In this message for Christmas 2016 we go back seven years. Once we’ve taken a look at our two protagonists it’s likely to get us into matters of history, science and philosophy going back a hundred, then an odd reflection at the end of a far-from-normal year in the new century.
London newspaper-wise we’re talking The Times and The Guardian. On 20th December 2009 Simon Singh wrote this about public comments from Johnny Ball five days before:
On a night that was supposed to celebrate rationalism, Johnny adopted a faith position on climate change. He has become so blinkered that he focuses on every tiny observation that might vaguely back his position and denies everything that counters it. That is not good science.
Three months later Leo Hickman interviewed veteran scientist James Lovelock, who spoke of his disgust at what had been revealed in the Climategate emails, released by persons still unknown on 17th November 2009, then said:
What I like about sceptics is that in good science you need critics that make you think: “Crumbs, have I made a mistake here?” If you don’t have that continuously, you really are up the creek.
There’s no URL worth giving for the first article as The Times returns HTTP status code 301, meaning Moved Permanently. Probably into a permanent memory hole. I snipped a portion at the time though into my personal wiki . That’s how I came to spot in December 2016 that two men back then had used the phrase in our title in rather different ways.
Both have a point
‘Tis the season of goodwill so let’s begin with what’s right with both. If Singh was right in how he characterised what Ball was doing – and it’s a big if – fair enough. Neither good science nor good manners. Lovelock’s certainly a greater scientist than Singh, much though I enjoyed Fermat’s Last Theorem, published twelve years before, about Andrew Wiles emerging spectacularly from obscurity with a proof, like a rabbit out of a hat, at such an advanced age – of both mathematician and theorem. There were plenty of sceptics around then, of course, when the news began to break. But that’s pure maths. Lovelock speaks from experience, both long and hard, of applied science, in his appreciation of sceptics. And he gives just one name, from the climate field, as an example:
We’re very tribal. You’re either a goodie or a baddie. I’ve got quite a few friends among the sceptics, as well as among the “angels” of climate science. I’ve got more angels as friends than sceptics, I have to say, but there are some sceptics that I fully respect. Nigel Lawson is one. He writes sensibly and well. He raises questions. I find him an interesting sceptic.
That’s Nigel Lawson who studied maths at Oxford before he switched to economics – something else I only learned in 2016. The obvious example of a useful sceptic, from an assuredly great UK scientist, as no doubt Singh and his friends would agree.
As I said, ’tis the season of goodwill!
Playing the man called Ball
Johnny Ball had accepted an invitation to address the very first “Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People” at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London on 15th December 2009. Hard to get more Christmassy than that! What outraged Singh and those of like mind is that he used his allocated time – indeed, overran his allocated time – to launch a critique of climate alarmism. Here’s the full passage from The Times as I snipped it, with paragraph breaks lost long ago:
I have been discussing maths at Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, an annual jamboree that mixes science, comedy and music in a rationalist celebration of the universe. Tuesday’s opening night made waves in the national press for one of the most bizarre and heartbreaking sights ever seen on a London stage: Johnny Ball, who presented children’s TV science shows in the 1970s, was slow-handclapped off the stage after trying to persuade the audience that man-made climate change is not a serious problem. The audience was largely made up of Johnny Ball fans, who gave him a warm reception, but this goodwill evaporated when a supposedly seven-minute routine turned into a 20-minute set that evolved into a rant. I was watching from the circle and my feeling was that the audience members were incredibly patient and tolerant. They sat quietly even though they were becoming increasingly frustrated at having to listen to a series of disjointed and unscientific statements. Apparently it is spiders’ flatulence that we really need to worry about, not burning coal. The slow handclapping started at the 21st minute after Johnny appeared to question the ethics of climate researchers and made a mildly racist pun concerning “crustaceans” and “crushed Asians”. The audience reaction was not an attempt to quash free speech, but rather a plea to allow others to get in a word. Johnny would probably still be ranting now if the audience had not made its feelings clear. On a night that was supposed to celebrate rationalism, Johnny adopted a faith position on climate change. He has become so blinkered that he focuses on every tiny observation that might vaguely back his position and denies everything that counters it. That is not good science. I should stress that in the past Johnny has done a huge amount in terms of promoting science to teenagers. Think of a Number inspired a whole generation of boffins, including me. But I now feel he has lost the plot. Over the past three years, I have offered to set up meetings where he can raise his concerns about climate change with experts. I renewed the offer on Wednesday morning, but it was once again rejected. He prefers to remain blinkered
Now let’s have the man speak for himself. This is from the Daily Mail in February 2011:
Mr Ball is a prolific author of maths books who has also produced five educational stage musicals. He said he has been sceptical of climate change arguments since the 1960s when scientists warned of an impending ice age.
And he said that anyone who seeks to make a common sense, measured comment about climate change is branded a ‘heretic’.
Yesterday, he called for the views from both sides of the climate change camp to be heard.
He highlighted a recent Independent Panel on Climate Change ruling that stated that there must be no more exaggeration about the issue.
Explaining his views on climate change, he told the Times Education Supplement: ‘The reason I take this stance is because several films have been introduced into schools which imply that the earth may not be able to sustain human life as we know it, in around 39 years’ time, which is unscientific, alarmist nonsense.
‘Of course mankind is a great burden on the earth, but at every turn we are learning to manage and better control our impact and the damage we do.
‘However, my main concern is that the alarmism is actually frightening schoolchildren to an alarming degree.
‘It is suggesting to them that the previous generation have all but ruined the planet, and unless they switch stand-by lights off, for instance, we could all be going to hell in a handcart.
‘This does nothing to promote confidence in our young. It sends the message that all technology is harmful. Yet, in truth, great strides are being made.
‘Gas-fired power stations now produce twice as much power for the same fossil fuel as they did 15 years ago. Cars have far cleaner exhausts and have doubled their mileage and tyre wear, and they are all recyclable or reclaimable.
‘These are success stories.’
A heretic among the congregation of the godless! Sometimes the irony’s too great for measured comment. Just hear the laughter and, if it feels possible for you, join in.
Meanwhile Singh’s summary of Ball now seems woefully inadequate. He’s clearly concerned about a wide range of issues connected to alarmism, not merely ‘the science’. His sense of responsibility for the next generation especially shines through. Couldn’t Simon Singh have found a way to praise this aspect of the older man’s concerns, even if he thinks Ball is neglecting legitimate evidence that should make adults sit up?
While on this train of thought I must take a stop to honour John Shade of this joint blog. Thank you for caring about the young and very young under the influence of such strong alarmist messages. Is there anything more important that passes through the mind of a climate sceptic? I doubt it.
Intuition and induction
A hundred years ago we were reaching the mid-point between the formulation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity in 1915 and Eddington’s spectacular confirmation that it better predicted the path of light near a massive body than Newton, through his observations on the island of Principe during a total eclipse on 29th May 1919. As someone wrote:
J.P. McEvoy, author of the “Eclipse”, encapsulated the significance of the announcement: “A new theory of the universe, the brain-child of a German Jew working in Berlin, had been confirmed by an English Quaker on a small African island.”
In fact, Simon Singh wrote that. Good bloke, isn’t he?
Let’s consider that at Christmas 1916 the human race really only had Albert Einstein’s intuition to go on. There were four years like that. With Wegener’s theory of continental drift in 1912 and Lemaître’s proposal of what became known as the Big Bang in 1927 we had a lot longer to wait.
What stage are we at with the claims of climate science? With that question the difference between Singh and Lovelock may become far more explicable. Lovelock feels we’re pre-1919 and Singh doesn’t.
Which claims though? Not just that temperatures have been rising or that man’s emissions have had something to do with it. The bigger, much more politically charged claim that man-made warming will soon be dangerous. Not anything like as well-defined as a scientific theory as the other three, the moment you think about it.
An encouraging way to view 2016 then is that it’s when the English-speaking world emerged from pre-truth politics.
The rest is left as an exercise for the interested reader.