We are obsessed by time series, and rightly so. Daily changes in the stock market; monthly movements of unemployment or inflation; annual trends in birthrates or immigration; these graphs are the key to understanding the direction in which our society is heading, and how fast. It is quite impossible to formulate sensible economic or social policies without these undulating icons, mystic symbols of the power of prophesy which recall the sinusoidal snakes coiled around the caduceus of Hermes the Messenger God, patron of scientists and liars, or the knot of fornicating serpents which the seer Tiresias swatted, causing him to be transformed into a her, with all the ensuing embranglement on American campuses, conflict in the courts of Ontario and ebullition on the streets of Brighton.
Where was I?
And climate has its own key graph, the one showing monthly global temperature anomalies, available from GISSTEMP; HADCRUT, UAH and another one in California I forget. The last one I looked at was for June 2018 and it showed global temperatures plummeting. In fact the fall in the past eight months was enough to wipe out half the rise in the previous 150 years. (I’m quoting from memory. I can’t be bothered to look up the graph, so I may have got those figures slightly wrong, so please correct them if necessary. But you get the idea.)
The point I’m making is how ridiculously easy it is to construct a sentence based on a time function which is literally true, but so misleading that it will suggest to a reasonable person the precise opposite of the truth. (Watch Bloomberg or any other of those business channels. That’s all they do, 24/7.) Of course temperatures are rising, (as far as we know, and if you discount the known problems with the data: the urban heat island effect; the fact that the data were never gathered for purpose and so would be thrown out by any reasonable scientist working in the field of – say – epidemiology, where reliable data are needed for saving lives, and not merely for titillating readers of the Environment pages of the Guardian; the deliberate pollution of land surface temperatures with random figures plucked from the ocean in buckets of leather or of oak, and so on.) And we sceptics do discount these scientific monstrosities most of the time, because they’re not the most interesting thing. So we ignore them and concentrate on the essential, which is what reasonable people indulging in a science-based discourse habitually do.
(Here’s what we need; a certified scientist to stand up in front of the TV cameras or a Parliamentary Committee brandishing an oaken bucket and say: “Listen, fuckwits. There are a couple of known unknowns in the data that cover three quarters of the planet. The first one is due to the fact that circa 1939 the three quarters of the world’s merchant fleet that was owned by the United Kingdom stopped recording ocean temperatures, for reasons nothing to do with climate change. And the second one is due to the difference in the temperature of the ocean as measured in water drawn up in oaken buckets as opposed to leather ones. For this and other reasons, the recorded temperature rise of approx. 1°C over the past 150 years is subject to a one degree error, either way, more or less, and is therefore entirely useless.”
And then do the Cook Lewandowsky comic turn with the bucket on the assembled M.Ps/climate scientists.)
It is hugely significant that climate hysterics hardly ever refer to time series graphs. They prefer absolutes – references to fixed points: “Eleven of the twelve hottest years have all occurred in the past decade”; “Bognor Regis has just recorded the highest temperature since King George III’s wig melted in 1819” – that kind of thing.
At the Guardian and the Conversation, where graphics in comments are forbidden, I used to summarise the situation with a formulation like: “Global temperatures have been zigzagging slowly upwards since about the eighteenth century, with an upward zig in the last three decades of the twentieth century indistinguishable from a similar zig in the first three decades.” These observations hardly ever provoked a response. It’s as if climatists can’t deal with process, movement, change. Everything is fixed points, with lines joining them up to form a picture if necessary, like the numbered puzzle pictures in your old Rupert Annual.
History as praxis, preached Marx, and Heraclitus was already savvy to the flow of things 25 centuries before. But when top climate scientist Chris Rapley produced his monumental one-man bore-in at the Royal Court Theatre, financed by the European Union and the British Ministry of Culture, Sport and Wheelchair Access, he called it 2071, after the year when his granddaughter would be the same age as he was then, Gaia willing. Leaving aside the morbid weirdness of imagining your little grandchild as a wrinkly old crock, consider the extraordinary hubris of positing a future 55 years ahead, without paying the slightest attention to what might occur in the intervening half century. You can’t get there from here, Chris. And anyway, by then you’ll be dead, and so will I.
And that is the dirty dark secret at the heart of climate porn. It is a fantasy that, by definition, (or rather, by the workings of the inevitable, indisputable laws of biology) we won’t be there to see realised. The prophesies of climate catastrophe (at least the ones that aren’t evidently false, or soon to be falsified) are placed far in the future, and therefore beyond the ken of us wrinklies. I don’t want to be excessively cruel to Chris Rapley of University College London, formerly of the British Antarctic Survey and the Science Museum, but Vladimir Nabokov got there before him in Lolita when he has his hero Humbert Humbert fantasising about having sex with his yet unborn granddaughter. Humbert, with his illicit passions, necessarily lived entirely in the present, and could only envisage the future in terms of other presents (a gift of the English language, that) yet to come: the birth of his daughter, and then his granddaughter. The future as three data points.
And this, I think, explains to a large extent the climatist’s fixation on the one event, the fixed point; the record temperature; the Big One.
The clearest example of the reification (another Marxist concept) of the Event, the Timeless Fact, which I’ve come across is in the case of the brief career circa 2012-2014 of climate doomster Stephen Emmott which I recorded in a number of angry articles here
At the Royal Court (again) the Avignon Festival, Penguin Books, on the BBC, at the Science Museum, he preached his message of impending Apocalypse. This Microsoft geek with a team of forty top scientists and pentabytes of free computer access wrote a programme which was supposedly a model of Life the Universe and Everything. Naturally it burst, exploded, fell at the first hurdle, (whatever programmes do) which Steve interpreted as evidence for the impending end of the world. He published his supporting graphs on a Microsoft website, and I commented on them at
Some of them had two data points.
But his big thing was not time series, but Facts. Like: Every Big Mac consumes 3000 litres of water.
Every cup of coffee 100 litres. The details are in this article by Alex Cull at
You see, every Big Mac contains a certain percentage of a cow, and each cow requires x acres of grassland, on which y inches of rainfall fall per year. You get the idea. So each Big Mac somehow contains a virtual 3000 litres of water. Which somehow stays in the Big Mac, depriving the rest of the world (which hasn’t been privy to the consumption of this icon – ugh – of the consumer society) of this lifegiving resource.
History as praxis, said Marx, in opposition to Hegel, who claimed, in his Prolegomena to a Study of History or whatever it’s called, that the Swiss are a warlike race because they live in the mountains, which is why they’ve been at peace for four centuries. Or something. (based on a time series with two data points.)
Things change said Heraclitus: Go with the flow.
Climatists don’t get that. Take the current hysteria around the present heat wave in Europe. Jaime Jessop has brilliantly exposed the so-called science behind the attribution of some hot weather to “climate change.”
She did it by dragging out the data from behind the filing cabinet where it was hiding and interrogating it, mercilessly, and in detail.
But there’s another objection – not scientific, but grammatical, and therefore philosophical – to the claim that is being made in this kind of “science” – that a certain event (a heatwave) was made x times more likely by a certain circumstance (man-made global warming.)
That x% of the current warming is due to man-made climate change is a statement that looks, feels, empirical, so let it pass. (That the current opinion puts x at 110% looks like a deliberate attempt to rile honest folk, but let it pass as well.)
But climatists are little interested in measurements on a continuum. What they like is Facts. Things. Binary is-or-isn’t Events.
So the current heatwave is or it isn’t made more likely by Global Warming. And it is. Oh it is, twice as likely, in Scandinavia, where it started a couple of weeks ago, when it was unusually cold in Spain. And also in Spain today, where records are currently being broken, while temperatures in Scandinavia are reverting to normal.
MétéoFrance proudly announced heat records broken in six places in France tonight, three of which were within ten miles of where I live. They could have made it seven places if they’d stuck a thermometer in my strawberry patch, or eight if they’d taken the temperature of my withering tomatoes. When you’re looking for a thing, you’re sure to find it. Identifying a trend is not so easy.
The word “climate” is derived from the Greek for a slope, or trend.
It is normal that climate hysterics should concentrate on things, like heatwaves or hurricanes. It is difficult to interest citizens in an annual temperature rise of 0.01°C, which might, if the consensus of scientific opinion is to be believed, rise to 0.02 or (woe is us) even 0.03°C. On the other hand, a heatwave or a hurricane is not a barely detectable Trend, but a Thing,
But the problem with Things is precisely that they are discrete. Where you live, there either is, or isn’t a heatwave. And similarly, for any given isle in the Caribbean, there either is, or isn’t a hurricane. And according to the experts, the number of hurricanes in the Caribbean, or heatwaves in Europe, is not increasing.
(Why do I believe the experts? Who are they, anyway? Roger Pielke? Richard Tol? What right have I to value their judgement above that of, say, Rupert Read, lecturer in Environmental Philosophy? Let’s face it – none.)
As Jaime details in her article, climate experts are certain that the current European heatwave was made twice as likely by climate change. But the statistics do not show twice as many heatwaves occurring now as previously (however you define “now” and “previously.”) So the “twice as likely” is a provisional estimate to be confirmed or disproved by future events. (A similar event next year would surely convince 97% of the population, though it would just as surely have no statistical value.) How long must we wait? Until Chris Rapley’s granddaughter is a stout matron and he a dribbling idiot? Or longer? We’re talking political decisions of great import, so these apparently arid statistical questions matter.
The scientists that Jaime demolishes in her article think they’ve found the answer to the question (which no sane person has ever asked) “How much more likely was such and such an event made by climate change?” And the answer they come up with in this particular case is “twice as likely.”
To give this odd claim a meaning you have to place it in a context, specifically, a temporal context. The normal context for such a claim would be the moment it was uttered, which was after the event happened. At this moment, the probability of it having happened was 1. It is quite impossible to double the probability to 2. Of course, it might not have happened, in which case the probability of it having happened would have been zero. In that case the fact of climate change making it twice as likely to have happened would be without effect. 2 x 0 = 0.
It follows that the claim that such-and-such an event was made x times more likely by such-and-such a causal factor is meaningless if understood as referring to the moment it is uttered, after the event in question. It can only be given a sense if it is understood as being uttered before the event, i.e. as a prediction. In which case the statement “x was made y times more probable by z” can be more simply reformulated as the prediction: “x will happen y times more often, because of z.”
Which may be true, or maybe not. We’ll have to wait and see, won’t we? That is the only possible sense which can be given to such a statement, however many days of computer time it took to formulate.
And when you’re talking about events like heatwaves or hurricanes, which happen a small number of times per decade, you’re going to have to wait a long time to confirm your hypothesis.
To summarise in the manner of Rupert Read’s beloved Wittgenstein: an event that happened, happened, with a probability that it happened of 1. Making it twice as likely to have happened doesn’t change anything about the fact that it happened.
An event that didn’t happen has a probability of having happened of zero. The fact that there was a “forcing” (climate change) that made it twice as likely to happen doesn’t change the fact that it didn’t happen.
Some supposedly scientific statements are empty of meaning.