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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)

I see terry and scott have picked up on Nancy's Nonsense. She's truly full of it. As for the population issue, have a look at

Wealth increases will stop population growth below about 8bn by 2035 or so.

Nov 6, 2011 at 11:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrian H


Nov 7, 2011 at 12:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterBradley Johnson

Hey, guys, go easy on Nancy. She's only off by a factor of 15.7. Compared to Al Gore's estimate of the temperature of the interior of the earth, she's spot-on, almost. Close enough for a Nobel Peace Prize, anyhow.

Also, will some moderator please delete that racist tripe from Christian-trashing troll Bradley Johnson?

Gary Davis, you're mistaken about burning ethanol. While it is certainly a Bad Idea to burn a big portion of the world's food supply as automobile fuel, the fumes from burning ethanol aren't more toxic than those from natural gas or gasoline. Moreover, since all combustion consumes oxygen, there's no inherent toxic side-effect to burning ethanol simply because it contains oxygen. However, you did remind me of a poem, by the late great bard, Ogden Nash:

The ant has made itself illustrious
through constant industry industrious.
So what? Would you be calm and placid,
if you were full of formic acid?

Nov 7, 2011 at 1:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterDave Burton

Pretty good talk. But seldom in world history has clear thinking prevailed over power and greed. Climate change hysteria is but a part of a huge push towards total control of every aspect of our lives by the new world order crowd that most of our current government is made up of.

Nov 7, 2011 at 1:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobert Novack

Robert Novack is correct!

Nov 7, 2011 at 2:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterLee Tuck

"I intend to read the entire article, but initially you made a grave error: evolution in NOT science, any more than creationism is. Evolution, if it happened as is assumed, cannot be duplicated (neither in a lab nor anywhere else), and so it is not science. Very simple!"

Question: Can stellar evolution be duplicated? can cosmology or even astronomy be duplicated ? Can the theory of the Big Bang be duplicated? How about the origins of the Earth? Seems to me your definition of "science" is ....idiosyncratic. IOW nuts.

"Duplicated" has never been the test. Falsifiability has been.

Someone said Evolution can't be falsified. Of course it can: just point to some out-of-sequence fossils such as humans amongst dinosaurs. Oh wait! Creationists have actually FAKED that kind of evidence already, because that's all they've got.

And, of course, Darwin never postulated the idea of abiogenesis. In his first edition of "The Origin" he specifically refers to the first forms of life being breathed into their existence "by the Creator". He took it out of later editions because he got so much heat from believers threatened by the entire theory --- which, IIRC, has been used to create medicines based on thwarting the genetic reproduction of bacteria and viruses. Why do you think your doctor tells you that you MUST take all ten days of your meds? Why do you think MRSA and other anti-anti-biotic organisms have managed to emerge and evolve?

Nov 7, 2011 at 3:24 AM | Unregistered CommenterAnna Keppa

To Whomever Anna Keppa is: There is a science of evolution and if you spent a minute or two understanding any of the elements of a scientific approach to any subject manner, you'd know this. Also, quite briefly, you might look into the lives of both orchids and bacteria to see evolution spinning along unimpeded by people who know so little. Finally, if creationism is the fruit of intelligent design, why is it that men have nipples?

Nov 7, 2011 at 4:15 AM | Unregistered CommenterGary Mullennix


Nov 7, 2011 at 6:14 AM | Unregistered Commenteradam rosenblatt

I am highly sceptical of the global warming effect of CO2 and certainly the statement by one alarmist that increasing the current 0.036% to 0.042% would be disastrous. However, clearly we are using fossil fuels at a vastly greater rate than they are created and the world must develop renewable sources of energy. He may have gone a bit OTT on some issues but he is correct about the alarmists.

How on earth does Nancy equivalence 1.2 degrees C with 34 degrees fahrenheit? To convert you multiply by 1.8 which I make 2.16 degrees F

Nov 7, 2011 at 6:34 AM | Unregistered CommenterLen G

Aw shucks! Who snipped adam rosenblatt's rant? He claims to be a child psychiatrist and is in fact a psychopathic child. Great fun and totally off topic.

Nov 7, 2011 at 8:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterDismanirie

In case it was lost in the long post.

Methane is increasing again. This is easily googled and well understood.

It stopped increasing for a few years when efforts were made to reduce cow flatulence which was a surprisingly large contributor - but that was a temporary stoppage. Now that the first wave of effort to reduce methane levels has been applied, Methane is increasing again. This is just one of Many many errors in the original article.

Taken as a whole, the article is a horribly slanted piece of work. Quite shameful really. The author just wrote it to promote his book and make some money.

Nov 7, 2011 at 8:59 AM | Unregistered CommenterEd

Ed on methane: drivel - livestock (like us) cannot emit more GHG than they (and we) have consumed.

Len G: more drivel when you say "However, clearly we are using fossil fuels at a vastly greater rate than they are created and the world must develop renewable sources of energy". Actually the current rate is trivial, and new sources are being created all the time, as more than half of current CO2 emissions are being soaked up and turned into more hydrocarbons, over and above the constant seepage of primordial storage of hydrocarbons from deep below (Thomas Gold, The Deep Hot Biosphere: the myth of fossil fuels, Copernicus, 2001 (h/t Freeman Dyson).

[BH adds: could you please try to engage other comments more courteously]

Nov 7, 2011 at 12:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterTim Curtin

Great lecture. One disagreement only. Ball lightning does exist. I was holding my two-year old at a window during a thunderstorm. A large ball of lightning-electric blue and sizzling, struck the sidewalk below us and bounced down to the end of the block, dissipating into smaller and smaller balls. The next morning the scoriations produced by each bounce were clearly visible, and remained so.I have seen many great displays of lightning in its many forms, but no more ball lightning. The year was 1945.

Nov 7, 2011 at 12:42 PM | Unregistered Commentercws

Hi there, Nancy here. I want to respond to "Terry", "Scott" and "Brian H." and "Len G.". You are right and I stand corrected regarding the 1.2 degree centrigrade increase translating to 34 degrees F. My mistake, I'm math impaired -- I used a C to F. conversion table but failed to subtract 32. Based on the real 2.16 F. increase it doesn't seem so dire, but any consistent increase in temp. will have some effect ("the Butterfly Effect"). It remains to be seen how long humans can go on doing what they do and not cause their own ultimate extinction.

Brian, I'm glad you have a crystal ball because I'm so relieved to know the world population will stabilize at 8 billion. Sure couldn't make out why from the graph. Wealth? Seems to me as population grows the finite resources we all share will have to be divided more and more thinly among us.

Hey "Ed"...I can't even envision a way to get cows to fart less. Can you explain? I would like to apply that method to my dog! :-)

to "Tim Curtin": Ed is right...cows gas is a significant contributor, although not the main contributor. Len G. is also right, we are using fossil fuels up faster than they are being created. CO2 is indeed being soaked up -- by trees and plants. They "inhale" CO2 for use in photosynthesis, and "exhale" O2 as a metabolic waste product. It will be millions of years before those trees turn into oil and natural gas, tho. What we mine from the earth was living plant matter eons ago and has been underground, subject to enormous pressures, ever since. Oil and gas are finite resources, period, and one day we will reach the limit of how deep we can drill into the earth to get at them.

And anyway, why not fully develop solar and wind as sources of energy? Unlike oil and gas, they're clean and unlimitless! We're gonna need 'em.

Nov 7, 2011 at 4:51 PM | Unregistered Commenternancy

nancy, the whole point of the talk was to illustrate the unknowns, and a more scientific approach is necessary before passing policy, and this reference to a butterfly effect is precisely the problem with alarmists: if the thermometer moves AT ALL.... we're all doomed unless we don the pyramid hat. I see your attitude is unchanged despite the 34 degrees you cited really winding up to be a difference of 2.

yes, oil is finite and dirty and alternatives that work are necessary (solar and wind don't qualify, sorry). But in terms of the climate debate, the planet is incredibly robust and to think that a 2 degree difference worldwide which is a direct result of a trace gas concentration going up which is a direct result of human activity which will directly result in worldwide incredibly arrogant and melodramatic. Even 7 billion of us aren't that significant to mother earth; hurricanes and tornadoes and floods and earthquakes will continue forever. Nothing we can do but accept that earth is dynamic.

Nov 7, 2011 at 7:05 PM | Unregistered Commenterscott

In answer to your rhetorical question Nancy, "why not fully develop solar and wind as sources of energy? Unlike oil and gas, they're clean and unlimitless!" As Ralph Nader said decades ago, "because the oil companies don´t own the sun." The irony is that many of the deniers insist that climate change is a scam by someone to reap financial benefits from putting limits on carbon emissions... Will there be money to be made in carbon credits, alternative energy technology, etc.? Without a doubt. But if you really want to see the source of so much disinformation, just look at the funded studies and policy statements by the oil and coal industries.

Nov 7, 2011 at 7:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterCurt

I find your comments beyond belief. You are the arrogant one if you think we can go on doing as we have despite the experts in the field telling us we face the greatest threat to life on the planet in human history. Simply unbelievable.

Nov 7, 2011 at 8:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterSimon

Scott, Simon

Please keep a lid on it.

Nov 7, 2011 at 9:03 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

This was great, however unfortunately my mind was stimulated in another direction from the beginning "Evolution is science". No one mentioned that Evolution is NOT a science. It is in fact a theory based on pieces of "chosen" scientific material, however the educational system and mainstream media would like everyone to believe that it is a science. Not so!! (Great summary John!!)

Nov 7, 2011 at 11:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterJBJustus

Just as relativity is a theory, evolution is also a theory. And like relativity, it is one that a huge majority of scientists would subscribe to... Because the alternative is what? That some omnipotent being kicked the football to get the game started? Intelligent design?? Adam and Eve in the Garden??

Nov 8, 2011 at 2:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterCurt

Friends, Romans, Luke Warmers, and Avid Stormers .... I come to bury Climate Science, not to praise him. The corpse, having been Riddled by a brilliant, probing right-brain light, has shown many indications of malfunction and even morbidity: pimples, rashes, adipose flab and - worst of all - time lapse discrepancies and evidence of a shocking addiction to dreaded drugs known as 'computer models' - as would be expected to be shown in a forthcoming coroner's report.

But why wait for that formality? 'Dead' is dead, right? Dump him before he becomes infectious, would be my advice.

But what a shock! How could we ever have taken this disintegrating corpus as the pure, linear thinking, fact based, heroic, text-book 'god of truth' we were taught to believe in? We were deceived!

But the Climate - that's another issue. The Climate, methinks, now has a lean and hungry look, directed toward that geo/bio/ethno complex we call our WORLD. And such looks are Dangerous!

Nov 8, 2011 at 3:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterJimbo

"yes, oil is finite and dirty and alternatives that work are necessary (solar and wind don't qualify, sorry)"

That is a very sweeping statement and however sorry you may be, is unjustified. Why exactly do solar and wind not qualify, in your opinion?

Nov 8, 2011 at 5:45 AM | Unregistered CommenterDismanirie

Scott, since when is CO2 a "trace gas"?
Please explain why wind and solar are not viable alternatives, as well as which alternatives are viable. While you're at it, please explain what you meant by the phrase "worldwide catastrophe". Earth is indeed both robust and dynamic, no doubt about it. All the alarmism isn't about saving the's about saving ourselves. Earth doubtless did quite nicely before we ever came along.

Nov 8, 2011 at 5:48 AM | Unregistered Commenternancy

Hi Dismanirie

I'll spare you capacity factors - not that nuclear plants end up being perfect 100%'s - but I just don't see them as viable technologies to replace fossil fuels right now. Definitely not wind. Wind power, at the cost of billions, manages to contribute a whopping 1-4% to the Ontario grid most days of the year. When it costs that much for that little return, it's not good enough to be a replacement. Not only that but they are maintenance nightmares and will become scrap metal within 10-15 years. (not being an expert, I got that info from someone who is in maintenance on wind farms) Solar power is better but I support it more in a localized sense...rooftops, and so a supplement. When PV technology manages to get that much more viable without feed-in-tariffs, it'll "qualify." The maintenance issues with wind manage to disqualify it, in my opinion. No, I'm not suggesting that other power sources are free to build or are maintenance-free.

For the record, I do think it in our supreme best interest to clean up our garbage and end our reliance on fossil fuels. Citing irreparable climate damage because of a trace gas isn't one of the things that motivates me. I think the climate is far too robust and complex a system for human activity, and a trace gas resulting, to have an overly appreciable and direct effect. Massive fluctuations in climate have happened for eons, without us; it'll be fine long after we're gone - whether we wallow and die in our own filth in the meantime or not.

being an Ontarian, watching this site has been my basis for comparison for "viabilities" ... feel free to discount it purely because it's from the CNS... summer days are the funniest nonetheless.

nancy: please read the first paragraph. At 339ppm, if the atmosphere's composition were represented by the 10 feet between the ground and a basketball net, CO2 would account for about 1/25th of an inch.


Nov 8, 2011 at 7:15 AM | Unregistered Commenterscott

The exchanges on this thread with Russell Seitz were, on reflection, quite thought-provoking, once you got behind the very purple prose. At least, I think what he said was thought-provoking, because to be frank, I was not always sure what his meaning was, as he often seemed to sacrifice clarity whenever there was an opportunity for a verbal flourish. His article from couple of years ago in Taki's Magazine (by the way, I hope other long-time readers of Private Eye relish the oblique appearance of Mr. Theodoracopulos, for it is he, in the climate debate) provides plenty of examples of the latter trait. For example, his reference to:

a rubbly Flintstone fill of politically appointed TV weathermen, and geologists and mining engineers righteously defending the turf (and production prospects) of coal and tar sand miners.

is a characteristically orotund, as well as deeply inelegant, put-down for Watts and McIntyre.

Also interesting in that article, and his appearances here, is Seitz's suggestion that climate sceptics should publish more in the scientific literature. At one level, he is absolutely right. Once you know some of the tricks of the trade, publishing scientific papers can be quite easy to do. And it is true that compared to the effort invested in blogs, sceptics publish rather little - Steve McIntyre has very few papers. But he appears to be completely oblivious to one of the main reasons for this: the groupthink and thought-policing within climate science. Steve tried to publish more papers, but the endless nitpicking and gatekeeping appear to have convinced him that as an unpaid amateur, he hasn't got the time or the energy to play that game, especially as the benefits are unclear, given the large readership of his blog (it is not on the RealClimate blogroll, but given the speed with which Gavin sometimes pops up in comments, it seems as though quite a lot of consensus scientists look at it pretty often).

It is true that there are tens of thousands of scientific journals. But when sceptics submit to the 'big' journals, they get black-balled by referees and editors. When they submit to & get published in the minor climate journals, they get criticized for going to small journals, and the editors get told off or fired. Or if they go to journals that are not mainly about climate, they get told off for trying to slip things past the 'expert' referees, AND the editors of those journals get told off or fired. Russell appears to be oblivious to this aspect of climate science - its politics (small-p and big-P). To me, that is one of the really fascinating aspects of this climate story, all the more fascinating that I strongly believe that most of the participants are well-meaning and believe they are being completely upright when they are in fact participating in the stifling of debate.

Nov 8, 2011 at 9:14 AM | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Harvey


I agree with you on one issue. Since only a couple of the Ontario wind farms perform above 30% of average capacity (Kingsbridge and Port Alma), it is little wonder that the results for wind energy generation in Ontario are so pathetic. In my view that is due more to provincial politics and federal tax policies. Very few of Ontario's wind energy projects would have made the cut if considered purely economically.

That said, over the 25 years of development in technology, coupled with improvements in transmission efficiency, we have seen turbines become both more reliable and less costly per kW. Generator outputs are more constant over fluctuating wind speeds as a result of improved gearing and blade response. However, even the most efficient technology will not perform as specified if it is not sited for purpose. All too often, wind generators are installed in locations because that is where the investor owns the property. Then any solution is going to be a compromise at best.

Where local wind is reliable, demand is present and distribution is efficient, eolian energy is viable, and it does not switch off when the sun goes down. California, Denmark, Netherlands, Germany and some UK farms attest to that. To give up on wind energy as a viable alternative would be shortsighted and wasteful. It is not a solution for every country or region, but properly sited installations are extremely competitive with fossil and nuclear capex and opex costs, and do not pollute.

As for solar energy, I also favour it as a supplement, with installation encouraged by a generous feed-in or offset tariff.

Nov 8, 2011 at 11:06 AM | Unregistered CommenterDismanirie

As an American, I take umbrage with the statement that solar and wind are only viable if given generous subsidies. If ALL energy sources saw their subsidies eliminated, solar and wind would be extremely cost effective over night. Dick Cheney who was Sec. of Defense under George H.W. Bush (the daddy) stated that it cost $200 a barrel for the 6th Fleet to protect oil leaving the middle east. This back in the early 1990´s. One can only imagine the cost today. Add in generous depletion allowances for domestic production, the health cost of air pollution, etc., and it is easy to see that fossil fuel is the LEAST cost effect way to go... Even more grating is the fact that we get a relatively small percentage of our oil from the middle east. Our main sources are Mexico, Canada, Venezuela and West Africa. The Europeans, Japanese and now China and India essentially have a free ride courtesy of the American tax payer/sucker.

Nov 8, 2011 at 1:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterCurt

Temperature data over the last 150 is a worthless statistic. For millions of years the Earth was covered by a massive ice sheet that prevented sunlight from striking the ground. In the last hundred thousand years there have been multiple ice ages and warm periods, yet life prevails.
Tying CO2 to global warming violates the First and Second Law of Thermodynamics. The heat flow from atmospheric greenhouse gasses to the warmer ground violates the second law of thermodynamics.
The CO2 concentration increase leads to the negligible raise of the thermal conductivity of air. Carbon dioxide in the cooler upper atmosphere has no effect on the warmer surface below (the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics). The earth’s excess heat escapes into the space. Therefore, there is no glass greenhouse roof on the earth.

Nov 8, 2011 at 2:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterS.I. Fishgal

Your comment is a bit presumptuous. It is based on the erroneous (or unprovable) contention that the earth is approx 4.6 billion years old. Radiometry (and any other methods that date the earth to that age) are unreliable and pathetically wrong....since they hinge on several assumptions.

Nov 8, 2011 at 4:03 PM | Unregistered Commenterdg priore

Good to know that the voice of reason is still alive on your side of the pond. We need more of that on this side.

Nov 9, 2011 at 3:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterDavid Weeks

Follow the MONEY!!!!

Nov 9, 2011 at 4:35 PM | Unregistered Commenterhondo

If you are going to make statements then you should back them up. Where are your data?

Nov 9, 2011 at 6:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterDL

Why is eugenics pseudoscience?

Nov 10, 2011 at 4:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterFredR

Well written and well thought-out article.

When you have the mental energy, take the same 6 lessons/principles you outline in the beginning, and apply them to your assertion that evolution is science. When you dig down and really scrutinize it, you'll find that it too has been propagated by confirmation bias. A good place to start your journey is Ben Stein's documentary "Expelled."

Keep on writing.

Nov 11, 2011 at 1:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterPC

Washed clean of its social Darwinism and racial hygiene connotations, eugenics should indeed be recognised as a science, as it is premised on demonstrable outcomes, which Mendel showed even before Galton developed his theories. The fact that eugenics became so stigmatised by the efforts of politicians to apply eugenics to social manipulation and racial cleansing should not disqualify it from being considered a science.

Nov 11, 2011 at 7:46 AM | Unregistered CommenterDismanirie

Dismanirie - am not sure you understand what you're talking about. Eugenics needs two steps: select/reproduce the good exemplars; eliminate all others.

So eugenics is "science" just like "nuking large parts of the world to eradicate malaria" is "science". We know it would work. Nobody has been criminal enough to do it. Hopefully the tradition will continue.

Nov 11, 2011 at 9:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterMaurizio Morabito

Maurizio, feel free to be sure that I understand the theory of eugenics. I share your horror of its susceptibility to be used for social engineering. However even you refer to it as science, which was my argument also. Spreading biological vectors as a weapon is science also, but that does not make me an endorser.

Nov 11, 2011 at 12:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterDismanirie

Good to hear that Dismanirie 8-)

We should consign the word "eugenics" to history and find some other way to indicate the science of manipulating NON-HUMAN species by way of selecting the few and culling every other individual. It did and still does wonders with flowers.

Nov 11, 2011 at 1:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterMaurizio Morabito

Breezy as it is, this article loses credibility when it says Hansen told us to expect 2-4 deg in 25 years.

Where did he say this?

His 1988 paper gives three scenarios - none come close to 4 deg.

Nov 12, 2011 at 12:44 AM | Unregistered CommentertonyM

The "theory" of evolution observed: the evolutionary adaption of the peppered moth to a black color in industrial England (and back again as pollution abated), the Atlantic tomcod fish mutation that allows it to survive in the PCB contaminated Hudson River, the ever changing spectrum of antiobiotics needed to confront the evolution of resistance in bacteria. There are countless others.

Nov 12, 2011 at 3:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterCurt

Thanks for posting this, it's an incredible lecture! We live in illusion world...

Nov 13, 2011 at 10:33 AM | Unregistered CommenterArtur

The entire climate change controversy is BS. It is an intentional distraction from the real issue of willfully poisoning our living envoronment. How is it possible that we are having the discussion about exactly how much of which types of toxic polutants are acceptable to dump into our water, air and food every day? These man made toxins are just that, "man made". There is no alternative pseudoscience explainantion of how these man made toxins arrived into our envoronment. There is also no disputing that these same toxins are responsible for many of the public health issues and preventable deseases killing millions of people world wide every day. If an individual citizen willfully dumpted the amount of toxin into the environment that any major polluter dose "according to acceptable standards" on a daily basis they would be sent to prison. If this person was of Arabic decent they would get a one way ticket to Guantanimo Bay.

Nov 14, 2011 at 4:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterDavid H

Back in the 1930's Dr. Otto Warburg was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery that cancerous cells could only survive in anaerobic, acidic conditions, yet another scientific fact that conventional medicine totally ignores.

Nov 17, 2011 at 10:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterGW

GW wrote: "Back in the 1930's Dr. Otto Warburg was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery that cancerous cells could only survive in anaerobic, acidic conditions, yet another scientific fact that conventional medicine totally ignores."

Not really; see:

Nov 17, 2011 at 3:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterDave Burton

integrity is such a beautiful thing

Nov 17, 2011 at 11:03 PM | Unregistered Commenterjohn e.

Predicting the future is possible to an extent, but largely is a problem of understanding what can be deduced from currently available data, from what can't.

Also, it involves looking at the available data in ways that others have not done. The problem is - what I think George Soros called - reflexivity. That is, once the observation becomes part of the information environment, people adapt to take account of it, which often renders it obsolete.

There are a rarer class of observations which are not true at the time they are observed, but which become true due to people's attempts to adapt to the knowledge when it becomes generally known. Perhaps Dow theory is an example of this - people are taught that technical analysis works, so they trade to it, which makes it work.

Social programming can also achieve this effect: to encourage socially useful behaviours in the public, a story may be released through the media saying something like (for example): "more than 60% of people now grow some of their own food, up from 49% in 2007". Might this not encourage more people to try to grow their own food, anticipating that there must be some important reason for the purported increase?

Ken Fisher's book, "The only three questions that count", a book on investment strategy, seems to support the idea that not only must the data on which a prediction is based be available, but it must be generally unrecognized. His questions are:

What do I believe that’s wrong?
What can I fathom that others can’t?
What is my brain doing to mislead me?

He thereby takes account of the susceptibility to reasoning fallacies that people are generally fragile to (such as confirmation bias), and leverages awareness of these in the investor to help look for patterns most people are likely to miss because of them.

A very interesting article.

Nov 20, 2011 at 3:48 AM | Unregistered Commenterplishman

Mr. Hill,

I enjoyed reading your article and resonate with your statements about science, pseudoscience, and confirmation bias. There is, however, one area of a topic you included in your list of pseudoscience-topics that is deeply entrenched in true science, and that is the portion of our "reality" that is apparently non-material and which produces what can be classified as paranormal phenomena. The very academic organization, International Association for Near Death Studies ( which began life at the University of Connecticut some 30 years ago, as well as published studies that have appeared in several journals such as The Lancet (article on NDE study by Pim Van Lommel), provide sufficient validation for the reality of several paranormal phenomena, most particularly, at minimum, the out-of-body consciousness and veridical sensory capabilities demonstrated in the Near Death Experience. Science has validated the existence of that aspect of NDE's without question, yet also without determination of an explanation. The other aspects of paranormal experiences are much more difficult to definitively prove, despite statistical probability of validity. There seems to be no critical importance to knowing about or believing anything about these events; nevertheless, the simple proof of the reality of some of these phenomena is unquestionable, interesting, and able to be readily found in current literature. Indeed, studies have been sufficiently "interesting" that they suggest that the evidence associated with these events seems to offer promising results for civilization if they become known the way Galileo set mankind straight about our physical place in the solar system.

Information from my own 20+ years of collected information is available if you or anyone else would wish to have it and would contact me with a request for a sampling.

Edward A. Riess, EE, CNIM;

Nov 23, 2011 at 1:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterEd Riess, BSEE, CNIM

In case someone missed it, the following is the most important idea of the post:

"I’ve spent a lot of time on climate, but it could have been dietary fat, or nature and nurture."

Nov 23, 2011 at 11:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterTxomin

Thank you so much for that. I hope it stays up as I have shortened the link to this:

Nov 23, 2011 at 2:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve Hemphill

And this:

"As to your last charge, conservative Bishops imputing climatological expertise to Horace-spouting viscounts are in no position to criticize ordinary bits of scholarly apparatus, i.e. the vide supra seen above.As a fellow tory I hope your pseudoepiscopal snit subsides, lest it pass peer review at Private Eye, and earn a tenner for Mann's defense fund, which really wouldn't do."

Maybe he's joking with us.

Feb 20, 2012 at 9:10 AM | Unregistered CommentersHx

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