Alick Dowling, sceptic 1920-2016

It has to be admitted it would seem unlikely that this 95-year-old retired GP would be the first climate sceptic to be honoured by this blog in the week of his passing. As will I hope become clear, I have my reasons.

To make it odder, I only met Alick, briefly, in the last three years of his life. Certainly I liked him a lot and it seems safe to assume, based on what his daughter relayed yesterday, that he thought I was alright as well. But from limited knowledge, compared to Caroline, I’d like both to pay tribute to Alick and draw out some lessons about sceptics generally from his example. (Any erroneous ‘facts’ stated in the process will I hope be corrected by those who know better.)

Alick Dowling served the people of Bristol with devotion as a general practitioner and during that time, and in his retirement, he became a sceptic in two broad areas of contemporary debate: human diet and climate. He believed that to lose weight people in the affluent West needed to eat less. (Caroline gave me his booklet on the subject yesterday. Her assurances that it wasn’t meant personally were particularly unconvincing. Thanks a bundle!) And through Number Watch, at some point in his retirement, Alick became aware of another strange blog, out of Toronto, called Climate Audit. He read Steve McIntyre, then related bloggers such as Anthony Watts and Andrew Montford, and became convinced, based not just on his own scientific training but his experience of vested interests, that there was something seriously amiss in the conventional wisdom on climate change.

Alick’s concerns about dietary fads are interesting as we think about this. He considered the contemporary demonisation of cholesterol to be ill-founded. In particular the claims made about the important role of statins got his goat. One aspect that’s notable here is that the medical ‘consensus’, such as it is, seems to have moved strongly in recent years in the direction of Alick Dowling’s convictions.

Here are three other things I know about Alick: he had an acerbic wit, he was a gifted amateur painter and he was, like his daughter, a devout Catholic. The wit and the faith came out when he sat up in bed in his final hours and complained that he hadn’t been certified! His family replied “Well, you haven’t died yet!” It was, in ways that many of us would hope for, a good death: good health and mental agility till an advanced age, then a short illness over one weekend, giving time to gather family round the bedside, with the doctor-patient alert throughout, before he passed away peacefully on Monday. (The priest was called and did the necessary on Sunday, where necessary is a function of the Catholic branch of my own faith in our risen Lord, Jesus Christ. I really don’t know either!)

Now let’s look at Dowling the Denier. He believed in stupid superstitions like that Roman Catholic crap, as we’d expect. He was a creationist, for goodness sake, just as Adam Rutherford assured us, at the Battle of Ideas, Nigel Lawson was. (Or as good as.) And Alick clearly believed in conspiracy theories about the vested interests of the food industry and wealthy proponents of dietary fads controlling the conversation about weight loss in the West. No wonder he was also a climate sceptic.

It doesn’t quite ring true, does it?

Lord Lawson and his friend Matt Ridley at the Global Warming Policy Foundation are atheists, as far as I understand the matter. Their close colleague at the GWPF, Lord Donoughue, is a devout Catholic. On the other side John Cook like me professes to be some other less-conformist follower of Christ. I don’t know about his co-author and fellow conspiracist-hunter Dr Lewandowsky. Clive James is one of the most interesting atheists, to my mind, who is also clearly a climate sceptic, because he recently fingered the fear of death as a major driver of climate alarmism. I strongly agree. But you cannot get anywhere else with this angle. When I mentioned Rutherford’s silly creationist analogy for Lawson to Caroline yesterday, with the c-word in this mocking context denoting a young-earth creationist who disbelieves in modern geology, she asked me if I knew the organisation Christians in Science. Indeed so – I’ve heard my old Cambridge lecturer and quantum physicist John Polkinghorne speak engagingly on the five arrows of time at a CiS event in London, opening up the conversation to process philosophy and open theism, if those terms mean anything. John and other such luminaries wouldn’t dream of rejecting modern geology, the foundations for which were laid in the 19th century by the careful observations of another Church of England vicar, Adam Sedgwick. Worldviews are a whole lot more varied and nuanced than those who wish to call us deniers and dismiss our opinions, without the bother of thought, make out.

Which brings me to the conspiracist hunters. There is a very small grain of truth out of which Dr Lewandowsky, now of the very same parish as Alick Dowling, builds mountains of malicious piffle. Climate sceptics tend to be independent thinkers who do not fall in line with popular opinions, backed by considerable commercial power and vested interests, if they do not seem to be supported by decent evidence. To put it in the vernacular, we can be difficult buggers. And that’s it. A big reason to listen to sceptics – and to listen carefully. Such a man was Dr Dowling.

One last thing. A couple of months ago Alick said to his daughter Caroline K (as she is known on Bishop Hill) “How on earth did all those famous people like Anthony Watts, Andrew Montford, Nic Lewis, Josh the cartoonist and James Delingpole end up in our sitting room in September 2014? That was one of the happiest days of my life.” There is much I haven’t achieved in my life but that meant a lot.


  1. Thanks Richard. It’s good that some at least among us (not me) get out and interact with other human beings. I don’t suppose any of us except you had met Aleck. It’s good that he has at least your article here to be remembered by in the small circle of climate scepticism.

    I hadn’t read the Clive James poem, despite it being on a post here which attracted 120-odd comments. (It must have been the week I was in the castle basement for retooling.)

    It’s pure coincidence that there are three new articles up here at the same time, all of them quite sombre. We clisceppers don’t interact much, living in different time zones, possibly on different planets. Given that studies show a predominance of elderly rainbow-coloured males among climate sceptics, I suppose it’s on the cards that there will be other articles like Richard’s in the decades to come. (Decades? When I started this just over a year ago I thought it would be all over by Christmas.)


  2. thank you Richard for the obituary for my father – he will enjoy it!

    By the way, just in case they read this blog, there were others at the party you organized here in Bristol in addition to those you named – David Holland, Tony Brown, Barry Woods, dwestonfront [as he’s known here – ed], and James D’s father, and a couple of others whose names escape me at present.

    The occasion of course was when Stephan Lewandowsky had invited Michael Mann and John Cook to give talks at Bristol University, and the gathering we had was to fortify us all for the Mann talk.


  3. Thanks Caroline. It was great to see you again on Thursday.

    The rather remarkable event in your sitting room on Tuesday 23rd September 2014 at 4pm was invite-only. The general rule was that those present had to be known and trusted by Anthony Watts or Andrew Montford. Two people were invited because I saw them on Friday for John Cook’s talk but didn’t realise they would not be in Bristol for Mann: Marcel Crok (who was back in Holland) and Manic Beancounter (of this parish). One person was invited but didn’t make it because some satire they wrote in the meantime went wrong! Sorry, Ian (even more centrally of this parish). Did David Holland’s wife Kathleen actually attend? She was certainly invited as well. Assuming yes, the official attendance list was:

    Alick Dowling
    Andrew Montford
    Anthony Watts
    Caroline K
    David Holland
    Ian Woolley
    Kathleen Holland
    Michel Opdebeeck
    Neil Catto
    Nic Lewis
    Richard Drake
    Stephen Buckle
    Tony Brown

    Then there were those who were invited, declined but turned up anyway. Great to see you, Barry! And those we had no idea knew about it but were delighted to see bowl up: James Delingpole and his Dad.

    At my suggestion Nic Lewis gave an excellent summary of the climate sensitivity situation in the first half of the meeting. Then we turned to positive and negative aspects of climate scepticism online and I thought the conversation got a bit bogged down in two different ways. I’ve never written down my thoughts on that part. I may do so on this blog in the not too distant future.

    It was so good of your father to have us, bless him.


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