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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)

But Barry Marshall was the one who swallowed the h.pylorito demonstrate its effect!

Nov 2, 2011 at 8:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

Vigilantfish, the asterisks aren't references, they are marks to the speaker reminding him to change the slide at this point.

As Richard Betts says it would be nice to see the slides, although it is seems likely that most of them are just illustrative "pretty pictures".

Nov 2, 2011 at 8:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Jones

The analogy between 'action on climate change' and house insurance is ridiculous. They have almost nothing in common.
If an insured house is damaged or destroyed, the insurance company repairs or replaces it. However, if a society invests in 'action on climate change', there is no future obligation to repair climate-related damage. In other words there is no future payout if damage occurs. All the 'insurance' money has been spent on preventative action (of doubtful effectiveness).
A better analogy would be if an insurance company used your insurance money to make your house a tiny bit less flammable, but had no obligation to repair your house if it was later damaged by fire. Most house owners wouldn't call that "house insurance".

Nov 2, 2011 at 8:23 AM | Unregistered CommenterGraeme Olsen


"Because it [CO2 following temperature] says nothing about our present situation"

But it does suggest that it has not been a driver of temperature in the past. The 'coke cottle' effect might be simplistic, but it has the ring of truth. Why would that no longer be the case? The environment has to deal with large inputs of CO2 from natural sources, as well as us...

Nov 2, 2011 at 8:29 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

I don't know about you lot... but I'm missing zedsdeadinthehead already...

Nov 2, 2011 at 8:40 AM | Unregistered Commenterconfused

Well done Matt Ridley, an excellent lecture. Hope it sinks in to the audience that they've been had all along.

Nov 2, 2011 at 8:42 AM | Unregistered CommenterVenter

The emperor has no clothes regarding Anthropogenic Global Warming.

According to the data from NASA and the Hadley Center, the global mean temperature pattern has not changed since record begun 160 years ago.

This single pattern has a long-term global warming rate of 0.06 deg C per decade and an oscillation due to ocean cycles ( of 0.5 deg C every 30 years as shown in the following two graphs.

Before the 2000s:

After the 2000s:

It is a travesty that they have convinced our kids of man caused inundation:

It is a travesty that the educated class has not yet said <I>the emperor has no clothes regarding Anthropogenic Global Warming</I>

Nov 2, 2011 at 8:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterGirma

A very poor effort, confusionist in intent.

Grossly over-simplifying the issues to satisfy a political belief is unhelpful to say the least. of course, over-fishing and invasive species are problems ... but they cannot be separated from changing climate.

"Climategate" was just a PR attempts to get bring to heel scientists who had discovered inconvenient truths ... truths that interfere with profits of fossil fuel companies. The recent BEST study confirms the bona fides of the wrongly accused scientists.

Nov 2, 2011 at 8:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterToby

Good speech Matt, bit I suspect you're going to have to refine the reflections on science and pseudosciences.

Nov 2, 2011 at 8:48 AM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

"coke cottle"? It's too early...

Nov 2, 2011 at 8:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

Where's Zed When you need her! A rank amateur in the name of Toby pops onto the site and posts a comment not unrelated to the thread. If you want to troll properly you should have remarked on the fact that Matt Ridley's trousers weren't pressed properly when he made the speech. That's the quality of trolling expected at this site.

Nov 2, 2011 at 8:55 AM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo


>"Climategate" was just a PR attempt

Really? By whom?

Nov 2, 2011 at 8:58 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames P


A very poor effort, confusionist in intent.

Do you mean Ridley's speech confused you and you think that was the intent?!

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterThe Leopard In The Basement

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

Astronomy is a science; astrology is a pseudoscience.

page 1. and you lost me.

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:01 AM | Unregistered Commenterjanama

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:38 AM Go Canucks Go

That is of course unless there is a legal requirement to pay more for your car insurance than the car is worth as is the case here in the UK for drivers under the age of 25. But then again what can you expect when the government is owned by the insurance agencies and pension funds.

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterLord Beaverbrook

Matt Ridley

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

Well said.

Thank you for that.

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterGirma

If "janama" gets lost at point 1, I suggest that they'd have difficulty in finding their derrier with both hands!
Toby the Troll, nice to attract another one.

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:14 AM | Unregistered CommenterAdam Gallon

Re the insurance analogy, Graeme Olsen is right. An even more accurate analogy would be this: if it were worthwhile avoiding the remote risk of my house burning down by incurring the vast cost of pulling it down and rebuilding and furnishing it exclusively from non-flammable materials, why not treat the world in the same way? The answer of course is that I don’t consider it worthwhile to protect my house in that way (although I may buy a few fire extinguishers). Nonetheless, it’s certain that some houses will burn down. In contrast, there’s no certainty about a global AGW-caused catastrophe.

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobin Guenier

I'm surprised this hasn't attracted more of the Toby rent-a-mob crowd, but then it hasn't made the MSM, so they probably feel no need. They only round up the possee if there's puiblicity.

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

Wonderful essay! I have a couple of nits to pick, though:

1. "Evolution is science; creationism is pseudoscience."

Actually, some of what passes for "evolution" these days, such as abiogenesis, is pseudoscience, too. I commend to you Ben Stein's excellent documentary.

2. "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."

That actually makes sense. Sulphur and particulate emissions in the n. hemisphere, which were high in the 1960s, were greatly reduced over the 1970s through 1990s. That n. hemisphere reduction in SO2 and particulate emissions is consistent with an increased warming in the n. hemisphere over that period.

Of course, what that means is that the attribution of all of the late 20th century's warming to the effects of greenhouse gases is most likely mistaken. Part of the warming was probably due to the reduction in SO2 and particulate emissions.

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterDave Burton

(Another) letter to my MP on this matter. It may provoke a response this time:

I know you're busy, but I'd be grateful if you could did the time to read the speech covered by the following link and then tell me why you're not hopping mad at the government for wasting £18.5billion a year on climate change mitigation, among other things.

In the absence of responses to most of my notes on this and similar topics (land-based turbines being an exception), I assume you believe that the policies are correct and that you just "file" them when you see the heading.

I don't mind this, knowing you have lots of other issues to consider, but I've made a promise to myself that I'm going to live long enough to be able to remind you of all the opportunities you've had to challenge the mad green dash, when it finally dawns on our masters that it's a massive con. I just hope it's found out before the country's economy's been destroyed and the lights have gone out.



PS - the author of the speech has also written a very interesting and uplifting book called "The Rational Optimist" It'd make a good idea for a Christmas present if you want to drop a hint.

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:31 AM | Unregistered CommenterIan_UK

Simply brilliant. Perhaps a game-changer.

Matt is emerging as the standard-bearer of thoughtful, articulate scepticism.

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterNicholas Hallam

I particularly like the point where he says "much of what sceptics say also is pseudoscience".

The simple fact is that the writing is already on the wall for the carbon bubble. Smart investors already know that the gravy boat is sinking and are moving on.

No sane person is now going to invest in this scam ... there's no knowing when it is going to fall apart, the government are already cutting back on solar, small wind is going to be next, then they'll spot that they could convert all those renewable subsidies into billions of tax revenue without any complaint from the public. And what cash strapped government isn't going to be tempted? NOT THIS ONE!

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterMike Haseler

Nice work Matt. Popcorn at the ready!

By the way,

Here we go again!

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterPete H

I think both alchemy *) and phlogiston **) were at one time scientific hypothesis' (or what's the plural?). Whether they were *valid* scientific hypothesis' at that time is another question. If there are many things that are unknown, theories can be wrong. You get prove for it or against it, then you can decide if it is a fact or just an idea that doesn't hold up to reality. These theories certainly became no longer viable scientific theories when evidence mounted against them (and other theories gained weight and were accepted), and any adherence to these became pseudoscience.

*) What is an element? What is a chemical compound/reaction? What is an atom? Was it known back then? Just think ore, metall, alloy, were you "create" one "element", like bronze, out of another "element", like rock/ore. Alchemy was a legitimate line of inquest back then.

**) Phlogiston wasn't a pseudoscience back then, anymore than string-theory is a pseudoscience today. Unlike the string-theory, the theory of phlogiston made testable predictions. The rest you know.

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterTony Mach

Matt Ridley what a masterful speech thank you for being so lucid.

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:46 AM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Whale

A brilliant article. Hits the nail well and truly on the head.

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:52 AM | Unregistered Commenterson of mulder

I offer a different analogy to the insurance question.

Paying Protection Money - The IPCC Mob

AGW mitigation is simply a form of extortion by international bodies, national goverments, corporations, environmental groups and scientific institutions. We are being blinded by outrageous fears over the future and have ended up paying large sums of money in a warming world that has plainly benefitted humanity.

Nov 2, 2011 at 10:01 AM | Unregistered CommenterMac

“How do you tell the difference between science and pseudoscience?”

If Matt Ridley had shown us how to answer this question, he might have had a useful speech. As it is, the talk is a disconnected ramble, exacerbated by some very questionable examples of “pseudoscience”.

The authorship of Shakespeare, Elvis’s current whereabouts, Diana’s death and 911 hardly count as pseudoscience as much as cultural and psychological beliefs.

Leaving those examples aside, Ridley provides six “lessons”, presumably because “using these six lessons” helps us distinguish between science and pseudoscience:

1. The stunning gullibility of the media.
2. Debunking is like water off a duck’s back to pseudoscience.
3. We can all be both [heretic and believer]. Newton was an alchemist.
4: The heretic is sometimes right.
5: Keep a sharp eye out for confirmation bias in yourself and others.
6. Never rely on the consensus of experts about the future. Experts are worth listening to about the past…

Ridley says he accepts the likes of evolution and what amounts to lukewarmism as science. So, “using these six lessons” is it possible to decide whether his evolution or lukewarmism is science or pseudoscience?

(1) isn’t much help, since the media (including the “new media”) feature acceptance of both evolution and lukewarmism.

(2) isn’t much help either, since heretics are as fierce in their arguments as are believers.

(3) Well yes, but in that case Ridley’s evolutionist beliefs may amount to mere alchemism. Or his lukewarmism. Or his disdain for Freud. Or maybe not.

(4) Yes, and the anti-evolutionist heretic may be right, or the greenhouse heretic.

(5) So we all have confirmation bias. Again, this doesn’t help us decide whether evolution and lukewarmism are science or pseudoscience.

(6) Except that Ridley tells us: “So we are on track for 1.2C”. So he’s ready to accept at least one consensus view about the future: lukewarmism.

The main problem with this talk is that the first and second halves bear little relation to each other. The first half comprises some worthy sentiments about how to think critically, but the second half jettisons these notions to present Ridley’s own views about climate science.

What he has failed to do is show us how to tell whether his views on climate science are science or pseudoscience.

Nov 2, 2011 at 10:06 AM | Unregistered CommenterBrendan H

But there is no receipe to distinguish science from pseudo science. At best we have red flags and other mental tools to help us. Sometimes we can only distinguish one from the other by taking a historical perspective.

Nov 2, 2011 at 10:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterWill Nitschke

Good God. Thankyou, Matt Ridley. You've restored some faith in my own profession.

Nov 2, 2011 at 10:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterC Scanlan

I'm a Christian in the sense that I believe the SG blueprint for living is a good one and that there is much which metaphysics explains which fills in the holes left in scientific theories explaining the inexplicable. I'm against dogmatists, fundamentalism and bigotry.

Having said all that, Creationism, as a science, is stupidity. It's not a science in the physical sense and does Christianity no favours whatever. Yet to say that the only things picked up by your senses are the only things in existence is equally stupid.

[I love the button below on your site "Create" Post.]

Nov 2, 2011 at 10:16 AM | Unregistered Commenterjameshigham

Thank you for drawing attention to this excellent presentation. I have suggested to my MP, who is a firm believer, that he might take the time to read it.

Nov 2, 2011 at 10:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Stroud

Here is another interesting lecture by Prof.Tim Palmer "After Climategate and Cancun; What Next for Climate Science?"

Nov 2, 2011 at 10:18 AM | Unregistered CommenterFay Kelly-Tuncay

I've only speed-read this and the comments - but I feel I've seen enough! Here are my two words of summary.

Brilliant. That applies to almost all of it, particularly the religion of CAGW. A religion that has always been exceedingly theocratic, note. That takes us straight to folks like Michael Burleigh and James Billington on political religions. Dangerous things. That makes this message exceptionally timely.

Misguided. On just two things: 9/11 and in the treatment of religion.

The strange collapse of World Trade Center building 7 is the place to start on the basic physics that proves we weren't told the whole story of that day of mass murder. I haven't looked at Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth for a while but last time I did they were on the case without tolerating ridiculous conspiracism. Thanks to David Fura for providing the links.

On religion I'd accept Matt's presentation completely except for this: some worldviews claim to be based on historical evidence. The only one being worth consideration according to atheist philosopher Anthony Flew being that arising from the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, for which Flew acknowledged there is powerful historical evidence. "It's the only game in town" I heard him say as he was interviewed by Tom Wright in London in March 2008 about the possibility of miracles in history. I'd agree with Flew and it opens up another category for me: evidence-based worldviews.

I'd prefer not to call this religion but it seems worth mentioning because Jesus himself still packs a punch in the modern world. And happily those who claim to follow him have almost all given up on theocracy, unlike the advocates of the CAGW religion.

Nov 2, 2011 at 10:18 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

Matt Ridley: "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."

Did he not ever think of looking at the raw data or how many data points were real temperatures?

Some what like the IPCC:
"The IPCC does not, said Solomon, concern itself with the raw data on which papers - published or otherwise - are based."

Nov 2, 2011 at 10:20 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobert Christopher

There's much to comment on about BEST, but one point occurs to me. Their analysis is for land based stations only, and shows continued warming. Most comment about the last 15 years shows stasis, but includes sea temperatures. So the sea must be cooling if both statements are right. Could that be because the cosmic ray theory suggests cooling by clouds formed in humid areas rich in dimethyl sulphide? In other words over the oceans rather than over land.

Nov 2, 2011 at 10:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterTFNJ

Brendan H: "What he has failed to do is show us how to tell whether his views on climate science are science or pseudoscience."

That applies to all.

For the individual: "Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool" - Richard Feynman.

For groups: "science is the belief in the ignorance of experts” - Richard Feynman.

GW is real.

AGW is virtual.

CAGW is a collective fantasy.

Nov 2, 2011 at 10:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterMac

TFNJ don't let BEST fool you.

The published graph is a 10 year average.

Monthly BEST data shows a current stasis in global temps, just like UAH and RSS global temps show over land.

What BEST did was to hide and deny the current stasis - that simply was a crude attempt to pull the wool over the public's eyes.

Nov 2, 2011 at 10:32 AM | Unregistered CommenterMac

To elevate climatology to the level of pseudo-science is disingenuous. If it were claimed that crop circles were Gaia indicating where She wanted Her windmills (and it may have been), then many would believe that. Climatology, its practitioners and its adherents buy into the 'mankind is evil' theme because they want to. Climatologists are the tented protest village of science: nothing more.

Why would I make such a statement? Because any benefits from a warmer world, and there would be some, are not investigated (IPCC). Because adaptation to a warmer world is not countenanced (Lomborg). Because claims that 'the science is settled' (meaning anthropogenic blame) avoids uncomfortable questioning of belief (Beddington et al).

Would any sane person wish to elevate religion to the position of pseudo-science? Phrenologists, phlogistonians, and alchemists have disappeared but eugenicists and malthusians live on. Why? Stick 'mankind is evil' in your theory and it will run forever (WWF, Greenpeace v.2.0). Let that happen and you give them a stick to beat you with, for life.

Nov 2, 2011 at 10:38 AM | Unregistered Commentersimpleseekeraftertruth

Masterly summation of the debate .Thank you Matt Ridley. Appropriate that this skeptic essay was delivered in Edinburgh, home of famous skeptics, David Hume, Adam Smith and other contributors to the Scottish Enlightenment.

Nov 2, 2011 at 10:42 AM | Unregistered CommenterBeth Cooper


Nov 2, 2011 at 11:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterJosh

Interesting that Matt should mention in passing the dietary fat controversy.

I wonder how many here are aware that very similar scepticism and vested interests attach to the consensus view linking heart disease to diet. Take a look over here for example -

Nov 2, 2011 at 11:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterNicholas Hallam

A fantastic piece that I will share. I hope that the audience appreciated it.

Like others, I am usually reluctant to share most skeptical articles, often due to the amount of background knowledge required to understand the skeptical position, but this is a very pleasant read and succinctly explains many of the skeptics' issues with "the consensus".

Internet skeptics have really disappointed me on climate science, seemingly accepting argument from authority far too easily. I hope that both James Randi and PZ Myers read it, for slightly different reasons.

Nov 2, 2011 at 11:26 AM | Unregistered CommenterBoris

Richard Betts
I'm not sure what your puzzlement about the extent of warming is.
Matt argues that we have had about 1/3 of a doubling of CO2 since 1960 and on the basis that the increase would be logarithmic that should translate to about half the anticipated temperature increase.
Given that the observed increase is about 0.6C and that you are also claiming that Sawyer estimated pretty much the same figure over pretty much the same period of time (I can't get at the paper itself; it's behind a paywall) it looks very much as if the increase for a doubling of CO2 is going to be in the range 1.2 to 1.5C which, I seem to recall, is the generally accepted "base" figure.
What Matt seems to be saying is that the alarmist stories of 3, 5, 7, 10 degree increases are simply not being borne out by the observed behaviour of the climate.
The trouble is that if the 1.2-1.5 range is right then there is no need for alarm or panic or beggaring ourselves to "save the planet", is there? And we can spend the money on things that matter like reducing the energy bills to keep our own old people out of fuel poverty and raising the standard of living in poorer parts of the world.
As for the rest of Matt's lecture he appears to be located exactly where I have been for the last several years: there has been net global warming over the last 150 years; there is almost certainly an anthropogenic element in there somewhere but the signals are too vague to be sure what and how much; there is not going to be a catastrophe and if there is there is absolutely nothing mankind can do to prevent it.
Only he says it better!

Nov 2, 2011 at 11:46 AM | Unregistered CommenterMike Jackson

I find some of the comments critiquing the pseudoscience/science divide interesting, particularly the fact that phlogiston for example was part of scientific process of discovery and therefore is unfairly labelled.

What I'd observe is that the end point for the discussion on AGW is not that Matt Ridley personally is able to look at anything in the present and tell you for sure what is science and what is pseudoscience, but that predictions of the future are highly prone to error. And that while within science this is part of the process and indeed the hypothesis proof/disproof approach is essential, where science and politics start to intermingle there are extreme dangers in taking action based on projections, even more so when confirmation bias creates a situation where labels like 'deniers' and 'heretics' can be thrown around. Frankly, we could do without losing £18.7 billion out of our economy chasing what could well turn out to be a cure for phlogiston poisoning.

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterJay

Thank you so much to Matt Ridley for delivering this essay and to this blog for publishing it . . .

The question about home insurance talks to the old 'precautionary principle' chestnut.

Chairman Matthew Taylor might be interested in the following nuggets from: -


" . . . in one sense, though, the precautionary principle might have some utility. If we apply the precautionary principle to itself – ask what are the possible dangers of using this principle – we would be forced to abandon it very quickly . . . "



" . . . curtailing human activity would harm people’s health by making them poorer than they would otherwise have been. This is likely to be the case even if curtailing human activity happened to reduce global average temperatures. When the situation is framed in this way, the precautionary principle dictates that it is policies to curtail economically efficient human activity that should themselves be curtailed.

The outlook for the climate over the 21st Century is highly uncertain. There is a word in the English language to express high uncertainty. That word is “ignorance”. And ignorance is not a basis for responsible government action. We should expect our politicians to have the courage to resist interest groups’ calls for action in the face of ignorance.

The precautionary principle brings to mind the slogan on the Ministry of Truth building in George Orwell’s 1984: “Ignorance is Strength.” Instead of this political principle, we hope that politicians will turn to scientific principles for making public policy . . .. "

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:26 PM | Unregistered Commenterletmethink

Richard Drake,
Please never mention 911 truther bs again.
It takes away from your many positive comments in, sadly, large measure.
The only conspiracy that unfolded on 911 was that of the terrorists who hijacked the planes and flew them into targets or the ground, respectively.
Any serious person who was either watching events unfold, was there or has bothered to study it rationally knows this.
To support in any way the low class sick people who promote some sort of US plot to do this greatly lowers their credibility in other areas.
Religion has no place in a discussion of science regarding science.
And I hope that is the end of this conversation on this.

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:37 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

Magnificently put. I regard the first section, on pseudoscience generally as, alone, fit to stand in company with Feynmann's lecture on "Cargo Cult Science". I learned from the rest, for example never having heard of the political Josiah Wedgewood before.

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterNeil Craig

This is why we are sceptics, we just did not put it in writing. Excellent summary.

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterRolf

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