Expert opinion or simple model: Which is better?

I saw a very interesting talk at work today about decision making in oil and gas businesses, and thought it had some pretty neat applications for decision making in general. I’d just like to summarise the research by David Newman who is studying his PhD at the University of Adelaide in the Australian School of Petroleum. He has 35 years experience in the oil and gas industry and in decision making. Unfortunately I don’t have full references for a lot of the work due to the format of the presentation and have tried to provide credit where possible.


The premise is that oil and gas projects (the exploration, development, drilling and production of petroleum) struggle to achieve promised economic outcomes in hindsight. Research has shown that a good predictor of outcomes is the level of front end loading (FEL), or exploration, feasibility studies and analysis, completed at the final investment decision (FID), when the full blown project is given the final go-ahead.

The value of FEL is well known and many individuals and companies advocate its use, but in reality it is not used or used poorly. More commonly, expert opinion is used. A common situation is expert opinion overruling a work of analysis because they claim that this project in particular is somehow ‘different’ or ‘unique’ compared to other projects.

As we know from research in the non-profit sector, expert opinion is very often wrong, and is not a substitute for data and analysis, and so it is no surprise that it holds little value in other industries as well.

However, Newman proposes that expert may be a viable substitute if and only if it passes 4 tests:

  • Familiarity test – Is the situation similar to previous known examples?
  • Feedback test – Is ongoing feedback on the accuracy of the opinion good? If evidence is received that expert opinion is not working for the given situation, immediately review. This is notoriously difficult for projects with multi-year lifespans, such as oil and gas projects and charity programs.
  • Emotions test – Is there a possibility that emotions are clouding the expert’s judgement?
  • Bias test – Is there a possibility that the expert is succumbing to some kind of bias? It is hard to be a dispassionate expert on an issue.

There is a belief that data and models are only better at predicting outcomes than expert opinion if they are complex and advanced. Meehl’s work shows that even simple models are better than expert opinion in the majority of cases. 60% of comparisons showed that the simple model was better, and the majority of the remaining 40% showed something close to a draw.

To understand the phenomena at play, Newman and his colleagues interviewed 34 senior personnel from oil and gas companies with an average of over 25 years experience in the industry. The personnel were a mix of executives (vice president level or equivalent), managers and technical professionals (who were leaders in their own discipline).

The survey data showed that ~80% saw FEL as very important, ~10% as important, with none saying it was not important.* However, none of those surveyed use the results from FEL as a hard criteria. That is to say, none are willing to approve or reject a project based on FEL data alone. Many used FEL as a soft criteria, in that it guided their final decision, but had no veto power. The results of this survey are not statistically significant due to small sample size, but according to Newman may be seen as indicative.

Interestingly, the executives tended to rate their understanding of the technical details of projects higher than the actual technical experts. Either the executives are over confident, the technical staff are under confident, a combination of both, or, seemingly less likely, the executives really are more competent in technical matters.

Newman proposes the following set of solutions to overcome the problems discussed here.

Apply correction factors to predict likely outcomes based on FEL benchmarking (comparison to other projects). This is difficult in oil and gas due to the differing nature of projects, and is expected to be a problem in charity programs as well. It might be worthwhile looking at programs that have done similar work in an attempt to benchmark, or at least previous programs within the same organisation.

Benchmarking can be a checklist to score against a certain criteria. For example, a dispassionate outsider can be brought in to answer pre-determined questions and provide an assessment based on data (and only data, without interpretations) from the team. They might also rate individual categories as poor, fair, good or best.

The adjustment factors will vary significantly between different types of projects, however the table below provides an example for two factors, cost and schedule, which have been rated by an external auditor. If the schedule has been rated as poor, as in the schedule pressures are likely applying pressure and biasing results (being behind schedule makes staff more likely to say the project is complete), you should adjust the appropriate data by a scalar of 1.1-1.5 (or inverse). My interpretation of this is that if long term costs are expected to be $100/week, and the scalar of 1.4 is selected due to the project being behind schedule, the true cost should be estimated as $140/week. The ranges are examples only, and the ideal values for a given type of project can only be determined through extensive analysis of that type of project, which can make this type of analysis difficult to be meaningful if substantial data isn’t available.

 CostSchedule
Best0.9 - 1.150.9 - 1.15
Good0.95 - 1.20.95 - 1.25
Fair1.0 - 1.31.05 - 1.4
Poor1.05 - 1.451.1 - 1.5

Apply post-mortem analyses, or reviews of projects after completion.

Apply pre-mortem analyses. This involves asking everyone involved in the project to imagine that the project has concluded its life, and a disaster has occurred. They are then asked to propose why the project failed. This increases the chances of identifying key risks by 30% (no source beyond Newman for this unfortunately, but it’s a huge result). The reason being that it legitimises uncertainty, and makes staff more likely to think of obscure lines of thought or things that might be considered rude to bring up under different circumstances. Calling a team members work a risk would be uncomfortable in other situations.

I’d be interested to see some of these techniques being applied in non-profits and EA organisations more if they aren’t already, especially the pre-mortem technique. If the data is to be believed then it is a highly effective exercise. Also interested to hear your thoughts as to how they could be applied, or whether you think they are useful in the first place.

Again, there are several references to the work of other researchers that I would love to have referenced, however was unable to as the reference was not provided.


*In my personal opinion, the way these surveys are structured may lead to some bias themselves. For example, the 4 choices for this part of the survey were ‘very important’, ‘important’, ‘neutral’ and ‘not important’. It doesn’t seem likely that anyone perceived to be an expert would say a concept known to be important is important.

Toothpaste, fluoride and vegan products

Introduction

Recently I was reading my girlfriend’s toothpaste (because I’m cool like that) and I noticed that it claimed to be vegan and fluoride free. Are there non-vegan toothpastes, I wondered. And what’s wrong with fluoride? Don’t you need it for strong teeth? My dentist told me so!

Image from wikipedia.org.
Image from wikipedia.org.

What’s wrong with toothpaste?

Since I’m not a medical scientist, the first question is perhaps one I’m a little more qualified to answer. I quickly checked the ingredients of my toothpaste and breathed a sigh of relief when I didn’t see any animal products that I recognised. But just in case, I looked up the issue online. Apparently glycerine, a common ingredient in toothpastes (and a component of my toothpaste, uh oh…) can be sourced from either animal or vegetable fats. It would seem that most toothpaste don’t specify where the glycerine came from! Products such as Colgate claim to be animal free and have a vegetarian product guide on their website. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it hasn’t involved animal testing, so if you want to be certain, keep an eye out for toothpaste with a ‘vegan’ label on it.

Fluoride

The fluoride part might be a little trickier for me to explain, but I will certainly try. On the outset it appears to be a hotly contested issue. I’m well aware that such issues are difficult to research for newcomers, for example it is easy enough for someone new to reading about global warming to see a few websites claiming that global warming is false and believe that. One needs to be careful when reading something from a particular group and consider whether they may have any vested interests in having you believe something (this could be conscious or unconscious bias). Even your search entries make a difference, for example searching ‘negative health effects of fluoride’ will, of course, yield vastly different results compared to searching ‘positive health effects of fluoride’. Having said that, let’s dive in.

Fluoride is often added to and found in toothpaste and drinking water. The hypothesis is that it prevents tooth decay and cavities, is safe, and saves money. We can break down our research into these 3 categories. Does it really prevent decay? Is it really safe? And does it really save money? If the answer to all three is unequivocally yes, then fluoride is good. If all three are no, it’s bad. If it’s a mix, we’re in a spot of bother. (A note on doing your own research – I highly recommend setting your decision making based on some key criteria prior to starting the research to help reduce bias)

According to a report from 2004 by the World Health Organisation (WHO), fluoride may be essential for humans, but it has not been demonstrated unequivocally, “and no data indicating the minimum nutritional requirement are available.” Low concentrations of fluoride in drinking water do appear to protect against dental cavities, particularly in children. The benefits increase with concentration of fluoride in drinking water up to about 2 mg per litre, and the minimum concentration required is around 0.5 mg/litre. For context, the Australian Drinking Water Guidelines recommend a maximum concentration of fluoride in drinking water of 1.5mg/L, which aligns with the WHO guidelines from 2008. However, the 2004 WHO report also states that fluoride may have negative effects on tooth enamel and lead to mild dental fluorosis with drinking water concentrations from 0.9-1.2 mg/L. It is curious to note that this level is lower than the WHO guidelines in 2008.

Recently, researchers have been proposing that the recommended fluoride concentration in water is reduced to err on the side of caution. The United States Department of Health and Human Services has suggested that the recommended level of fluoride per litre in public drinking water be reduced from the range of 0.7-1.2 parts per million (ppm) to a flat 0.7 ppm.

So is it worth avoiding fluoride? Most likely not. The risk of developing dental cavities remains over a lifetime, while the risk of developing dental fluorosis is primarily in younger individuals. The 2012 Fluoride Guidelines for Australia include the following key recommendations (quoted):

  • From the time that teeth first erupt (about six months of age) to the age of 17 months, children’s teeth should be cleaned by a responsible adult, but not with toothpaste
  • For children aged 18 months to five years (inclusive), the teeth should be cleaned twice a day with toothpaste containing 0.5–0.55mg/g of fluoride (500–550ppm). Toothpaste should always be used under supervision of a responsible adult, a small pea-sized amount should be applied to a child-sized soft toothbrush and children should spit out, not swallow, and not rinse. Young children should not be permitted to lick or eat toothpaste.
  • Fluoride supplements in the form of drops or tablets to be chewed and/or swallowed, should not be used

As an aside, decay in children’s baby teeth has been increasing in recent times and is possibly linked to the increased use of bottled water, which is often not fluoridated.

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), $1 invested in water fluoridation can save $38 in dental treatment costs. This sounds great – essentially it means that we’re saving $37 that could go back to the tax payer or towards other projects. It’s not that unreasonable, as anti-smoking campaigns yielded similar returns through reduced burden on the public health system. But first we need to be sceptical. Would the ADA have a reason for people to believe this statistic? Maybe.

This article does a bit of a dive into the cost benefit analysis for fluoride, (including a review of the original Journal of Public Health Dentistry paper from 2001 that makes this claim) and finds that the claim is mostly true, but perhaps slightly over exaggerated (the real benefit looks closer to 30:1 compared to 38:1). This does not appear to account for any potential negative effects associated with fluoride.

Verdict

If you’re old enough to read this, you should probably be using fluoride toothpaste and not avoiding fluoridated water. Fluoride is beneficial for reducing the risk of cavities, and the risk of developing dental fluorosis appears to be limited mainly to young children. It may depend on where you live, as different countries and even different regions within countries have varying fluoride concentrations in their water. Don’t take fluoride supplements if your water is sufficiently fluoridated. If you are at elevated risk of developing cavities, you may be advised by a medical professional to use a fluoride mouth-rinse in addition to toothpaste and water.

Conclusion

This also got me wondering what other products that I take for granted turn out to not be vegan. I did a bit of hunting and found a host of products that I never knew weren’t vegan, and which I use every day or support. Gulp! Other products include:

  • Plastic bags, which use animal fat
  • Car and bike tyres, which often use animal-based stearic acid
  • Fireworks, which use the same stearic acid (and also suck in terms of pollution)
  • Glue used for wood working and musical instruments, made from boiling animal tissue and bones
  • Biofuels, which can be made from beef (yeah, that’s a thing)
  • Fabric softener – certain brands contain dehydrogenated tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride which comes from cattle, sheep and horses
  • Shampoo and conditioner, which may animal products. Again, it’s tricky here as Panthenol, amino acids or vitamin B can be sourced either from plants or animals.
  • White and brown sugar – some brands use ash from animal bones to refine sugar
  • Bread, especially white bread, which often contains milk solids. Some breads contain egg.

The best way to be certain is to check for a vegan label or ask the manufacturer.

Most of the products in this article were taken from this list.

Do you have any unsuspecting everyday products to add to this list? Let us know by leaving a comment! If I’ve missed something in the fluoride write up or misrepresented some research, please comment below and I’ll be sure to fix it.

Disclaimer

This is not intended as medical advice. I research as thoroughly and carefully as I can, but I’m a geophysicist, not a medical scientist, doctor or dentist. I am just seeking to clear the air on a highly contested issue. If you are concerned about your fluoride intake, please seek professional medical advice. Pseudoscientific medicinal practitioners such as homoeopathists don’t count!

Effective Altruism and Ethical Science

This piece was co-authored by Robert Farquharson and myself in response to what we believe is a key misconception about moral relativism, especially in the context of Effective Altruism.

Introduction
Peter Singer’s practical ethics argues that we have a remarkable opportunity and moral obligations to help those less geopolitically fortunate than ourselves. This has formed the basis for the Effective Altruism (EA) movement. What makes this model of philanthropy different to previous versions is the focus on effectiveness: EA takes a rigorously quantitative approach to assessing and engaging in ethical behaviour. The results have been more than interesting. As it turns out, saving a life or seriously reducing global poverty (see Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save) is surprisingly within our reach, giving us cause for hope. Our philanthropic missteps, however, are lamentably all too human. There are many cases of well-meant charitable causes that have, upon analysis, been found to cause more harm than good. By approaching these moral problems with the clarity and rigour of the scientific method, EA combines “the heart with the head”. This better equips us to avoid future missteps, and maximise the positive outcomes we can achieve. As the argument goes, we can and should do the most good possible.

EA has not been embraced without criticism. A prominent counterargument EA receives is that it has no grounds to comment on an objective view of ethics. Science is about measurement, and morality is about values, so we commonly perceive these as independent realms. After all, how can we measure morality? What facts about the world tell us what we should value? This is particularly problematic because, often enough, even members within the EA community itself will concede this point. People who are already dedicated to improving human well-being according to the best available evidence are unwilling to defend the moral objectivity of such a cause, preferring instead some version of moral relativism. Perhaps we can measure something about what we think about morality, but who’s to say that it can be universalised? Many of us are resigned to this kind of subjective, context sensitive view of morality, particularly when it comes to cross-cultural claims. What seems right to me may not seem so to you, but that’s okay. What’s right in our culture isn’t always going to be right in another culture, and it would be presumptuous at best to impose that view on others. Or so the argument goes.

The aim of this piece is be to discuss this line of criticism. First, the misconception that science has nothing to say about morality will be addressed. There are moral facts to be observed, these facts are just psychological and physical facts, about the world and the conscious creatures within it. Second, a double-standard that is often applied to potential objective claims to morality will be highlighted. A common rebuttal is that a science of morality can’t be fundamentally based on an assumption lest it become ‘subjective’ after all. However, most if not all other scientific domains operate in just such a way, and yet their philosophical and scientific credentials are never in doubt. Being objective is the not the same as being absolute, self-justifying, or unchanging.

It is our view that EA’s integrity as a movement precisely relies on making such objective claims to moral facts, e.g. that not all charities are equal. Being a fledgling, but promising form of a moral science, it is thus crucial for EAs to clear the air on the superiority and validity of the movement’s theoretical commitments. Responding to these criticisms could have implications for our understanding and discourse surrounding morality beyond just the EA community.

We will say here that, as a community, focusing on the ethical obligations over the opportunity that EA presents is potentially not the most effective way to encourage people to become effective altruists, but it is an important concern that we have decided to address here. This should by no means be an introduction to EA if you haven’t heard of it before! I’d recommend one of the many EA books out there, or this TED Talk by Peter Singer.

The Argument from EA

In The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer proposes 3 premises:

1) Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad.

2) If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, it is wrong not to do so.

3) By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care, at little cost to yourself.

If you agree with these premises, then Singer’s conclusion is that by not donating to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong. At the very least, you’re missing an opportunity to do something right. By breaking the logic down into these steps, it is hard to argue with, or to claim that individuals can have different ‘versions’ of morality that are equally as valid. However, while the third premise seems straightforward to most people, the first two are tougher to swallow. Accepting the third leads to a simple matter of calculus, some aid agencies just don’t prevent suffering and death as well as others. The numbers sell most people on the effectiveness clause. But why is altruism good, and why must I help? Isn’t suffering just subjective?  

The Measure of Morality: Suffering, Wellbeing, & How to Find Them.

Philosopher/Neuroscientist Sam Harris invites us to imagine the ‘Worst Possible World’ (WPW). The WPW is hellish, where every conscious creature experiences the worst possible misery it can for as long as it can. Think burning alive, but that is the only conscious experience you will ever have. This is a bad state of affairs, if the word ‘bad’ means anything at all. The pain and misery being suffered in the WPW, and conversely the happiness and flourishing that we relish in this world, are realised as experiences in consciousness. This makes them subjective in one sense, in that they can’t exist in the absence of a conscious subject ‘feeling’ them. However, this doesn’t make judgements about their character merely subjective, in the sense of always ‘relative’.

If you think that pain, misery, and suffering, are merely subjective tastes, and are unsure why you shouldn’t value those states instead of things like love, laughter, and satiety, you’re thoroughly confused. Conscious experience is, by its very nature, already and immediately coloured with a certain kind of character. If you’re not sure whether or not a child dying famished and diseased is having a conscious experience on the negative end of the spectrum somewhere, you’re not playing by the same rules. The only philosophical assumption you need to make here is that suffering the worst possible misery you can for as long as you can is, indeed, the minima of conscious experience. The starving child is hovering somewhere near this minima.
Once we accept this superficial fact about the nature of conscious experience, we can honestly admit that any changes that lead us away from the WPW are what we mean when we say ‘morally good’. Whatever reprieve we can offer the inhabitants of the WPW, however small, would potentially be the clearest case of a moral behaviour there is. If it’s within your power, at little to no cost to you, merely offering a 10 minute window of painless respite for the immiserated sufferers of the WPW is something you ought to do. Singer’s drowning child example leans on the same principle. To leave the dying children of the developing world in such a state of persistent misery, when we could easily do otherwise, is a moral failing.

So, notions of good and bad, right and wrong, have everything to do with the changing character of experience in conscious creatures. Every moral judgement comes down to how much and in what direction an action changes the conscious experience of some agent. Bringing someone closer to the worst possible misery they can experience is movement in the wrong direction. Again, if you’re unsure about this, try and find a conscious merit in dying from forced starvation.

With changes in consciousness as our basis, we can begin measuring those changes. If we know anything about consciousness at all, we know that it correlates meaningfully with brain states. Brain states are just a kind of physical state though, and thus completely amenable to objective inquiry. Some things lead to those brain states which cause experiences of pain, misery, and suffering, while others lead to the brain states that correlate with euphoria, heightened self-esteem, and the rest of the positive emotions we all crave. Importantly, it’s possible to measure these causal relationships scientifically. That is, we can measure how some actions or social constructs regularly and reliably move conscious experience in particular directions. Our goal is to move towards well-being, loosely defined as having much of one’s experience situated on the positive end of the conscious spectrum.

To sum, if our notions of morality are about experiential changes in conscious creatures, and the manner in which those changes occur are amenable to scientific inquiry, we can measure morality just like any other physical quantity. Moreover, EAs regularly do this. There is an important distinction to make between the character of the experiences themselves, and the things that reliably lead to them. A dangerous kind of moral relativism sneaks in when we confuse these two things. There are many ways to move our conscious experiences, but there will be a fact of the matter about which things move them in what direction. Science has, in fact, a lot to say about morality.

The Big Lebowski Response

While most people are convinced by this consequentialist notion of changes in conscious experience, there is a recalcitrant meme that is often cited in reply. Just like the scene in ‘The Big Lebowski’ where the Dude says, “Yeah, well, you know…that’s just, like, your opinion, man”, we often hear that it’s just all relative. Who’s to say I should value experiences like love, euphoria, compassion, and all the rest? Alternatively, who’s to say that my versions of justice and fairness are the same as yours? And, finally, what gives you the right to enforce your version on me? Science is perceived as not just silent on these issues, but in principle incapable of addressing them.

To quote a critic, “The point is this: Effective Altruism, while very welcome, is not an “objective” look at the value of philanthropy; instead it is a method replete with philosophical assumptions. And that’s fine, so long as everyone realizes it”. The problem, it seems, is that nothing ‘objective’ can be based on a ‘philosophical assumption’. If it isn’t truly objective, it’s just your opinion, and therefore lacks any normative force that actual sciences would have. This is plainly false.

Everyday Empiricism

To address the first point regarding the relativity of subjective experience, it’s easy to see how this form of response would be absurd when you transpose it into any other scientific domain. For example, take physical health and medical science. There is nothing in modern health science that can tell you why you ought to value being alive or free of disease, with absolute self-justifying or ‘scientific force’. However, we just do value these things. At the base of medical science are the ‘philosophical assumptions’ that being alive is better than being dead, and consequently, that the goal of medicine is to mitigate and prevent things that cause premature death. Once we all accept this, we can investigate the objective, causal relationships between certain physical quantities and their consequences with regards to how they move us towards that goal. If the Dude were to come to you with a gangrenous leg and say, “Who are you to say you’re healthier than me? That’s just your opinion, I don’t value being free of disease and pain”, we’d dismiss him as either simply ignorant of the facts, or of unsound mind.

We’ve all come to the conclusion that sensible adults value not dying prematurely of preventable ailments, and we don’t need to be medical professionals to know that such a value statement is a good thing. We ought to value being alive, and nothing within medicine ‘scientifically’ justifies that. Finding right and wrong answers about medicine only becomes possible once we all agree that this is what we mean by ‘health’, and that we value it. The objectivity and scientific validity of medicine is never brought into question because of this foundational dependence on a ‘philosophical assumption’ though. So, by assuming that seeking out intrinsically positive conscious states, and avoiding negative ones, as our broad and loose goal set in the moral domain, we’re not doing anything different to the other sciences.

The second point on relativism speaks to the fact that different people or cultures talk about ‘morality’ in different ways. Things like ‘justice’ mean different things in different places, and even in the same place but at different times. It seems like we’re all zeroing in on the same meta-principles, but the devil is very much in the detail. Again, we can look at physical health as a useful analogy.

Take Jasmuheen, an advocate of ‘breatharianism’. She claims that she survived for years on very little to no food or water, but was nourished by “pranic energy” instead. Ostensibly, she’s talking about the same thing my local GP and dietitian are talking about, like ‘health’, ‘energy’, and ‘nourishment’. These are words they use too. What has science got to say about which version of health and nourishment I should value? Quite obviously, a lot.

When asked to demonstrate her claims for a TV experiment, Jasmuheen agreed to live in a hotel room, watched by a security guard to ensure she consumed no food or water, and was regularly monitored by a professional doctor. After 48 hours she was presenting symptoms of acute dehydration, stress, slurred speech, weight loss, and high blood pressure, to name a few. In other words, exactly what medical science predicts will happen if you stop consuming actual nourishment. After 4 days the experiment was abandoned on the advice of the doctor, as kidney failure and death were likely to follow, and the results were broadcast for everyone to see.

Who’s version of health should we value? Demonstrated by the physical consequences, consuming “pranic energy” isn’t as nourishing as terrestrial food and water. Notice that at no point are we obliged to humour Jasmuheen or breatharianism as offering a potential ‘alternative framework’ for physical health. It isn’t just about our opinions. The universe is not forgiving in this way; at least 3 incidents of breatharian followers died after trying to emulate Jasmuheen. The breatharian is talking about the same meta-principles, like health and nutrition, they’re just wrong about how to move towards them.

It isn’t dogmatic or imperialist to say that breatharianism is dangerous, and to point out the obvious; it is not conducive to health and well-being. We as a community, either directly or via the state, are perfectly able, if not obliged, to intervene with clear conscience, the same way we ‘dogmatically’ intervene and tax cigarettes, or vaccinate our children. Once we’re honest with ourselves about what our goals are, there will be evidence to suggest the best and worst ways of achieving them. Following the evidence wherever it may lead is anathema to dogmatism. If someone thinks their infant dying of preventable diseases is a good thing, we simply don’t have to take them seriously. Similarly, if they think exposing their baby to a dangerous disease is an alternative way to inoculate them, we don’t need to indulge their ignorance.

It’s important to notice that we all engage in this kind of empirical scepticism constantly; we’re all everyday empiricists. When I call a plumber to fix my pipes, it’s because I trust they have the relevant expertise to achieve the goal of ‘good plumbing’, i.e. flowing water out of my taps, and having no leaks. Knowledge of the facts of plumbing is what separates me from them. I don’t pretend to know an ‘alternative framework’ for good plumbing, nor do I argue with the valuation that good plumbing entails a lack of leaks. When my faucet spews water I don’t tell guests, “Who are you to say your plumbing is better than mine? To me, good plumbing is about water coming from as many places at once as possible”.

There is no difference when it comes to the domain of morality and the promotion of wellbeing; not all positions are equal. Others may be using the terms ‘morality’, and ‘well-being’. However, the question is not, “what do those things mean for them?”. If they don’t think morality has something to do with changing conscious states for the better, they’re like the weird plumber who values leaks, and we have to admit that openly. The more important question is, instead, “how well are those things working out for them?”. How satisfied are the weird plumber’s customers? On the other hand, if they do value conscious wellbeing, but they think systematically subjugating an entire gender is a possible route to that end, for example, they’re like the breatharian. They’re talking about the same meta-principles, but simply confused about the facts. Again, we have to admit this openly.

For EA’s, this is most relevant when the effective ways to do good are convoluted and counterintuitive. But just because these solutions are hard to find, or intuitively unpalatable, does not mean that there is no answer at all or that we shouldn’t try to find one. For example, an ethical shopper might avoid goods produced in sweatshops so as to not support the exploitative workplace practices. In Doing Good Better, William MacAskill explains that this is well intended, but is not the most effective way to help workers in developing nations, and can actually cause more harm than good. How? The sweatshop jobs are actually the most desired in some countries. The other jobs require hard labour and are lower paid, and for some the choice is between working in a sweatshop and unemployment. Boycotting sweatshops can eliminate these jobs. Furthermore, sweatshop goods tend to cost less than those produced elsewhere, so one is usually better off buying the sweatshop shirt and donating the savings to a charity that helps  the poor. This is just one of the endless examples of counterintuitive ways to maximise well-being.

The Absolute/Objective Conflation

Emphatically, this is not to say that there aren’t or won’t be many equivalent ways to be moral, or to promote well-being. There is no ‘one’ way to be healthy, or to have good plumbing either. Similarly, in light of new evidence and technology, both those definitions could change in the future; they are not absolute. For example, living to a ripe old age of 40 was considered healthy in the past, but with further advances in modern medicine and gerontology, living to 150 could be a modest goal for many people alive today. It just amounts to admitting that once we declare our goals honestly, there are also many ways not to achieve them, and we don’t have to be afraid to admit this. What’s healthier, eating a cucumber or a stick of celery? The answer to this question, if there is one, is probably trivial. That doesn’t undermine the objectivity of dietetics and nutrition. The inability to decide which of the two vegetables to eat for breakfast doesn’t make the distinction between food and poison any less real or consequential though. That is, tough questions we can’t answer yet don’t relegate the easy answers to merely being ‘low hanging fruit’ in an otherwise incomplete or problematic theory. Depending on what they specifically eat, a meat eater may be just as healthy as a vegetarian (think vegetarians who only eat potato chips), but that doesn’t mean we have to elevate breatharianism to the same plane. Having many ways to eat healthily is pluralism, claiming every way of eating is healthy is relativism.

The same goes for morality. There could be many ways to restructure our societies to better promote well-being, but this doesn’t detract from the fact that there will also be many ways to do the reverse. Indeed, we already know that there are many ways to do the reverse; for example, humanity frequently engaged in the slave trade. Pluralism is not the same thing as relativism, nor is being objective the same as being absolute, or unchanging.

The Promise of EA

We don’t suffer any illusions of relativism in most domains of our lives because we value evidence. We update our confidence in particular beliefs to correspond with the weight of the evidence in favour of them. It is this incursion by the scientific method into the realm of morality that makes EA what it is, and allows it to speak from an objective viewpoint, despite its philosophical assumptions. We value subjective well-being as the basis of morality in the same way we value physical health or good plumbing, and the science of well-being can’t begin until we’re similarly honest about that fact. EA is honest about this, and the measurements have already begun.

The separation of science and measurement from the realm of values and morality is a language game we don’t often play. It will be to the detriment of the entire global population if we continue to play it with perhaps the most important question we can ever ask: how can we grow and flourish together, for the well-being of all conscious creatures and the planet that sustains them? There may be multiple right answers, but we have to unapologetically admit that there will be wrong ones too. EA is in a position to lead the way on an empirical project of well-being, it just needs to embrace it.

By Robert Farquharson and Michael Dello-Iacovo

Salvation and Salivation – Part 1

Part 1 of my latest science fiction short story.

“This crime most heinous shall be punished by death.” He knew they were coming, but the words still pierced his heart like no others. The simple act of defiance had seemed so innocent just 48 hours ago. A single tear rolled down his cheek, and he turned his head to one side, so Sarah and Lucy wouldn’t see. They would rather see him die astride his white horse than fall off. He wouldn’t take that from them, not after everything else he had put them through.

The recently formed death squad were clumsy and slow to finish tying him to the stake, and slower still to light the dry kindling below. Smoke and ash quickly filled the air, blowing directly towards the Gorgesk president and her staff in the cool breeze. The humans in the smokes’ path were starting to squint as their eyes watered, but the Gorgesk were protected by the genetically modified keratin mesh over their eyes. Bastards. The Earth Defence had capitulated just over 3 years ago, but Kursk still had trouble accepting his new rulers. They declared Earth a republic of the Gorgesk Federation of Independence (a loose translation at best), expecting humanity to be happy with the gifts of technology and longevity, but they underestimated how highly humans value freedom and autonomy.

The fire began to lick his boots, which insulated his soft feet from the better part of the searing heat. For now. Little Lucy was looking up at him with a brave face. She was just too young to remember an Earth under human rule. She would not weep for her father for she had already been taught the truth at school; Earth had always been the rightful property of the Gorgesk. To defy them didn’t result in death, it was death itself. A spark rose from the shifting kindling, sailing up ever so slowly on a gust of wind, finally landing on his cotton trousers, which burst into flames. Don’t fall off.

He had trouble believing he was the first human to stand in the path of a Gorgesk minister. How could he have known she was uplinked? When she collided obliviously with his solid, meaty mass she rebounded and landed awkwardly, twisting her spine. Gorgesk and their brittle spines, he cursed inwardly. They had sentenced him to a life of labour on Mars, an existence of exclusion but relative comfort, but after Minister Les’qua passed from coma to death the verdict was quickly revised. The Gorgesk high judge was jittery after hearing the description of Kursks’ actions. It was almost as though challenging the Gorgesk challenged belief.

The firestorm was sizzling his skin now, and crept up his clothes, almost reaching the collar. His face was flushed, and it was only partly from the shame. Don’t fall off. He resisted the urge to squirm as he felt his chest baking from the intense temperature. His blood boiled out and congealed over his stomach like a rich red sauce. The basted body roasted away in a most tantalising manner.

The presidents’ attendant shifted uncomfortably as the smell of the crackling, seared meat reached him. It wasn’t long before the whole attendance was getting restless and looking around. Only the president herself stood impassively. Sarah looked away, embarrassed, unable to meet his eyes. The stake itself had caught alight, infusing the heady concoction with a hint of cedar. One of the Gorgesk guards had lost his stance of attention and stared, salivating, at the grilled human. Kursk was now but a shell of his self, mentally and physically. As he passed, he was thankful the inferno was hot enough to evaporate the waterfall before it could be seen.

Having consumed most of its fuel, the fire began to burn out. The stake broke off at the bottom and rolled across the coals, resting near the feet of President Nah’dok. There was a minute of silence as the crowd looked at Nah’dok expectantly. Sarah shuddered with realisation at what would take place next. She felt no fear, and that terrified her.

Nah’dok took a laser knife from her guards’ belt and bent down. The still scorching flesh was overpowering in every way, fat oozing from holes in the crisped skin. A charred bone protruded from a large hand, which Nah’dok effortlessly liberated. Holding it up to her nose, she breathed deeply. Her skin flushed dark green. She had never been so… ravenous. She sucked on the morsel, gently at first, and was rewarded with a cut of ambrosia. She chewed, and it just melted in her mouth. Unable to control herself, she popped the rest of the plump sausage in her mouth, crunching on the blackened bone. She gave a small squeal of delight as her taste buds were received by the chewy marrow, the best part of all. Closing her eyes, she swallowed and sighed. It was a long time before she opened them.

Remembering she was not alone, she forced herself to stand. “All humans are to return to their dwellings and assemble at the city centre at noon tomorrow. There is to be a grand announcement.” As they filed obediently out of the room, she handed the knife back to her guard. “I want this in my room in an hour. Tell the rest of the inner cabinet to join me. We have a new export.”

Stay tuned for part 2 next week!

How effective is face to face fundraising?

Recently I did some work for Charity Science on the effectiveness of a number of fundraising methods, with a focus on face to face (F2F) fundraising, which involves ‘door to door’ or ‘on the street’ solicitations for donations, with a focus on acquiring monthly donations. The benefits of monthly donations over larger, once off donations are they provide a steady stream of income that is more reliable, and can be used to maintain base operations in times of financial struggle when individual donations are thin.

I performed a brief literature review, and I have posted some of my notes below. If you are with a charity and are considering whether to undertake F2F fundraising, this may be a good starting point.

Reasons for lapse: The case of face-to-face donors (Sargeant & Jay 2003)

F2F fundraising experienced a significant amount of criticism in its early days. This paper concludes that donors are largely satisfied with the recruitment process and lapse mainly because of changing financial circumstances than feelings of having been pressured into supporting, despite media claims.

69% of survey participants were aware of the charity before the recruiter approached them, and 54% were familiar with their work. The paper concludes that this means there is a ‘substantial degree of brand awareness but rather less understanding of services and programs’. I disagree slightly with the wording here – while the sample size is high enough that the difference is likely statistically significant, 54% is not substantially less than 69%.

Over 60% of participants said that they agreed to talk to the recruiter because they were friendly and unthreatening. Lapsed supporters (those who has signed up for monthly donations but had since stopped) were significantly more likely to have been under some pressure of time than remaining active supporters.

Those that felt pressured into offering support were significantly more likely to lapse than those who weren’t, but this doesn’t necessarily imply causality (donors who would have lapsed anyway may claim they felt pressured). Those that were impressed by what the recruiter had to say were significantly less likely to lapse, but again, for the same reasons, this doesn’t imply causality. It is interesting to note that the difficulty and length of time taken to offer support did not appear to play a major role in reasons for lapsing.

The general consensus in the literature is that around half of donors recruited through F2F will lapse after 1 year, with an average length of support of around 5 years, which can be used to estimate your return on investment per donor acquired.

The paper says that F2F reaches a younger donor audience, but younger donors appear to show a higher lapse rate, partly due to lower average income.

Most donors appear to prefer quarterly communications from the charity. 14% of active donors state they would be happy to not hear from the organisations they support at all. It is interesting to note that lapsed supporters are significantly more interested in acknowledgements for their gift (23% compared to 13%). This may indicate that those donors who lapse are likely to care less about intrinsically doing good and more about getting some kind of recognition of their support. The majority of lapsed and active supporters (around 80%) prefer to hear about the work the charity undertakes, with less (around 55%) interested in how their money has been used in the past, and less still (around 25%) interested in other ways they can support the organisation.

Of the remaining active supporters, about 73% indicated they had about the same level of commitment to the charity compared to when they first started giving. This sounds low, but around 22% said they were more committed, compared to 5% that said they were less committed.

The most startling conclusion was that there is no significant difference between lapsed and active supporters in the trust they put in the charity. That is to say, trust does not appear to play a role in the reason for donors lapsing.

It was noted that, of the lapsed donors, about half expected that their support would last for a year or less when they first signed up. When asked whether they would support the charity again, 66% of lapsed supporters said that they would, which supports the idea that donors lapse primarily due to changing financial circumstances than anything to do with their feelings towards the charity. I would caution putting too much faith in this conclusion though, as survey participants like to rationalise their past choices and have incentive to lie in a survey to save face. People generally don’t want to say that they stopped donating because they decided they would prefer to spend the money on themselves, even in an anonymous survey.

Applying relationship management theory to the fundraising process for individual donors (Waters, 2008)

This paper aimed to measure the relationships that non-profit organisations develop with their donors and examine the differences between levels of giving.

Major gift donors were more likely to have stronger trust, satisfaction and commitment with the organisation than the annual gift donors did. Donors who gave multiple times to an organisation rated their relationship with the organisation as being stronger than the one-time donors did. The paper appears to argue for more resources being spent on donor stewardship and relationship management strategies (including F2F and related activities) to increase donations. I’m not particularly impressed by the above conclusions, as they say nothing of causality. In a sense, it seems obvious that someone with stronger trust and commitment will be donating more to the charity. What would be more useful is a longitudinal study that demonstrates the effects of increasing levels of stewardship over time. In Waters (2008) (summarised below), there is more reference to the fact that increased donor relations and stewardship can result in increased donor loyalty, though I’m still not convinced on causality.

Factors influencing the break even probabilities of agency recruited low value charity donors (Bennett 2013)

This paper examined the factors that may affect the likelihood of a donor recruited through F2F reaching the financial break even point within a certain period of time, defined as the point when a supporters total donations exceeded the recruiting agency’s fee, induction costs and annual donor maintenance costs.

Interesting to note that apparently a number of agencies refund a proportion of their fee if a donor cancels within a certain period, usually 12 months (Sargeant & Hudson 2008), which should improve the economics of such a test.

“In 2009, the average value of each standing order acquired through F2F agency employee solicitation was 90 pounds per annum (Quigley 2010), while the average fee paid to external agencies varied between 80 and 160 pounds per donor (Jones 2010).” Other costs the client charity incurs include the costs of printing and mailing a welcome pack to the new donor, processing the standing order, entering the donor into a database, phoning them, printing and mailing regular newsletters etc. According to the paper, it seems that, even for a 5 year donor, the costs can quickly add up to a loss for the charity.

According to the Professional Fundraising Regulatory Association (PFRA 2011), the fee paid to an external agency will be recovered within 8-16 months on average if a new donor can be persuaded to give 10 pounds a month. Including additional costs, the expected break even point is 26-28 months.

Another consideration is that regular donors may be more likely to make additional ad hoc contributions such as donations in response to direct mail/email appeals or other requests and donations. On a related note, according to Fleming and Tappin (2009), a lower value of monthly contribution for a donor is correlated with a higher rate of retention.

The author suggests that the conversion of low value regular donors into higher value supporters is a critical field of research, but one that has not been covered to date.

According to Sargeant 1998 and Aldrich 2000, regular donors rarely support a charity for more than 6 years, possibly due in part to one becoming ‘overfamiliar’, bored or disinterested with the charity, which is  an interesting claim.

One concern with asking people to just give a small amount is that it may make people less likely to donate a lot, and can remove feelings of guilt one might have about declining a tougher ask (MacQuillin 2011).

The paper advocates segmenting a charity’s donor relationship management policies to better target and serve low value donors. “The present study demonstrated that many of the low value supporters most likely to break even within 4 years and/or to uplift their standing orders shared certain characteristics; notably a strong sense of obligation, relationship proneness, involvement with the charity’s cause, low personal inertia, satisfaction with the charity, willingness to accept incentives, and a tendency to experience ‘warm glow’ when making donations.”

Therefore charities can implement measures to specifically nurture these tendencies for low value donors. An example might be making it easier for people who donate for ‘warm glows’ to feel the warm glows, e.g. “via the transmission of profuse congratulatory messages when issuing thanks for gifts.” When asking for extra money, thanking donors for being ‘compassionate’ can increase gifts by as much as 10% (Hudson 2011).

Incentives such as invitations to parties appear to be effective ways to increase donation levels, which suggests that investment into these incentives may be worthwhile. Examples of such incentives can be found in Bennett 2007.

Benchmarking charity performance: Returns from direct marketing in fundraising (Sargeant et al 2006)

The paper presents the results of a study of 150 UK charities, and indicates the ROI that can be achieved through each of the marketing tools/techniques used. They suggest that most charities lose money on donor recruitment activities and that the overall returns from direct marketing activities are comparatively low compared to other forms such as major gift, trust and corporate solicitation, which, according to the paper, “can often generate over 10 pounds for every 1 pound of investment. (see Sargeant and Kaehler 1999)”

Door drops and off-the-page advertising perform poorly in terms of ROI compared to alternative media. Direct response TV appears promising, but has a high cost per donor which reflects the high levels of up-front investment.

F2F cost per donor compares favourably with other cold recruitment strategies and promotes longer-term committed giving.

Measuring stewardship in public relations: A test exploring impact on the fundraising relationship (Waters 2009)

This paper suggests that donors favour reciprocity (gratitude of charity for donations), responsibility (keeping promises), reporting and relationship nurturing, and that they have a significant impact on how donors evaluate their relationship with the charity. Spending more time on donor relations and stewardship can result in more donor loyalty according to O’Neil (2007), though I’m still not convinced on the causality here.

Conclusion

Overall, F2F fundraising is a good way to build public awareness of your charity and develop a base income and group of supporters, though the returns are generally lower than other forms of marketing such as major gift, trust and corporate solicitation.

If you have any thoughts or comments, feel free to leave them below. If you’d like a more targeted analysis of fundraising for your charity, please get in touch and I’d be happy to help out.

References

Aldrich, T. (2000). Reactivating lapsed donors: A case study. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 5(3), 288–293.

Bennett, R. (2007). Giving to the giver: Can charities use premium incentives to stimulate donations? Journal of Promotion Management, 13(3/4), 261–280.

Fleming, M., & Tappin, R. (2009). Face to face donor cancellation rates (attrition): Establishing a benchmark. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 14, 341–352.

Hudson, S. (2011). Telling donors how much others have given brings in more. Third Sector Online,6 July 2011. Accessed August 24, 2011, from www.thirdsector.co.uk.

Jones, M. (2010). Charity donors ‘pay fundraisers’, BBC News, 26 August 2010. Accessed August 25, 2011, from http://news.bbc.co.uk.

MacQuillin, I. (2011). A nudge in the wrong direction, UK Fundraising, 9 June 2011, pp. 1–5. Accessed August 18, 2011, from www.fundraising.co.uk.

O’Neil, J. (2007). The link between strong public relationships and donor support. Public Relations Review, 33(1), 99–102.

Professional Fundraising Regulatory Association (PFRA). (2011). Face to face fundraising. London: PFRA. Accessed August 24, 2011, from www.pfra.org.uk.

Quigley, R. (2010). Revealed: how fees for high street ‘chuggers’ are eating up the millions you donate to charity. Mail Online, 27 August 2010. Accessed August 25, 2011, from www.dailymail.co.uk.

Sargeant, A., & Hudson, J. (2008). Donor retention: An exploratory study of door to door recruits. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 13(1), 89–101.

Sargeant, Adrian and Juergen Kaehler (1999), “Returns on Fundraising Expenditures in the Voluntary Sector”, Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 10(1), p.5-19.

Sargeant, A. (1998). Donor lifetime value: An empirical analysis. Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 3(4), 283–297.

Xenon and lunar mining – Off-Earth Mining Forum Day 2

I woke up to the very strange sight of sunlight for perhaps the first time since I got to Sydney. With the Future Mining Conference over, all of the talks today were focussed specifically on space.

The first presentation was a review of lunar resources by researcher Ian Crawford, a summary of his paper published in Progress in Physical Geography. With only one or two exceptions, Ian claims, there are no resources on the Moon that would be worth importing back to Earth. The real market would be to use lunar materials on the lunar surface itself, or to use them in cis-lunar space.

Helium-3, touted by many as the solution to all of our energy woes (and the subject of the sci-fi novel by the name of Limit, which I highly recommend despite its 1000+ page length!), is implanted into the lunar regolith by solar wind. But, it only exists at an average concentration of 4 ppb in the regolith. As such, Ian is very sceptical about the economic feasibility of extracting and returning He-3 to Earth. If you’ll allow me to paraphrase him:

Assuming equal efficiencies, in 1.4 years, the same solar energy falls on 1 metre squared as would be obtained from extracting and processing all the helium-3 contained in the 3 m of high titanium regolith below it.” A rather damning statement.

Some areas of rare Earth elements (REEs) such as uranium and thorium are enriched in some areas, but REEs, despite their name, are not actually that rare, and are certainly not rare or valuable enough to warrant returning to Earth – UNLESS Earth-side supply dropped (e.g. it became too environmentally unfriendly to extract).

A large economy in cis-lunar space (e.g. science, infrastructure, transport, tourism…) may tip the economics over the edge to make lunar exploration and exploitation viable. Note that it takes much less energy to get to Moon escape velocity and down to geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) than it does to get to GEO from Earth’s surface. If Moon infrastructure were sufficiently developed, it could become far more cost efficient to build infrastructure in GEO using Moon resources.

This was followed up by Jim Keravala, Chief Operating Officer of Shackleton Energy, who gave us some idea of the infrastructure that might be built in GEO. Shackleton proposes that solar panels, which are much more efficient at collecting energy in space than on Earth, could be built and used to transmit wireless power back to a receiver on Earth’s surface. The energy is non-ionising and thus not a danger to life. This technology is feasible and demonstrated (for example), and can achieve energy transmission efficiencies of around 54%.

Kyle Acierno of iSpace, who are chasing the Google Lunar XPRIZE, gave a quick summary of their progress. The first prize of $20 million goes to the first non-government group to land a rover on the Moon, have it drive 500 metres and broadcast high definition video feed back to Earth. iSpace has developed a small, lightweight rover weighing just 4 kg (compared to the Curiosity Mars rover weighing in at around 900 kg!) to do just this. It is able to be so light because it is purpose built specifically for the prize goals, and contains no science equipment, and it uses 4 wheels instead of the standard 6 for rovers.

Winning the prize is the first step in a long-term plan to spend a swarm of lightweight, cheap rovers to the lunar surface to explore and demonstrate technology, eventually leading to resource extraction and the selling of scientific data. For information about their team and rover click here.

A schematic of the iSpace rover.
A schematic of the iSpace rover. Apologies for the low res… time for a new camera?

My favourite quote of the day was actually outside a presentation, and consisted of someone loudly exclaiming “No there is NOT more xenon than oxygen in the atmosphere!”

I found out today that the talks were actually live streamed, and you can find some of them here.

I immensely enjoyed the conference – it was a great chance to learn what is happening in the space resource utilisation industry and to meet and collaborate with fellow researchers. For anyone working in this space, or even just interested, I strongly recommend going to the next one in 2017.

Until next time (hopefully before 2017).

Space dust and ethics – Future Mining Conference day 2

Today started at the much more relaxed 8:45 am – not because the conference organisers felt like that was a more appropriate time, but because our Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science decided he couldn’t make it. Or something. I felt doubly snubbed as Pyne is my local MP AND a graduate of my school. C’mon Chris.

There were a lot of great talks today, (and definitely more of a space theme) so I’ll just summarise some of my favourites.

The morning started off with a presentation by Rene Fradet, Deputy Director of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), on the potential for a common journey between exploration/science and mining in space. My supervisor introduced me to Rene over lunch and we were able to broach the possibility of visiting JPL in California (or even spending some time researching there!?) and collaborating with their scientists, some of whom are also working on mapping the interior of asteroids with geophysics.

Dr Seher Ata from UNSW spoke about ‘Resource recovery in space’, or more specifically, how to process and separate materials in space. If we want to to mine and then utilise material in space without having to bring it down to Earth, we’ll need to develop ways to process and separate materials in a microgravity environment. Many terrestrial separation methods such as froth flotation and magnetic separation rely on gravity. For example, using magnets to separate out magnetic material is only worthwhile if everything else is being pulled away by gravity, and bubbles won’t rise in a liquid, which makes froth flotation difficult to impossible. One audience member suggested centripetal force, but as you add more moving parts you increase the chances of something going wrong. I wondered aloud why we couldn’t utilise that lovely vacuum we have around us in space to induce some kind of air flow/movement and use that instead of gravity. Apparently that wasn’t actually too bad an idea, and I was told to look into it. Geez, I’m just a geophysicist! Let me know if you are a metallurgist and have some clue on how to advance this crack pot idea.

Another good talk was by Dr Jeff Coulton from UNSW Business School about an MBA elective he ran on costing resource projects. To make things a little more interesting, he gave the students a choice between three off-Earth mining projects; mining Ceres, mining the Moon or mining a near Earth orbit asteroid (NEO). The students were mostly from an IT or finance background, and so had little technical experience in terms of space science or engineering. They were told to assume the project was technically feasible, and to make assumptions on costs, resource values, demand etc. This simple experiment suggested that mining the boon had an initial capital expenditure of $9 billion (Au) and a net present value (NPV) of around $-450 billion. So you would lose $450 billion. Not very attractive. But – mining Ceres had a capex of around $22 billion and an NPV of around $80 billion, and mining an NEOhad a capex of just $492 million and an NPV of $295 million. Of course, these assume technical feasibility for these projects, which isn’t necessarily true at present, but what they demonstrate is a strong reliance of economics on the choice of discount rate and selling points.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a few talks on space law, but just plain surprised to see a presentation by an academic on space ethics. He opened his presentation with “As a humanities scholar I’m going to do something that annoys non-humanities scholars, and that is to read to you.” And he did just that. But I must say it was an enjoyable talk which got me thinking about a few things I hadn’t considered. For example, Dr Thom van Dooren focussed on the point that the economic, environmental, technical, scientific and cultural concerns related to space cannot be addressed individually, they are all entangled. Despite the low chances of humanity establishing a backup planet elsewhere, the implications for our survival and expansion are profound. One way to look at this is called ‘worlding’ – “What kind of world are we creating and what are the implications for whom?”

For example, mining helium-3 on the Moon might have obvious positive implications for some, but for others, damaging space environments may be seen as intrinsically wrong, and for others still it may be seen to be offending deities. How do we balance these concerns against others? Van Dooren argues that their concerns are not null.

Professor Steven Freeland began his presentation on space law with an amusing story. He was reading an article about space law in the Wall Street Journal. Oh great, he thinks, this will be interesting. Then he sees the title: “If a Martian crashes into your spacecraft, who is liable?” After a theatrical groan, he decides he can make a better summary of space law than the article.

Dr Alice Gorman gave a unique account of the importance of cultural heritage on the Moon and the implications of Moon dust, which, surprisingly, is actually a pretty big problem. Lunar dust is extremely sharp and abrasive due to the lack of erosional processes such as wind and flowing water. The grains can be highly electro-statically charged, and can levitate, especially when the terminator (sharp night/day boundary on the Moon) passes, due to the rapid change in temperature. Some particles are even assumed to reach lunar escape velocity speeds when human activity such as rover are in the vicinity. Imagine one of these dust grains hitting you at escape velocity!

Images of microscopic lunar dust. Image from commons.wikimedia.org.
Images of microscopic lunar dust. Image from commons.wikimedia.org.

Widespread mining of the lunar surface may even create an upper atmospheric dust layer, which could prevent aforementioned particles at escape velocity from actually leaving the surface. The implications of such a feature forming were left for us to imagine!

Apologies to any presentations that I missed, as they were all excellent talks. Leave a comment below or email me if you’d like to hear more about any of the talks, and I can go into more detail and discuss. A list of conference papers can be found via this link.

Tonight featured a presentation by Brian Muirhead of JPL, who is the manager of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). I’ll do a separate blog post about that as it’s a mission I’m really excited about, but for now I’d just like to share this very amusing and poignant image.

Yep.
Yep.

Maybe the dinosaurs would have survived if they had put more funding into their space program? Let’s not make the same mistake.

The Future Mining Conference finished up today, but the Off-Earth Mining Forum will continue tomorrow, featuring more talks from asteroid mining start ups and space scientists/engineers.

Until then.

Chaos theory and global warming – Future Mining Conference day 1

Double shot coffee in hand, I arrived at the AusIMM Future Mining Conference at 7:45 am to register and sign in. After a welcome from my supervisor Serkan Saydam the conference kicked of with a presentation from Nick Holland, CEO of Gold Fields about what the gold industry is likely to look like in the future. Apparently we are in store for a drop in gold production in 5-7 years due to a hiatus in exploration now which will begin to manifest itself, and we will see more automation, with Rio Tinto’s driverless trucks already saving ~500 work hours each per year.

One interesting presentation was titled ‘Integrating measurement, systems and leadership to build safe, productive cultures’ by Malcolm Roberts. The key messages were reducing variation in production to reduce waste and increase productivity (using the Taguchi loss function), and that safety and productivity need not be mutually exclusive in terms of budget. It’s not safety OR productivity, increased safety DRIVES productivity. Roberts ended with a rather provocative statement (which was only semi-related) that the ‘angry summer’ of 2012/2013 in Australia was only anomalous relative to the previous year, and showed the graph from this site (which I’ve never seen before).

Roberts suggested that all senior mining employees in Australia knew that global warming was fake, yet didn’t have the leadership to speak out about it. One of the audience members challenged this by asking whether the fact that the industry didn’t speak out about it was more due to the fact that it accepted the 97% consensus that anthropogenic global warming was real. Roberts replied by saying that the 97% consensus was false, and when you really look at the data only 0.3% of scientific papers on climate change support AGW. This was news to me. I’ve asked Roberts for comment and will write a follow-up piece on this.

Carlos Tapia Cortez, another PhD student of my supervisor gave a talk on ‘Copper price uncertainties – Chaos theory to manage risks in mining projects’. Put simply, Carlos put forward the hypothesis that copper prices can be forecast using chaos theory, fractals, artificial intelligence and econophysics, just as they have been used in neurosciences, meteorology, aviation and market trading. Overall the proof was a little beyond me, and I can’t say I was completely convinced that it works – but it was a proof of concept study. The next step is to actually simulate future copper prices and test how the analysis compares to reality, and to try it for different commodity prices. One might wonder if, were this analysis to work, would it cease to work almost straight away? If it became that easy to predict copper prices and thus buy low and sell high every time (arbitrage), people would stop selling and buying respectively at these times.

Until tomorrow.


Seeing Malcolm Roberts and Brian Cox in Q & A prompted me to finally finish this piece. In short, Malcolm Roberts claimed global warming was a hoax on national Australian television, and physicist Brian Cox debated him (or rather, showed Roberts some evidence which was rejected).

Shortly after writing this piece, I reached out to Roberts for clarification on his talk, and he gave me permission to reproduce our conversation here.

Michael

Hi Malcolm,

I enjoyed your presentation today at the AusIMM Future Mining Conference. That was certainly a provocative way to end a talk! If you don’t mind I had a few questions in hindsight.
Regarding your plot of temperature vs. time highlighting the ‘angry summer’, where is that sourced from? I haven’t seen that particular graph before.
Regarding the notion that the ‘97% consensus is actually 0.3%’, that seems exceptionally low. Given that I have met a lot of climate scientists and all of them have supported AGW, I’m a little surprised by this. Am I stuck in a bubble? Where are the 99.7%?
Kind regards,
Malcolm
Hi Michael.

Thank you for your email and inquiry.
Here’s a summary of the empirical evidence on climate:
It’s accessed through this page showing my formal complaints on behaviours of staff at the University of Queensland: http://www.climate.conscious.com.au/empiricaloh.html
Although not requested, both are pertinent to your questions.
Regarding the 97% being actually 0.3% it’s explained at the bottom of page 4, in Appendix 5, here: http://www.climate.conscious.com.au/CSIROh!.html
It’s discussed in my email correspondence with UQ Vice Chancellor here: http://www.climate.conscious.com.au/docs/Email20July2015.pdf
John Cook’s behaviour in fabricating the 97% consensus forms part of my formal complaints. Those complaints and my correspondence with the VC cite a scientifically peer-reviewed paper that demolishes Cook’s fabrication. It’s the source of my figures in Appendix 5, above.
Similar fates have befallen other claims of 97% consensus. These have been comprehensively explained elsewhere.
Note that none of Cook’s 0.3% have provided any empirical evidence of human causation of global warming or climate change.
Note further that anyone claiming a consensus is undermining science since the decider of science is empirical data, not voting.
Secondly, the graph of summertime tropospheric temperatures is available at Jo Nova’s site and was sourced in data from the providers of the NASA satellite data, University of Alabama at Huntsville, Alabama: http://joannenova.com.au/2013/03/hottest-summer-record-in-australia-not-even-close-says-uah-satellite-data/
Journalists with limited understanding of science accessed basic data to disprove the Gillard-Flannery Climate Commission’s claim.
I chose that graph because it illustrates the lack of any process change in Australian summertime temperatures. There are many graphs of annual temperatures confirming no change in temperatures.
There are no graphs and no data showing process change in global climate or any climate factors.
I say this, Michael, not to embarrass you. That the majority of people were misled is not their fault. There has been a barrage of misleading and evocative material flung at the public by a small group of people portrayed as authoritative with that material re-presented by a large group of well-meaning though misinformed people. We humans are easily misled, especially when emotions are deliberately involved.
When you visit Appendix 5, enroute perhaps peruse the documentation of extensive corruption of climate science in appendices 3, 5, 6, 6a, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 13a-13g, 14, 15.
Then consider whether or not you’ve ever actually seen specific empirical evidence and logical causal analysis of climate proving that carbon dioxide from human activity causes global warming or global climate change or global climate variability.
There is none. Neither BOM nor CSIRO Chief Executive has ever provided any to MPs as my Freedom of Information requests confirm.
None of the nine most prominent Australian academics fomenting climate alarm has ever provided any in their responses to my requests.
It’s summarised on page 2 of my letter to 19 March 2014 letter to Greg Hunt: http://www.climate.conscious.com.au/docs/letters/20140321/GregHunt,March2014.pdf
The ultimate arbiter of science is empirical evidence.
I hope this answers your questions fully and meets your needs.
Regards,
Michael
Hi Malcolm, thanks for your detailed response.

I’m not embarrassed – I don’t believe I told you my personal stance on climate science.

I write a blog covering fields related to my research, and wrote several summaries on the Future Mining Conference. I was asked by several readers to expand upon your presentation, especially the content relevant to climate science. Would you be comfortable if I referred to some of the content of your response? If not, I will make no mention of it.

Regards,
Malcolm

Thank you, Michael.

Please accept my regret for the sloppiness of my wording. I didn’t mean to imply that you specifically should not be embarrassed and I had not meant to imply any assumption regarding your stance.
It was my clumsy attempt to empathise with a possible believer in human causation while simultaneously conveying to a possible sceptic to extend understanding to those who have fallen for climate claims. Please note my use of the word ’their’ in reference to people who may have fallen for climate claims.
Secondly, I try to live life openly and would be delighted for you to use any of my material and any of my response in context. Thank you for the courtesy of asking.
If you cite The Australian’s article, please do so on the basis that I am not using it as scientific proof, and am using it only to show that even two journalists with apparently limited scientific background (if any) were able to easily debunk the government’s ‘experts’ who had implied the 2013 summer was unusually hot when it was not.
Regards,
In summary, while I was deliberately ambiguous in these emails, after examining the evidence myself (having studied climate change at university in my undergraduate degree – see also my analysis of common myths around anthropogenic global warming) I am of no doubt that global warming is significantly more likely than not to be real, to be caused by humans, and to be a big problem. And quite frankly, even if we were only 0.3% sure that this was the case, I would still advocate for doing something about it. After all, there is a chance it lead to the extinction of humanity, which would be very bad indeed. How much risk are we willing to accept when it comes to our literal extinction?
https://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php
http://futureoflife.org/environment/

Landing on a comet

The AusIMM Future Mining Conference kicked off tonight with a presentation by Professor Monica Grady about the Rosetta (accompanied by the Philae lander) mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (which I’ve done a post on here). If you don’t know Monica, here she is celebrating Philae’s successful landing on 67P. Unfortunately for her, she hasn’t realised that it promptly bounced off, but more on that later.

Professor Monica Grady demonstrating gravity assists.
Professor Monica Grady demonstrating gravity assists.

“Why go to a comet?” asks Professor Grady at the start of her talk. Comets contain carbon and water, the building blocks of habitable worlds. Quite possibly, a good deal of our carbon and water here on Earth came from comets. The more we understand about comets the more we understand about our own origins.

In 1986 three probes were sent to 1P/Halley – Vega 1, Vega 2 and Giotto. This was the first comet we got up close and personal with, but we didn’t attempt landing. Then in 2006 the Stardust mission visited 81P/Wild 2, but again, no landing. Stardust did, however, collect dust from the comet’s tail and return it to Earth, allowing us our first glimpse at cometary material. However, due to the capture mechanism, carbon was difficult to capture and so we couldn’t analyse it. Finally, after 10 years in space and using gravity assists from Earth and Mars, Rosetta reached 67P.

Due to the nature of space mission design, the on-board instruments need to be finalised several years in advance so they can all be properly integrated together. As a result, the instruments being used now to study 67P were designed in the late 1990’s / early 2000’s, which by today’s standards of technology is ancient!

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Image from wikipedia.org.

For the purposes of planning Philae’s landing, scientists and engineers assumed that 67P was roughly spherical and had an average comet density. In 2014, we got our first close up picture of 67P. Definitely not spherical. This meant we severely underestimated the gravitational pull of the comet. But that’s ok, the engineers said, that’s why Philae has harpoons to tether to the surface!

10 potential landing sites were selected. Care was taken to pick a spot that wasn’t too sunny (so the equipment wouldn’t fry from the intense heat of the sun), not too dark (so the solar panels could charge), not too steep and not too rocky (so Philae wouldn’t fall over). How did they go? Well, at least the equipment didn’t end up frying.

The below picture is the last image taken of Philae as it left the Rosetta craft. With much excitement and anticipation, the leadership team, 11 principal investigators and the media waited in a conference room for the fateful landing.

The last image taken of Philae as it leaves Rosetta.
The last image taken of Philae as it leaves Rosetta.

They waited 7 hours. Entertainment was provided by promotional videos such as this one (featuring ‘Littlefinger’), which I’m told got a little tired after the third time.

The investigators knew Philae bounced immediately. For a split second, they started to receive results from the comet surface. As soon as celebration erupted from the conference room, the data feed stopped. Not a good sign.

This cartoon from ESA provides a (somewhat simplified) explanation of what happened.

I could go into greater detail about an incredibly detailed presentation, but I need to be up in 7 hours to register. Who starts a conference at 8 am?

Until tomorrow.

The geological mysteries of Ceres

Ceres – a 950 km wide dwarf planet in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. As Dawn approached in early 2015 it detected strange bright spots on the surface in a 90 km wide crater later named the Occator Crater. They were so bright they dominated the pixel they resided in on the camera. Now, many months later, NASA’s Dawn team has still been unable to place their origin, though they are finding similar, but smaller, bright patches and streaks all over the surface. Initially, these were predicted to be the result of highly reflective ice, supported by a haze (possibly sublimated water) visible over the bright spots. The best guess at this point is a highly reflective salt, though a mechanism for how and why this salt is exposed at the surface is yet to be confirmed. Possible explanations include surface impacts removing surface material covering the salt (possible for the Occator Crater, but unlikely for the smaller streaks), or some internal mechanism for the salt rising to the surface, which would suggest a geologically active body. Such small bodies have historically been thought to be long since inactive, but Pluto is only 236 km wider and showed remarkable features that are almost certainly due to recent geological activity.

The Occator Crater - showing differences in elevation and the mysterious bright spots. Image from NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.
The Occator Crater – showing differences in elevation and the mysterious bright spots. Image from commons.wikimedia.org.

The surface of Ceres appears to be covered with a hydrated rock alteration product, and may have some areas covered with frost. Thermal models also indicate that Ceres is an icy object subject in the past to hydrothermal activity and differentiation which would give it layers similar to Earth’s inner/outer core, mantle and crust, and even suggest the possibility of a liquid subsurface.

Dawn has generated a topographic map of Ceres’ surface in extraordinary detail. Carol Raymond, deputy mission chief from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has noted that the shape of the craters on Ceres are irregular, resembling those on Saturn’s moon Rhea more than those on Vesta, the second largest body in the main belt. A mineral composition map reveals streaks across the surface around the Occator Crater that researchers believe may be relevant.

Topographic map of Ceres showing changes in elevation with a pixel resolution of 400 m. The Occator Crater is located centre right. Image from NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.
Topographic map of Ceres showing changes in elevation with a pixel resolution of 400 m. The Occator Crater is located centre right. Image from commons.wikimedia.org.

Another great unsolved mystery is the origin of the feature known as ‘The Lonely Mountain’, a 6 km high feature with an approximately pyramidal shape. There is no evidence of volcanic activity or plate tectonics on Ceres that might have thrust up such a feature.

The Lonely Mountain. Image from NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA.
The Lonely Mountain. Image from commons.wikimedia.org.

I noticed that the mountain is somewhat reminiscent of the centre of some craters on the Moon, for example the crater Alphonsus, pictured below. The centre feature of Alphonsus is also pyramid shaped, but unfortunately the similarities seem to end there. It only rises 1.5 km from the Lunar surface and is surrounded by ejecta material from the impact which created the crater. As seen in topographic images, The Lonely Mountain does not appear to sit within any consistent surface depression the might suggest an impact. It’s possible that subsequent impacts and events have erased evidence of a crater, but if so they have carefully avoided the mountain in the centre. The small crater adjacent to The Lonely Mountain is of approximately the same size and appears to be too close for coincidence. I’m not saying the material from the crater was directly translated to the mountain by some kind of impact, but there may be a relationship.

The Alphonsus Lunar crater. Image from commons.wikimedia.org.
The Alphonsus Lunar crater. Image from commons.wikimedia.org.

Dawn will cease operations in mid-late 2016 and remain in orbit as a permanent satellite of Ceres. Let’s hope we will collect enough data from Ceres’ surface to solve these questions and more before then.