If you’ve not got hard facts on sustainability your argument about it, whatever it is, isn’t worth much

John Tebbit

I would like to focus your attention on some great data driven work that I have been reading recently in the shape of a paper by David J C Mackay for the Royal Society. The paper, is entitled Could energy-intensive industries be powered by carbon-free electricity? I am not going to surprise anyone by disclosing that Mackay’s conclusion is yes but the real point is that the paper sets out a data driven argument. Whether you choose to use wind power or nuclear power, the consequences of the choices are set out in terms of land use, scale of energy generation and need for back up power in the case of wind.

The paper is very much in the style of Mackay’s 2009 book Sustainable Energy – without the hot air, which brilliantly dissected the challenge facing the UK if it were to attempt to cut emissions by 80%. Whether you agree or disagree with the need to do this is irrelevant. The book sets out the data, offers options and leaves you the reader to ponder on the choices but with the knowledge to do so.

Another example of a data driven book is Sustainable materials – with both eyes open by Allwood and Cullen. Again the authors eschew the opinion masquerading as fact approach and dive deep into the realities of the issues facing metals, cement and plastics in a resource constrained and low carbon world. Many of the solutions are ones that make sense even for those who think Jeremy Clarkson is a polar bear hugging warmist. For instance, good design uses less material and costs less money – I mean, what is not to like about that?

If you cannot even bring proper data to the party or be competent in understanding it, why should we listen to you?

There is of course a major problem with data backed arguments and that is that they can clearly show that your fondly held opinions are, to put it kindly, bunkum. However, given that the physical world works on how it is rather than how we wish it was (think barbecues and wanting dry, warm, sunny weather but getting rain and wind), surely we should all be basing the big discussions on agreed data.

We may well disagree what the data means but if you cannot even bring proper data to the party or be competent in understanding it, why should we listen to you?

I remember a quote from my O-level mathematics coursework book: “He uses statistics like a drunkard uses a lamp post – for support, rather than illumination.” We all know people who do that.

Have a look at the two books I’ve mentioned for a good level of illumination even if you do need a stiff drink afterwards to help the cogitation.

John Tebbit is deputy chief executive of the Construction Products Association