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« Lewandowsky's conspiracy paper goes mainstream | Main | Catastrophic reporting - Josh 179 »
Wednesday
Aug292012

Fisking Emmott

I recently covered Stephen Emmott's one-man show Ten Billion, a millennarian lecture designed to frighten its audience into reproducing less, consuming less and generally living less.

The show is now the subject of a thorough fisking by BH regulars Geoff Chambers and Alex Cull at the Climate Resistance site.

Googling “3000 litres of water to make a hamburger” leads us to sites like waterfootprint.org, which cite the peer reviewed articles (e.g. Mekonnen & Hoekstra: A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products) which are the ultimate source of these figures. The high water content of hamburgers is explained by counting the rain falling on the grass or other crops consumed by the cow. It could be pointed out in defense of the Big Mac that even if you abolished livestock rearing and went back to hunter gathering, the same amount of rain would still fall on the same amount of grassland, and your voleburger would still have the same water footprint, though presumably without mustard and mayonnaise. It really doesn’t matter whether Mekonnen and Hoekstra have done their sums right; it’s not science – just a Reader’s Digest-style factoid to bring out to impress your dinner party guests over the home-grown roquette quiche.

Stephen Emmott is professor of computer science at Oxford.

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Reader Comments (35)

Even though Stephen Emmott is supposedly a "professor of computer science at Oxford" he seems to do all his work in Cambridge. He doesn't have an Oxford email address or phone number and he doesn't appear on the Computer Science list of faculty.

Aug 29, 2012 at 8:01 AM | Registered CommenterJonathan Jones


Conferments and Reconferments of the Title of Visiting Professor

The Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Board has conferred the title of Visiting Professor upon the following:

Computational Science: PROFESSOR STEPHEN EMMOTT, B.SC York, PH.D Stirling, Director of Scientific Programmes and Director of Computational Science at Microsoft Research, for three years from 1 January 2007.

http://www.ox.ac.uk/gazette/2006-7/weekly/010307/notc.htm


So he was only visiting.

Aug 29, 2012 at 8:26 AM | Registered Commentersteve ta

Emmott was billed as an open science guru at Microsoft Research when he spoke at the public meeting of the Oxburgh working group for the Royal Society at the Festival Hall last year. That would fit with him being based at Cambridge. (He had some good things to say about the difficulties he'd had getting GCMs to work but to be fair he didn't admit they were GCMs - we only learned that later from the editor of Nature. Even so, I've wondered if his extraordinary genuflections to catastrophism this year haven't been partly a kind of penance to the alarmist bovver-boys for these comments.)

Aug 29, 2012 at 8:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

I particularly want to see what he says about metals. Which means I really do want to see a transcript of the whole show.

I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that he's using "resources" of minerals to mean all that are available. And that's not what "resources" mean at all.

Aug 29, 2012 at 8:29 AM | Unregistered CommenterTim Worstall

steveta, well spotted. It has been extended


The Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Board has reconferred the title of Visiting Professor in Computational Science on STEPHEN EMMOTT, B.SC York, PH.D Stirling, currently Head of Computational Science at Microsoft Research, for three years from 1 January 2010.

http://www.ox.ac.uk/gazette/2009-10/weekly/040210/notc.htm#8Ref

Aug 29, 2012 at 8:30 AM | Registered CommenterJonathan Jones

imho voleburgers are much better with horseradish than mustard

more seriously, a lack of clean water and sanitation is a serious problem in third world countries, which could be resolved quite cheaply if only the cAGW industry weren't creaming off so much research and grant money

3.575m people die every year because dirty water and no sanitation - IRO 3,575,000 more than cAGW kills per decade

http://water.org/water-crisis/water-facts/water/

Aug 29, 2012 at 8:47 AM | Registered Commentermangochutney

Because of the Depression in some parts of Europe, Proctor and Gamble is starting to market ists products as if they were Third World countries.

They argue that when someone has 17 Euros to spend per week at the supermarket, they aren't going to spend half of it on a box of washing powder.

Aug 29, 2012 at 9:03 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlecM

George Monbiot wrote about this green myth about the amount of water to produce a kilo of beef, 2 years ago in the Guardian: (saying he was wrong)


George Monbiot:

"Like many greens I have thoughtlessly repeated the claim that it requires 100,000 litres of water to produce every kilogram of beef. Fairlie shows that this figure is wrong by around three orders of magnitude. It arose from the absurd assumption that every drop of water that falls on a pasture disappears into the animals that graze it, never to re-emerge."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/06/meat-production-veganism-deforestation

Didn't the Guardian review this twice? Perhaps they could have run it by George...

Aug 29, 2012 at 9:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

It does seem strange that a script of the "show/lecture" hasn't been made available like most West End shows. By all accounts there are special circumstances which will excuse this requirement in the future because of its unique lecture form. Emmott talks about maybe making it available to a schools format but how will we know that some of the most egregious holy rolling won't have been tempered or even edited out by that stage?

I suspect that the revival meetings known as the "Ten Billion" show are considered too special for real documentation, and it will become a "you really should have been there!" legend much like the experience of lifting the box containing Joseph Smiths Golden Plates ;)

Aug 29, 2012 at 10:17 AM | Registered CommenterThe Leopard In The Basement

I don't know about hamburgers (I don't buy them), but I have noticed a hell of a lot of water comes out of bacon these days!

Aug 29, 2012 at 10:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterHeide De Klein

Leopard
Emmott explains in his post-show Q&A session - the transcript of which can be read at
https://sites.google.com/site/mytranscriptbox/home/20120809_tb
that he’s not publishing his work until he’s decided what to do with it next. He says:

some people say: "You must find a way to turn this text into something that every schoolchild sees", and some other people say: "You must find a way to turn this into something that every politician on the planet is forced to watch" and then some other people say "You must find a way to convince the BBC or Channel 4 to make this into a documentary" and I’ve got all manner of documentary makers and film makers saying "Have I got a programme for you?" and I’d quite like to think carefully about what best to do here to have the maximum effect, and positive effect...
Our motivation in writing the article was to try and influence this process. Would the BBC or Channel 4 dare to give Emmott an unopposed hearing? It’s difficult to imagine. But that’s obviously what the media people in the audience at the Royal Court want.

Aug 29, 2012 at 10:40 AM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

"Can anyone come up with any more, or is this another example of an Emmottic – a statistic that requires a downward revision of several magnitudes?".

Oh, ouch! :)

Regards

Mailman

Aug 29, 2012 at 10:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterMailman

Aug 29, 2012 at 10:40 AM | geoffchambers

Yes thanks, the transcript is interesting but just for confirming my prejudice about Emmott ;)

He just seems a narcissist all the same, he seems to think he can scale up the "the universal response of everyone" at the bar after the show to be something meaningful.

Whenever I hear a charlatan talk about getting his message out in new forms, or to different audiences, I know they are only really talking to their core gullibility pool.

As you and Alex' have shown with your fisking of just the little that has leaked out, Emmotts metier is really holy-rolling to a specfic uncritical core crowd. I predict that the script for this show won't ever be available in the original form for scrutiny by anyone not wanting get scared by ghost stories such as the precious ninnies who are the core audience for this show.

Aug 29, 2012 at 11:37 AM | Registered CommenterThe Leopard In The Basement

Leopard in the Basement:

Emmott’s metier is really holy-rolling to a specific uncritical core crowd.
Well, yes indeed. But that uncritical core crowd includes the British and American governments, as well as his Microsoft employers, Oxford and Cambridge colleagues, and the documentary film makers and journalists who frequent the Royal Court. That’s quite a core.

Aug 29, 2012 at 12:03 PM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

The generally used name of the discipline is unfortunate. Climatology is Computer Science. More serious departments should really be called Computing Science or, with better emphasis, the Science of Computing.

Aug 29, 2012 at 12:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterMark Well

The Guardian rave reviews promoting a one man show about overpoulation. Is it sponsored by Durex
Typical Gaurdian reading Metropolitan Elitist Anti Comsumerism.Like everything else in Britain its always Bitterness about Class and Status.
Just Middle Class Interlectual Snobbery dress up as Enviromental Concern.
Being anti Gaurdian this advert won an award at Cannes

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/video/2012/feb/29/open-journalism-three-little-pigs-advert

Unfortunatley its dramatic impact was rather lost because this other advert was playing at the same time
and viewers were left rather confused

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9pUYuCqnJ4

Both adverts had to be pulled thank god. Gratefull for small mercys
Im not Anti Human but if i was i would start with Go Compare man then Russell Brand

Aug 29, 2012 at 12:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamspid

Aug 29, 2012 at 12:03 PM | geoffchambers

Well, yes indeed. But that uncritical core crowd includes the British and American governments, as well as his Microsoft employers, Oxford and Cambridge colleagues, and the documentary film makers and journalists who frequent the Royal Court. That’s quite a core.

Some feedback on the variability of "uncritical" for those other groups would be interesting. As it stands now I see that Emmott got talking to a bog-standard luvvie who has connections in showbiz - and off course does some standard hand-wringing about the enviro when she isn't jetting around getting shows on - Emmott has a Eureka moment and finds a new market in bull to feed to people who come up to him in the bar afterwards pleading for him to "tell all the politicians" the same crap because he is great. Beats people laughing at him about his dumb internet microwave idea ;)

Does he tell the politicians the same crap? Does he lay it on as thick to any of the others in your list? I need more info I think ;)

Meanwhile I'm pretty sure that Emmott is getting his rocks off basking in the glory offered by the air-head drunks at the west-end bar bulling up his ego.

Aug 29, 2012 at 12:26 PM | Registered CommenterThe Leopard In The Basement

Geoff Emmott in 3 words

Wannabe Marcus Brigstock

Aug 29, 2012 at 12:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamspid

Carbon footprints, water footprints... Can't keep track of it all. It's a wonder I can walk at all.

Aug 29, 2012 at 12:55 PM | Unregistered Commenterdfbaskwill

His Grace says Stephen Emmott is professor of computer science, but that doesn’t seem to be what he does. His Microsoft site says:

Science is the driver of our times. And though much progress has been made in science over the past fifty years, we still urgently need to make fundamental advances in science in areas of societal importance. But in every one of these areas, barriers continue to exist to making such progress. The goal of Computational Science at Microsoft is to overcome these barriers. 
Some of our most important outstanding scientific challenges are:
Understanding the scale, extent and consequences of current and future climate change;
Understanding the extent and consequences of current and future loss of species, biodiversity and ecosystem structure and function;
How to feed a global population of 10 Billion or more; 
How to power a planet of 10 Billion people or more;
Developing the ability to predict, prevent, manage a global pandemic; Understanding how cells and multi-cellular systems work, and why and how dysfunction (disease) occurs;
Understanding the brain;
Understanding how the immune system works.
I have been fortunate to be able to establish a unique team and Lab and focus on developing new ways to tackle these problems.  Principally, by developing a new kind of natural science, new kinds of computational methods and scientific (software) tools to underpin such a science, and a new generation of new kinds of scientists able to spearhead it.
understanding climate change, species loss, the food crisis, the energy crisis, preventing a pandemic, and then going on to understand the brain - that’s quite a tall order for one man, even with a team of forty members of a new generation of a new kind of scientist that he’s developed himself to help him.
Maybe his play / lecture is a kind of cry for help to the world (or possibly to his employer Bill Gates). Anyway, the message seems to be much the same as the one you hear so often from the plumber or electrician “Sorry mate, can’t be done. You’ll have to tear the whole lot out and start again”.

Aug 29, 2012 at 1:46 PM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

These "stats" are so often trumpeted as if these vast amounts of water were being consumed, taken out of the system and lost, when it is just a small diversionary loop in the water cycle. After MacDs have finished with it, all of that water ends up back in the watercourse available to the next user.

Aug 29, 2012 at 2:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikeH

I have been arguing that the water footprint for cattle production is grossly misstated, thanks for pointing out how these phony stats are calculated.

Aug 29, 2012 at 2:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterRedbone

George Monbiot:

"Like many greens I have thoughtlessly repeated the claim that it requires 100,000 litres of water to produce every kilogram of beef. Fairlie shows that this figure is wrong by around three orders of magnitude. It arose from the absurd assumption that every drop of water that falls on a pasture disappears into the animals that graze it, never to re-emerge."

Who cares if that's a true figure or not? A moment's thought will produce the realisation that water can NEVER be 'used'. It flows in a cycle, through us and through everything. We don't 'use it up' in any meaningful sense.

Perhaps it takes 1m liters of water to produce 1Kg of meat. So what? It could take 10m. The water is not lost. You might as well say that a day at the seaside 'uses' 85m cubic miles of water, because that's how much there is in the Atlantic Ocean.

In fact, there are about 3m tourists round the Med every year, and the Med is about 3m CuKm. So each tourist 'uses' 1CuKm of sea when paddling. Shock - Horror! We must ensure that people cut down their paddling to no more than knee height, thus saving the Med....

Aug 29, 2012 at 3:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterDodgy Geezer

A while back my daughter was ill and I ended up watching some cBBC program about the amount of stuff needed to produce a burger. It was obviously non-science, but ... the BBC produce too much carp to pursue each and every cretinous broadcast.

The BBC obviously had to go the whole hog and get a fire-engine in to "represent" the amount of water being used.

The implication was very clear that this was tap-water and the figure was just so bizarre ... that anyone who swallowed the nonsense, probably had no idea about the cost of getting water, and anyone who did know would just further distrust the BBC.

So, it's great to read this piece which finally explains where this non-science came from.

Aug 29, 2012 at 4:09 PM | Registered CommenterMikeHaseler

"The implication was very clear that this was tap-water and the figure was just so bizarre ... that anyone who swallowed the nonsense, probably had no idea about the cost of getting water, and anyone who did know would just further distrust the BBC...."

It actually wouldn't matter if it was tap water. Some back-of-the-envelope calculations I have done suggest that by far the cheapest way to use and handle water is to store it in a reservoir, purify it and deliver it down a tap. Attempts to use 'grey' non-potable water for anything are surprisingly expensive, because there is a high maintenance cost for cleaning and maintaining the pipework due to things like algae growth, and untreated water is quite a dangerous thing to use! Tap water, on the other hand, benefits from the economies of scale in its collection and distribution. Unless you are far from a water main, it actually makes more sense to water your golf course with tap water than to collect and use rain water.

A little while ago I tried to ask DEFRA and the Water Consumer Council why they insisted that there was a 'water shortage', when the only thing we were short of was infrastructure storage. Their replies were a mix of green rubbish and a refusal to understand what I was saying. I think that it would be really useful if people could letter their MPs, or the Minister (Richard Benyon) and repeat the questions which they would not listen to from me. With any luck a little sense might seep in somewhere...

Aug 29, 2012 at 4:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterDodgy Geezer

Aug 29, 2012 at 8:30 AM Jonathan Jones

steveta, well spotted. It has been extended


The Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Board has reconferred the title of Visiting Professor in Computational Science on STEPHEN EMMOTT, B.SC York, PH.D Stirling, currently Head of Computational Science at Microsoft Research, for three years from 1 January 2010.

I had always understood that, for a visiting professor to use the style "professor" outside the university department was simply not the done thing. Amounting to puffing yourself up and representing yourself as something that you are not.

Much the same as someone who receives an honorary doctorate from some university subsequently styling themself "Dr ---- ".

Aug 29, 2012 at 6:03 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

Aug 29, 2012 at 12:11 PM Mark Well


The generally used name of the discipline is unfortunate. Climatology is Computer Science. More serious departments should really be called Computing Science or, with better emphasis, the Science of Computing.

If a subject has "science" in its title, that is pretty firm indication it is not science.

Aug 29, 2012 at 6:13 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

Martin A, the use of titles by visiting Professors is a bit more subtle than that: he can perfectly properly use the title of Professor in an academic context, but he shouldn't decribe himself as "Professor of Computational Science, University of Oxford" as he does at http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/people/semmott/ unless he explicitly states that he is a Visiting Professor.

The title of Professor is now very widely used in UK academia as we tend towards the US model. At Warwick all academics have the title of Professor; at Oxford the title is not universal but is widely awarded as a Title of Distinction, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Title_of_Distinction . My own title is of this latter kind.

Aug 29, 2012 at 7:56 PM | Registered CommenterJonathan Jones

JJ - thanks for that.

In the past (I presume) the title Reader was the title of distinction in most universities. (Formerly it had had a salary scale very slightly higher than that of senior lecturer but the scales were made equal to emphasise the fact it was an honour rather than a promotion.)

Professors used to be rather few and far between - maybe just two or three in even quite a large university department.

Aug 29, 2012 at 9:25 PM | Registered CommenterMartin A

If my calculations are correct, there is a cattle ranch in Florida that, at times, uses nearly 2TW of power!

How can these people live with themselves? That's more than Big Al.


(Solar constant over nearly 300,000 acres?)

Aug 29, 2012 at 10:11 PM | Unregistered Commentergraphicconception

Martin A, the history of titles like "lecturer", "senior lecturer", and "reader" is complicated, and varied between institutions: you will not be surprised to hear that Oxford and Cambridge had their own unique schemes. At Oxford until the 90s the basic position was called Lecturer, and a University Lecturer who held a college Tutorial Fellowship would be paid on a scale similar to but slightly higher than the standard Senior Lecturer scale (and would also get various college based perks which varied in an essentially random manner). There were also Readers who were paid more and had slightly different duties, and Professors who were very rare and essentially always held statutory chairs. In the 90s Personal Chairs were introduced, which allowed the number of Professors to exceed the number of Chairs, and at the same time Readers began their long decline. Personal Chairs were, however, limited in number as they got paid more and the University couldn't really afford it. Titular Chairs were then introduced as a cost-free solution, and in some departments (such as my own) the great majority of faculty hold them. Titular Readerships also exist, but are rather rare.

Summary: it's all incredibly complicated and not terribly interesting, beyond being another example of "grade inflation".

Aug 29, 2012 at 10:17 PM | Registered CommenterJonathan Jones

In reply to:

"I don't know about hamburgers (I don't buy them), but I have noticed a hell of a lot of water comes out of bacon these days!"

I buy a lot of hamburger and can attest that I find much water in it. I squeeze out the water, partly to reduce spattering. I factor in a 5% surcharge on hamburger in my budget to compensate for the water "content". Since I don't know the provenance of the water, I never use it in soups.

Reading in California (USA), I am always entertained by this blog, not only because of different English idiom, but also because of the quality of thought and expression. I once read a long thread here for more than three hours (to 1:30 am), clipping great trains of thought one comment at a time, a great addition to my comprehension of science and the philosphy of science. I recorded many ideas for follow-up.

In the past five years I've gained an enormous education from skeptic blogs and their comments, much more so than the college courses I've taken and most of the "Great Books" that I've read.

Aug 30, 2012 at 12:01 AM | Unregistered CommenterSteve Tabor

I have been fortunate to be able to establish a unique team and Lab and focus on developing new ways to tackle these problems. Principally, by developing a new kind of natural science, new kinds of computational methods and scientific (software) tools to underpin such a science, and a new generation of new kinds of scientists able to spearhead it.
------------------------------------------------
Gosh, this chap makes Leonardo look like a pre-schooler. Who knew that his like walks among us?

I wonder if he can play the spoons as well?

Aug 30, 2012 at 3:06 AM | Unregistered Commenterjohanna

Aug 30, 2012 at 3:06 AM | johanna

I wonder if he can play the spoons as well?

Based on what I've seen of Emmott's performances, I suspect that playing the spoons requires more thought and coordination than he's been able to demonstrate that he possesses.

The Triangle might work for him, though. I'm told it worked for me when I was in kindergarten ;-)

Aug 30, 2012 at 4:37 AM | Registered CommenterHilary Ostrov

So we need to stop eating Big Macs, or soon we'll use up all the water on the planet ...

Aug 30, 2012 at 1:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterTomcat

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