[This is a continuation of an occasional series I began at https://geoffchambers.wordpress.com/category/lives-of-the-climate-bloggers/ It is not, of course, a biography, the title being simply a jokey reference to two classic collections of “Lives”: Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists” and Diogenes Laertius’s “Lives of the Philosophers”, both of which are full of precious information about obscure though fascinating individuals many of whom would otherwise have been long forgotten. The sheer size of the internet, plus the Orwellian nature of the official treatment of climate scepticism in academia and the media, means that many interesting arguments and points of view risk being forgotten forever. These articles are tiny memorials to a few little-known free-thinking individuals.]
On December 10, 2009 an article appeared in Times Higher Education entitled
“Beyond debate? Bears, Scares and Hot air” by Professor Martin Cohen with the sub-heading:
The Copenhagen summit is in full force, and so too is the idea that man-made global warming is incontrovertible. But Martin Cohen argues that the consensus is less a triumph of science and rationality than of PR and fear-mongering
Is belief in global-warming science another example of the “madness of crowds”? That strange but powerful social phenomenon, first described by Charles Mackay in 1841, turns a widely shared prejudice into an irresistible “authority”. Could it indeed represent the final triumph of irrationality? After all, how rational is it to pass laws banning one kind of light bulb (and insisting on their replacement by ones filled with poisonous mercury vapour) in order to “save electricity”, while ploughing money into schemes to run cars on … electricity?
It quotes Paul Krugman saying: “Is it fair to call climate denial a form of treason? .. Yes, it is..” and Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe who wrote: “I would like to say we’re at a point where global warming is impossible to deny. Global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, although one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.”
Cohen is particularly good on the problems with models:
So what sort of factors mess up the models? Things like changes in ocean currents, changes in the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere, changes in cloud cover – just about everything that determines climate, really. Alas, there is as yet no way to calculate these. And so, the simple fact is, in our climate modellers’ own words: “At present, no climate models have included the full range of effects.” Policymakers seem not to be aware of what the modellers know: that the results of their climate simulations are “likely to remain speculative for some time to come” and that people should be “extremely wary of extrapolating results to longer periods”. This demonstrates that the present climate-change models aren’t just useless – by offering spurious precision, they are worse than useless.
There is much else of interest, including an anecdote about the author’s involvement in a local Friends of the Earth campaign to preserve a Yorkshire river which was overridden by the organisation at national level since it went against prevailing FoE policy of blaming everything on climate change – a perfect example of the Stalinisation of the Green movement. There’s also an interesting discussion of Cascade Theory a once fashionable theory in social psychology which the proponents of consensus have very sensibly ignored. (from the Wiki article linked above: “Information cascades occur in situations where seeing many people make the same choice provides evidence that outweighs one’s own judgment. That is, one thinks: ‘It’s more likely that I’m wrong than that all those other people are wrong. Therefore, I will do as they do’.”)
Cohen’s article provoked some interest at the time, for example at Bishop Hill. But this was right in the middle of Copenhagen and just after Climategate, so interest died away, though the article continued to be cited approvingly at BH. It was, and remains, as far as I know, a unique example of a distinguished academic from outside climate science and related fields assuming a wholly sceptic position in a reputable media outlet.
Cohen’s appearances in the mainstream media since have been infrequent, but similarly controversial, though never resulting in notoriety, possibly because most people are too stupid to recognise a controversial opinion when they see one without guidance from an expert in controversial opinions.
In the Guardian he had an article on the Greek crisis which could please neither Eurosceptics nor defenders of the EU in which he said:
No one got what they wanted – certainly not the Greeks – but the show must go on. And assuming it does, it will be because, deep down, the EU exists precisely to harness this unflappable umpire characteristic of economics. Or, to put it another way, to turn bitter ethical and political disputes into simple bean-counting exercises.
[One thing I learned from the article was that Greece was paying off debts from a previous bankruptcy from 1893 until 1978, rather like Haiti, which continued to pay reparations for its slave revolt from 1825 until I think the 1940s (no information on the date on French, Spanish or English Wiki.) Haiti; Greece: two countries whose surplus value was being leeched out of the country to pay foreigners for the best part of a century instead of being invested. Have you looked at the state of their vegetation? The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is visible on Google Earth – brown one side, green the other. And those pseudo-leftists want to attribute it to climate change? (End of Marxist rant.)]
In the first article Cohen is shown defending Newton’s fascination with astrology, and in the second he attacks blind faith in evolutionary theory and deals with the Ansel Keys fats-cause-heart-disease controversy, before moving on to the surgical and chemical treatment of mental illness, and the claim that opposition to Galileo and Copernicus came not from the church but from the scientific establishment of the time, pausing only to quote approvingly Samuel Hahnemann, the father of homeopathy.
Martin Cohen is a sceptic’s sceptic.
Of course it’s easy enough to say that showing even the tiniest bit of interest in astrology or homeopathy is a sign, not of scepticism, but of credulity, but Cohen’s point is an important one. True scientific curiosity demands that one leaves open all paths of speculation, no matter how seemingly absurd. Even the possibility of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, if it comes to that.
The book under discussion is “Paradigm Shift: How Expert Opinions Keep Changing on Life, the Universe, and Everything” published in 2015. Apart from the two articles in the Irish Times, I can’t find a single review in the English-speaking media. It’s almost as if the idea of an expert changing his opinion was anathema (whoops! There I go with my religious terminology) or as if Cohen was the subject of a fatwah (stop it now.)
You can read extracts on Google or Amazon with different sections shown on their sites, but in both cases climate science gets a look in, and there are odd snippets I hadn’t come across, like this quote from “General Circulation Modelling of Holocene Climate Variability” by Gavin Schmidt, Drew Shindell, Ron Miller, Michael Mann and David Rind: “Modellers have an inbuilt bias towards forced climate change because the causes and effect are clear.”
There are no references or footnotes in the text (though maybe references are given in parts which are not available at Google or Amazon) so, for instance, the exposure of the BBC’s lies and expensive barrister-led cover-up by our own Maurizio Morabito is attributed simply to “an Italian climate sceptic.” Though Cohen mounts a courageous defence of our right to be sceptical, it seems almost as if it would be beneath him to descend into the blog arena with us. Like a nineteenth century Abolitionist, he approves of our revolt, but doesn’t care to be seen to be revolting himself.
It’s his right. He’s written an interesting book challenging the faith in experts whose relevance – post-Brexit, post-Sub-Prime, and post the failure of COP21 and of catastophic climate change to manifest itself – should make it a sure fire success, if anyone had reviewed it outside the subversive Irish Times.
In the course of following up references I came upon this article by Ben Goldacre, the Guardian’s scourge of Bad Science (who, by the way, is on record as saying that he’d rather stick his penis in a door jamb than discuss climate science. There’s no accounting for taste. I know someone who … Where was I? Oh yes..)
Ben Goldacre says:
…climate science is difficult. We could discuss everything you needed to know about MMR and autism in an hour. Climate change will take two days of your life, for a relatively superficial understanding: if you’re interested, I’d recommend the IPCC website.
Two days? It took me more than that to read Monbiot’s “Heat”. (But less to read Delingpole’s “Watermelons” or Nigel Lawson’s “Appeal to Reason.”) The idea that someone with a claim to be Britain’s foremost scientific sceptic would rather suffer extreme sexual mutilation than spend two days studying the most pressing scientific question of the hour tells you all you need to know about experts.
There are other respected intellectuals like Clive James who have made occasional noises suggesting that they’d like to challenge the consensus, but either they’re unwilling to sacrifice those two days, or they’re not confident of their own ability to face the challenge, or they don’t want to be associated with us deniers – who knows?
Martin Cohen faced the challenge back in 2009. Did it have any effect? Was there any discussion? Not that I can find. Sourcewatch has an article on him which links to an article at Philosophy Now, but the link doesn’t work. http://www.philosophynow.org/issue35/35blackburn.htm
Otherwise, there’s little since the Times Higher article, except this from Roger Tallbloke, quoting an excellent piece which gives a link simply to http://www.philosophical-investigations.org/
Searching further at Philosophical Investigations I found this splendid (totally different) article by Professor Cohen and one more on Hubert Lamb.
He also has several interesting well-argued anti-Brexit articles from a leftwing perspective with which I am in total disagreement.
And that’s it. Somewhere in researching this article I read that he has left academia to go/come and live in France. The Wiki article has nothing on his career, though apparently he’s written on environment at the New Statesman, and he’s appeared on France Culture, the French equivalent of Radio Three. The only other version of the Wiki article is in Arabic.
It seems a terrible pity that people like Martin Cohen (Are there any others? I just don’t know) hold themselves aloof from the blog fray. One article, even a front page article in the Times Higher, the Holy of Holy of academic expertise, can only do so much. I somehow don’t think Gavin Schmidt or Michael Mann read the Times Higher. While they, or at least their epigones, certainly read the blogs.