Ongoing ignorance of experts 1917

Consider this post a public protest at the untimely end of a year when I feel I have so much more to explore about expert ignorance as exposed in 1917, 1953, 1956 and 1989. Oh and now 2009 and December 2017. For the experts on Iran are out in force:

Ah yes, the naive Twitter activism of June 2009:

Many, not least myself, have been drawing parallels with, or at least trying to learn lessons from, 1989:

Not much on climate. Let’s put that slightly right by listing four events 28 years ago.


15 April Hillsborough Disaster
4 June Tiananmen Square
8 November Margaret Thatcher speaks on Climate Change at the UN General Assembly
9 November Fall of the Berlin Wall

How much did anyone know about how these four were going to play out? How much did we know about what had actually happened in the case of the first two? West hypes false Tiananmen death toll gives a Chinese view of the latest news from the UK on Tiananmen. Latest news to the masses, that is. The UK government had a deeply disturbing picture from a trusted source right away and chose not to share it. Hillsborough was different. Some policemen had a deeply disturbing picture and chose not to share it with the government.

But I had totally forgotten that Thatcher addressed the UN on climate just the day before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Which expert would have guessed either event even a year before? Or the profound way both areas developed from there?

Moments of uncertainty

On 26th November I wrote:

The Death of Stalin is for me a brilliant depiction of how a group of ‘experts’ – or ruthless members of the supreme Soviet – have no idea of what is going to happen next. We are now in such a moment, just as we were in 1989, before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But I now feel that was stupidly wrong. Moments of uncertainty come in very different shapes and sizes. And to explore that, and see the implications for our interest in climate, we’ll have to wait for 2018. Happy New Year!


  1. Great essay, thanks.
    The most pathetic tweet was the one implying that Iranians should wait for their chance to rebel because Trump is unworthy.
    And Happy New Year!


  2. No ‘expert’ ever, gained that epithet from foretelling the future. Almost all achieve such status by explaining why such and such happened in the past. Notwithstanding that some well informed people strike lucky and do manage to forecast future events, but they are a vanishing minority and can rarely repeat the trick to order.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I should just qualify my statement above: Barring that small subset of ‘futures’ which are mathematically deterministic according to the laws of nature operating under strictly controlled conditions (which is not the climate, I might add)


  4. Many momentous events are just the culmination of a series of events. For instance, one of the most significant historical events in my lifetime was the fall of the Berlin Wall. As I subscribed to the Economist at the time, the most significant trigger appeared to be a small article on the removal by the Hungarians of the border fence with Austria in May 1989. This was meant to be a symbolic move as part of economic liberalization. Having seen the border fence on an Austrian holiday a few years before, with its guardposts on pylons, I thought this significant. More significant at the time was the student protests in China. Over the summer of 1989, unfolding events in Eastern Europe were largely in the context of the recent post-Tiananmen Square crackdown rather than the removal of a fence. From the aspect of history, this was the correct line to take. Many could still remember the suppression of democratic movements by Soviet tanks in Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968. The lack of being able to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall (along with the collapse of communism) is not from the ignorance of experts, but from expert opinion – built upon collective experience and existing understanding – being invalid in comprehending events that did not follow the normal rules.
    In economics, it was the same. In the 1980s professional economists were often on the news commentating on the latest figures. The economics models were reasonably alright at predicting short-term trends that did not deviate too much from recent trends. The “predictions” were based on extrapolating from empirical generalizations and assumptions.  But for predicting what would happen in a crisis they were pretty much useless, as the underlying empirical generalizations are no longer valid. A primary reason for my being sceptical of CAGW is that its claims are based on a shift to a situation fundamentally different from anything experienced or measured. Yet after decades of research, the so-called experts can only waffle on in the vaguest terms about how much warming is caused by anthropogenic influences, and as the for catastrophic part, try to ascribe every extreme weather event to a trivial (and poorly measured) rise in global average temperatures.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. hunter:

    Great essay, thanks.
    The most pathetic tweet was the one implying that Iranians should wait for their chance to rebel because Trump is unworthy.
    And Happy New Year!

    Thanks! Please note my correction of one typo, as another sign of seasonal goodwill. (I do this for most commenters, but sporadically and only when the intention is pretty obvious.)

    Your comment about @oxfordgirl is rather poignant for me. I began to follow this lady, from an Iranian family, because of the tumult after the June 2009 election. There were many Iranian voices I followed that exciting month but of course many based inside Iran disappeared by the end of the year, and not just from Twitter:

    For me there were some extremely strange and compelling links between Iran and June 2009 and 17th November of the same year, my birthday, when the Climategate emails were released. Those partly revolved around debates I was having with a open data and code guy, and climate alarmist, called Glyn Moody, whom I introduced to Steve McIntyre when he was in London the next year. But that’s a whole other story.

    I respected @oxfordgirl for her commentary in 2009 and I respect her today – because she has not blocked me. Juan Cole, from whom I learned a lot in 2009, did that after I made some critical comments about Greenpeace to him in May 2013 (and of course, like most people, he’s never rescinded that). I’ve likewise had sharp disagreements with oxfordgirl over a number of things. She’s a big fan of Jeremy Corbyn as the future of the Labour Party but she did listen about how he ignored complaints from whistleblowing social workers about terrible child abuse going on in care homes in his Islington constituency in the early 1990s. A bit like Mike Dudas, whom I brought up on Jaime’s thread, I’m expecting a block at any moment from people like this. Happily Mike also hasn’t – to me anyway! But another software friend I respect did last month over Brexit differences. I’m not saying this never hurts because it does. And it can, more broadly, damage career prospects. Many are shy dissenters for that reason and I never judge them for it.

    Notice I managed to slip two reference to climate into this comment (including the Juan Cole/Greenpeace one). But this inability even to hear another point of view is a much broader issue. Oxfordgirl hates Donald Trump, I think it’s fair to say, but she currently seems thoughtful about the Iran protests and government violence. All I know is I would never block her. Too much to learn from those with whom I sometimes disagree. And that applies to POTUS too.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Fernando: If you could explain what you mean by ‘a very good conspiracy theory’ and who has put it forward that would help me and perhaps others to respond. A bit more on the second sentence likewise.


  7. Jaime:

    No ‘expert’ ever gained that epithet from foretelling the future.

    Well, not quite none. Geoff gave us the example of Emmanuel Todd, the French historian who predicted the fall of the Soviet Union, based on some to-him obvious data. But you’re almost completely right of course. And who has heard of Todd?

    I have been playing fast and loose with the term expert, not least to keep Feynman in the frame:

    I saw that encouraging thought because Skepticat retweeted it. I’m going to suggest three experts, as defined by my own lights, in this series, and Maria is one of them. A reluctant expert who may end up changing the world for the better. Another is Alexander Yakovlev. He definitely changed the world for the better, in my view. Not heard of him? If not, that’s a big part of my point.


  8. Back to hunter (with apologies to Manic):

    The most pathetic tweet was the one implying that Iranians should wait for their chance to rebel because Trump is unworthy.

    Perhaps unstable is the adjective @oxfordgirl would choose. Or something worse! I was obviously trying to get her to think beyond this. But she was also clearly worried about possible bloodshed for no real gain (not ruling out Shia ‘genocide’ from the Saudis). I’d be careful reading bad motives into that.

    On the other hand there’s this thought, also making the comparison with 1989:

    Overseeing the fall of an oppressive, hardline Iranian regime that sponsors terror all around the globe – followed by the rise of a democratic Iran not interested in aggression against its neighbors – would be a foreign policy victory for President Trump, one of the biggest for a president since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

    That was Stephen Miller on the Fox website three days ago. I don’t doubt that if this golden scenario did arise during his presidency Donald Trump would be considered more of an expert in foreign relations than he is by many at the moment!

    But that’s not really what I’m interested in. This outcome would be a major blessing to the world and the cause of peace. It would also, perhaps by chance, reveal the bad judgment of those pushing climate disaster as a major plank of foreign policy like Barack Obama and John Kerry. Trump is miles ahead of them on this point. Could he extend to something as critical as this? It will of course depend on people less known and more courageous:

    That one I also saw thanks to Skepticat. Courage begets courage.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thought fer Today:

    ” Do not put yr faith in the predictions of experts, per se.”

    Philip Tetlock’s comprehensive study of prediction by political and economic experts
    revealed there was no difference in results whether one had a PHD or an under-
    graduate degree. ‘His study exposed an expert problem. The only regularity that
    Tetlock found was the negative effect of reputation on prediction: those who had
    a big reputation were WORSE predictions than those who had none .’ ‘

    H/t Nassim Taleb ;The Black Swan.’

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I have noticed that this year Senior BBC correspondents have been much more reluctant to make predictions for the new year. Perhaps reflecting upon their abysmal performances over the past few years. I recall how adamant they were that May would not call an election last year!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. The big “tell” from the American side is how the Obama team is uniformly against the protesters.
    Obama chose to enable the suppression of 2009, gave literally billions (much of it in the form of pallets of cash ) to the theocracy.
    After engaging in one of the most bizarre and self defeating negotiations in history.
    And were so proud of what Obama did that they lied about it to media, Congress, etc.
    And now team Obama is busy talking down the latest Iranian freedom movement.
    Collusion in deed if not in fact.
    But you are right: at least the young lady is willing to talk.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. You say Obama chose to “enable the suppression” of the 2009 protests. Where does that (plus the other bile) come from?


  13. Len, perhaps the policy choices of the great Obama could help you decide what the great Obama decided to do. I know that politics is difficult to understand when you are 5 years old. Maybe mummy can help


  14. There was an interesting piece on the ignorance of experts by Jeremy Vine on Broadcasting House on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday morning:

    “2017 was the year the expert died”.

    You can listen to it here (need a BBC login)

    Theresa May’s disastrous election call, was cited, as was Brexit and Trump.

    Jeremy Vine has a new book, What I learnt, based on his Radio 2 show and – horror – actually listening to what ordinary people said. His argument is that “experience trumps expertise”.

    He talked about how the advice of experts filled our roads with diesel cars only to realise that they are dirtier than unleaded and needed to be phased out. And experts told us for decades that fat makes us fat, rather than sugar.

    This was followed by a discussion between Samira Ahmed and Toby Baxendale. Ahmed was dire – she stubbornly refused to admit that the experts had got things wrong. She ranted about ‘men’ twice and ‘Farage’ twice. Ironically, at the end she talked about people pushing their own personal point of view.

    Baxendale mentioned the dire experts behind the Treasury Brexit forecast of £4,200, and called for more humility.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Seeing as there was nothing the US could do then and anything Trump does now is likely to hinder not help the protestors, I’d say you and hunter are talking from total ignorance, as usual.


  16. That was to hunter/Barrel.

    Paul, people are certainly worse off due to the drop in the pound and lower growth. Whether it is 4200 yet doesn’t mean it won’t be.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. people are certainly worse off due to the drop in the pound and lower growth

    Fantastic stuff, Len, how do you manage to maintain this stream of drivel? Given that the pound was at 1.08 last July and is now about 1.13, surely you should be celebrating the fact that you are 5% better off in the space of 6 months


  18. On experts and Donald Trump I strongly recommend today’s article in the National Review by Charles Cooke: There Is No 4-D Chess, or Unified Theory of Trump. Including this

    There is no masterplan being executed, nor brilliant game being played. When he’s outrageous he’s outrageous; when he’s ignorant, he’s ignorant; when he’s mellow, he’s mellow; when he’s good, he’s good. This is the man, and he is capricious. He’s not going to change.

    The question this raises is, “How should we treat such a man?” And the answer, I’d venture, is “In full.” Not as a genius, but not as a cartoon, either. And certainly not with an eye to vindicating our incorrect predictions.

    Ah, incorrect predictions. Surely the attempted vindications thereof are a major reason for what Philip Tetlock found (thanks Beth), that those with a reputation to think about at once become worse predictors than all the others, expert and non-expert alike. Trump is I’d venture a big test case for everyone on that.


  19. Richard, one sentence really struck me

    nobody actually cares about CO2 when push (GHG) comes to shove (GDP). But air quality is a new-ish issue that really does exercise people. It’s for that reason, not CO2, the Chinese are trying to cut back on coal

    The writer has always said that gdp trumps ghg but the clean air thing is probably a meme to watch out for. Sensible people have been saying for a long time that, while climate science might or might not be worth anything, why pollute the planet we live on. If you are aware of the former BT technologist Peter Cochrane, he has been saying that for over 20 years

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Barrel, it is the trade-weighted rate that matters. See
    And comparing the GBP-EUR rate with the July 2017 low is cherry-picking par-excellence! Just what I’d expect of someone in denial (as opposed to a skeptic or contrarian).
    As for Obama and Iran, there was nothing he could have done. Your link says he could have been “more supportive” implying that a bit of tweeting by POTUS could have changed the outcome. If you think the latter you are as dumb as the dotard in chief.


  21. I strongly disagree that Obama could have done nothing more to help the Iran protestors in 2009. His weak words and lack of action at that crucial moment were enough for me to jettison any sympathy I had for him. A charlatan, with no real care for the poor and suffering. I’ve not changed my opinion. This cruel streak was accompanied by gross stupidity on the climate front, as I pointed to in my first Cliscep post in April 2016. The correlation between the two being something I believe should be of considerable interest to us. The foreign policy establishment at its most corrupt and uncaring. The very worst of pretended expertise. We’ll be coming back to it.


  22. Len, you need to look again at the trade weighted index. You put on the make up and you reveal yourself as the clown. This is like pulling strings. So over 15 years the index averages out to… Not much change. No hockey stick for the clown dancer


  23. Barrel, you are right, sterling has been this low in the depths of big recessions. Does that comfort you?

    Richard, what exactly would have been achieved if Obama had proclaimed his support for the demonstrations more vocally, other that giving fuel to the regime’s hatred of the Great Satan to use against the protestors? Would the Basij have been more gentle? Would the regime’s critics have been left free? Do you think he should have got the US involved physically?


  24. A question for you Len. Do you agree that Obama said something very stupid about sea level rise in 2008?

    The journey will be difficult. The road will be long. I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people. Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth. This was the moment – this was the time – when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals.

    It’s the correlation between this high-blown moronity and the lack of care for people suffering under a brutal regime in the real world the very next year that really interests me. I’d be grateful to hear your opinion about whether Obama was right to talk about “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” and whether you think he achieved this.


  25. “It’s the correlation between this high-blown moronity and the lack of care for people suffering under a brutal regime in the real world the very next year that really interests me. “

    You have no idea whether he cares. Until Trump, statements by POTUS were carefully considered for whether they would help or hinder. Do you really think that ill-considered, off the cuff tweets are an indication that Trump cares about people in Iran?

    “I’d be grateful to hear your opinion about whether Obama was right to talk about “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” and whether you think he achieved this.”

    It was campaign rhetoric, right and wrong don’t seem relevant. He probably didn’t understand much detail of sea level rise and I wouldn’t fault him for expressing an aspiration. He was in a position in his 1st year or two to influence the subsequent course of CO2 rise (e.g. he might have pushed for a carbon tax) but realistically it was probably politically impossible. In practice he achieved little on AGW.


  26. An interesting article by Larry Elliott in the Guardian about Brexit and the Remainers hopes for “buyers’ remorse”. Len ought to read it and reflect

    But buyer’s remorse strategy required the UK to fall into recession and it has not come remotely close to doing so. The economy’s performance has been lacklustre – especially in comparison with other major developed countries – but buyer’s remorse would have required the economy to contract sharply and for unemployment to rocket. Something equivalent to 2009 – when the economy shrank by more than 4% – might have done the trick. Instead of which the economy is growing slightly below its long-term trend and unemployment has fallen to a 42-year low. The absence of economic Armageddon has simply reinforced the lack of trust in expert forecasters.

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Richard, if you are interested in a follow-up, I am looking at the strange ways in which the Bank of England seem to have acted to worsen the impact of the Brexit vote, while acting within a konsensus of economic expertise

    Liked by 1 person

  28. MiaB: Thanks for all of this. I was going to cite the same Guardian article on this thread but you beat me to it, partly because I’ve been suffering from some raging-thru-irritating toothache. This was my tweet on Sunday evening:

    Good old Gove eh? Apart perhaps from listening to dodgy experts in his new role. We must come back to that too.

    The Brexit situation affects the climate situation for the UK, many of us believe – or at least hope. David Rose and Richard Tol are among those who don’t agree with that assumed correlation. I certainly think Larry Elliott nails the fact that trust in a certain kind of expert is continuing to wane and I think that’s thoroughly deserved.


  29. History repeating itself – this was an interesting post from December 2017. Let’s hope the people of Iran achieve a better (for them) outcome on this occasion, though again it looks as though they face a gruelling time.


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