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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)

Outstanding. I had to say that: But maybe there could be some 'confirmation bias' in there too.

Seriously though - this is a top speech. Absolutely full of good judgement and, dare I say it - good science.

Thank you Mr Ridley - you're one fine fellow!

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:01 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobin Pittwood

Thank You, Mr. Ridley, for your contrubution to history.

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterAmatør1

James P
Because it says nothing about our present situation.
There may or not be something interesting (on its own) about CO2 following (and perhaps then enhancing) changes of temperature.
It doesn't, though, provide anything at all for what might happen if 30 billion tons of CO2 were added to the atmosphere each year. It's a red herring.
And no-one sane has ever suggested that past temperatures were forced up by CO2 - except Al Gore by implication and that's the reason there are so many sceptics around.

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterAnteros

The arfuments are not new but the tone is, and I submit that this tone makes the difference between an audience that thinks it is hearing a diatribe and one that thinks it is hearing a reasoned presentation.

It is all too easy to fall into the error of getting emotional and strident when disagreeing with what you believe is poppycock. But the poppycockists do not see it that way. They view raised voices as hysteria and quickly tune out. So: try not to raise your voice.

A reasoned, mostly dispassionate, calm and factually solid argument is essential to persuasion, especially to persuasion against deep set concepts.

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:10 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames J. Hill

Matt Ridley oversimplifies. He seems to think that "science" is something that is always right and is currently settled forever. Many settled scientific idea of the past have been changed or modified and it is to be hoped that this process will continue. Just because people used to have different "scientific" ideas is no reason to blame them for it. On the other hand many genuine examples of "pseudoscience" involve outright objection not only to science, settled or otherwise, but also to the scientific method.."Global Warming Science" has ignored many basic scientific principles, distorted and fabricated facts and suppressed genuine criticism. to impose what is more than a pseudoscience, It is a scientific fraud.

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterVincent Gray

Stunning, outstanding. Crop circles are one of my favorites also, and funnily enough I was just reading the classic "The Field Guide- The Art, History and Philosophy of Crop Circle making" by Rob Irving and John Lundberg, and writing my own piece on pseudoscience and the green movement....
I would see the insurance analogy as similar to the pseudoscientific concept of "the precautionary principle"- we should also consider of course the cost of NOT doing things (like providing cheap energy) or the cost of doing the wrong things.

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterGraham

Excellent lecture - I just wish all the asterisks actually pointed to sources here, but am grateful Mr. Ridley agreed to let you post the main body of his talk here. I'm also madly jealous because of how well he expresses himself. This will definitely be shared with colleagues.

It's interesting to learn about the audience response. Is the climate alarmist zombie finally whimpering itself into irrelevance? Of course it will turn out that everybody thought this way all along....

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterVigilantfish

Bravo. Bravo. Bravo.

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterDiogenes

As I remarked here a few days ago.

Models are confirmation bias on steroids.

The use of models in climate science with their complex, opaque assumptions and simulated processes makes the problem of confirmation bias much worse.

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterPhilip Bradley

Two quotes come to mind:

The object of the Author in the following pages has been to collect the most remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, and to show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and gregarious men are, even in their infatuations and crimes,” wrote Charles Mackay in the preface to the first edition of his Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.”

The world looks with some awe upon a man who appears unconcernedly indifferent to home, money, comfort, rank, or even power and fame. The world feels not without a certain apprehension, that here is someone outside its jurisdiction; someone before whom its allurements may be spread in vain; someone strangely enfranchised, untamed, untrammelled by convention, moving independent of the ordinary currents of human action. Winston Churchill, politician and statesman (1874-1965)

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterLegatus

Perhaps we have just witnessed the re-energization of some heretics.

I have been.


Nov 2, 2011 at 12:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Whitman

You state "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." ... yet you admit that there is no data to support your belief that "man is very likely to be at least partly responsible". Your thinking is not logical. You are suffering from the same biases as alarmists.

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterDr Burns

Futurology is pseudoscience.

I like that !!
Great post !!

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterMatthew W

The answer to the fire insurance analogy could be why buy fire insurance against the possibility that someone will come along and 'pimp your car', or remodel and improve your house. More carbon dioxide, and the slight warming that may come with it, will be a blessing, not a catastrophe to be insured against. It's a win, not a loss.

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:47 AM | Unregistered Commenterkim

Thank you, Mr Ridley.

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterMique

Absolutely splendid lecture - but in vain, I fear. Was Gabi Hegerl (AR4 WG1 Chapt 9) there or any of the other CRU founders and defenders now based in Edinburgh?? I suspect not, despite proximity. And even if they had been, only a bout of waterboarding would have had any chance of penetrating their thick heads, such sterling exemplars of confirmation bias as they are!

Nov 2, 2011 at 1:08 AM | Unregistered CommenterTim Curtin

Very well put by Matt Ridley. However, the people to convince are our three-party committed politicians. This will be difficult given the high level of green tax revenues, the lucrative renewable energy subsidies, and the extra political power that the Climate Change Act imbues.

I have a couple of points. Matt quotes a list of sciences and corrsponding pseudosciences. Are Newton's laws of motion pseudoscience because they can be shown from later developments in physics to be inaccurate at quantum levels? The notion of phlogiston was proven wrong, but at the time it explained the known phenomenon.

As for CO2 having a daytime atmospheric heating effect due to its IR-active properties, no doubt about that, but it also has a cooling effect on the atmosphere at night, radiating heat out to the lower temperature night sky. Increasing the CO2 levels increaes the cooling.This effect is not spoken about in the AGW supporting fraternity, and it is worth seeing their attempts to give an answer to the simple question, "How does the atmosphere cool at night?", without admitting that CO2 is a coolant gas as well as a 'greenhouse' gas.

Nov 2, 2011 at 1:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterEdward Bancroft

Not a bad lecture for a broad audience. Marred somewhat by the gratuitous digs at religion and an over-reliance on the rhetorical labeling of "science" vs. "pseudoscience," which philosophers of science recognize is, in practice, not a worthwhile distinction and one that typically contributes more heat than light to discussions. The lecture would have been stronger and more intellectually tight without reliance on these rhetorical ploys.

Nevertheless, he has some good points and the lecture is definitely an interesting read. He also stands as a live example to the fact that CAGW skeptics aren't all conservative-leaning religious adherents.

Nov 2, 2011 at 1:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterEric Anderson

A wonderful lecture! I wish I could have been there. Like others I will print it and circulate it, especially to friends in the ADB who work in environmental policy and spend all their time telling countries to adopt climate mitigation schemes, most of which hurt the poor in those countries.

Nov 2, 2011 at 1:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterChris B

Can someone tell me the point of this lecture?

It appears to me as a collection of views that do not appear to be connected, apart from them being believed by the speaker, with very little explanation.

Science is a human activity that helps us understand the environment around us.
Pseudoscience implies that there is something false about the activity.
Just because someone dislikes a discipline does not make it pseudoscience, especially when it appears they know little about it and when the discipline could be seen as a threat.

"Evolution is science; creationism is pseudoscience."
Evolution is a theory. It may be near to what has happened, but we are no where near to knowing the full story. We might want the theory to be true, but that would be belief, which is not science. Darwin was among the first to question his ideas in this area, so he was aware of being carried away by a simplistic notion. Having SOME evidence is not a reason to suppress anyone questioning the theory. There is too much of that in climate 'science' already!
Scientists, even if they do not ‘believe’ a theory can still use it to stimulate ideas and create new experiments. To believe it is possible is one thing, but to believe to the exclusion of all other theories to the extent of promoting ridicule does not make a good scientist.

"Molecular biology is science; homeopathy is pseudoscience."
Homeopathy is a successful method of treatment of humans and animals, with no side effects and is used in the NHS, much to the annoyance of some working in drug companies and the medical profession.

"Vaccination is science; the MMR scare is pseudoscience."
It was the political act of not allowing the separate vaccinations into this country that caused the MMR scare. Who was responsible for this policy? They should be held to account.
A practice, based on scientific principles, that has been successful in the past in one area may not be safe when extended to other areas or when used more intensively.
For example, would questioning how many vaccinations a baby could have before its immune system was damaged be science or pseudoscience
And would you call proscribing Thalidomide for morning sickness scientific? Ridiculing anyone who questions authority, because of a supposed underlying scientific method, is on a very slippery slope.

"Oxygen is science; phlogiston was pseudoscience."
“Chemistry is science; alchemy was pseudoscience.”
I found these statements to be very aggressive and indicates that the speaker does not understand how science works. The whole point of science is that scientists do not get it right all the time (unlike some 'Doctors' it seems) but it is the power of the experimental results and not authority or ridicule that wins the day. The theory about phlogiston was on the road to understanding what oxygen is. The alchemists of yesteryear were experimenting; they were NOT practicing pseudoscience. They were striving to understand how the world works.
Fresnel THOUGHT his bi-prism experiment proved light was a wave; and many believed him! But when Einstein shown that light exhibited particle like properties, there was confusion all around, and it hasn’t been resolved yet!
Hopefully scientists of today should have learnt from this and be a little more cautious when making proclamations about what is is real and what is a good and useful model.
While we want medical procedures to be safe (and tested before hand on other people!) science is a messy human activity and if you try and put their activities into clean standard size boxes you will not produce scientists of any use to man nor beast.

In what way was alchemy false? If it was described as poor science, then it might well be true. Scientists of today do stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before them.

Matt Ridley says “ ... many scientific truths began as heresies and fought long battles for acceptance against entrenched establishment wisdom that now appears irrational ..”
I couldn’t have put it better myself!

Nov 2, 2011 at 1:42 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobert Christopher

I don't think that acceptance of CAGW makes one a heretic. Denial does. Ridley failed to deliver a lecture on "the problem of how to decide when to question the scientific wisdom and when to accept it".

It's a shame, because it's a very interesting question.

Nov 2, 2011 at 1:45 AM | Unregistered CommenterLJ

A couple minor issues. Phlogiston WAS science and was a functional theory until it was replaced with a better theory. In contrast Evolution is not as there are no predictions that it has successfully made and it can't be disproven. Yes, they claim it can be disproven, but, have you ever tried to get an evolutionist to let go of one of the false pieces of evidence like gills on the human foetus or whales with legs??

Nov 2, 2011 at 1:50 AM | Unregistered Commenterkuhnkat

Matt Ridley

Looks like an interesting lecture, but I wasn't clear about the point you were trying to make in this bit:

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).

It was probably clearer with the slides, which I haven't seen, but were you trying to say that the observed warming was much less than expected on the basis of mainstream climate science? If so, that's not right - Sawyer 1972 estimated that the warming by the year 2000 (relative to the early 1970s) would be 0.6 degrees C, and this turned out to be only a slight overestimate. This used an early version of the climate models we use today (Manabe and Wetherald's model), suggesting that they do have credibility when it comes to estimating global mean temperature change on long timescales (even if, admittedly, regional precipitation remains a major difficulty).

However I might have misunderstood your point. Any chance of seeing the slides? It would be really useful, and I'm sure others here would like it too.

Nov 2, 2011 at 1:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Betts

Fantastic piece -- and I don't think it's confirmation bias on my part!

Regarding the insurance analogy, first, lots of people refuse insurance--and rightly so--because the premium's too high considering the expected value of what's at risk.

Second, in this case the money for the "mitigation" premium is much better spent on adaptation. One is guaranteed a large payback with moneys spent on adaptation (done intelligently), but no guarantee of any payback for moneys spent on mitigation. As a problem in risk analysis, there's no contest. See, "Is Climate Change the "Defining Challenge of Our Age?" Energy & Environment 20(3): 279-302 (2009), at

Anteros: As the likely source of the 192,000 estimated deaths from biofuels, I recommend the paper, "Could Biofuel Policies Increase Death and Disease in Developing Countries?" at

Nov 2, 2011 at 1:57 AM | Unregistered CommenterIndur M. Goklany

This is an excellent speech. I remain unconvinced, unlike Matt Ridley, that CO2 generated by humans contributes in any measurable way to our climate, but I am happy for real science to prove me wrong. As he shows, pseudoscience has been rampant in the climate arena for at least two decades.

I like his credits, too: not only m'lord Bishop, but also Jo Nova, Steve McIntyre, Ross McKitrick, Anthony Watts and, most of all, Donna Laframboise, whose outstanding blogposts and book have exposed the invasion of pseudoscience into the workings of the IPCC.

Nov 2, 2011 at 2:10 AM | Unregistered CommenterOwen Morgan

"And no-one sane has ever suggested that past temperatures were forced up by CO2 - except Al Gore by implication and that's the reason there are so many sceptics around."

This is simply not true. Over the past few years I have read several press releases from papers published in well established journals (plus some of the papers themselves) that unambiguously claim CO2 to be the dominant driver of past temperatures. Just search the archives of WUWT, they won't take long to find.

Nov 2, 2011 at 2:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterJJB MKI

It is said scientists do not know how to communicate.. Matt Ridley is certainly an exception to that rule.. Loved his lecture and many thanks for posting it

Nov 2, 2011 at 2:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterIan

A co-worker first informed me of the virtues of "The Rational Optimist", Matt Ridleys web site, this co-worker is a true believer in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming.
I e-mailed him a link to this article, I'm sure he will like the anti-religion connotations but the de-bunking of CAGW will cause him apoplexy.

Nov 2, 2011 at 2:31 AM | Unregistered CommenterStephen Kennel

The definition in this article is perhaps a little too liberal with the use of the term "pseudo science". Freud's theory of the unconscious was "good" science in certain respects, it just turned out to be wrong. Although even Freud became guilty of making his theory consistent with whatever evidence he was presented with.

Anyway, a very nice summing up of the Luke Warmer position.

Nov 2, 2011 at 2:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterWill Nitschke

Experts make egregious errors when predicting because they're specialists; the subject matter they're immersed in acquires vastly exaggerated importance and significance in their minds, and they elevate it to a dominant "driver" of events. Self-aggrandizement is not an irrelevant influence there, in many cases. (Hi, Mike and James!)

Further, the tendency is always to use intuitive linear extrapolation, and the world doesn't tolerate much of that. Something else always interferes, and everything from mitigation to reversal to "step function" jumps occur. Which the experts never see coming.

As with weather, you're going to be right most of the time if you say, "More of the same." Experts purely hate to say that--no drama or drachmas in it!

Nov 2, 2011 at 2:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterBrian H

Great summary of the debate up to this point. Based on my review of the negative responses to Donna Laframboise's book on Amazon, the CAGW proponents seem to think the same way as those who support astrology. The level of confirmation bias is such as to eliminate critical thinking.

Nov 2, 2011 at 2:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterBernie

I believe macro-evolution/abiogenesis is "a theory so flexible it can rationalize any outcome" and therefore "is a pseudoscientific theory."

Nov 2, 2011 at 2:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterMattXL

If abiogenesis is true, then you'll be able to replicate it in a lab. Nothing pseudo scientific about that. The opposite, in fact.

Nov 2, 2011 at 3:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterWill Nitschke


In order to keep apace with ever more evolving platitudes to Matt Ridley for this lecture, I'd like to say, HOORAY!

Nov 2, 2011 at 3:34 AM | Unregistered CommentersHx

Like other commenters, my reading of Mr. Ridley's lecture constitutes an example of "confirmation bias". However, that doesn't mean Mr. Ridley is wrong. Confirmation bias and being right are not mutually exclusive.

Nov 2, 2011 at 3:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterReed Coray

I agree with most of what the author ultimately concludes but I am afraid that the definition of psuedoscience offered is at best no improvement on Popper and at worst is seriously misguided.

It is a terrible piece of philosophy. You can't start by listing things that you believe are psuedoscience and then define psuedoscience as being like those things. The reasoning is horribly circular and ironically perpetuates the same terrible reason that leads to "climate science" to begin with.

The use of the word "debunk" is highly unfortunate as well, because it assumes or implies that evaluating science is simply a matter of pointing out out perceived mistakes in research rather than investigating the actual physical nature of the thing under discussion as it exists in reality.

If you subscribe to the "debunking" school of thought you are ironically a-scientific, because every valid scientific theory must necessary have some "bunk" in it. This is the PROBLEM that science sets out to overcome, the reason why science exists is because "debunking" is a terrible, awful, disgusting, misguided, perverted, pathetic, cheap, psuedo-intellectual, anti-rationalist, nonsensical (insert your own adjectives here) way of thinking and discovering things about reality.

There are very good ways of identifying psuedoscience, crowned by ultimately Popper (although even he doesn't solve the problem completely), those suffice to irrevocably brand climate-science as psuedoscience. This article does not.


Nov 2, 2011 at 4:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterDyno

Why is it that a lecture on confirmation bias and scepticism given at the RSA in Edinburgh contains no mention of David Hume? Has Scotland forgotten its greatest intellectual gift to mankind? (OK, Maxwell is up there too and also forgotten.) Does Scotland not know that it is the source of the very best sceptical philosophy and philosophy of science in all of human history? I think I will have to move to Edinburgh, start bankrolling the RSA, and insist that everyone watch a fifteen minute documentary on Hume at the beginning of each meeting.

Aside from the failure to mention Hume, Ridley's lecture is excellent. It is addressed to the public, as it should be, and it sets forth the case for scepticism about CAGW in clear and direct language. Thank You, Mr. Ridley.

Nov 2, 2011 at 4:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterTheo Goodwin

Of course meteorite damage is covered under general house insurance--they can point to it and say "Why, that's only costing you $0.50 per month, isn't that a great deal?" and since the common house owner knows nothing about the fact that practically no meteorite strikes occur each year, every penny of that is pure profit and they just let the insurance companies keep on gouging the general public (fifty cents doesn't seem like a lot of "gouging', but when you multiply it by the millions of home owners, it becomes a very tidy sum indeed). It's all a very profitable sales gimmick, and one that's entertaining to contemplate for the average person that learned about meteorites in some elementary science class way back when--another example of confirmation bias.

Nov 2, 2011 at 4:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterRockyRoad

An excellent lecture! Must reading for everyone! I laughed heartily to find out that the crop circle phenomenon was started by two guys who hashed out the scheme in a bar - I hadn't known that, and actually hadn't previously cared about the subject. But I am chilled that in the technological age, the so-called information age, that crop circles turned out to be such a fad that it even deluded the guys from Science magazine. It is a sobering thought for all of us.

Nov 2, 2011 at 4:47 AM | Unregistered CommenterLarry in Texas

Richard Betts @ Nov 2, 2011 at 1:54 AM

If Matt Ridley is confused over observed vs predicted warming, then he is in good company: (and following)

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

Thanks, Matt Ridley, Andrew.

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:10 AM | Unregistered CommenterAndres Valencia

"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."

Sad. Religious faith is not psuedo-science. Has this scientist never heard of metaphysics? How about the classical definition of the CARDINAL virtue of prudence? He needs a dose of Greek REALISM to understand terms like "necessary".

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterJamesD

Well said. Pseudoscience has been and is more often then not confused with true science. Karl Popper turns over in his grave far to often. Thank you for defending our philosophy of science it is all that separates us from mythology.

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterDennis Nikols, P. Geo.

When you want to insure property, you ask for rates. If the rate is greater than your asset you refuse to insure. It' s a market decision based on your perception of risk. So, what is the risk of catastrophic climate change?

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:38 AM | Unregistered CommenterGo Canucks Go

A fine presentation marred only by the uninformed reference to 9/11 Truth. Please consider the evidence compiled by Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth (

Here is a good 15-minute overview (you will need to scroll down the page some):

This three-part video (25 minutes) by David Chandler on Building 7 free-fall provides a convincing case, by itself, for controlled demolition. Skip to Part III (10 minutes) if you are short on time.

Please become as informed about 9/11 as you have global warming alarmism.

David Fura
AE911Truth Signatory

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterDavid Fura

Here's another broadside by Matt Ridley, posted on WUWT a year ago:

The best shot?
Posted on November 11, 2010 by Anthony Watts
Guest post by Matt Ridley (with permission, from his blog The Rational Optimist h/t to Indur Goklany)

Nov 2, 2011 at 6:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoger Knights

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.

Its not a tough question at all. Take the UK Climate Act, this is the kind of measure which Taylor is thinking about. It will have no effect on warming if the IPCC is right, because even if the UK were to generate zero CO2 emissions, it would make no difference to warming.

The problem with the measures proposed are that they do not pay out if the catastrophe occurs, and they do not avert it.

The UK Climate Act is like being so afraid of having a commuter train crash that one cycles to work every day down a busy and dangerous A-road. And when remonstrated with, explains that this is insurance against a train crash.

Nov 2, 2011 at 6:35 AM | Unregistered Commentermichel

The insurance analogy:
I insure my house because that insurance transforms the small probability of a very large loss - eg cost of rebuild after destruction by fire - into the certainty of a small loss - payment of annual premiums.

For the insurance company, it works by pooling of risk; in the population of insured people, in any one year, a few people make large claims, more make small claims, and the majority only pay their premiums. The total premiums provide enough to cover all claims, admin costs, and returns to shareholders.

This does not map onto CAGW. Pooling of risk is impossible - if we ´claim´, everyone else claims too.

CAGW avoidance is actually today's version of Pascal's wager.

Nov 2, 2011 at 6:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobbo

Fantastic piece from Matt Ridley, one I think that will become my de facto manifesto. I especially admire Ridley's introductory bold assertion on a whole raft of issues from the trivial and forgotten to the definitely alive and current today, that he states to be "pseudoscience". This seems to have confused some above. Spot the contributors above who find their world view challenged ;)

I've never been a great objector to the concept of consensus in science - you need some agreement on issues that could prove useful to open avenues of further scientific study. You just need to be aware you may have picked the wrong consensus and will have to go back sometimes.

Pseudoscience on the other hand is the situation when you find that there is no further development to be had in a scientific knowledge accruing direction, it is instead only used to gain traction in other spheres of human endeavour such as politics and power, or even just plain moral self-esteem.

Climate is now clearly such a pseudoscience to be ranked among the list of others.

I wish there were some in Ridleys list that challenged my belief system too since the irony of confirmation bias isn't lost on me ;)

Nov 2, 2011 at 6:49 AM | Unregistered CommenterThe Leopard In The Basement

Great speech, Matt.

The only nitpick I have is that you mentioned Barry Marshall, but not Robin Warren. They worked together and shared the Nobel Prize!

Nov 2, 2011 at 7:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobertL

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