Episode 105 – 7th October 2011

We speak to Sir Paul Nurse and others at the Royal Society’s One Culture event. Blakeley talks to Kim Howells about the War on Terror and we wonder if an 80mph speed limit is ethical. And more!


[Direct MP3 Link] [Podcast Feed] [Add to iTunes]


Support the Pod Delusion! Why not subscribe £5 a month to support what we do?

Royal Society One Culture Festival by James O’Malley & Liz Lutgendorff (ft Sir Paul Nurse, Ian Stewart, Sunetra Gupta & Uta Frith)
80mph Speed Limits by Adam Jacobs
Non-Prophet Week by James O’Malley (ft Mike Paynter)
Kim Howells Interview by Blakeley Nixon
Nobel Prize Faff by James O’Malley & Liz Lutgendorff (ft Simon Frantz)
Science Is Vital’s Report by James O’Malley (ft Jenny Rohn)
Localism Bill & Referendums by Cory Hazlehurst
The sketch at the end is by David Lovesy, Brian Two and Steve Clark

Follow-Up Links:

5 thoughts on “Episode 105 – 7th October 2011

  1. For a wonderful skeptical podcast, the report on 80mph speed limits had me tearing my hair out! It started badly with an un-sourced suggestion that raising speed limits will increase road deaths, got even worse when the author suggested that putting *a* monetary value (as opposed to what that value should be) on someone’s life was uncontroversial, and then sunk into despair when the author engages in rather daft and pointless thought experiments. The only good part is his little “aside” with a tiny amount of actual science/logic in it.

    Please, no more features like this.

    (Now I feel like a Daily Mail commenter! Grumble grumble)

  2. Hi Matt

    Sorry you didn’t like my piece, but happy to respond to the point you make.

    “It started badly with an un-sourced suggestion that raising speed limits will increase road deaths”

    Well, sorry about the lack of sources: it’s not always as easy to put references in a podcast piece as it is in a piece of writing. But there is plenty of evidence to that effect, which I really don’t think is controversial among serious commentators. Obviously I’m making a distinction here between “serious commentators” and “the Jeremy Clarkson brigade”. There’s certainly an appearance of controversy, but most of it manufactured by speedophiles on the basis of what they would like to be true, rather than evidence. A bit like the controversy over whether man made global warming is a problem.

    See, for example, Baum et al 1989 and Pilkington and Kinra 2004. There’s plenty more stuff like that out there.

    Granted, the evidence isn’t as robust as we’d ideally like it to be, as there is a lack of randomised trials, but given the consistency of the evidence from multiple studies with different designs, plus the obvious scientific plausibility and the lack of serious disconfirming evidence, I don’t think anyone could reasonably doubt the hypothesis that increasing the speed limit would mean more road deaths. Do you disagree? If so, why?

    “got even worse when the author suggested that putting *a* monetary value (as opposed to what that value should be) on someone’s life was uncontroversial”

    Do you really think that’s controversial? Sure, the value is controversial, but do you think there are any serious commentators who dispute that there is *a* value? If it cost 250 trillion pounds to save one life from a particular disease with a particular treatment, do you think anyone would want it funded on the NHS? Seriously? Can you point to anyone who’s making that kind of argument?

    then sunk into despair when the author engages in rather daft and pointless thought experiments”

    The point of the thought experiment was to explore whether we think there is a moral difference between killing a specific individual and killing an unknown individual. I freely admit that the answer to that question is likely to be controversial, but I do think it’s a question worth asking. Why do you think it’s pointless?

    “The only good part is his little “aside” with a tiny amount of actual science/logic in it.”

    Why, thank you!

    “Now I feel like a Daily Mail commenter!”

    Oh, don’t worry, you have a loooooong way to go before you sink to those depths!

    Adam

  3. Adam,

    Re: the 80mph

    Without going into the details of your argumentation I think you could agree that it would tend to support a “reduction” in speed limits. Why not drop the speed limit to 60 or 50mph? Lives will inevitably be saved.

    Rather argue in relative terms: how would you go about determining the “ideal” speed limit?

  4. @Mike:

    I’m not sure where that £1.8 million figure comes from: the link you give is a bit light on detail. I was simplifying a bit in my piece, and obviously the costs of a fatal RTC are going to be greater than simply the human cost of the life that’s lost (however you choose to value it), including things like the loss of the car, the resources deployed by the emergency services, the cost of delays caused to other motorists, etc. Obviously that would all need to be taken account of in any economic evaluation of the effect of increasing the speed limit.

    I’m not a Philosophy Bites listener, but it looks interesting. Many thanks for pointing it out!

    @Emir:

    You may well be right that a reduction in the speed limit could be beneficial, but I’m not necessarily arguing that that’s definitely true. Clearly my arguments would work just as well in reverse: reducing the speed limit would save lives, but also cost the economy in terms of longer journeys.

    I think that determining the “ideal” speed limit is actually very simple in theory, but fantastically difficult in practice. Clearly a zero speed limit is not sensible. Sure, we’d save many lives, but the cost to the economy of nobody being able to get anywhere would be huge, and I think it’s self evident that a zero speed limit would be too slow.

    So, to determine the ideal speed limit, you calculate the incremental benefits of increasing the speed limit to a slightly higher speed limit (reduced journey times) and the incremental costs of the same increase (more RTCs). At the point where the two balance out, you have reached the ideal speed limit. If in fact you never reach that point, then we could do away with speed limits altogether.

    Sounds simple in theory, doesn’t it? But of course calculating those costs is hugely complex, and requires, among other things, deciding how much we value human life, which of course is a value judgement and a matter for intense debate (which was the main point of my piece).

    If you forced me to guess where the optimum speed limit is, I’d guess a little slower than it is now: maybe 50 or 60 mph sounds about right. But that is a wild guess. Maybe increasing the speed limit to 80 or even 90 mph would actually have a net benefit. I’d need to see how the calculations were done to form a more informed judgement, and I doubt that anyone has ever done them sufficiently carefully.

    The sad fact is that it won’t be these kinds of calculations that will drive the decision. It will be politicians, simply making a judgement about what they think will get them more votes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *