Anna: Three eminent figures of the British scientific establishment yesterday dismissed complementary medicine as "quackery". Speaking at the twentieth Guardian Hay Festival of Literature, the scientists advocated rational thinking and rigour rather than medicines whose efficacy is rarely backed by scientific findings. The panel, made up of the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Steve Jones - a professor of genetics at UCL, and Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, tackled the issues surrounding "alternative medicine" head on. They dismissed many of the treatments touted by homeopaths, considering them on a par with astrological readings and water-divination. The outburst comes only a few days after the publication of a letter, written by medical professionals describing themselves as "a group of physicians and scientists who are concerned about ways in which unproven or disproved treatments are being encouraged for general use in the NHS." The open letter asks almost 500 acute and primary care trusts to review their practices with regard to the promotion of homeopathy, and the use of complementary and alternative medicine as a component of healthcare provision. Hillingdon Primary Care Trust spends a not atypical £60,000 annually on homeopathy, and the authors of the letter believe this money would be much better spent on mainstream scientific treatment. Dawkins' views, in particular, seem to be in line with the letter. He believes the public is best served by treatments that are based on solid, scientific evidence. Well-known for his atheism, Dawkins compared the belief in ineffective complementary medicines with a belief in God. The suggestion was also made by the panel that our dwindling interest and participation in organised religion was opening the door for ever wackier, fringe faiths and belief systems. Asked what he felt homeopaths and other "quacks" would do if they were no longer allowed to practice "alternative" medicine, Dawkins retorted that he couldn't care less. The trio are certainly not alone in their views, and concern in the scientific community seems to be growing about the continuing conflict between belief and evidence in modern society. Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, and his latest book which he is promoting this week at Hay, is likely to add to his list of enemies in religious circles. "The God Delusion" deals with what Dawkins' asserts is a wholly irrational belief in God and the grievous harm religion has inflicted on society, from the Crusades to 9/11. Though he admits that much of religion is benign, he does argue strongly that religion fuels war, forments bigotry, and abuses children. For Dawkins, belief in God is not just wrong, but potentially deadly. Hundreds of years after the Enlightenment, the Religion vs Science debate seems hotter than ever.
Archive for May, 2007
Anna: The Southern Ocean cannot continue absorbing carbon at current rates, according to research published in the journal Science last week. The disturbing findings are the result of a four year study of the Antarctic region, conducted by scientists from the University of East Anglia (UEA), British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the Max Planck Institute. Oceans are major "carbon sinks", reservoirs of carbon dioxide which remove quantities of the harmful gas from the atmospheres. The Earth's natural carbon sinks, oceans and plants, absorb around half of all carbon produced by human activity. The Southern Ocean alone accounts for more than 6% of the world's ocean carbon storing capacity. Since 1981, the ocean's ability to hold carbon has been reducing and this carbon sink now appears to be reaching capacity, resulting in a higher level of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere. The findings follow hot on the heels of new evidence that the polar ice caps are breaking up, and revelations last year that Siberia's immense frozen peat bogs are melting. The one million square kilometre area of permafrost is gradually thawing, releasing huge quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. The accelerated rates of carbon dioxide and methane release are interpreted by some scientists as a worrying indication of the speed of anthropogenic climate change. The Southern Ocean research team found that increased winds over the ocean had triggered a release of stored carbon dioxide. These winds are a new phenomenon, thought to be a result of the ongoing depletion of the ozone layer in the Antarctic. Strong winds lead to increased turbulence and carbon dissolved in deep water is dredged to the surface, where it is released into the armosphere. If the trend continues, this particular carbon sink will become an increasingly ineffective counterbalance to the huge volumes of greenhouse gases being emitted each year. And as the greenhouse effect intensifies, so will the release of carbon, a negative feedback that could have catastrophic long-term consequences. Dr Corinne Le Quéré of UEA and BAS said:
This is the first time that we've been able to say that climate change itself is responsible for the saturation of the Southern Ocean sink.Our planet is 'gifted' with around 8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide annually, thanks to human activities like energy generation and consumption, agriculture and waste disposal. This, surely is an area where the G8 leaders must take the lead. The major produceers of carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution began, the developed world is also responsible for getting emissions under control and encouraging a responsible attitude among emerging economies like China and India. With other studies suggesting that similar processes are occurring in the North Atlantic, now is the time to take action. As Le Quéré says, serious efforts need to be made to reduce carbon emissions. It's no good throwing our hands up and accepting that greenhouse gas levels are bound to increase as the world's population and energy needs grow.
Anna: Tori James became the first Welsh woman to summit Everest this week, as well as the youngest British female ever to reach the peak. Having summitted at 7.30am on 24th May, the 25-year-old returned to Base Camp yesterday where a warm welcome and a celebratory beer awaited. An accomplished all-rounder despite her young years, Tori has previously completed The Scott Dunn Polar Challenge, a punishing 360-mile race to the Magnetic North Pole. She has also taken part in expeditions to Iceland, Morocco, Kenya and Svalbard. Having grown up in Wales, and still active in the Welsh hills as an accredited assessor for the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, a love of mountains is obviously in Tori's blood. But why was she particularly drawn to Everest, surely the biggest challenge of all? For Tori, it's all about proving the doubters wrong:
...at barely 5"2, to look at me you would think that "she could never do that"! I thrive on the doubting skepticism that I am given and I want to show people what's possible.... The opportunity to be both the first Welsh woman and the youngest British female gives me an enormous sense of pride and this is a motivating factor both in my training and on the mountain.The expedition website, which has charted the progress of Tori and her three team mates, all of whom have achieved success on Everest this May, gives a real insight into the waiting game that characterises all major mountaineering efforts. Bouts of gruelling climbing in rarefied air are interspersed with periods of recuperation and waiting. With an MP3 player in her pack, Tori has passed the time by listening to her favourite Welsh artists. Charlotte Church, Bryn Terfel and the Stereophonics have surely never been heard at such altitude before? Everest is a fickle mountain, and windows of fair weather and fitness sometimes fail to coincide for even the most accomplished climbers. This makes Tori's achievements even more astonishing - at 25 she has accomplished a feat which many of us can only dream of. Hundreds have died in their attempt to conquer Everest, and for others it has become an obsession. Good to know, then, that Tori is not losing perspective. She is looking forward to
being able to spend an hour on my hair and make up, put on a pair of tight jeans and a pretty top, grab a pair of heels and head out with my friends for a fun night out.Reassuring that despite her achievements, when not wielding an ice axe Tori is much like her peers and believes in living life to the full in every possible sense.
Matthew: Tony Blair has set out the arguments which will influence the upcoming policy decisions regarding energy. Writing yesterday in The Times, Mr Blair suggests that current methods of energy production are unsustainable, and will need to replaced within twenty years. He draws the link between carbon emissions and global warming; saying what is now accepted wisdom, that we must produce our energy by methods whose end result is not pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The oft-cited Stern report estimates that global GDP will suffer by between 5 and 20 per cent per year as a result of climate change if emissions aren’t cut in the coming years. When Labour came to power in 1997, they aimed to cut carbon emissions by 20% by 2010. This target now looks very ambitious. Mr Blair also raises the issue of Britain’s dependency on other countries for energy. Although historically, Britain has been energy self sufficient, as supplies of North Sea oil and gas dwindle, we will increasingly be sourcing fuels from elsewhere. Relying on politically unstable, or even hostile, states for energy requirements presents a great risk to Britain’s national security. (See my article below] on the increasing hostility of Russia and its willingness to use its energy reserves as political currency.) Blair sums up his argument thus; “We need a policy that conforms to the rising concern about climate change and gives Britain the secure, safe and politically acceptable supplies of energy that our livelihood demands.” This article from the Prime Minister follows on from a lengthy and controversial consultation with industry and pressure groups, resulting in a recent government white paper. Alistair Darling presented the paper in the House of Commons, and said that he held the ‘preliminary view’ that development of nuclear facilities in this country should proceed. However, the government will continue consultations, and make a full announcement in the autumn. The government favours the development of nuclear power because of its low carbon footprint, and the fact that it can be produced in this country. Critics have pointed out that the Uranium required for nuclear fission will need to be imported from somewhere, and the supplies in friendly countries such as Australia are dwindling. Mr Darling also emphasised the government’s commitment to developing sources of alternative energy, which he hopes will cover 15 per cent of the UK’s energy requirements by 2020. It currently supplies around 5 per cent. However, the white paper reaches the conclusion that it is unrealistic to count on wind, solar and ocean power to supply this country with the majority of its energy. There is also to be more research into ‘carbon capture’ technology, which minimises the amount of carbon emissions produced by burning fossil fuels. However, this technology is still its infancy, and cannot be relied upon to reduce the country’s carbon footprint single-handedly.
Matthew: A diplomatic stalemate is on the cards after Russia flatly refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, whom the Crown Prosecution services wishes to put on trial for the murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvenenko. The request comes after a six month police investigation into the murder, which took detectives around the world following a trail of radiation left by the poisonous radioactive substance that was used to kill Mr Litvinenko, Polonium 210. The prospects for the two powers coming to agreement look gloomy, as both camps used uncompromising language which doesn’t leave much in the way of middle ground to achieve a solution. Sir Ken Macdonald, Chief Prosecutor at the Crown Prosecution Service said "I have concluded that the evidence is sufficient to charge Andrei Lugovoi with the murder of Mr Litvinenko by deliberate poisoning. I have instructed CPS lawyers to take immediate steps to seek the early extradition of Andrei Lugovoi… so that he may be charged with murder and be brought swiftly before a court in London to be prosecuted for this extraordinarily grave crime." This statement was backed forcefully by Downing Street and the government. A spokesman for the Kremlin stated that the Russian constitution does not permit Russian nationals to be transported to foreign soil to face prosecution; the foreign state must present the evidence to a Russian court, where the trial will be carried out. If this were to happen in this case, it is likely that the prosecution would struggle to gain any ground, because of the potential implications for the involvement of the state of the murder. This marks a significant low point for relations between Britain and Russia, which are possibly at their most hostile since the end of the Cold War. Russia has been gradually hardening its foreign policy stance towards the West over the past months. It recently revoked the ‘Weapons in Europe’ treaty after Condoleeza Rice insisted that US anti-missile systems would be deployed in ex Warsaw pact countries Poland and Czech Republic. Although this treaty is now practically moot as it was put in place essentially to control Soviet tank divisions in Europe, it is a worrying symbolic gesture. It has also kicked European oil giant Royal Dutch Shell out of an oilfield in Sakhalin and replaced it with a state-owned company, and is threatening BP with similar moves. Russia is increasingly willing to use its energy reserves as political leverage against states it has disputes with. This strengthens the argument for moving Britain’s dependency away from oil and gas (of which Russia is a vital supplier) and towards a mix of Nuclear and alternative sources.
Anna: The competition is hotting up for designers whose "gateways" will soon be welcoming visitors at three key entry points to Wales. The second Severn crossing, the A550 in Flintshire and Holyhead harbour are the location in question and the the ideas should start being translated into reality by the end of the year - announcement of the winning designs is expected in September, and a £13m bid for lottery funding, if successful, should provide a big boost. Over 100 architects, engineers and creative minds submitted ideas to the Landmark Wales project, and you can see the shortlisted ideas on the project website. Glancing through the designs, I saw what appeared to be little red men, gigantic inverted umbrellas, and a glow-in-the-dark celtic knot. Small wonder that opinion is divided about which design should win, and indeed the huge sums of money involved in the venture as a whole.
Caroline: A report published recently by a parliamentary group for animal welfare, makes shocking reading. It is estimated that at least 4,700 greyhounds are killed each year because they are too slow to win races. We are not talking about humane euthanasia by a vet either - a Sunday Times inquiry last year found that a builder's merchant from Co Durham was single-handedly responsible for the deaths of thousands of dogs which he then buried in his garden with a mechanical digger. As a result there have been calls for the racing bodies to do more for animal welfare. Thankfully about 8,000 greyhounds each year are rehomed. They make excellent family pets and contrary to popular belief they do not need huge amounts of exercise.
Caroline: Whale "whisperer" Bernie Krause has become involved in an attempt to save a mother and calf humpback whale after they took a wrong turning on their normal migratory path from Mexico. Both are feared to have been injured by a boat propellor and are now almost a hundred miles inland having gone down the San Joaquin river delta in California. Krause played a succesful part in rescuing another humpback whale in 1985 with the help of whale sounds which he had recorded. Sadly this tactic has so far failed and mother and calf are being given time to recuperate before further rescue attempts are made. In the meantime the waters are being kept clear of commercial shipping and sightseeing vessels. As anyone who has seen these great creatures in the wild will agree, there is something majestic and awe-inspiring about them and we can only hope that this story has a happy outcome.
Anna: I was upset to hear today that the Cutty Sark went up in flames last night. Thankfully, because of ongoing restoration work, large parts of the ship had been removed for conservation work, so the fire did not cause as much damage as it might have. The 19th Century ship is an imposing sight, and I used to enjoy walking along the river front when I lived in Docklands, marvelling at the contrast between Canary Wharf on my side of the river and the elegant Cutty Sark on the Greenwich side. There are suspicions that the fire may have been started deliberately. I can't imagine what would lead anyone to torch a 138-year-old tea clipper, and a key piece of Britain's maritime heritage. I remember reading the "Last Grain Race" by Eric Newby, which catalogues Newby's experience as a young man aboard a clipper. Battling strong winds, high seas and difficult conditions, never mind his fellow seamen, the stint aboard seems to have been the making of Newby. Perhaps if this turns out to be an arson committed by a group of "bored" youths, they should be packed off on a sailing ship to the South China Seas! Maybe more effective than more "normal" forms of community service?
Matthew: I have long been suspicious of people that wear clothes adorned with arbitrary slogans. T shirts with meaningless numbers, emblems of universities the wearer’s never been to and garages and diners that probably don’t even exist. There’s nothing particularly decorative about the number 26 in my opinion. And don’t get me started on those apolitical business students getting ready for a career in investment banking heading down to Topshop to buy a mass manufactured Che Guevara T shirt. People seem perfectly happy to cover themselves in symbols, which if they have any significance, the fashion follower is totally ignorant of it. Some people are even content to have kanji or Chinese letters tattooed onto their skin. Would they even know if the tattoo artist instead of writing ‘Barry Hooper’ had written ‘Ignorant simpleton’? I think not. ‘Where’s this rant going?’ I hear you cry, avid Ibloggers… Well, this week my suspicions were confirmed, as menswear chain Burton’s came under fire for selling a t shirt whose decoration was Cyrillic script. The chain had clearly not even taken the trouble to consult a Russian speaker as to what the sentence actually said. It turned out to be a slogan of an extreme right-wing Russian nationalist organisation. The slogan was ‘Cleanse Russia of all non-Russians.’ People! Fashionistas! Beware of draping yourselves in symbols of which you have no understanding. You never know what you might be standing for.