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Monday, 19 December 2016

Converting probabilities between time-intervals

This is the first in an irregular sequence of snippets about some of the slightly more technical aspects of uncertainty and risk assessment.  If you have a slightly more technical question, then please email me and I will try to answer it with a snippet.

Suppose that an event has a probability of 0.015 (or 1.5%) of happening at least once in the next five years. Then the probability of the event happening at least once in the next year is 0.015 / 5 = 0.003 (or 0.3%), and the probability of it happening at least once in the next 20 years is 0.015 * 4 = 0.06 (or 6%).

Here is the rule for scaling probabilities to different time intervals: if both probabilities (the original one and the new one) are no larger than 0.1 (or 10%), then simply multiply the original probability by the ratio of the new time-interval to the original time-interval, to find the new probability.

This rule is an approximation which breaks down if either of the probabilities is greater than 0.1. For example, to scale a probability of 0.04 in the next 5 years up to 20 years we cannot simply multiply by 4, because the result, 0.16 (or 16%), is larger than 0.1. In this case we have to use the proper rule, which is

p_new = 1 - (1 - p_orig)^(int_new / int_orig)

where ‘^’ reads ‘to the power of’. The example above becomes

p_new = 1 - (1 - 0.04)^(20 / 5) = 0.15 (or 15%).

So the approximation would have been 1 percentage point out in this case. The highlighted text in yellow can be pasted directly into a spreadsheet cell (the answer is 0.1507).

Of course it is unlikely to matter in practice whether the probability is 0.15 or 0.16.  But the difference gets bigger as the probabilities get bigger.  For example, it would definitely be a mistake to multiply a 0.25 one-year probability by 5 to find the five-year probability, because the result would be greater than 1.  Using the formula, the correct answer is a five-year probability of 0.76.

Blog post by Prof. Jonathan Rougier, Professor of Statistical Science.

Second blog in series here.
Third blog in series here.

Image: By Hovik Avetisyan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Deploying and Servicing a Seismic Network in Central Italy

From a scientific point of view, the seismicity that is hitting Central Italy presents itself as an unmissable opportunity for seismologists to analyse the triggering and the evolution of an earthquake sequence. From the tens of instruments installed in the affected area, a huge amount of data is being collected. Such a well-recorded sequence will allow us to produce a comprehensive seismic catalogue of events. On this big quantity of data, new algorithms will be developed and tested for the characterisation of even the smallest earthquakes. Moreover, they will enable the validation of more accurate and testable statistical and physics-based forecast models, which is the core objective of my Ph.D. project.

Seismicity map of the Amatrice-Norcia sequence updated 5 November 2016.

The Central Apennines are one of the most seismically hazardous areas in Italy and in Europe. Many destructive earthquakes have occurred throughout this region in the past, most recently the 2009 MW = 6.4 L’Aquila event. On August 24th, just 43 km North of the 2009 epicentre, an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 occurred and devastated the villages of Amatrice and Accumuli, leading to 298 fatalities, hundreds of injured and tens of thousands people affected. The mainshock was followed, in under an hour, by a MW = 5.4 aftershock. Two months later, on October 26th, the northern sector of the affected area was struck by two earthquakes of magnitude 5.4 and 5.9, respectively, with epicentres near the village of Visso. To make things even worse, on October 30th the city of Norcia was hit by a magnitude 6.5 mainshock, which has been the biggest event of the sequence to date and the strongest earthquake in Italy in the last 36 years. Building collapses and damages were very heavy for many villages and many historical heritage buildings have reported irreparable damages, such as the 14th century St. Benedict cathedral. Luckily, the has been no further fatalities since the very first event of August 24.

St. Benedict cathedral (Norcia), erected in the late 14th century and completely destroyed after the Mw 6.5 earthquake of October 30th.

Immediately after the first big event, an emergency scientific response team was formed by the British Geological Survey (BGS) and the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh, to support the rapid deployment of high-accuracy seismometers in collaboration with the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV). The high detection capabilities, made possible by such a dense network, will let us derive a seismic catalogue with a great regional coverage and improved magnitude sensitivity. This new, accurate, catalogue will be crucial in developing operational forecast models. The ultimate aim is to understand the potential migration of seismic activity to neighbouring faults as well as the anatomy of the seismogenic structure and to shed light into the underlying physical processes that produce the hazard.

Thanks to the quick response of the National Environmental Research Council (NERC) and SEIS-UK, 30 broadband stations have been promptly dispatched from Leicester and arrived in less than 48 hours in Rome. There, a group of 9 people composed by INGV and BGS seismologists, technicians and Ph.D. students (including myself) from University of Bristol, Dublin Institute for Advanced Study (DIAS) and University of Ulster were ready to travel across the Apennines to deploy this equipment. The first days in Rome were all about planning; the location of each station was carefully decided so as to integrate the existing Italian permanent and temporary networks in the most appropriate way. After having performed the 'huddle test' in the INGV, which involves parallel checking of all the field instrumentation in order to ensure its correct functioning, we packed all the equipment and headed to the village of Leonessa, a location considered safe enough to be used as our base camp (despite the village being damaged and evacuated after the 30th October event).

Preparing instrumentation for the huddle test in one of INGV’s storage rooms.

In order to optimise time and resources, and to start recording data as soon as possible, we decided to split in 3 groups so that we could finish our work between the end of August and the first week of September. Each seismic station is composed of a buried sensor, a GPS antenna, a car battery, a regulator and two solar panels. The current deployment will stay for 1 year and will be collecting data continually. Each sensor had to be carefully buried and levelled to guarantee the highest quality of recording, which was a strenuous challenge when the ground was quite rocky!

Typical setting of our deployed stations. On the left, the buried sensor. Its cables, buried as well, connect it to the instrumentation inside the black box (a car battery, and a regulator). On the right, the solar panel (a second one was added in October service) and the white GPS antenna.

Aside from the scientific value of the expedition, the deployment week was a great opportunity to get to know each other, share opinions, ideas and, of course, get some training in seismology! At the end, we managed to install 24 stations around an area of approximately 2700 km2

As this type of seismic station didn’t have telemetry, each needed to be revisited to retrieve data. For this purpose, from October 17th, David Hawthorn (BGS) and I flew to Italy again and stayed there for the following ten days to service the seismometers and to do the first data dump. Our goals were also  to check the quality of the first month of recordings, to add a second solar panel where needed, and to prepare the stations for the forthcoming winter. To do that, a lot of hammering and woodworking was needed. We serviced all the sites, raising the solar panels and GPS antennas on posts, which were securely anchored to the ground, to prevent snow from covering them. The stations were all in good conditions, with just minor damages due to some very snoopy cows.

David Hawthorn (BGS) servicing the stations – A second solar panel was added. Panels and GPS antennas were raised on posts anchored to the ground through timbers.

Dumping data from the stations using a netbook and specific hard drive.

On October 26, just the night before leaving for Rome, we experienced first-hand the frightening feeling of a mainshock just below our feet. Both the quakes of that evening surprised us while we were inside a building; the rumble just few seconds before the quake was shocking and the shaking was very strong. Fortunately, there were no severe damages in Leonessa but many people in the village refused to spend the night in their own houses. Also, it was impressive to see the local emergency services response: only a few minutes after the first quake, policemen were already out to patrol the inner village checking for any people experiencing difficulties.

The small village of Pescara del Tronto suffered many collapses and severe damages after the 24 August earthquakes. View from the motorway above.

Throughout our car transfers from one site to another we frequently found roads interrupted by a building collapse or by a landslide, but we could also admire the mountains with a mantle of beautiful autumnal colours and the spectacular landscapes offered by the Apennines, like the Monte Vettore, the Gran Sasso (the highest peak in the Apennines) and the breath-taking Castelluccio plain near Norcia.

View of the Norcia plain, near to the 24th August magnitude 5.4 and the 30th October magnitude 6.5 epicentres.

View of the Castelluccio plain. This picture was taken from the village of Castelluccio, just 5 days before it was totally destroyed by the magnitude 6.5 mainshock.

From my point of view, I learned a lot and really enjoyed this experience. I feel privileged to have started my Ph.D. in leading institutions like the University of Bristol and the BGS and, at the same time, to be able to spend time in my home country (yes, I am Italian…) with such interesting scientific questions. What I know for sure is that we will be back there again.

Blog written by Simone Mancini, 1st year Ph.D. student, University of Bristol and British Geological Survey.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Brexit: can research light the way?

What could Brexit mean for UK science? What impact will it have on UK fisheries? Could Brexit be bad news for emissions reductions? These were just some questions discussed at a Parliamentary conference last week, organised by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), the Commons Library and Parliament’s Universities Outreach team.

MPs researchers, Parliamentary staff and academic researchers from across the country came together to consider some of the key policy areas affected by the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

Why does academic research matter to Parliament?

Given the unchartered waters that Parliament is facing as the UK prepares to withdraw from the EU, it is more important than ever that Parliamentary scrutiny and debate is informed by robust and reliable evidence.

Academic research is expected to meet rigorous standards of quality, independence and transparency. Although it is far from being the only source of evidence relevant to Parliament, it has vital role to play in the effective scrutiny of Government.

“Academics can help ensure that we get the best possible outcome for the British public through describing the state of knowledge, setting out comparative knowledge (whether in different territories or over time), and evaluating what’s happening as it plays out” said Penny Young, House of Commons Librarian, in her keynote speech.

Last week’s meeting showcased relevant UK academic research as well as giving participants the opportunity to hear the perspectives and concerns of different groups. With over 100 participants, the organisers made the wise decision to split us up into smaller groups to discuss specific policy areas.  This worked rather well, although most people would have liked to be in several groups at once!

What does the future hold for UK research?

In the session on science and research funding a mix of early career researchers and more seasoned academics set out their top issues. The discussion quickly moved beyond research funding. All the researchers agreed free movement of researchers between the UK, other parts of the EU, and beyond the EU, was a top priority.  Several researchers were concerned that the UK research community would become more isolated as a result of Brexit, making it more difficult to recruit and retain the best academic staff.

The group also discussed what kind of data we needed to gauge the impact of Brexit on UK research.  One researcher argued that if we wait until we have “hard data” – such as statistics on citations, publications and collaborations, it might be too late for decision-makers to intervene in any meaningful way.

Economic Impact of Brexit: New Models Needed

Researchers participating in the session on “trade relations and economic impact” highlighted that research on the economic impact of Brexit tends to focus on trade.  New models are needed that take trade into account, along with other relevant factors such as investment, migration and regulation. Participants also felt that more data on the local effects of trade deals would be useful to policymakers, but there are very few studies looking at such effects because of the many uncertainties involved.

Environment, agriculture and fisheries: ‘Cod Wars’?

What would the loss of subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy mean for UK agriculture? Participants highlighted that areas such as horticulture and fisheries in particular could end up struggling with workforce retention. On a brighter note, one researcher thought there could be some financial gain for UK fisheries if the UK took back its Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ), but warned of possible future “Cod Wars” if countries clashed over fishing rights.

Immigration: how many EU nationals live in the UK?

Participants in the immigration discussion group highlighted that we do not have reliable figures for how many EU nationals live in the UK. According to some estimates the figure is around 3 million, but this is based on survey data. More reliable data is needed to make informed policy decisions. Participants also highlighted that while most of the discussion around border control focuses on people, movement of goods across borders was also vitally important.

Energy and climate: who will drive emissions reductions targets?

The energy and climate group considered the impact of Brexit across Europe as a whole. The UK has been a strong driver for ambitious emissions reduction targets for the EU. Would other nations continue to drive such targets? Participants also speculated over whether UK would remain part of the European Emissions Trading Scheme and stay involved with some of the EU’s internal energy market regulatory bodies after Brexit.

Foreign and security policy

Participants covered a huge range of topics from UK-Irish relations to the future of NATO and drug trafficking and border control. The importance of learning lessons from history was a key theme in the session, whether it related to the future of NATO or to major treaty negotiations more generally.

What next…

These conversations were not based entirely on research evidence, not least because it there are simply too many uncertainties for research to answer all our questions on the impact of Brexit. In the end our discussions were based around a mix of anecdote, opinion, and ‘hard’ evidence. Overall it was a very enriching experience and we came away with lots of new contacts and ideas.

Many of the researchers said that they’d had relatively few opportunities to feed into policy discussions with parliament and government and that there needed to be many more meetings like this one!

This article was written for The House of Commons Library Blog Second Reading by Chandy Nath, acting Director of the POST and Cressida Auckland, a POST fellow.

Picture credit: Brexit Scrabble, by Jeff Djevdet; Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)

Friday, 2 December 2016

The Diamond Battery – your ideas for future energy generation

On Friday 25th November, at the Cabot Institute Annual Lecture, a new energy technology was unveiled that uses diamonds to generate electricity from nuclear waste. Researchers at the University of Bristol, led by Prof. Tom Scott, have created a prototype battery that incorporates radioactive Nickel-63 into a diamond, which is then able to generate a small electrical current.

Details of this technology can be found in our official press release here:

Despite the low power of the batteries (relative to current technologies), they could have an exceptionally long lifespan, taking 5730 years to reach 50% battery power. Because of this, Professor Tom Scott explains:

“We envision these batteries to be used in situations where it is not feasible to charge or replace conventional batteries. Obvious applications would be in low-power electrical devices where long life of the energy source is needed, such as pacemakers, satellites, high-altitude drones or even spacecraft.

“There are so many possible uses that we’re asking the public to come up with suggestions of how they would utilise this technology by using #diamondbattery.”

Since making the invitation, we have been overwhelmed by the number of amazing ideas you’ve been sharing on Facebook, Twitter and by email. In this blog, we take a brief look at some of the top suggestions to date, and offer some further information on what may and may not be possible.

10 of our favourite ideas (in no particular order!)

Medical devices

From ocular implants to pacemakers, and from insulin pumps to nanobots, it’s clear that there is a great deal of potential to make a difference to people’s lives in the medical field. Many devices must be implanted within the body, meaning long battery life is essential to minimise the need for replacements and distress to patients.

@rongonzalezlobo suggests that the #diamondbattery could power nanorobots which can be injected into a person or animal to sense and transmit information about the health of the individual to an external device. This could be particularly helpful to diabetes patients, for example.

@TealSkys also suggests they could be used to monitor vital signs in individuals in high-risk jobs such as explorers, military professionals or miners.

@JulianSpahr suggests we also investigate ICDs (Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillators- small devices which can treat people with dangerously abnormal heart rhythms) and DBS (deep brain stimulation - a surgical procedure used to treat a variety of disabling neurological symptom most commonly the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease).

The opportunities for implantable #diamondbattery powered devices appear to be significant.

GPS trackers or Geo-markers

GPS trackers are rating highly so far, and could offer an opportunity for us to keep tabs on pets or valuable items without worrying about device batteries running out of charge. Implantable devices using a #diamondbattery would not need to be replaced, minimising discomfort to tracked animals. Indeed, @Boomersaurus suggests we could also use these for tagging animals in wildlife studies.

In addition to Geo-tagging/ tracking, some of you have suggested that the #diamondbattery could be used to power permanent geomarkers.

The Internet of Things

A major concern surrounding the new wave of ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) technologies is the amount of power they might consume. IoT devices require a constant stream of power to transmit over wireless frequencies which could cause issues as these proliferate.

@CIMCloudOne suggests the #diamondbattery could become the new default for IoT devices in the future.

Safety and security

A number of you suggested that the #diamondbattery could be extremely useful in smoke detectors.
The US National Fire Protection Association states that 21% of home fire deaths resulted from fires in homes with no working smoke alarms, where around 46% of the alarms had missing or disconnected batteries. Dead batteries caused one-quarter (24%) of the smoke alarm failures.

If feasible, this suggestion from @StarhopperGames could therefore not only prevent annoying late-night battery beeps, but may also help avoid preventable death.

However, a question remains as to whether the battery would be sufficient to power the alarm (and not just the detector).

@idbacchus suggested we use the #diamondbattery to power Black Box transmitters in aeroplanes to ensure it is possible to track and record planes for safety reasons.

Remote sensing

Many corners of our planet are far from civilisation and are inaccessible, complex environments. If we are to study the seas, or mountains (or indeed, space) effectively over long periods, low-powered devices with long-life batteries are required.
Many of you called for the use of these batteries in sea and remote location studies:

Seismology and building resilience

Seismic sensors that are located underground could help us to detect early warnings for earthquake risk.

Additionally, small sensors housed within the foundations of buildings/ within building walls may also prove helpful for indoor environment sensing, structural resilience, heat etc.

Mechanical bees

Whilst this is possibly the most futuristic of all the suggestions, we felt that it warranted a mention for innovation! @TheSteveKoch suggests a low-power #diamond battery might be able to power mechanical bees in the future.


It’s often impossible to know when a watch battery is about to run out, and when it does, it can feel disastrous to the owner. Perhaps a #diamondbattery watch could help people around the world avoid those missed appoints and trains in the future.

Space exploration

Of course, when we send devices out into space we need to know that they have sufficient battery life and sufficient levels of resilience to maintain operations for long periods. @johnconroy and others noted the opportunities for space probes and radio transmitters on the moon:

Bringing the internet to new areas

Finally, whilst it’s currently unclear what the power requirements would be for this idea, deployment of low power UAVs in remote areas to deliver free internet sounds like a highly worthwhile cause.

If you are inspired by these ideas and think you might have a suggestion for future diamond battery uses, send us a tweet at @cabotinstitute or @UoBrisIAC with the hashtag ‘#diamondbattery’.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

What does Trump mean for the environment?

President Trump. Image: Gage Skidmore CCBYSA 2.0

Several weeks ago, I was walking along Avenida Paulista in São Paulo. Through the noise of the traffic, the familiar shout of one man’s name could be heard. ‘Trump, Trump, Trump’ echoed across the street.  Somehow I had stumbled upon a ‘Brazilians for Trump’ rally. A group of 40 people stood on the pavement, clutching signs that read ‘Women for Trump’, ‘Jews for Trump’, ‘Gays for Trump’. This struck me; such demographics holding such signage represented for me a similar message to ‘trees for deforestation’.

Yet, the votes are in. The electoral tally has been made and one fact is obvious: Donald Trump’s popularity transcended demography. As, House Speaker, Paul Ryan has said, Trump “heard a voice out in this country that no one else heard. He connected in ways with people that no one else did. He turned politics on its head.”

Key here is not only Trump’s victory, but also how the Republican Party has been able to ride his coattails to majorities across both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In doing so, the Grand Old Party (GOP), working with Trump, will likely have the freedom to pursue their political agenda. As a result, the Republican platform, published at the 2016 National Convention, provides a number of clues of what we can expect from this new administration.

From this document, it is possible to profile what a Trump administration would mean for US environmental policy. I have previously written blogs of a similar vein for the UK 2015 election and the recent transfer of power in Brazil and it seems only fair that I cast my eye to the United States.
In its platform, the GOP pledge a return to coal as an energy resource, with it described as “abundant, clean, affordable, [and] reliable.” It is likely that the extraction and use of this resource will increase, with federal lands opened up for coal mining, as well as oil and gas drilling. President Obama’s Clean Power Plan will be withdrawn and restriction on the development of nuclear energy likely be lifted. The anxiety of this turn from renewables can be found in the falling stocks of wind and solar companies since Trump’s win.

Furthermore, the President-Elect has already vowed to cancel the recent Paris Climate Agreement. For Trump, climate change is manufactured by the Chinese government and/or an expensive hoax. This rhetoric is matched by many in the Republican Party (who can forget Senator James Inhofe’s snowball routine?) A solid majority in the House will allow for the continued harassment of climate science by individual politicians, such as Representative Lamar Smith, who has previously argued that climate scientists manipulate data to show that the planet is warming.

As has been argued elsewhere, the United States cannot officially leave the Paris agreement until November 2020 (conveniently coinciding with a potential Trump re-election bid.) However, there is another way: to leave the UNFCCC entirely, immediately after taking office. In doing so, a Trump administration could – hypothetically – leave both agreements by January 2018. The political message of such action would be clear: policies of climate change mitigation restrict the opportunities for further American development and must be removed if the Trump administration is to meet its oft-repeated target of 4% GDP growth.

This tension between sustainability and growth is also evident in the likely elimination of a number of regulations related to environmental health. The Environmental Protection Agency will be restricted to an advisory role, with its responsibility for regulation of CO2 removed. Trump has previously mentioned Myron Ebell, a prominent climate denier, as a potential head of this organisation.

Regardless of who is in charge, air and water regulations will likely be kerbed, with Vox reporting that regulations at risk include those related to mercury pollution, smog, and coal ash. Such policies are perceived as a hindrance to ultimate goals of job creation and economic growth. Yet, as the Sierra Club have argued, this restriction of regulation will likely “imperil clean air and clean water for all Americans.”

Such actions will also open up questions of environmental racism. In the United States, people of colour face the effects of pollution disproportionately. As a result, an attack on environmental regulation promises consequences that will migrate into different policy sectors. Furthermore, this is occurring in the shadow of the Flint water crisis: an episode which exposed issues of environmental racism in the country. With the restriction of regulation, it is likely that Flint will cease to be an outlier.

The Washington Post has argued that, these plans will “reverse decades of U.S. energy and climate policy” and recent analysis has shown that such policies will raise US greenhouse gas emissions by 16% by the end of Trump’s (potential) eight year term.

However, the language of the GOP platform cautions against such assertions. Within this document, environmental campaigners become ‘environmental extremists’. The document seeks to depoliticise environmental issues, with, in their words, environmental regulation being “too important to be left to radical environmentalists. They are using yesterday’s tools to control a future they do not comprehend.” Remember, these words have been written at the time of the militarized action against the water protectors of Standing Rock. Such a language suggests that we can expect more aggression against environmental defenders in the future.

The victory of Trump, and of the GOP, not only represents a change in the political landscape but also a likely transformation of the physical one too. It, as some argue, may come to represent a serious challenge to the environmental health of the planet itself.

Writing this, my mind has been drawn back to those campaign signs in São Paulo. ‘Women for Trump’, ‘Gays for Trump’, Jews for Trump’. Yet one thing is certain under this new President: the trees are most definitely for deforestation.

This blog was written by Cabot Institute member, Ed Atkins, A PhD student in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Geology for Global Development: 4th Annual Conference

Sustainable mining, solar energy, seismic risk; the 4th Geology for Global Development Conference held at the Geological Society in London had it all.  Geology for Global Development is a charity set up to with the aim of relieving poverty through the power of geology. The charity is chasing the UN’s sustainable developing goals by inspiring a generation of young geologists to use their training as a tool for positive global change.

Figure 1. The UN's sustainable Development goals (source:
The charity is closely linked to several universities meaning the one-day event was awash with bright ideas from young geologists from every corner of the UK. Add to the mix experts in policy and communication including BBC presenter and academic Professor Iain Stewart and you have the recipe for a fascinating day.

Figure 2: GFGD founder Dr Joel Gill gives the opening address on Geology and the sustainable development goals

The programme was impressively diverse, jumping effortlessly from panel discussions on mining and sustainability to group discussions on exploring best practice. There were so many important messages I couldn’t regurgitate everything into a short blog, so I’ve made a super-summary of my favourite points:

Trade not Aid

This topic surfaced several times, and it’s something that I felt reflected the changing attitudes of many NGOs discussed on the day. It was mentioned by The Geological Society’s Nic Bilham in his opening remarks and raised in the groups discussions on best practice. In these discussions, ‘Scene’ Co-director Vijay Bhopal, related his experiences of delivering solar power supply to off-grid Indian villages. He emphasised the necessity to sell the solar technologies to those who need it, even if it is heavily subsidised, as opposed to gifting it. The only way to ensure longevity of solar powered systems was to build a market from the bottom up, he said, training technicians and providing a platform to sell and replace broken parts.  I this capacity, I felt geology has much to offer, developing industry in areas where help is needed is a more effective and sustainable way to provide aid- whether it be by sustainable mining, maintaining boreholes or lighting villages.

The opportunities are out there

The day wasn’t just about discussion, it was about getting involved. Representatives came from all over the country to encourage young geologists to sign up to schemes and events. Here’s a summary of just a few of the opportunities mentioned, along with the people in charge (more information can be found on the GfGd website):

Hazard communication and Geologists: a help or hindrance?

This topic was addressed by Professor Stewart in his keynote on the ethics of seismic risk communication. His core theme addressed the role geologist should play in saving lives in the event of a natural hazard. He used the example of his work in Istanbul, where a large and devastating earthquake is geologically likely in the future. He explored the role of the psyche in resident’s attitudes to the seismic risk they face. In many areas of high-risk, the picture is a complex one and the situation is often politically charged. In the case of Istanbul, the demolition of ‘dangerous’ buildings in high-risk areas was negated by the construction of reportedly unaffordable, earthquake-proof housing. Many residents believed that seismic risk was being used as a political tool to remove them from their neighbourhoods.

So where, asked Stewart, should the geologist slot into the picture? Are they only responsible for reporting the scientific information and exempt from decision-making and education? Or should they shoulder a sense of responsibility to ensure their results reach the people at risk? Should they help by educating about risk or is this really just a hindrance to those involved? In Stewart’s eyes, the geologist has an important part to play, but she must be appropriately trained in the method and timing of communication in order to be most successful. Hopefully, this is something GFGD may address in its capacity to inspire and influence a new generation of geologists.

Here my far-from-exhaustive summary ends. To finish would like to thoroughly encourage any geologists (or geologists-in-training) to get involved with GFGD. It was a really insightful day organised by a very deserving charity.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Post-truth politics: Why do facts no longer matter to so many people?

Virtually unknown a few years ago, the terms “post-fact” and “post-truth” have exploded onto the media scene in 2016, with thousands of articles around the globe expressing concern over the absence of a shared body of facts and evidence in public and political debate. This concern is buttressed by evidence that the public is misinformed about a range of issues, from vaccinations to climate change and the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.
Politicians have always sought refuge in fantasy or subterfuge when confronted by uncomfortable facts. So why the sudden concern with the emergence of “post-truth” politics? Two factors can be identified that confirm that the landscape of public discourse has changed: first, the brazenness with which some politicians have unshackled themselves from the constraints of evidence and reality, and second, the public’s acquiescence with this flight into fantasy land.
Credit – Titan9389/ (CC BY-ND 2.0)

These factors are particularly evident in two political contests that have dominated the UK and the U.S. in 2016; namely, the EU referendum and the American presidential election. In the U.S., the pronouncements of Republican candidate Donald Trump are demonstrably false around 70% of the time, according to the independent non-partisan fact-checking site Politifact. Only 4% of Trump’s statements were judged to be unambiguously true. In the UK, many claims of the Leave campaign in the lead-up to the referendum were likewise clearly false, from the claim that the UK transferred £340,000,000 per week to the EU, to the spectre of Turkey joining the EU and its citizens becoming eligible for residence in the UK.
“Vote Leave” poster, Market Street, Omagh. Credit – Kenneth Allen/ (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Trump’s false claims have been routinely debunked by the American media, but this has had little effect on his standing in the polls. Similarly, the mythical figures of the Leave campaign were widely condemned and corrected in the media, without any discernible impact on opinion polls or the public’s beliefs.
Nonetheless, the Leave campaign brazenly continued to display their false figure on their campaign bus to the very end, only for Nigel Farage to admit their inaccuracy on TV within a few hours of the polls closing. And in defiance of all fact-checking, Donald Trump has thus far shown no inclination to let his campaign speeches be infiltrated by facts or evidence.
It is unsurprising that the Washington Post has wondered how democracy can survive if facts no longer matter.

Why do facts no longer matter to so many people? And if facts no longer matter, what does?

To answer those questions we must confront at least one myth surrounding the success of Brexit and the persistent popularity of Trump. In both cases, many commentators have argued that voters supported Brexit or Trump because they felt “disenfranchised” or were “left behind” by globalisation, or live on the “edges of the economy.”
It is true that some Trump supporters belong to that category, as did many Britons who voted to leave the E.U.
The median income of Trump supporters is around $10,000 higher than that of Clinton supporters. If only men voted, polls have suggested that Trump would win the election by a landslide. The “edges of the economy” do not encompass the majority of American men. And although Brexit found more support among low income earners than wealthier Britons, that effect was dwarfed by attitudinal variables such as support for the death penalty, strength of “English identity”, rejection of gay equality, and anti-immigration attitudes. Those same attitudes are also the strongest predictors of support for Trump among Republican voters in the U.S. Among those who believe that newcomers are threatening American values, Trump support is high, and it is low among those who believe that the U.S. is strengthened by immigration. Likewise, hostility towards women is one of the strongest predictors of support for Trump.
Donald Trump makes a campaign stop at Muscatine, Iowa, January 2016. Credit – Evan Guest/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Trump and Brexit are phenomena that have tapped into people’s deeply-held attitudes. The EU referendum ultimately was a contest between the voices of diversity and tolerance on the one hand, and nationalism and exclusion on the other, rather than a competition between different economic visions for the future.

Trump and Brexit are about emotions, not the economics of the moment. It is how people feel about themselves and others.

And emotions operate to a logic that is largely independent of facts and evidence.
But that does not mean those emotions are illogical or erupt on their own, like some sociological volcano, without any possibility of guidance or control. Far from it. Hatred of Muslims or immigrants, misogyny, and ethnic supremacism do not erupt, they are stoked.
We now know from painstakingly detailed research that the “Tea Party” in the U.S. was not a spontaneous manifestation of “grassroots” opposition to President Obama’s healthcare initiative but the result of long-standing design efforts by Libertarian “think tanks” and political operatives pursuing an anti-regulatory agenda. Donald Trump did not come out of nowhere but learned his trade from Sen. Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel who was the brains behind the paranoid hunt for communist infiltrators in the 1950s.
Likewise, the negative attitudes towards the E.U. in England did not spontaneously emerge but were shaped by decades of mendacious tabloid coverage that immersed the public in industrial-strength misinformation about the E.U. The anti-immigration attitudes that are particularly rampant in regions devoid of immigrants did not grow naturally but were stoked by relentless media spin.
Daily Mail newspaper, 23 August 2006. The headline was repeated in August 2015. Credit – Gideon/

If Brexit and Trump are driven by emotion and attitudes, fuelled by misinformation and demagoguery, rather than (just) economic concerns, what does this portend for the future?

The developments in the UK during the last few months offer a glimpse of how a public decision driven by such emotions can turn into actual or proposed policy. In the few months since pro-Remain MP Jo Cox was assassinated by a man calling himself “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”:
This selection is neither exhaustive nor necessarily representative, as there may be many policy proposals and actions that escape public notice because they are less controversial. Nonetheless, those actions do not reveal an attitude that considers the French or German people as neighbouring vintners whom we might visit for anything from a short holiday to a gap year or indeed retirement. Those actions do not consider the Belgian people as friendly neighbours who like their beer cooler and stronger and their chocolate particularly exquisite. Those actions fail to remember that the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for transforming Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace.
Those actions also fail to mesh with the feelings of the European people who lit up their landmarks—from the Eiffel Tower to the Ponte Vecchio—in Union Jack colours on the evening of the referendum in a gesture of appreciation of the UK’s membership in the E.U.
Front page of the Algemeen Dagblad, Dutch newspaper, 15th June 2016. The paper issued an open letter in English titled “please don’t leave us”.

It remains to be seen how those initial actions and proposals will translate into long-term policy, but they do not augur well for a future climate of tolerance and diversity in the UK and towards its closest neighbours. Similarly, if Donald Trump wins the presidency, it is difficult to be optimistic about the prospects for tolerance and continued protection of civil rights in America.

How can we move on from here?

This is a political question that can only be resolved by political means. To have any chance of success, those political efforts must be based on a realistic assessment of the current situation. Two factors in particular deserve to be recognised:
First, the xenophobia of Trump and the anti-immigrant slant of the Leave campaign are not coincidental features of campaigns that are pursuing some other substantive agenda. On the contrary, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that xenophobia and white nativist supremacy are the agenda.
Second, the contemporary Republican Party and its British counterpart have very little in common with the parties that each used to be. The British Tory party was instrumental in drafting the European Convention on Human Rights in the 1950s and Winston Churchill was one of its ardent supporters. The contemporary Tory party is now committed to withdrawing from it, to the alarm of human rights organisations.
Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the Earl of Kilmuir, in 1954. British Conservative politician, lawyer and judge who was instrumental in drafting the European Convention on Human Rights. Credit Elliott &Fry/Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

The Republican Party used to be the party of the conservative but pragmatic establishment, with figures such as Ike Eisenhower or Gerald Ford. Today, Trump’s evident authoritarianism is only the beginning of the transformation of that former Republican Party into an off-shoot with troubling and chilling attributes: A party that finds little wrong with a candidate who refuses to promise that he will abide by election results has at best a tenuous grip on the democratic mainstream. A party that brazenly promises not to confirm any nominee for the Supreme Court if Hillary Clinton is elected president is a party that has taken leave from democratic practice and traditions.
We should not ignore those realities however discomforting they may be.

This article was written for the Policy Bristol Blog by Cabot Institute Member Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair in Cognitive Psychology, University of Bristol.