of a meeting that did have a much better debate, let me mention the one I attended this evening. It was hosted by Spiked, and was advertised as follows:

Nuclear power: what’s the alternative? The future of energy in Britain

As we seek to overcome our reliance on fossil fuels, what are the alternatives? Offshore turbines and wind farms are often cited as options but can they really meet more than a fraction of the UK’s energy needs? If not, is nuclear power a viable alternative? Public anxieties about nuclear plants’ safety, their susceptibility to terrorist attacks, and the problem of safely disposing of radioactive waste persist. But to what extent are these concerns justified? Is the real issue the public’s perception of both the risks and potential of nuclear energy? Ultimately, does nuclear energy, be it the promise of fusion or the reality of fission, finally mean we can stop guilt-tripping about energy consumption?

Instead of just one speaker, there were five, who had a range of well-argued but differing viewpoints. And the chairperson, Timandra Harkness (Director of Cheltenham Science Festival’s Fame Lab) was first class:

  • She made it clear that each speaker was restricted to 7 minutes for their opening speech (and they all kept to this limit, with good outcomes: focus can have wonderful results)
  • Then there were around half a dozen questions from the floor, asked one after the other, before the speaker panel were invited to reply
  • There were several more rounds of batched up questions followed by responses
  • Because of the format, the speakers had the option of ignoring the (few) irrelevant questions, and could concentrate on the really interesting ones.

For the record, I thought that all the speakers made good points, but Keith Barnham, co-founder of the solar cell manufacturing company Quantasol, was particularly interesting, with his claims for the potential of new generation photovoltaic concentrator solar cells. (This topic also featured in a engrossing recent Time article.) He recommended that we put our collective hope for near-future power generation “in the [silicon] industry that gave us the laptop and the mobile phone, rather than the industry that gave us Chernobyl and Sellafield”. (Ouch!) Advances in silicon have time and again driven down the prices of mobile phones; these benefits will also come quickly (Barnham claimed) to the new generation solar cells.

But the conclusion I want to draw is that the best way to ensure a great debate is to have a selection of speakers with complementary views, to insist on focus, and to chair the meeting particularly well. Yes, collaboration is hard – but when it works, it’s really worth it!

Footnote: the comparision between the Skeptics in the Pub meeting and the Spiked one is of course grossly unfair, since the former is run on a shoestring (there’s a £2 charge to attend) whereas the latter has a larger apparatus behind it (the entry charge was £10, payable in advance; and there’s corporate sponsorship from Clarke Mulder Purdie). But hey, I still think there are valid learnings from this tale of two different meetings – each interesting and a good use of time, but one ultimately proving much more satisfactory than the other.

Blog at WordPress.com.