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Scientific heresy

I'm grateful to Matt Ridley for allowing me to post the text of his Angus Millar lecture at the RSA in Edinburgh. [Update: I have prepared a PDF version of the talk, which has the important slides as well.]

It is a great honour to be asked to deliver the Angus Millar lecture.

I have no idea whether Angus Millar ever saw himself as a heretic, but I have a soft spot for heresy. One of my ancestral relations, Nicholas Ridley* the Oxford martyr, was burned at the stake for heresy.

My topic today is scientific heresy. When are scientific heretics right and when are they mad? How do you tell the difference between science and pseudoscience?

Let us run through some issues, starting with the easy ones.

Astronomy is a science; astrology is a pseudoscience.

Evolution is science; creationism is pseudoscience.

Molecular biology is science; homeopathy is pseudoscience.

Vaccination is science; the MMR scare is pseudoscience.

Oxygen is science; phlogiston was pseudoscience.

Chemistry is science; alchemy was pseudoscience.

Are you with me so far?

A few more examples. That the earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare is pseudoscience. So are the beliefs that Elvis is still alive, Diana was killed by MI5, JFK was killed by the CIA, 911 was an inside job. So are ghosts, UFOs, telepathy, the Loch Ness monster and pretty well everything to do with the paranormal. Sorry to say that on Halloween, but that’s my opinion.

Three more controversial ones. In my view, most of what Freud said was pseudoscience.

So is quite a lot, though not all, of the argument for organic farming.

So, in a sense by definition, is religious faith. It explicitly claims that there are truths that can be found by other means than observation and experiment.

Now comes one that gave me an epiphany. Crop circles*.

It was blindingly obvious to me that crop circles were likely to be man-made when I first starting investigating this phenomenon. I made some myself to prove it was easy to do*.

This was long before Doug Bower and Dave Chorley fessed up to having started the whole craze after a night at the pub.

Every other explanation – ley lines, alien spacecraft, plasma vortices, ball lightning – was balderdash. The entire field of “cereology” was pseudoscience, as the slightest brush with its bizarre practitioners easily demonstrated.

Imagine my surprise then when I found I was the heretic and that serious journalists working not for tabloids but for Science Magazine, and for a Channel 4 documentary team, swallowed the argument of the cereologists that it was highly implausible that crop circles were all man-made.

So I learnt lesson number 1: the stunning gullibility of the media. Put an “ology” after your pseudoscience and you can get journalists to be your propagandists.

A Channel 4 team did the obvious thing – they got a group of students to make some crop circles and then asked the cereologist if they were “genuine” or “hoaxed” – ie, man made. He assured them they could not have been made by people. So they told him they had been made the night before. The man was poleaxed. It made great television. Yet the producer, who later became a government minister under Tony Blair, ended the segment of the programme by taking the cereologist’s side: “of course, not all crop circles are hoaxes”. What? The same happened when Doug and Dave owned up*; everybody just went on believing. They still do.

Lesson number 2: debunking is like water off a duck’s back to pseudoscience.

In medicine, I began to realize, the distinction between science and pseudoscience is not always easy.  This is beautifully illustrated in an extraordinary novel by Rebecca Abrams, called Touching Distance*, based on the real story of an eighteenth century medical heretic, Alec Gordon of Aberdeen.

Gordon was a true pioneer of the idea that childbed fever was spread by medical folk like himself and that hygiene was the solution to it. He hit upon this discovery long before Semelweiss and Lister. But he was ignored. Yet Abrams’s novel does not paint him purely as a rational hero, but as a flawed human being, a neglectful husband and a crank with some odd ideas – such as a dangerous obsession with bleeding his sick patients. He was a pseudoscientist one minute and scientist the next.

Lesson number 3. We can all be both. Newton was an alchemist.

Like antisepsis, many scientific truths began as heresies and fought long battles for acceptance against entrenched establishment wisdom that now appears irrational: continental drift, for example. Barry Marshall* was not just ignored but vilified when he first argued that stomach ulcers are caused by a particular bacterium. Antacid drugs were very profitable for the drug industry. Eventually he won the Nobel prize.

Just this month Daniel Shechtman* won the Nobel prize for quasi crystals, having spent much of his career being vilified and exiled as a crank. “I was thrown out of my research group. They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying.”

That’s lesson number 4: the heretic is sometimes right.

What sustains pseudoscience is confirmation bias. We look for and welcome the evidence that fits our pet theory; we ignore or question the evidence that contradicts it. We all do this all the time. It’s not, as we often assume, something that only our opponents indulge in. I do it, you do it, it takes a superhuman effort not to do it. That is what keeps myths alive, sustains conspiracy theories and keeps whole populations in thrall to strange superstitions.

Bertrand Russell* pointed this out many years ago: “If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.”

Lesson no 5: keep a sharp eye out for confirmation bias in yourself and others.

There have been some very good books on this recently. Michael Shermer’s “The Believing Brain”, Dan Gardner’s “Future Babble” and Tim Harford’s “Adapt”* are explorations of the power of confirmation bias. And what I find most unsettling of all is Gardner’s conclusion that knowledge is no defence against it; indeed, the more you know, the more you fall for confirmation bias. Expertise gives you the tools to seek out the confirmations you need to buttress your beliefs.

Experts are worse at forecasting the future than non-experts.

Philip Tetlock did the definitive experiment. He gathered a sample of 284 experts – political scientists, economists and journalists – and harvested 27,450 different specific judgments from them about the future then waited to see if they came true. The results were terrible. The experts were no better than “a dart-throwing chimpanzee”.

Here’s what the Club of Rome said on the rear cover of the massive best-seller Limits to Growth in 1972*:

“Will this be the world that your grandchildren will thank you for? A world where industrial production has sunk to zero. Where population has suffered a catastrophic decline. Where the air, sea and land are polluted beyond redemption. Where civilization is a distant memory. This is the world that the computer forecasts.”

"Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts", said Richard Feynman.

Lesson 6. Never rely on the consensus of experts about the future. Experts are worth listening to about the past, but not the future. Futurology is pseudoscience.

Using these six lessons, I am now going to plunge into an issue on which almost all the experts are not only confident they can predict the future, but absolutely certain their opponents are pseudoscientists. It is an issue on which I am now a heretic. I think the establishment view is infested with pseudoscience. The issue is climate change.

Now before you all rush for the exits, and I know it is traditional to walk out on speakers who do not toe the line on climate at the RSA – I saw it happen to Bjorn Lomborg last year when he gave the Prince Philip lecture – let me be quite clear. I am not a “denier”. I fully accept that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, the climate has been warming and that man is very likely to be at least partly responsible. When a study was published recently saying that 98% of scientists “believe” in global warming, I looked at the questions they had been asked and realized I was in the 98%, too, by that definition, though I never use the word “believe” about myself. Likewise the recent study from Berkeley, which concluded that the land surface of the continents has indeed been warming at about the rate people thought, changed nothing.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that you can accept all the basic tenets of greenhouse physics and still conclude that the threat of a dangerously large warming is so improbable as to be negligible, while the threat of real harm from climate-mitigation policies is already so high as to be worrying, that the cure is proving far worse than the disease is ever likely to be. Or as I put it once, we may be putting a tourniquet round our necks to stop a nosebleed.

I also think the climate debate is a massive distraction from much more urgent environmental problems like invasive species and overfishing.

I was not always such a “lukewarmer”. In the mid 2000s one image in particular played a big role in making me abandon my doubts about dangerous man-made climate change: the hockey stick*. It clearly showed that something unprecedented was happening. I can remember where I first saw it at a conference and how I thought: aha, now there at last is some really clear data showing that today’s temperatures are unprecedented in both magnitude and rate of change – and it has been published in Nature magazine.

Yet it has been utterly debunked by the work of Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick. I urge you to read Andrew Montford’s careful and highly readable book The Hockey Stick Illusion*. Here is not the place to go into detail, but briefly the problem is both mathematical and empirical. The graph relies heavily on some flawed data – strip-bark tree rings from bristlecone pines -- and on a particular method of principal component analysis, called short centering, that heavily weights any hockey-stick shaped sample at the expense of any other sample. When I say heavily – I mean 390 times.

This had a big impact on me. This was the moment somebody told me they had made the crop circle the night before.

For, apart from the hockey stick, there is no evidence that climate is changing dangerously or faster than in the past, when it changed naturally.

It was warmer in the Middle ages* and medieval climate change in Greenland was much faster.

Stalagmites*, tree lines and ice cores all confirm that it was significantly warmer 7000 years ago. Evidence from Greenland suggests that the Arctic ocean was probably ice free for part of the late summer at that time.

Sea level* is rising at the unthreatening rate about a foot per century and decelerating.

Greenland is losing ice at the rate of about 150 gigatonnes a year, which is 0.6% per century.

There has been no significant warming in Antarctica*, with the exception of the peninsula.

Methane* has largely stopped increasing.

Tropical storm* intensity and frequency have gone down, not up, in the last 20 years.

Your probability* of dying as a result of a drought, a flood or a storm is 98% lower globally than it was in the 1920s.

Malaria* has retreated not expanded as the world has warmed.

And so on. I’ve looked and looked but I cannot find one piece of data – as opposed to a model – that shows either unprecedented change or change is that is anywhere close to causing real harm.

No doubt, there will be plenty of people thinking “what about x?” Well, if you have an X that persuades you that rapid and dangerous climate change is on the way, tell me about it. When I asked a senior government scientist this question, he replied with the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. That is to say, a poorly understood hot episode, 55 million years ago, of uncertain duration, uncertain magnitude and uncertain cause.

Meanwhile, I see confirmation bias everywhere in the climate debate. Hurricane Katrina, Mount Kilimanjaro, the extinction of golden toads – all cited wrongly as evidence of climate change. A snowy December, the BBC lectures us, is “just weather”; a flood in Pakistan or a drought in Texas is “the sort of weather we can expect more of”. A theory so flexible it can rationalize any outcome is a pseudoscientific theory.

To see confirmation bias in action, you only have to read the climategate emails, documents that have undermined my faith in this country’s scientific institutions. It is bad enough that the emails unambiguously showed scientists plotting to cherry-pick data, subvert peer review, bully editors and evade freedom of information requests. What’s worse, to a science groupie like me, is that so much of the rest of the scientific community seemed OK with that. They essentially shrugged their shoulders and said, yeh, big deal, boys will be boys.

Nor is there even any theoretical support for a dangerous future. The central issue is “sensitivity”: the amount of warming that you can expect from a doubling of carbon dioxide levels. On this, there is something close to consensus – at first. It is 1.2 degrees centigrade. Here’s* how the IPCC put it in its latest report.

“In the idealised situation that the climate response to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 consisted of a uniform temperature change only, with no feedbacks operating…the global warming from GCMs would be around 1.2°C.” Paragraph

Now the paragraph goes on to argue that large, net positive feedbacks, mostly from water vapour, are likely to amplify this. But whereas there is good consensus about the 1.2 C, there is absolutely no consensus about the net positive feedback, as the IPCC also admits. Water vapour forms clouds and whether clouds in practice amplify or dampen any greenhouse warming remains in doubt.

So to say there is a consensus about some global warming is true; to say there is a consensus about dangerous global warming is false.

The sensitivity of the climate could be a harmless 1.2C, half of which has already been experienced, or it could be less if feedbacks are negative or it could be more if feedbacks are positive. What does the empirical evidence say? Since 1960 we have had roughly one-third of a doubling, so we must have had almost half of the greenhouse warming expected from a doubling – that’s elementary arithmetic, given that the curve is agreed to be logarithmic. Yet if you believe the surface thermometers* (the red and green lines), we have had about 0.6C of warming in that time, at the rate of less than 0.13C per decade – somewhat less if you believe the satellite thermometers (the blue and purple lines).

So we are on track for 1.2C*.  We are on the blue line, not the red line*.

Remember Jim Hansen of NASA told us in 1988 to expect 2-4 degrees in 25 years. We are experiencing about one-tenth of that.

We are below even the zero-emission path expected by the IPCC in 1990*.

Ah, says the consensus, sulphur pollution has reduced the warming, delaying the impact, or the ocean has absorbed the extra heat. Neither of these post-hoc rationalisations fit the data: the southern hemisphere has warmed about half as fast as the northern* in the last 30 years, yet the majority of the sulphur emissions were in the northern hemisphere.

And ocean heat content has decelerated, if not flattened, in the past decade*.

By contrast, many heretical arguments seem to me to be paragons of science as it should be done: transparent, questioning and testable.

For instance, earlier this year, a tenacious British mathematician named Nic Lewis started looking into the question of sensitivity and found* that the only wholly empirical estimate of sensitivity cited by the IPCC had been put through an illegitimate statistical procedure which effectively fattened its tail on the upward end – it hugely increased the apparent probability of high warming at the expense of low warming. 

When this is corrected, the theoretical probability of warming greater than 2.3C is very low indeed.

Like all the other errors in the IPCC report, including the infamous suggestion that all Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035 rather than 2350, this mistake exaggerates the potential warming. It is beyond coincidence that all these errors should be in the same direction. The source for the Himalayan glacier mistake was a non-peer reviewed WWF report and it occurred in a chapter, two of whose coordinating lead authors and a review editor were on WWF’s climate witness scientific advisory panel. Remember too that the glacier error was pointed out by reviewers, who were ignored, and that Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the IPCC, dismissed the objectors as practitioners of “voodoo science”.

Journalists are fond of saying that the IPCC report is based solely on the peer-reviewed literature. Rajendra Pachauri himself made that claim in 2008, saying*:

“we carry out an assessment of climate change based on peer-reviewed literature, so everything that we look at and take into account in our assessments has to carry [the] credibility of peer-reviewed publications, we don't settle for anything less than that.”

That’s a voodoo claim. The glacier claim was not peer reviewed; nor was the alteration to the sensitivity function Lewis spotted. The journalist Donna Laframboise got volunteers all over the world to help her count the times the IPCC used non-peer reviewed literature. Her conclusion is that*: “Of the 18,531 references in the 2007 Climate Bible we found 5,587 - a full 30% - to be non peer-reviewed.”

Yet even to say things like this is to commit heresy. To stand up and say, within a university or within the BBC, that you do not think global warming is dangerous gets you the sort of reaction that standing up in the Vatican and saying you don’t think God is good would get. Believe me, I have tried it.

Does it matter? Suppose I am right that much of what passes for mainstream climate science is now infested with pseudoscience, buttressed by a bad case of confirmation bias, reliant on wishful thinking, given a free pass by biased reporting and dogmatically intolerant of dissent. So what?

After all there’s pseudoscience and confirmation bias among the climate heretics too.

Well here’s why it matters. The alarmists have been handed power over our lives; the heretics have not. Remember Britain’s unilateral climate act is officially expected to cost the hard-pressed UK economy £18.3 billion a year for the next 39 years and achieve an unmeasurably small change in carbon dioxide levels.

At least* sceptics do not cover the hills of Scotland with useless, expensive, duke-subsidising wind turbines whose manufacture causes pollution in Inner Mongolia and which kill rare raptors such as this griffon vulture.

At least crop circle believers cannot almost double your electricity bills and increase fuel poverty while driving jobs to Asia, to support their fetish.

At least creationists have not persuaded the BBC that balanced reporting is no longer necessary.

At least homeopaths have not made expensive condensing boilers, which shut down in cold weather, compulsory, as John Prescott did in 2005.

At least astrologers have not driven millions of people into real hunger, perhaps killing 192,000 last year according to one conservative estimate, by diverting 5% of the world’s grain crop into motor fuel*.

That’s why it matters. We’ve been asked to take some very painful cures. So we need to be sure the patient has a brain tumour rather than a nosebleed.

Handing the reins of power to pseudoscience has an unhappy history. Remember eugenics. Around 1910 the vast majority of scientists and other intellectuals agreed that nationalizing reproductive decisions so as to stop poor, disabled and stupid people from having babies was not just a practical but a moral imperative of great urgency.

“There is now no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact,” said George Bernard Shaw*, “that nothing but a eugenics religion can save our civilization from the fate that has overtaken all previous civilizations.’’ By the skin of its teeth, mainly because of a brave Liberal MP called Josiah Wedgwood, Britain never handed legal power to the eugenics movement. Germany did.

Or remember Trofim Lysenko*, a pseudoscientific crank with a strange idea that crops could be trained to do what you wanted and that Mendelian genetics was bunk. His ideas became the official scientific religion of the Soviet Union and killed millions; his critics, such as the geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, ended up dead in prison.

Am I going too far in making these comparisons? I don’t think so. James Hansen of NASA says oil firm executives should be tried for crimes against humanity.  (Remember this is the man who is in charge of one of the supposedly impartial data sets about global temperatures.) John Beddington, Britain's chief scientific adviser, said this year that just as we are "grossly intolerant of racism", so we should also be "grossly intolerant of pseudoscience", in which he included all forms of climate-change scepticism.

The irony of course is that much of the green movement began as heretical dissent. Greenpeace went from demanding that the orthodox view of genetically modified crops be challenged, and that the Royal Society was not to be trusted, to demanding that heresy on climate change be ignored and the Royal Society could not be wrong.

Talking of Greenpeace, did you know that the collective annual budget of Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth was more than a billion dollars globally last year? People sometimes ask me what’s the incentive for scientists to exaggerate climate change. But look at the sums of money available to those who do so, from the pressure groups, from governments and from big companies. It was not the sceptics who hired an ex News of the World deputy editor as a spin doctor after climategate, it was the University of East Anglia.

By contrast scientists and most mainstream journalists risk their careers if they take a skeptical line, so dogmatic is the consensus view. It is left to the blogosphere to keep the flame of heresy alive and do the investigative reporting the media has forgotten how to do. In America*, Anthony Watts who crowd-sourced the errors in the siting of thermometers and runs;

In Canada*, Steve McIntyre, the mathematician who bit by bit exposed the shocking story of the hockey stick and runs

Here in Britain,* Andrew Montford, who dissected the shenanigans behind the climategate whitewash enquiries and runs

In Australia*, Joanne Nova, the former television science presenter who has pieced together the enormous sums of money that go to support vested interests in alarm, and runs

The remarkable thing about the heretics I have mentioned is that every single one is doing this in his or her spare time. They work for themselves, they earn a pittance from this work. There is no great fossil-fuel slush fund for sceptics.

In conclusion, I’ve spent a lot of time on climate, but it could have been dietary fat, or nature and nurture. My argument is that like religion, science as an institution is and always has been plagued by the temptations of confirmation bias. With alarming ease it morphs into pseudoscience even – perhaps especially – in the hands of elite experts and especially when predicting the future and when there’s lavish funding at stake. It needs heretics.

Thank you very much for listening.

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References (9)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    Response: Heretic
    - Bishop Hill blog - Scientific heresy Matt Ridley's text of his Angus Millar lecture at the RSA in Edinburgh. That is all for this morning, it is more than enough....
  • Response
    So I learnt lesson number 1: the stunning gullibility of the media. Put an ?ology? after your pseudoscience and you can get journalists to be your propagandists. You're going to love it, and you're going to send it to...
  • Response
    Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts. - Richard Feynman, quoted by Matt Ridley in his Angus Millar lecture at the RSA in Edinburgh, the entire text of which you an read at Bishop Hill....
  • Response
    Response: Climate of here
    'Is a conservative climate consensus possible ?'
  • Response
    Response: Politics
    [...]- Bishop Hill blog - Scientific heresy[...]
  • Response
    [...]- Bishop Hill blog - Scientific heresy[...]
  • Response
    Response: gaspreisvergleich
    [...]- Bishop Hill blog - Scientific heresy[...]
  • Response
    Response: E-juice
    So this is what I must conclude in 2 lines, If I want to protect my belongings, I can choose a policy. But nobody is making me buy it. Thanks
  • Response
    The ultimate fat-burning cardio routine....

Reader Comments (364)

An excellent & well written, piece.
Should have our favourite trolls frothing at the mouth & decrying the author's links with anything at all.

Nov 1, 2011 at 8:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterAdam Gallon

So how was it received........... ?

Nov 1, 2011 at 9:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

Impressive. We all should call time on Climate "Science" before it ruins so many lives!

Nov 1, 2011 at 9:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterCinbadtheSailor

Actually pretty well. The questioning was not hostile in the least.

Nov 1, 2011 at 9:07 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill


Difficult to see how warmists could produce a counter-argument on confirmation bias.

Nov 1, 2011 at 9:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterGerry

An excellent essay.

Nov 1, 2011 at 9:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoger Longstaff

Very nicely done. Like Barry Woods, I too would be interested in knowing how this was received.

Nov 1, 2011 at 9:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobert E. Phelan

Superb lecture. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Ridley is something of a hero.

The CAGW beast is taking a long time to die, but die it will.

Nov 1, 2011 at 9:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterPhil D

"we need to be sure the patient has a brain tumour rather than a nosebleed"

Absolutely. I agree with almost every word, although I do happen to think that airliners alone could not have brought down the twin towers.

Nov 1, 2011 at 9:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

Inspired landmark lecture.

Matt Ridley. The Rational Optimist.

Rising with a bullet on Christmas present shopping lists....

Nov 1, 2011 at 9:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterPharos

A devastating critique of 'mainstream' climate thinking.

What sort of questions did the audience ask?

Nov 1, 2011 at 9:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterA Lovell

The toughest question was from Matthew Taylor, the chairman, who wanted to know why action on climate change wasn't required by analogy to house insurance. I'm sitting here scratching my head about how he responded, which is really annoying because I can remember discussing it with Matt afterwards and agreeing that he'd handled it well. It will come back to me eventually.

Nov 1, 2011 at 9:53 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Bravo! Very well said! Is there (or will there be) a video of this?!

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:01 PM | Unregistered Commenterhro001

Superb, and fits very nicely with Deller's latest polemic re rent-seekers. Perhaps a change in public awareness is signified by the positive audience reception.

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlexander K

Made my day ... no, made my year. What an eloquent piece. I'm proud that it was done in Edinburgh.

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterRob Schneider

The comparisons with house insurance is plain daft.
People buy house insurance at reasonable cost to cover moderately probable events. The events that are covered are well known and DO occur. They do not pay huge costs for events whose probability of occurrence is infinitesimally small
For example, how many people insure their house for meteorite damage?

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterCinbadtheSailor

[offering a possible aide memoire to our host re the house insurance analogy]

I've encountered such a question, as well ... my response is usually something along the lines of ... but if the cost of the insurance against a specific peril was exhorbitant - and the chance of the peril occurring was extremely remote, would you not put those funds to more practical and beneficial use?

But I'm sure Matt would have had a much better example!

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:10 PM | Unregistered Commenterhro001

A very interesting and thought-provoking lecture by Matt Ridley. As a long-term aficionado of things like crop circles, UFOs, the paranormal and global warming catastrophism, the ideal stance (for me, anyway) has been a combination of avid interest and utter disbelief. Rational optimism, though - that's something I can believe in. Good stuff!

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlex Cull

I'm two-thirds (Nic Lewis' IPCC discovery in the SPM mentioned) through. I agree with everything Ridley says.

That "experts" get predictions about the future right EVEN LESS than the masses, scores a point for the wisdom of crowds as well as markets. And a point explaining why the Left (progressives) so willingly empowers expert cliques - whether fascist or socialist (SEE "Liberal Fascism" by Jonah Goldberg), or "climate scientists."

If one accepts utopian solutions and fears dire problems, then loving forceful remedies like China does, in place of messy democracy, as endorsed by New York Times frustrated warmers Tom Freidman and Paul Krugman, makes enormous sense.

These are "Democrats" whose envy of totalitarian temptations overrides their superficial political values.

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterOrson

CinbadtheSailor how many people have insurance for cars and never claim, highly likely its the majority becasue that is why insurance companies make money. They sell on the back of the fear of events not the actual probability of events for it was the case there would be a lot less insurance being actual bought 'in case ' . Insurance purchaser is not a pure logical transaction its powered to a large degree by emotion.

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterKnR

It should be compulsory reading for all MPs. But most of them wouldn't understand it, or wouldn't want to hear the message.

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Bratby


Not sure what point you are making
Car insurance is compulsory for people who drive in the UK
Car accidents kill and injury people -
Insuring against such events make sense
If the cost of the insurance becomes too much - then give up the car.
Insuring against meteorite damage makes no sense!

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterCinbadtheSailor

I'm certain that my personal confirmation bias is kicking in here but what a fantastically superb piece of writing from Matt.

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoyFOMR

I can understand why his ancestor "Nicholas Ridley" was martyred. Clear thinking is very painful to the pseudo scientists (aka "cargo cult scientists" per Feynman) and much (money, power, prestige etc.) is at stake. I started reading Matt's blog because it's at the top of the Bishop's Blog list - what "a beautiful mind!"

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterTom Kennedy


Do you ever buy holiday insurance? If so, why? Similarly for car insurance, do you go fully comprehensive or 3rd party, fire and theft.? What occasionj your choice? If you have a mortgage, you have to buy buildings insurance, but do you buy contents' insurance on top? And if so, what do you do about valuables and holidays etc...?

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:44 PM | Unregistered Commenterdiogenes

Wow. Disseminate widely ~ and repeat often!

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterOrson

I'm printing this out to give to friends.

Matt has captured my own opinions and believes on the subject perfectly and presented it better than ever would.

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:46 PM | Unregistered Commentertimg56

A breath of fresh air into a Royal Society, some of which have been suffocating themselves with the stale air of their groupthink and aggressive conformism. In fact really more of a whirlwind of clear, free, penetrating thought - of the kind that another couple of Royal Societies ought to have been encouraging on climate over the years. The fact that they did not is shameful, regardless of what stance one might take over such an issue. To declare a debate settled when it has hardly got beyond spin and fabrication and media/political manipulations is to declare prejudice and a fear of proper science, and indeed of proper debate.

Well done Matt Ridley. He has done a great job of putting CO2-based alarmism in an insightful context, and of corralling some mighty important arguments that must surely have given his audience pause for much thought. I hope his lecture will be printed and distributed widely, not least to schools and colleges throughout the world.

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Shade


I have some bridge insurance I'd like to sell you.

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:48 PM | Unregistered Commentertimg56

Brilliant lecture in my opinion, delivered in measured terms that are very difficult to refute.
I struggle with the question asked by the chairman who brought up the house insurance analogy. This is a rediculous analogy which has been fed into the mainstream by post normal advocates. The fact that it is a false analogy is so obvious I can,t believe that an educated person would be associated with the idea. Who would buy house insurance if the premium was 25% or more, (anually) of the value of his/her home.
Answers on a postcard please.

Nov 1, 2011 at 10:54 PM | Unregistered Commenterpesadia

Bravo! Well done Matt Ridley.

I summarize thusly:

At some point, there will be one man who, standing gratefully on the shoulders of many other independent thinkers, finally draws back the last filmy piece of the pseudo-scientific veil and lets everyone see more objectively a less uncertain reality.


Nov 1, 2011 at 11:03 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Whitman

Very good speech. I ll save it for anytime someone asks me my opinion on CG thanks for the transcript!

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterLuis Dias

Well said Matt Ridley.

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:06 PM | Unregistered Commenterfenbeagle


Another not so relevant point
Yes I buy holiday insurance because there are real events I will be exposed to - travel disruption, missed flights, medical problems - all real events which many people have endured
And yes I have claimed many times on travel insurance and once on house insurance. Believe it or not houses get damaged and (I know you will not believe this) people get burgled (wow do they?) and with the current cold winters people get burst pipes (never there is too much global warming!).
Yes people insure against real events and not made up ones! That is why we buy insurance! I know this is difficult but try to understand.

I do not insure against meteorite damage since it is so unlikely.

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterCinbadtheSailor

Strangely enough, meteorite damage does seem to be covered under standard home insurance.

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterPharos

Phillip Bratby

It should be compulsory reading for all MPs. But most of them wouldn't understand it, or wouldn't want to hear the message.

Exactly so -- power and money -- that is what is important to them. Truth is not.

I agree that it was a well reasoned piece, including his remarks about Freud. :)


Stay away from CDS's -- they have caused many to go under, as we are about to see again with Greece's default.

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Pablo de la Sierra


Strangely enough, meteorite damage does seem to be covered under standard home insurance.

Yes, you are correct, but assuming that nobody is hurt, a meteorite hit on your house could be a windfall. People pay a good deal of money not only for the meteorite but also the stuff it damaged. I know somebody who had a meteorite hit his car and he sold it for much more than the car was worth and actually refused the settlement from the insurance company to keep and then auction off the car and meteorite.

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Pablo de la Sierra

To jog Andrew's memory -- My response to the insurance question from Matthew was to say: if you had a 2% probability that you had cancer, would you take a painful course of chemotherapy? That is to say, the insurance analogy is only valid if the premium is small.

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterMatt Ridley

Thanks for posting this, it's an incredible lecture. How I'd have enjoyed being there.

I'm even almost in tears now; I have something I actually dare to send to a few friends. It's not that they're activist warmers - they just think it's a done deal, or simply are not interested and have closed their minds and ears to me. Maybe with this they can see why I care simply to know the truth (small t) insofar as we can, knowing that our knowledge is constantly being expanded (while our knowledge of what we know not expands as well) and that the impacts of what we decide to do with that knowledge require our eternal vigilance. And this latter at least should be of interest to them, albeit for many in a distanced way - that much harm is possible when we turn our backs on truths that don't fit our "narrative."

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterKendra

If anyone knows how to contact Mr. Ridley, please let him know of my sincerest thanks.

What a mix of emotion this brought to me. There is no Internet emoticon I can apply here.

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Watts

Powerful and persuasive (or bias-confirming for a sceptic like me...), but however eloquent Ridley is, I always feel he pushes the narrative too far.
In the same way that if I was an AGWer I'd be embarrassed by Al Gore, I think if you round around collecting every single argument you can find you end up diluting the strong ones.
For once he didn't use the mindless 'but CO2 followed temperature in the past' idea.
It's statistics mostly - 192,000 people killed ? By starvation? JUST because of biofuels? And that's a conservative estimate? Bollocks - and it weakens his other arguments (which are brilliant)

There. So now you know.

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnteros

Since nobody has said it so far, let me: AMEN!!

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterMaurizio Morabito


"false analogy"

Quite agree. Insurance is for unlikely things that have a large effect, and therefore worth pooling resources, while climate change is a likely (inevitable in some form) thing with a small effect and therefore best dealt with individually, as and when.

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames P


This needs to be formatted for printing. May I suggest that someone (you or I) convert this (with Mr. Ridley's permission) into a PDF that contains a short into bio and pix on Ridley, brief intro on the Angus Millar lecture at the RSA in Edinburgh, and relevant links at the end?

Can you ask him?

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Watts


"the mindless 'but CO2 followed temperature in the past' idea"

Why mindless? It sounds a reasonable premise to me...

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames P


Do you think you could ask Matt Ridley for permission for Anthony Watts to reproduce this in full

I really think he deserves it. (and Jo Nova)


Nov 1, 2011 at 11:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

At the moment WUWT just has a link here. A full reproduction at WUWT is hopefully in order...

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

I'd buy reasonably-priced insurance against any reasonably foreseeable financial loss due to future weather events caused by climate changes. Just like with the car or the house.

But nobody seems to be offering that. Instead, the Government claims to be offering insurance that will prevent future weather events from happening. If somebody offered to sell me a policy which guarantees that my car will never crash or my house will never burn, I'd assume he was selling either religion or magic.

And then it turns out the Government isn't guaranteeing these events won't happen. Just that the likelihood will "most likely" be reduced somewhat. How much? Well, nobody knows – but Kyoto only sought to reduce probabilities by 0.4%.

Sound like a good deal?

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterAustralis

What an outstanding lecture. I'd always liked Matt Ridley's work but this puts him in another league for clarity, concision, coherence and courage. Sorry for the alliteration but it does produce the 4C's of criteria for diamonds.

Regarding insurance, yes, one does not buy coverage when the premium exceeds the P(event) x (cost of event). But to me the big issue is not arguing over the (speculative) P(event) in the case of global warming --the alarmists' models are always offering dire projections just a few more years away. For me the big issue is that the insurance is not a contract. A contract is voluntary. If I choose to drive, I have to buy liability coverage. If I want to protect my belongings, I can choose a policy. But nobody is making me buy it. Here? We are facing not a contract but a fait accompli, a vast network of taxes and charges and impositions and subsidies.

That network, and the very well-nourished root system for it, will guarantee the pseudoscience is a long time dying.

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterOwen

Well said!!!

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:58 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim;)

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