Monthly Archives: April 2012

In praise of the sceptics on the ABC

This is a thoughtful and broad analysis of the climate change debate well worth reading. It is presented here in full because it has been removed from the ABC website.

Oct 30, 2009

In praise of the sceptics

In a speech to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1900, the most famous scientist of the day, Lord Kelvin, declared, “Physics is essentially complete”.

“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now,” he said. “All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”

He did note a couple of “dark clouds on the horizon” but expected they would be erased without much trouble.

One cloud was the puzzle about the constancy of the speed of light; the other how matter absorbed and emitted light. Just five years later Albert Einstein‘s theories about both would shatter Lord Kelvin’s world view.

Einstein wasn’t as arrogant as Lord Kelvin. He was to say of his theories, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong”.

Karl Popper was enormously influenced by Einstein’s theory of relativity and three others: Karl Marx‘s theory of history, Sigmund Freud‘s psycho-analysis, and Alfred Adler‘s “individual psychology”.

In the summer of 1919, Popper says he was “thrilled” by Arthur Eddington‘s eclipse observations which were the first confirmation of Einstein’s theory of gravitation. But it made him wonder about his other pet theories.

I began to feel dubious about their claims to scientific status,” he said. “My problem perhaps first took the simple form, ‘What is wrong with Marxism, psycho-analysis, and individual psychology? Why are they so different from physical theories, from Newton’s theory, and especially from the theory of relativity?”

He noted, “my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power.

These theories appear to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, open your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirmed instances everywhere: the world was full of verificationsof the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refuse to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still “un-analysed” and crying aloud for treatment.Popper became famous for his epistemological work demarking science from pseudo-science. It boiled down to testability. If a theory could be falsified by experimentation it was science, if it couldn’t it wasn’t.

So Popper would argue that to say any theory is “settled” means that you are not talking about science but pseudo-science.

By now it should be clear that I am building towards an act of heresy. In mainstream political and scientific debate today what held true for Einstein does not hold true for climate science. Climate science we are endlessly told is “settled”.

But to make the, perfectly reasonable, point that science is never settled risks being branded a “sceptic” or worse a “denier”.

“Denier” is one of those words, like “racist”, which is deliberately designed to gag debate. And what is wrong with being a sceptic? The Greek root of the word means “thoughtful” or “inquiring” and that used to be a virtue.

If to question a science which relies so heavily on computer generated modelling is to be a denier or a sceptic, then stack me up with the heretics and go find the matches. Because modelling is a black art and the models will be wrong. They might understate or overstate the outcome but they will change over time. Model failure is so common there is a name for it: model risk.

If you doubt how badly things can go with impressive models then consider for a moment the recent financial crisis. A lot of very big companies paid a fortune to a cadre of mathematics and physics PhDs, called “quants“, who developed models that were supposed to eliminate risk. Turns out they got it hideously wrong and some believe they made a bad situation a whole lot worse.

So, here is another piece of modern heresy, anyone who puts their faith in computer predictions of the future, is dealing with digital astrology.

But the climate change debate is worse still. You can be branded a denier if you accept the problem and question the solutions.

This really began to concern me last year when I included Professor Warwick McKibbin in a television news story about emissions trading. He was critical of the Garnaut Report and I got a complaint from a PhD student in economics. She said McKibbin was a well known climate change denier and the ABC should not be running anything from people who did not believe in climate change.

Leaving aside the all-too-typical, and deeply disturbing, demand that dissenters be silenced the other issue with the complaint was that McKibbin is internationally renowned for his work on climate change. He’s also a Reserve Bank board member and one of this country’s pre-eminent economists. He just doesn’t think much of the Government’s climate change solutions and believes he has a much better plan. He’s a smart guy; he might just be on to something.

So I come to praise sceptics not to bury them. Long may they prosper.

And here’s a final thought from Popper about the dangers of being too “credulous”.

“A Marxist could not open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for his interpretation of history; not only in the news, but also in its presentation – which revealed the class bias of the paper – and especially of course what the paper did not say. The Freudian analysts emphasised that their theories were constantly verified by their “clinical observations”. As for Adler, I was much impressed by a personal experience. Once, in 1919, I reported to him a case which to me did not seem particularly Adlerian, but which he found no difficulty in analysing in terms of his theory of inferiority feelings, although he had not even seen the child. Slightly shocked, I asked him how he could be so sure. “Because of my thousandfold experience,” he replied; whereupon I could not help saying: “And with this new case, I suppose, your experience has become thousand-and-one-fold.”

I was allegedly written by a well known ABC Journalist, who may or may not wish to have it attributed, so I shall leave it anonymous for the time being.

(Link included)

Climate change denial not just for fools

Mark Latham, AFR

Mark Latham opinion piece in AFR this week deserves some kudos for intellectual honesty in admitting and being perplexed by the now overwhelming ‘denialism’ to climate change. He concedes this is not just by stupid people or due to brainwashing by the right wing. He philosophises the cause to be a new anti-enlightenment caused by the triumphalism of the materialistic in the masses and loss of respect for the notion of expertise by the educated middle class.

Mr Latham’s argument however is fatally flawed. He wrongly paints the conflict as between lay people and climate experts, which affords him the claim of disrespect for experts and science. In fact, the conflict is between two groups of scientists: between climate scientists using computer models predicting catastrophe and other climate scientists and scientists in related fields who dispute its severity and man-made origin. Hundreds of very high profile scientists and hundreds and many thousands of general scientists and PhD’s have dissented, presenting opposing peer reviewed studies, dissecting and criticising the climate models and stating rationally argued arguments and petitions against the catastrophic nature of any climate change, man induced or natural. Mr Latham, of course a layman himself, also fails to recognise that Climate speciality is a mixture of many sciences like geology, physics, statistics and computer science and that the ‘lay’ population has far more highly expert scientist in all these specialities who are more qualified to analyse their work and dispute methods and conclusions drawn in these areas.  Still other experts in economy and industry are qualified to analyse and question the efficacy and efficiency of mitigations. Finally, even the complete layman can use common sense to detect futile gesture politics in self-damaging virtually unilateral action of a carbon dioxide tax, where the climate scientist has no greater authority.

The public then acts as a lay trial jury – deciding which opposing expert and argument is more trustworthy. Unfortunately, the alarmist climate scientists and their supporters in the government and green movements, have been repeatedly caught out exaggerating, possessing hidden agendas and even lying, and so they have been rationally found untrustworthy by an ever more sceptical population. Baa humbug anti-enlightenment , where is Mr Latham’s respect for the likes of John Christie, Ray Spencer, Nils-Axel Morner, Judith Curry and hundreds of other dissenting not denying climate scientists.

Climate Alarm shot down by Appollo Mission

49 former NASA scientists and astronauts, the hero scientists and engineers who had “The Right Stuff” to put a man on the moon with the power of a wrist watch computer, protest NASA’s climate alarmism.

Joint letter to NASA Administrator blasts agency’s policy of ignoring empirical evidence

HOUSTON, TX – April 10, 2012.

49 former NASA scientists and astronauts sent a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden last week admonishing the agency for it’s role in advocating a high degree of certainty that man-made CO2 is a major cause of climate change while neglecting empirical evidence that calls the theory into question. Read more…

This is surely the death knell of this now farcical climate scam. These scientists and engineers are true heroes, they literally fared where no man fared before, withstanding the cold of vacuum and heat re-entry, where an error of  a few degrees was disaster now, not in a hundred years. They invented the  precautionary principle, where every contingency, every conceivable risk had to be considered and mitigated lest lives be directly and spectacularly lost.  So, let Jim Hansen and his climate model desk jockey friends denounce these heroes. His friends whose most daring and tested feats are little more than thought experiments with computer models and safely casting scenarios not testable until long after their careers are over. Let them say that these NASA heros, on whose tall shoulders NASA and thus GISS’s reputation perches precariously, let them claim that they are ignorant, that they are too old or are in the pay of big oil.

But it’s not before time. The scientific prostitution of NASA for climate money has been particularly distressing to those of us, who love science and engineering and who remember and admire NASA in its glory days. Indeed it may be almost too late for NASA,  because as one commenter says at WUWT, I would also not support my doughters in going for a job with NASA.

Huston… over to you.