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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)

BTW, who is Angus Millar? He doesn't have a Wiki page.

[BH adds: we was an Edinburgh financier, who left an endowment to set up an annual lecture]

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:42 PM | Unregistered CommentersHx

I like Jay's comment just now (12:04 pm) - Matt Ridley's very nice talk is rather rough-and-ready in its discussion of other examples of science vs. pseudo-science. I think this is fair enough - this was a speech, and if you don't allow rhetorical devices in speeches, then... One way of re-expressing things is that for each of the 'subjects' he mentioned, e.g. 'alchemy', whether it is science or pseudo-science depends on the date and also on the particular process of thought being used by the person addressing that subject. A mystical alchemist dreaming of converting lead to gold probably was more pseudo-scientific than a more practical one dealing with improving some existing proto-chemical process. We can do the same thing for most of the other topics mentioned here by others, though it may be more of a stretch to find - say - a scientific way of approaching a topic in young-earth creationism than it is to identify strands of scientific thought in the phlogiston theory. Basically, Popper's plan to find a rigid criterion of demarcation between science and pseudo-science clearly failed.

I think it is important to recognize that the same dappled mix of science and pseudo-science exists in consensus-following climate science and in climate scepticism. Someone like Steve McIntyre is as close to the purely 'scientific' side of scepticism as you can get, people like James Delingpole mostly less so. And likewise, there's a whole spectrum of scientific respectability on the consensus side. I think that Matt makes this distinction reasonably well, and I also think that his conclusion that "the establishment view [of AGW] is infested with pseudoscience" is correct.

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Harvey

I hate to dissent with a man so obviously certain of his own correctness, but the MMR scare was, at its heart, about the UK Government and GSK using bullying rubbish to stop parents freely choosing to have three single vaccinations, even failing to offer them solely the cost of MMR and requiring them to either pay the difference or have their child vaccinated with MMR against their wish.

There is no question about the logic to this. It is free will of parents ot decide which vaccination course to take, whilst making a political requirement for herd immunity.

The Government was no doubt threatened in some way by GSK as they didn't supply single vaccines but they do make the triple.Single jabs worked fine for decades. Suddenly its MMR or nothing. Why?

MMR was, and is, about denying parents freedom of choice between two responsible courses of action.

Nov 2, 2011 at 12:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterRhys Jaggar

Matt is spot on in relation to the climate science and the failure of most the green movement to see through the computer modelling pseudoscience. But his own confirmation bias kicks in on the latter - I am a long-standing 'green' - having advised Greenpeace, FOE, WWF and all, on a variety of scentific issues (as well as governments, the EU and the UN) and I came to the same view as he did and wrote a 400 page book about it in 2009 (Chill: a reassessment of global warming theory) - so not all 'greens' are motivated to accept the pseudoscience. But I have to admit to having been ostracised on account of the book! By both sides!

BTW confirmation bias also works in relation to alchemy, homeopathy, astrology and crop circles. Alchemy was a coded 'tantric' medtation practice that originated in Egypt and the chemistry sets were a cover to avoid the fate administered to heretics like your Oxford ancestor. Homeopathy works - as a biologist and hence trained observer, I have seen enough of that with my own children - and recent work by Luc Lavoisier might just provide a mechanism (and it might not - but this is science and not pseudoscience); astrology likewise is not a 'science' but an art and system for understanding the incarnation of consciousness, and as Newton said, when challenged on it ' I, Sir, have studied it, you have not'.

Nov 2, 2011 at 1:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Taylor

I have to agree with hunter a little, that the (thankfully few) posts in this threads along the lines of "yes, but 9/11 WAS a conspiracy' and 'abiogenesis IS unproven' leave me again uncomfortable about some of my bedfellows here.

Whilst I'm not saying don't speak, the completely reasonable position that I believe most sceptics take (around 1 degree warming over a century is not completely proven but at least feasible and in line with the science and available evidence) is mostly always out-shouted by the 'no warming at all' posters, making us look a little ridiculous.

Whilst everyone congratulates Matt on his very nice talk, please bear in mind he's supporting the position of Lukewarmer (my own position) and NOT the 'no-warmer' position.

Where are you on this continuum?

No temperature change - Almost certainly impossible
Small rising signal in data - Possible and probable
Large rising signal in data - unlikely and unproven
Positive feedbacks predicting large rising signal - speculative and unlikely
Complete breakdown of ecosystem - fiction

Nov 2, 2011 at 1:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

Scientific heresy, here is one
for when two current combatants run out of ammunition (CO2, TSI, GCR), all in good time.

Nov 2, 2011 at 1:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterM.A. Vukcevic


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.

Thanks for the 'your many positive comments' bit. Now, very briefly, for the rest of it!

I took broadly the same view of 9/11 as you did till 2004, when an article I read by somebody I respected, at least in part, suggested that the collapse of World Trade Center building 7 was the smoking gun of what they considered a very deceptive story. At that time I was most helped by the analysis of Jim Hoffman, who happens to be a award-winning graphics progammer, not far from my own professional neck of the woods. Jim's politics would probably be considered as more to the left than mine - though we both have a libertarian streak - but I was impressed by his strong focus on the science.

Within a day or two I was ashamed of my previous contempt for people like Jim. But that was based on the scientific evidence presented, not the politics. Who knows what would have happened if I hadn't looked into it. I don't buy many of the conspiracy theories of 9/11. But the scientific work of Jim Hoffman, Steve Jones and Richard Gage has convinced me that we haven't been told the whole story. Jones voted for George Bush in 2004 by the way - and I think Gage did too. They like me assumed the official story was right - until something prompted them to look into it. Not many make the journey the other way that I can tell.

Religion has no place in a discussion of science regarding science.
And I hope that is the end of this conversation on this.

Well, it obviously isn't quite the end of the conversation. And once one sees CAGW as essentially a religious phenomenon, I think you can't help but discuss religion. I don't object at all to Matt Ridley doing this.

Religion has a bad press and I fully agree with that. But somewhere along the line I part company with fellow-sceptics like Richard Dawkins. That has everything to do with my reverence for Jesus Christ - a person in history who continues to have an extraordinary influence and has captivated my heart.

You either I think take the view that the CAGW belief system can only be dealt with by banishing all religion or that it needs to be overcome by a set of stories that are far more powerful. I take the second view. But I also prefer not to beat people up about it.

Nov 2, 2011 at 2:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

Richard Drake,

as much as I respect and would defend to the death your right to believe whatever you please, surely you must see that such utterances in the middle of a scientific-political blog thread may actually hurt this particular argument?

Nov 2, 2011 at 2:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterTheBigYinJames

'Grossly over-simplifying the issues to satisfy a political belief is unhelpful to say the least.'

Hmm, glad you agree with us heretics on folks like Hansen, Mann, CRU and Monbiot then. Hope it's cool under your bridge.

Nov 2, 2011 at 2:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichieP

In his RSA talk, Matt Ridley said,

"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."

"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*."

Matt Ridely used ‘ ‘ quotes around the word lukewarmer and rightly so. It is an inane terminology. If someone says there is (within the current state of climate science that for 20+ years has had almost total funding biased toward AGW by CO2 from fossil fuels) a relatively uncertain amount of global warming attributable to fossil fuel CO2, then does it make any sense to call that person a ‘lukewarmer’? I say it is a senseless name for that position. That position, if left unlabeled, is just a state-of-current-science skeptical stance that recognizes the skeptical position has not been fully actualized (due to previous almost total funding bias toward AGW). Is it not expected that when funding is more balanced and broader perspectives on climate are more fully probed that the view of attribution significant will change? NOTE: Call this position 'A'.

On the other hand, based only on some kind of a personal preference, if one takes a position using an a priori postulated premise that man is causing some (but not alarming) warming from fossil fuels then that is a pseudo-scientific position that begs for use of confirmation bias. One in that position looks at everything that happens in climate and in papers for supporting their view and does not listen to contrary information; ergo pseudo-science. If the label ‘lukewarmist’ were used in that sense then it is a pseudo-scientific position. NOTE: Call this position 'B'.

I ask all self-named ‘lukewarmists’ to please step up to claim which of the above positions they are actually taking.

I am an 'A'. So, I am an ’lukewarmist’. : )


Nov 2, 2011 at 3:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Whitman

Great essay - my only objection would be "religion is a pseudoscience by definition." Pseudoscience only relates to things that pass themselves off as a science, not everything that claims access to truth. Art isn't a pseudoscience, and neither is religion. Sometimes a religious movement will act as pseudoscience, but "by definition" really isn't accurate.

Nov 2, 2011 at 3:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterTheFlyingOrc

Would you insure your house against a specific peril, call it CO2 weathering, and pay a premium of $1000 a year, when you could paint your house with CO2 resistant paint for $100 a year?

Shutting down our economy to stop CO2 weathering makes no sense when we could take a fraction of that amount and protect ourselves against the effects of CO2 weathering.

The reason people are drawn to shutting down the economy as a solution is a fear of industrialization, without considering the benefits it has brought. There is a romantic notion that life was better in the past, before we invented the automobile, and we would all be happier and healthier riding bicycles.

The reality is that life in the past was hard and it was often short. Before refrigeration and food preservation, hunger and starvation over the winter was commonplace. Before fossil fuels most of us had to work long hours in the fields to grow enough food just to survive. The idea of free time and vacations was a nonsense. Your vacation was winter, when you had the luxury of free time to sit around and wait for next years crops so you could have a decent meal.

Nov 2, 2011 at 3:17 PM | Unregistered Commenterferd berple

Mathematics is science, Having a maths computer package is far from it.

Nov 2, 2011 at 3:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterCamp David

Do we really want to return to an era when energy was so expensive that the cost of heating water was prohibitive? When the entire family bathed once a week, and shared the same bath water? When the idea of taking a shower, and having hot water run down the drain, would be considered such a waste as to be almost a crime? How far away are we from the day when the government will try and control how much hot water and electricity we use, like your father did when you were a child?

Nov 2, 2011 at 3:32 PM | Unregistered Commenterferd berple

@ fred burple

"Do we really want to return to an era..."

Some politicians advocate it.

Nov 2, 2011 at 3:41 PM | Unregistered Commentersimpleseekeraftertruth

Wonderful lecture. Thanks, Matt.

Nov 2, 2011 at 3:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterRandomReal[]

Sometimes computer modelers have a tendency to think that if
their model doesn’t match reality then reality must be wrong.

Thanks Mr. Ridley!

Nov 2, 2011 at 3:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterCreepy

Mr. berple,

My sincere apologies for the typo in your name (and any minor apoplexy the link may have caused:-)

Nov 2, 2011 at 3:53 PM | Unregistered Commentersimpleseekeraftertruth

To Matt Ridley -

Newton's interest in alchemy is frequently criticized as "unscientific".
But this crticism is invalid. There was nothing unscientific about Newton's
alchemical interests given the state of knowledge in his time.

We know today that gold and lead cannot be interconverted because both
are elements. Chemical conversions between compound substances are
possible by rearrangement of the elemental atoms but atoms of different
elements cannot be chemically interconverted.

However substances do not come with labels identifying whether they are
elements or compounds. Thus air and water were long thought to be elements
but we now know that the former is a mixture and the latter a compound.

So it was not obvious in Newton's time that gold and lead were actually elements
as opposed to compounds or mixtures. Phenomenally the conversion of gold into
lead seems no more unlikely than many physico-chemical conversions which are
possible. Graphite may be converted into diamond and sodium and chlorine into
common salt.

To rule out the conversion of lead into gold requires more chemical theory and knowledge
than was available in Newton's time. It was only much later that scientific knowledge
advanced to the point that further pursuit of alchemy could be shown to be futile.

Your discussion of the distinction between "science" and "pseudoscience" is extremely

Some questions which you might do well to ponder -

In the nineteenth century many eminent physicists such as Maxwell and Lord Kelvin
believed in the ether theory.

Was the ether theory pseudoscientific?

If you think that the ether theory was pseudoscientific then it begins to seem that almost
all past scientists were pseudoscientists.

If you don't thnk that the ether theory was pseudoscientific but that the phlogiston theory
was could you explain what distinguishes the one as pseudoscientific but not the other?

Another question -

Maxwell spent an enormous amount of intellectual effort attempting to develop a mechanical
model of the electromagnetic field. Long ago virtually all physicists have abandoned this idea
and today it is almost totally forgotten.

Were Maxwell's unsuccessful attempts to develop a mechanical model of the electromagnetic
field an example of pseudoscience?

If so it seems that one of the greatest scientific minds of all time was a pseudoscientist.

You seem to use the term "pseudoscience" to include any scientific theory that is eventually
replaced or modified by a later theory.

Since modern physics consists of a number of mutually inconsistent theories e.g. general
relativity and QED, most physicists today hope that in the future more general theories will
be developed which will replace them.

If this happens does that mean that present day physics is a pseudoscience?

Nov 2, 2011 at 4:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnnonymous

Anonymous (4pm): a brilliant and totally convincing critique. I also agree with Jeremy Harvey that Matt Ridley must be allowed some latitude for 'rhetoric'. But like many of us once on a soapbox he went too far. All hail the power of the blogosphere (and anonymous contributions) in allowing such clarity so soon after reading the original.

But the strengths of this piece (and the PDF is wonderful, thanks so much Bishop) far outweigh any weaknesses. This to me is the most powerful paragraph:

‘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.

Note that the atheist Shaw talked explicitly of a eugenics religion. Michael Burleigh brilliantly shows how the Third Reich was political religion writ large on the eugenics theme - with devastating consequences. We are right to be wary of the most radical believers in CAGW today. And I make no apology for trying to reinterpret the Christian heritage of the West in trying to sort this all out. (The deeply flawed heritage. The burning at the stake of Matt Ridley's ancestor as a heretic being just one dreadful example of that.)

Nov 2, 2011 at 4:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

Richard Drake, the so-called "Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth" are the nutcases who want you to believe that:

1. Someone (probably Dick Cheney), somehow had a crystal ball and knew in advance exactly which floors of each of the two Twin Towers would be struck by the airliners, so they'd know where to place explosives or thermite or whatever (since videos of the Towers show that both collapsed starting at the points of impact). And that,

2. The conspirators also knew in advance that falling debris from the Twin Towers would set WTC 7 aflame, providing an excuse for its collapse, too. And that,

3. They planted (magically silent, or near-silent) explosives on just the right floors of each Tower, so that the Towers' collapse would start where the planes struck, and thereby fool people into thinking that the planes did it. And that,

4. Large teams of controlled demolition experts were able to place and wire tons of explosives at numerous strategic points far up in both Towers, as well as in the middle of WTC 7, without anyone noticing. And that,

5. They were able to protect those explosives & wiring from the destruction of colliding airliners and raging fires, and keep them from malfunctioning. And that,

6. They all kept the secret: of the hundreds of people who would have had to have been in on the conspiracy, not even one was ever struck with remorse about killing thousands of innocents, either before or after the deed. And that,

7. The leaders of the conspiracy were somehow able to be confident that none of the other hundreds of conspirators would ever spill the beans. And that,

8. Even the decimated NYC Fire Department was in on the conspiracy, because they wanted to help Larry Silverstein (who's obviously a villain, which you can tell from his name) to perpetrate an insurance fraud. And,

The so-called "truthers" know all this because they're just sure that it's impossible for a large building with disabled sprinklers (due to broken water mains), which is ravaged for many hours by an out-of-control fire unopposed by fire fighters (and perhaps inadvertently fed by tanks of diesel fuel intended for an emergency generator) to collapse on its own.

How many impossibilities does it take to convince you that they’re peddling nonsense? One should be enough. Even the White Queen could only believe six impossible things before breakfast.

BTW, if you visit "9-11 truther" sites like "Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth" you'll only see photos and video footage of the undamaged north side of WTC 7. They never show you photos of the severely damaged south side like this one, with smoke billowing from nearly the entire south face of the building, from the out-of-control fires within. Do you wonder why? It is because the "truthers" want nothing to do with the truth.

Now, please, can we cease cluttering this thread with "9-11 truther" arguments? If you want to continue the discussion, click on my name for my email address.

Nov 2, 2011 at 4:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterDave Burton

@Dave Burton

Thank you. I hope this is the last word I ever hear about 9-11 conspiracy on a climate blog.

Nov 2, 2011 at 4:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterJJB MKI


Funny, I was just out in the garden when the same thought about Newton occurred to me. I agree therefore that the example is not a good one. I think Matt's point probably still stands though - people can be both scientist and pseudoscientist.

Nov 2, 2011 at 4:55 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

I wonder whether Annonymous has a point here.

Matt says that Newton was both a scientist and a pseudoscientist. The first for obvious reasons; the second because of his study of alchemy. I am almost totally ignorant of alchemy and of Newton's interest in it, but it seems to me possible that he could have engaged with its concepts in a scientific way, setting up theoretical structures, teasing out observable consequences from them and performing experiments to test them. This would not have been pseudoscientific, though it might have been fundamentally misconceived.

The point is surely that the distinction between scientific and pseudoscientific thought lies in method, and particularly in a willingness to lay one's ideas open to scrutiny by others and by experience.

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterNicholas Hallam

@Anonymous - "I think Matt's point probably still stands though - people can be both scientist and pseudoscientist."

Nov 2, 2011 at 4:55 PM | Bishop Hill

Matt Ridley does cover the idea of someone being both scientist and pseudoscientist as follows:

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

In my life experience, the occurrence in mankind of 100% reasoned internal and external consistency in ideas and/or actions is exceptional.


Nov 2, 2011 at 5:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Whitman

Alchemy could only be a pseudo science after we came to understand the make up of the elements, up to that point it was a perfectly respectable (if potty!) scientific interest.

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:35 PM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

Dave Burton,

All I can say is WOW. Thanks so much for that response. You've succinctly put into words so many of my thoughts about the 9/11 arguments.

All of these "Yes, but ..." counterpoints effectively reinforce Matt Ridley's thesis. All of us are prone to confirmation bias that leads to pseudoscience. Rather than looking for evidence that supports any of these particular counterpoints, be your own devil's advocate and look for evidence that will refute it.

On that note, I need to go read some Feynman.

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterEarle Williams

Well said Mathew.

An informative and enjoyable lecture and a useful summation of many of the questions that have motivated many to become skeptical of 'the consensus'.
Mathew Taylor's analogy appears to me as relevant as Sir Paul Nurse's suggestion that AGW skepticism was on a par with rejecting medically based therapy in the treatment of cancer.

Perhaps Mr Taylor and Sir Paul are related ...... I think we should be told!

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterTG O'Donnell

On Newton and alchemy -- thanks for these comments, by the way -- my memory, from Richard Westfall's biography is that Newton was not just trying, as a chemist, to turn lead into gold. He was doing so with quite a bit of mystical mumbo jumbo. The subtitle of Dobbs's book "the foundations of Newton's Alchemy", which I have on my shelf, but have not till now read much of, is "the hunting of the greene lyon". Alchemy faded into astrology at one end and chemistry at the other. I don't think Newton stayed in the shallow end. So I rather incline to Brewster's view:

"In so far as Newton's inquiries were limited to the transmutation and multiplication of metals, and even to the discovery of the universal tincture, we may find some apology for his researches; but we cannot understand how a mind of such power, and so nobly occupied with the abstractions of geometry, and the study of the material world, could stoop to be even the copyist of the most contemptible alchemical poetry, and the annotator of a work, the obvious production of a fool and a knave."

In any case, Newton's passionate exploration of the Arian heresy surely counts as pseudo-science.

As you can tell, though Newton was clearly a great mathematician and physicist, I'm not a Newton worshipper. I'm half persuaded that he pinched many of his best ideas from Hooke, including the laws of motion, and deliberately disguised his tracks.

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterMatt Ridley

Dave Burton:

Now, please, can we cease cluttering this thread with "9-11 truther" arguments?

But you're the one who's begun to argue the points in detail. I didn't do that, I just gave the names of the people I'd found helpful on the subject and left it up to the reader whether they wanted to google those names or not. Likewise David Fura at 5:59AM gave some links rather than engaging in the argument itself. (And it was really out of respect to David that I added my piece. It's not always the most comfortable or convenient thing to say you believe. I must get that seen to one day: my feelings for the underdog. It always costs more than I like.)

Instead of arguing back on any of your points, let me simply tell you about my interaction with a noted medical doctor on this. Rob's testified to House of Lords committees in his area of specialism and lectures at a well-known university on medical ethics as well as being a practitioner. He's now called Professor he told me the last time we met. He's an intelligent guy, in other words, with a scientific training.

I happened to be in Rob's home as I watched a repeat of a programme dealing with the collapses of the three WTC towers. We ended up discussing the matter very briefly and Rob said "Yes, I always felt that the buildings came down too fast." That's all I remember him saying. He isn't as far as I know signed up to any of the theories you pour scorn on (some of them rightly I think, by the way).

But those three buildings did come down very fast. How did that happen? That's the simplest question that leads into a very disturbing set of subsidiary ones. I wish it wasn't so.

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

Yes, he was certainly not a good egg. His treatment of Flamsteed was pretty appalling.

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:45 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Mac: “That applies to all.”

Yes, except that Ridley is offering us six “lessons”. A lesson is a teaching device. It aims to provide useful information. But in Ridley’s hands, his lessons are mere bromides, because he doesn’t use them to show us how to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.

Further, Ridley begins his talk by confidently asserting without argument that some subjects are science and some are pseudoscience.

But he immediately begins to undermine his own position with his six lessons. In his dissing of creationism, perhaps Ridley is suffering from confirmation bias, perhaps the heretics are right.

Or maybe the heretics are wrong. Unfortunately, Ridley’s six lessons are of little use in making these judgements.

“GW is real.”

If Ridley’s talk is “superb” and “brilliant”, as some are claiming, it should be possible to use his six lessons to show that “GW is real” is a scientific and not a pseudoscientific statement. I don’t think it can be done. If not, his lessons are just feel-good exhalations, of little practical use.

There’s another irony here, not necessarily related to your comments. Ridley’s lesson number 1 is “the stunning gullibility of the media”. And yet, here we are, participating in a media event, and the respondents who declaim the speech as “superb” and “brilliant” are apparently agreeing that they are exhibiting stunning gullibility.

Well, I’m not, at least not as far as this speech is concerned. So much for lesson number 1.

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrendan H


With which statements and assertions of fact in the speech do you take issue? The speech quotes examples; all you do is critique the construction of the argument.

Nov 2, 2011 at 5:55 PM | Unregistered Commenterdiogenes

Matt Ridley:

In any case, Newton's passionate exploration of the Arian heresy surely counts as pseudo-science.

How so? I hold no brief for Arius but surely there was a legitimate debate to be had in his own day and Newton was entitled to form his own view later. The naming and shaming of heretics like Arius soon led on to physical torture and death from the self-appointed keepers of orthodoxy, based on the novel arguments of Augustine of Hippo, taking one phrase of Jesus completely out of context ("compel them to come in" from a parable). That's a terrible stain on church history.

Anyway, forgive me for being passionate on that! But is that your problem with Newton, that he was passionate about such matters? How can this count as pseudo-science? You can't put terms like "fully God and fully man" in a test tube. I think Newton understood that. But his faculty of reason was still engaged when he explored such matters. At least he would say so - and so would I.

Nov 2, 2011 at 6:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake


Yes, he was certainly not a good egg. His treatment of Flamsteed was pretty appalling.

Not a great Christian in terms of character, I think we'd all agree. I must read that book some day, thanks for the reminder.

Nov 2, 2011 at 6:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

Brendan H on Nov 2, 2011 at 5:46 PM
"There’s another irony here, not necessarily related to your comments. Ridley’s lesson number 1 is “the stunning gullibility of the media”. And yet, here we are, participating in a media event, and the respondents who declaim the speech as “superb” and “brilliant” are apparently agreeing that they are exhibiting stunning gullibility.

Well, I’m not, at least not as far as this speech is concerned. So much for lesson number 1."

Brilliant ! And neither am I!

Nov 2, 2011 at 6:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobert Christopher

diogenes Nov 2, 2011 at 5:55 PM

With which statements and assertions of fact in the speech do you take issue? The speech quotes examples; all you do is critique the construction of the argument."

Here are some from this thread that highlight some of the detail that I think needs to be addressed:

Nov 2, 2011 at 1:42 AM | Robert Christopher
Nov 2, 2011 at 1:50 AM | kuhnkat
Nov 2, 2011 at 4:20 AM | Dyno
Nov 2, 2011 at 9:21 AM | Dave Burton
Nov 2, 2011 at 9:41 AM | Tony Mach
Nov 2, 2011 at 10:06 AM | Brendan H
Nov 2, 2011 at 10:38 AM | simpleseekeraftertruth
Nov 2, 2011 at 12:04 PM | Jay
Nov 2, 2011 at 12:51 PM | Rhys Jaggar
Nov 2, 2011 at 1:02 PM | Peter Taylor
Nov 2, 2011 at 3:11 PM | TheFlyingOrc
Nov 2, 2011 at 4:00 PM | Annonymous
Nov 2, 2011 at 5:46 PM | Brendan H

Nov 2, 2011 at 6:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobert Christopher

Quote from the lecture:
‘Lesson number 2: debunking is like water off a duck’s back to pseudoscience.’

This, to me, is a key point. Scientists who are markedly unwilling to discard theories when they have been contradicted by observation or experiment are in grave danger of conducting pseudo-science.

The extended defence of phlogiston was described here ( as follows:
‘Phlogiston theory evolved throughout the 18th century, because many experiments were being performed which needed to be explained. Most of these experiments were being performed by Antoine Lavoisier (the father of modern chemistry) and his followers (the Antiphlogistians). They would come up with an objection to phlogiston theory, and the Phlogistians (usually Priestley) would modify the theory to fit the new experiment. As the years went on, more and more Phlogistians became Antiphlogistians, until only Priestley was left.’

The distinction between the clear scientific integrity of the early phlogistians and the persistent clinging of Priestley (on this particular topic, and according to his particular account) is not sharp, but it seems perfectly reasonable to conclude that phlogiston theory became pseudo-science over time. The efforts of Einstein and others to find fault with quantum theory helped and encouraged the enthusiasts to refine and develop it. Perfectly reasonable. Exciting science. But when defence consists, for example in the case of the earth-centric model of the solar system, of adding more and more epicycles without apparent limit, then the resulting mess is once again pseudoscience I would say. The quantum physicists did not do that, although I must say some of modern particle physics with its plethora of particles and properties does make me wonder about the direction it may be going in!

I guess a similar case can be made for the other items – if you take them too far, if you seem wedded to their support through thick and thin, and either ignore contradictory data, or do a posthoc modification of your theory to accommodate what it previously did not or could not predict, then you are surely at risk of heading into the pseudo-science end of the range.

I think the commenters on this in this thread, including ‘anonymous’, have made some excellent points, not least highlighting difficulties with the term ‘pseudoscience’. It cannot just mean ‘science retrospectively shown to be false, or misleading’. But I think Ridley admitted as much in noting that ‘the distinction between science and pseudoscience is not always easy’. His list of examples spans those based on faith and incapable of disproof such as creationism, to those which seem based on such weak effects that the data may take a lot of amassing before disproof is established (homeopathy), and those which are wishful thinking (alchemy). That all makes for a big target!

Anyway, I remain immensely impressed with the lecture. I think it had flair and I imagine it had great impact. I would love to see it widely disseminated, not least to encourage further discussion and elucidation of specific points. It is surely not the last word, and was surely not intended to be.

Nov 2, 2011 at 6:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Shade

in a word: superb

Nov 2, 2011 at 6:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterBaron Pippin II

diogenes: “all you do is critique the construction of the argument.”

Of course. An argument is a series of connected steps leading to a conclusion. Since Ridley’s argument is confused and disconnected, his claimed facts are beside the point. He has not achieved what he sets out to do: use his six lessons as a teaching device. That’s a fail.

Shorter Ridley:
- There’s scientific heresy and science and pseudoscience
- Some establishment views are science, some heresies are pseudoscience
- I’ve learnt six lessons
- Using those lessons, I’m going to show that at least one establishment view is pseudoscience
- Enough with the lessons, here are my favourite talking points about climate science.

Nov 2, 2011 at 6:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrendan H

You are a lost cause on 911.
911 is exactly what we saw on TV: An attack by trained terrorists under guidance of Al Qaeda based in Afghanistan.
Building 7's collapse, from uncontrolled fires and serious debris damage from the Twin tower's collapse after several hours is notable only in that it was completely predicatable. It was not unexpected by the engineers I worked with who also predicted the collapse of the towers moments after the plane's struck. Your trolling that particular popular delusion only reduces your credibility in other areas, and harms serious people by your proximity.
Sorry to see you wander if into couldabeen land. I hope you can come back some time.

Thank you for your kind words. I happen to agree with your continuum list and am also a lukewarmer.

Nov 2, 2011 at 6:50 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

Nov 2, 2011 at 6:28 PM | John Shade

" ... to those which seem based on such weak effects that the data may take a lot of amassing before disproof is established (homeopathy)"

I think you mean until we understand what is happening.

I have used homeopathy for over 40 years and found it to be very effective. It works on humans and animals, often with better results than drugs, with no side effects.

What we do not have is an explanation of how it works, or even know what it is that is working.

Nov 2, 2011 at 7:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobert Christopher

Matt's lecture is inspirational. In fact what came to mind was the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. Could it be that, outnumbered and against a well-funded opponent, sceptics find themselves on the brink of an Agincourt?

Nov 2, 2011 at 7:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterVerity Jones

Robert, 7:12pm Thank you for that. My impression of homeopathy is that there are a great many people who believe that it has helped them, but despite that it has proven so very difficult to get substantial results from randomised control trials in particular that the medical establishment, at least in the UK, has come out against it. Yet it appears relatively easy to demonstrate that placebos can have a statistically significant, and appreciable, beneficial effect, e.g. as implied in claims such as this one: '"Twenty to thirty percent of the benefit seen in rheumatism drug studies are due to the placebo effect. Real changes in health go along with the belief that patients will get better," says researcher Jon C. Tilburt of the Mayo Clinic.' (
I think I deserve to be pulled up for my comment, since it seems to assume that homeopathy is ineffectual. Of course, I cannot claim that. But in view of the considerable difficulty of showing benefits overall (I do not wish to dispute your own experience, or that of other people I know), I think homeothapy is a candidate for lumping in the pseudoscience end of things. It may be that we just don't know enough yet to formulate the right questions, or that our measurement techniques are still too crude. As these improve, I could suppose the subject could become amenable to scientific methods. But right now it seems more a matter of advocacy than science.

Nov 2, 2011 at 8:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Shade

James P
For some reason I have no clear ability to think sensibly on this point any longer, which could mean a number of things - two of which are - a) you're absolutely right, and b) I didn't know what I was talking about.
They may even be connected...

As I say, for the moment I have befuddlement where clarity once reigned. Odd, because for a while I was sure the answer was obvious (hence my vehemence..)

I will endeavour to get back to you should I reconvene with my former understanding. :)

Nov 2, 2011 at 8:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnteros

Reading the speech again, and through this thread, I've got to agree with Brendan H, it could do with a lot of work. I indulged in some kneejerk hyperbole around this speech 'cos it ticks my every prejudice, yet I see I wasn't alone, even when some others had their pet reservation ;)

To Robert Christopher's list of people who attempted to "critique the construction of the argument" at

Nov 2, 2011 at 6:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobert Christopher

I would venture to add a couple of others

Nov 1, 2011 at 11:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnteros
Nov 2, 2011 at 12:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterVincent Gray

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterThe Leopard In The Basement

Great essay. But the attack on religious faith as pseudoscience is incorrect and irrelevant.

Ridley: "Religious faith ... explicitly claims that there are truths that can be found by other means than observation and experiment."

But there ARE truths which can be found by other means than observation and experiment. To deny this is to undermine science itself. And this contention has nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with faith.

Faith is assenting to X, not because you have directly established X yourself by observation, experiment or deduction, but because you have it from a reliable source or authority. In this sense, most of our knowledge (including Mr Ridley's) comes via faith. I believe the horse Dunadin won the Melbourne Cup last Tuesday. I wasn't at the racetrack to watch. But I believe the newspapers and media are reliable - at least on this point. This is faith - belief in reliable authority. It is reasonable faith.

In fact faith must go deeper than just trusting others' reports. Faith grounds the empirical observations that in turn ground science. For: we trust our senses, which supply the observations and enable experiments. We have faith that what our senses tell us is reliable. THAT piece of knowledge - that our senses are reliable - doesn't precisely come through the senses, does it? How could it? "I believe that my senses are a source of objective knowledge because my senses tell me this is so." A circular argument.

Yet is it not eminently reasonable for us to have this faith in the senses, a truth which comes from other than empirical observation? And how could we build up any body of scientific truths without it?

Now so far I have been speaking of non-supernatural faith, or let's call it "natural" faith. Supernatural faith is just another form of faith, and just as reasonable - nay, more so. This shouldn't be controversial: even atheists can assent to what will I say here, without taking the step of believing the supernatural truths religious believers hold.

Natural faith is belief in a reliable natural source. One's trusted friend. One's doctor. One's calculator or microscope. The newspaper. The senses.

Religious faith is simply: belief in a reliable supernatural source. Some or indeed much of the truth revealed by that source may well be non-empirically verifiable. But if the source is reliable, surely it would be irrational to disbelieve the truths, just because one couldn't verify them. Consider: I may never attain the medical knowledge to verify the truths revealed to me by my gastroenterologist. Does that mean it's irrational for me to accept his diagnosis?

Of course, atheists deny that there is a God in the (say) Christian sense. A fortiori they will deny there is such a God who reveals non-empirically verifiable knowledge to man. Fair enough. But they must concede that, were such a God to exist, it would be irrational not to believe him, even more so than for me not to believe my gastroenterologist, who, after all, is not all knowing and the source of all being.

If such a God exists, it is the most rational act one can possibly perform to believe any truths He reveals.


1. There are natural truths that are not empirically verifiable. Some are not empirically verifiable here and now (the winner of the Melbourne Cup, to me). Some are in principle not empirically verifiable (that my senses deliver objective knowledge). Perhaps most of our knowledge is comprised of these truths, arrived at through natural faith rather than independent verification.

2. It is therefore reasonable for religion to claim the existence of non-empirically verifiable truths, since we've shown this is true even apart from religious claims. But if the religious claims about God are correct, then it is perfectly reasonable to believe truths (whether empirically verifiable or not) that He reveals, since the motives of credibility are infinitely stronger.

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterHugh

I've come late to this post because of traveling but I must add that Matt's lecture is an elegant tour de force in condensing all the scientific and political nonsense of the green religion into one brief layman-friendly presentation.

Maybe the BBC will invite him to present it as a Reith Lecture ;-)

I must say I'm saddened and concerned to see that there are some 911 "truthers" lurking here. The warmist crowd are ever vigilant in looking for evidence of irrationality or mental instability on the sceptic side and any reference to such looney-tunes stuff is just giving them an open goal.

I had a go at reading some of their "technical" stuff a few years ago but stopped when I noticed that their "engineering professors" didn't realise that steel softens well below its melting point.

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterFoxgoose

I would suggest a good example of a man who was both a scientist and a pseudo scientist was Dr Linus Pauling who is one of the few individuals to have ever won multiple Nobel prizes for his scientific work. On the other hand, he also started the "cult of Vitamin C". He believed mega doses would cut the incidences of colds in half, as well as a treatment for cancer... there was, of course, no reasonable scientific evidence to support such claims.

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterWill Nitschke

Remember this. There are NO non-believers in Hell

Nov 2, 2011 at 9:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterP. M. Saeger

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