Ongoing ignorance of experts 3

Here’s the bottom line, helpfully at the top. For mediocre self-defined experts, climate is a gateway drug. For society, climate is self-harm due to low self-esteem.

The only snag is that I don’t know when I’ll reach the bottom line.

Death in November

The last nine days have in my opinion been some of the most important in Cliscep’s brief history. But since Wednesday 29th November I’ve had a few other things on my mind. Here are some excerpts from emails between the blog’s core team – the messieurs, and Jaime Jessop, on the right hand side of each page – becoming a conversation between just Ian Woolley and myself:

29 Nov 16:17 Ian: Brilliant article Jaime, Ben and Paul. Should be a sticky?
18:11 Paul: OK I have published that now.
20:16 Ian: Emergency with great Uncle so will be at computer tomorrow morning.
22:28 Richard: Excellent. Scepticus at his best yet! Or is it her best yet? (Best wishes to your great uncle Ian.)
30 Nov 08:34 Ian: Thanks Richard, I appreciate that deeply. My great Uncle died last night. I was with him and tried to revive him with the paramedic but despite our perseverance it wasn’t to be. I take comfort in the fact that he maintained, as he wanted to, his independence as a man living in his own house right to the end at 93, and that it was sudden, and he was telling stories about the war with a clear, switched-on mind as far as his final hours.

Bless you, Richard

10:47 Richard: My heartfelt condolences Ian. No, make that congratulations as well, for helping your uncle live such a full life till the end. Inspiring stuff.
18:12 Ian: Thank you Richard. I am crying.
5 Dec 15:21 Richard: How are you doing now? …
23:46 Ian: Part of the reason I only mentioned it to you Richard is because …

The reasons are embarrassing so deemed off-topic. But in that email Ian said he wouldn’t object to me sharing his news. Idris was clearly an important person in his life over in the Welsh valleys and Ian is now busy as executor of his will. Worth saying “thinking of you” and, most of all, “thanks”. There isn’t as much oil money as there’s cracked up to be (or indeed fracked up to be) in climate scepticism. This was real sacrifice.

It wasn’t the only death I learned about in a twelve hour period from 29th. This also had quite an impact. Here’s how I explained it to my two siblings earlier today:

As this conversation isn’t sufficiently about me, allow me to say what I was thinking about as I read Pen’s message of 35 mins ago.

It was a bit melancholy. Wednesday last week at the House of Lords I asked Ian Plimer if he knew John Collier.

Ian said yes, he knew both John Colliers, father and son, exploration geologists. John senior died three years ago, relatively suddenly. Ian gave the eulogy at his funeral. So I guess he did know him.

In August 1990, I wrote my report for Rio Tinto a month early and gave it to Dave Steffe in Newbury. He fell off his chair at the £500k I was saying would be needed for each of the next four years to do the worldwide databasing of exploration information he’d been charged with – by John Collier at head office in St James Square, the dynamic new broom just moved in from CRA in Australia. I said: just pass it on through Neil to John. John Collier is said to have read it and scribbled in the margin “Looks good. Do it.”

I never talked to him. But I greatly respected the avid sceptic of the global warming fuss, as I now know he was. And I was sad that I hadn’t known about his illness and death.

At the global conference for Rio Tinto exploration geologists in Salt Lake City in 1991, at which my team demonstrated a prototype of the map-based front-end to the gradually increasing digital archive we were now developing in Newbury, I heard John, somebody I considered a real expert, say the most wonderful thing:

We know IT is important, we just don’t know why.

That attitude made Rio Tinto an incredibly productive place for Objective to practice agile software development, as it’s now called, for four years. It’s also a tremendous example of an expert in one field knowing his limits in another. I aim to tell a couple of other Collier anecdotes along the same lines before this series is done.

Expressions of ignorance

In 1991 John Collier was endearingly frank about his own. In an important article in E&E News last week, this key thinker had others in mind:

Richard Lindzen, a retired meteorology professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, blamed “climate alarmism” on educated elites who don’t want to admit their limited understanding of science. He said fossil fuels will benefit humans and that reduced Arctic sea ice will open the Northwest Passage.

Put another way, stepping outside your field of expertise without due care and attention can cause considerable damage. Freeman Dyson learned this the hard way seventy years ago, telling the story against himself six decades later, as I was reminded by Tom Fuller’s mention of the outstanding Princeton physicist on Sunday:

Sixty years ago, when I was a young and arrogant physicist, I tried to predict the future of physics and biology. My prediction was an extreme example of wrongness, perhaps a world record in the category of wrong predictions. I was giving advice about future employment to Francis Crick, the great biologist who died in 2005 after a long and brilliant career. He discovered, with Jim Watson, the double helix. They discovered the double helix structure of DNA in 1953, and thereby gave birth to the new science of molecular genetics. Eight years before that, in 1945, before World War 2 came to an end, I met Francis Crick for the first time. He was in Fanum House, a dismal office building in London where the Royal Navy kept a staff of scientists. Crick had been working for the Royal Navy for a long time and was depressed and discouraged. He said he had missed his chance of ever amounting to anything as a scientist. Before World War 2, he had started a promising career as a physicist. But then the war hit him at the worst time, putting a stop to his work in physics and keeping him away from science for six years. The six best years of his life, squandered on naval intelligence, lost and gone forever. Crick was good at naval intelligence, and did important work for the navy. But military intelligence bears the same relation to intelligence as military music bears to music. After six years doing this kind of intelligence, it was far too late for Crick to start all over again as a student and relearn all the stuff he had forgotten. No wonder he was depressed. I came away from Fanum House thinking, “How sad. Such a bright chap. If it hadn’t been for the war, he would probably have been quite a good scientist”.

A year later, I met Crick again. The war was over and he was much more cheerful. He said he was thinking of giving up physics and making a completely fresh start as a biologist. He said the most exciting science for the next twenty years would be in biology and not in physics. I was then twenty-two years old and very sure of myself. I said, “No, you’re wrong. In the long run biology will be more exciting, but not yet. The next twenty years will still belong to physics. If you switch to biology now, you will be too old to do the exciting stuff when biology finally takes off”. Fortunately, he didn’t listen to me. He went to Cambridge and began thinking about DNA. It took him only seven years to prove me wrong. The moral of this story is clear. Even a smart twenty-two-year-old is not a reliable guide to the future of science. And the twenty-two-year-old has become even less reliable now that he is eighty-two.

As I commented then, that level of mistake beats Matt Ridley being chairman of Northern Rock by some margin! More on that in the next section. But before we get there here’s a third sample, one of the most important contemporary disciples of Isaiah Berlin, John Gray, reflecting on the state of the UK Labour Party in the New Statesman in June

Labour’s embourgeoisement is an important reason for Corbyn’s success. For Blairites, this can only be bitterly ironical. Peter Mandelson’s stupefaction at the election result showed him struggling to grasp how the modernisation of Labour he masterminded could have such paradoxical consequences.

Stupefaction – what a delightful word when used of an expert. (Sorry no mention of climate here, the stupefaction of whose experts is, I’m sure we all agree, so badly needed. But the erstwhile experts of New Labour took the alarmist bait, hook, line and sinker, did they not? How greatly we need their current stupefaction to extend to all of that.)

Enlightenment and empathy

In the comments on the last of this slow-moving series Geoff Chambers, having just about forgiven me for having the temerity to call him and Paul Matthews experts, offered this terrifically valuable response:

Now I’ve read the Ridley piece I see the significance of the Ianucci play on Stalin. It’s to Ridley’s credit that he poses the problem of the modern threat to the Enlightenment, puts it into the widest possible historical context, and admits that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next.

What should happen next is that people with opposing views to those of Ridley engage with him, argue, and thus Enlighten us all. But it won’t happen will it? Because Ridley was the head of Northern Rock and he owns a coal mine and therefore, well, therefore we shan’t.

And who cares about the Enlightenment when Manhattan’s going to be underwater next week?

It must be so nice to have a Really Simple Idea that stops you having to think about the difficult ones.

Another way to say it, I want to suggest, is that you need some empathy for Ridley before enlightenment can in practice dawn. The nitpicking that goes endlessly on about Northern Rock and fossil fuel extraction on the Viscount’s estate is not only terribly boring but will never get us anywhere.

The same is true for me though, reading the same article, because I follow stablemates of Isaiah Berlin like John Gray and Larry Siedentop, as well as Gertrude Himmelfarb across the pond, in seeing the whole Enlightenment thing as far less clear cut than often made out. But, with proper empathy, I feel it’s easy to grasp what Matt is driving at. In fact, despite my own Enlightenment scepticism, I think this is probably one of the most important pieces he’s ever written.

Matt only mentions climate in passing so let’s take an example where it – or at least the policy thereof, so-called – is clearly more central: Mike Shellenberg’s recently announced bid to become governor of California. Mike’s campaign has been endorsed by James Hansen, no less. Fresh empathy needed there, then, for many of us, before we, and hopefully that important member of the States that claim to be United, can receive due enlightenment – and some relief for those in fuel poverty.

Here’s another critic of the Enlightenment, and one of its claimed London bastions, four days ago:

The Age of Reason also produced some terrible ideas: Malthusianism, Eugenics, Positivism… All of which had a home at Carlton Terrace. It only becomes a problem when they are the ONLY ideas permitted. You don’t seem to understand that. Or perhaps you do, and you simply don’t care. So much for “science”.

Ben then felt moved to embed the famous video of Jacob Bronowski outside Auschwitz. As for me, a hundred years on from 1917, it’s the Stalinist experiment, all done in the name of Enlightenment values, of course, that currently holds most fascination as a warning from history. And one Jewish pianist remains emblematic for me of true and useful resistance. But I’m sure the nitpickers can find something wrong with her too.

Why this blog is important – and difficult

Because climate is a gateway drug for the elite – by which I mean mediocre, self-appointed experts. That includes mediocre businessmen, otherwise known as crony capitalists. (Ian Plimer said some powerful yet self-contradictory things about business people at the GWPF last week. I very much want to return to that too.) And NGOs, of course. You get the idea.

The habits the new elite is picking up through climate are increasingly being seen elsewhere. Matt Ridley’s clearly onto it. Paul gave an example of one brave woman who’s making a stand in another key area a couple of weeks ago. But how can a blog called Climate Scepticism cope with the breadth and complexity of all this? I don’t have the answer and it’s partly what I’m trying to explore in this series.

I therefore welcome comments on any part, or all, of the challenge, not least those wishing Ian Woolley our very best.


  1. Small world, I worked in that same Rio Tinto office with Dave Steffe in Newbury from 1992 until 1995.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. At the risk of turning this thread and this site into a mutual admiration society, thanks Richard for some valuable insights.
    First, Richard Lindzen’s:

    Lindzen, a retired meteorology professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, blamed “climate alarmism” on educated elites who don’t want to admit their limited understanding of science.

    Then your formulation:

    For mediocre self-defined experts, climate is a gateway drug. For society, climate is self-harm due to low self-esteem.

    I’ll add my own hobby horse – the fact that Lindzen’s “educated élite” no longer consists simply of “the professional classes” – doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists and academics – but makes up a significant (20-30%) proportion of the population who have no particular skills or defining characteristics beyond the fact that they are more educated than the proles and read the posh papers. Such a massive social class requires an ideology and an identity. Neither nationalism nor class-consciousness are much in favour in the universities and the posh papers nowadays, so, for those seeking a cause to identify with, it’s really the planet or nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for such an amazing broad ranging essay. A huge meal to digest, so to speak.


  4. Thanks everyone. Hans, that’s great to know. Dave and I did the demo to about a thousand Rio Tinto geologists in Salt Lake City in 1991. It only worked for Mali at that point! All sorts of things could have gone horribly wrong but, against Sod and all the other lawmakers for demos, it went perfectly. I must look Dave up again one day soon.

    I’ll respond a bit more tomorrow to some very thoughtful feedback (mentioning no names).


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