Community highlights: sociology and salt water

The Conversation receives a lot of comments each day and you can’t read everything. That’s why we occasionally end the week with a selection of community highlights: comments we enjoyed or thought interesting.

On Monday, Brian Martin wrote a story about why some controversies continue, despite the prevalence of information that should end them. He looked at the influence of values, group dynamics and confirmation bias (among other things) have on beliefs.

In the comments, Patrick Stokes posted a rebuke of the article:

There are important methodological reasons why the sociology of science would need to take a relativist stance in order to study disagreements about and within science. If you’re going to study a disagreement itself, suspending judgment as to who’s right or wrong has obvious advantages. But at some point, unless we’re going to be relativists all the way down – which is basically a form of epistemic suicide – we have to accept that some claims are more epistemically valid than others. That doesn’t mean we have to become naïve realists (despite what some science fans seem to think), but it does mean accepting that when we have reliable knowledge generating mechanisms, what those mechanisms produce is to be preferred to competing knowledge claims that come from outside those mechanisms. There’s a real risk here that we slip from discussing how power relations operate within science, which is a legitimate and very indeed important thing to ask about, into a sort of Foucaltian (or rather a popular caricature of Foucault) mess in which accepted truth claims are nothing but a function of power relations. I don’t think Prof. Martin himself believes that, as otherwise the phrase “Just because vested interests are involved doesn’t mean that the side backed by money and power is wrong” would make no sense.

Stokes’s comment is an article in-and-of itself and well worth a read.

Climate action is a complicated beast, full of problems you may not have expected. One of these is water conservation. Philip Wallis, Jamie Pittock and Michael Ward detailed the issue, explaining that if Australia uses trees to store carbon we’ll need to find a way to water them. Second, power plants need cooling and cooling needs water. Put these two together and you have a potential problem for an arid Australia.

One of our readers, Jeremy Culberg, discussed potential fixes for the second problem.

There are several options other than using fresh water to perform cooling at power stations. The use of salt water is a fairly established technology (at least 60 years) for thermal plant - all the ships using steam turbines have been using saltwater as part of the cooling system for that long. (On second thought, that technology has been in use since the days of Queen Victoria, so make that more like 100+ years).

You still need to work out where you are going to put the hotter salt water - some interesting environmental considerations on that front, but nothing that can’t be overcome.

Admittedly most of the Australian power stations are not configured for salt water cooling, however if we are going to re-engineer the power grid to be less carbon intensive, then putting in pipework to existing sites is more than possible. Alternatively, build new power stations closer to the coast (which from a power network perspective is broadly speaking a good thing, as it gets the generation point closer to the consumption point, thus reducing transmission losses).

This post is quite in-depth. His ensuing conversation with Ben Marshall about the hows and whys of heat production in power generation offers insight into the complexities of energy. All this in accessibly language.

Have you been following our off-topic sections? Each Monday, we open a new off-topic article for you to chat about anything you’d like. This can cover yourselves, politics and farming – there are even regular threads dedicated to poetry.

Take, for example, this post from Jane Middlemist:

I met Chaucer the same way - first year Eng Lit at Uni then branched into Philosophy, Education and Sociology. I liked the Prologue best: The very breath of spring …

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote

The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendered is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne

And smale fowles maken melodye

That slepen al the night with open ye

So priketh hem nature in hir corages

Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

Who can say no to some Chaucer? Head over to our off-topic section and get involved.

Have we missed anything? Let us know in the comments below.