Earlier this year, former US president Barack Obama, standing before an audience attending the Nelson Mandela memorial lecture, took the opportunity to explain why there is no longer any point in debating with those who question the threat of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming. It’s as simple as this, he opined:
“You have to believe in facts. Without facts there’s no basis for cooperation. If I say this is a podium and you say this is an elephant, it’s going to be hard for us to cooperate…I can’t find common ground if somebody says climate change is just not happening, when almost all of the world’s scientists tell us it is.”
Of course, Obama has no direct experience, or indeed understanding, of the intricacies of climate science. However, he will be confident that he has no need for such insights because he presumes an understanding of what he believes to be the first law of science: Scientists are only interested in determining the truth for the benefit of mankind, and to do so they employ a methodology that ensures objectivity and probity. So if you are approached by a body that claims to speak on behalf of the scientific community, then you had better accept that body’s assertions as fact, otherwise you are being antiscientific. And we all know how heinously dumb the antiscientific are.
Notwithstanding Obama’s simplistic outlook, it cannot be reasonably maintained that he is a stupid man. His respect for scientific dogma is motivated by a well-nurtured rationality that has, no doubt, served him well throughout his life. His puzzlement over, and disdain for, those who do not share his position is genuine and infused with a sense of morality. He sincerely believes that it is no longer in our best interests to entertain doubt regarding CAGW, and if that means denigrating and deriding the opposing view, then so be it – sometimes you just have to shame the devil. Unfortunately, the fact that such certitude is an anathema to the scientific ethos that he professes to hold in such high esteem seems to have escaped him.
In fact, there is no reason to presume that scientists are immune from naivety, and there doesn’t seem to be anything in the scientific method that protects even the most eminent amongst them from extreme instances of gullibility. Take, for example, the case of ‘the notorious Mr Slade’.
Henry Slade was no scientist. On the contrary, he was an American mystic who specialised in duping the great and the good of Victorian society into believing he had magical powers. His pièce de résistance was ‘slate-writing’, in which he could encourage mystical spirits to write messages upon slates, seemingly without any physical assistance from the entranced Henry Slade. And Victorian London fell for it, big time.
Except, not everybody was prepared to take Henry’s magical mystery at face value, and so it wasn’t too long before he found himself before a London magistrate facing charges of ‘using subtle crafts and devices, by palmistry and otherwise’ to deceive his clients. During the course of the trial, testimony attesting to Henry’s bona fide skills was given by a number of eminent scientists led by none other than Dr Alfred Russel Wallace, the naturalist and biologist who had been credited with conceiving the theory of evolution independently of Charles Darwin. Wallace et al were convinced that Slade was the real deal and found no difficulty in persuading the magistrate of the ‘overwhelming’ evidence in his favour. Yet, despite the science being settled, the magistrate felt that his hands were tied. None of Slade’s defence witnesses were present at the actual séance in dispute, but the two plaintiffs were. Reluctantly, the magistrate felt obligated to rule out the scientific testimony and, despite being convinced of Slade’s innocence, he convicted him, stating:
“What is before the Court is not what has happened upon other occasions — however convincing these eminent witnesses may be — but what occurred upon this particular occasion, and here we have two witnesses on one side and only the prisoner on the other.”
So Slade was sentenced to three months hard labour on a point of law. Despite being appreciated as a genuine mystic, he had fallen foul at the hands of two scurrilous slate-writer deniers.
Fortunately for Slade, however, things took a turn for the better when he was able to successfully appeal his conviction, once again on a technicality. Although the words ‘by palmistry and otherwise’ appeared on the statute, they were accidentally omitted from the indictment. But, lest anyone were to make too much of this technicality, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in his History of Spiritualism, was keen to point out that “it must not be assumed that had the technical point failed he might not have escaped [anyway] on the merits of his case.” After all, the scientific community had been firmly on Henry Slade’s side. Even so, there were those amongst the scientific elite who were not satisfied with the state of affairs. Science had placed its reputation on the line, and so a mere technical exoneration of their man would not suffice. There might still be people out there who would argue that the podium was an elephant. So enter Professor Zöllner of Leipzig University.
Johan Carl Friedrich Zöllner was a professor of physics and astronomy and, as such, was well acquainted with the n-dimensional, non-Euclidian geometry first developed by Georg Bernhard Riemann of the University of Göttingen. Upon hearing of Henry Slade’s exploits, Zöllner became convinced that here was clear scientific evidence for the existence of a fourth spatial dimension. Not only was this dimension obviously the denizen of the spirits with which Henry was in communication, it was also a dimension within which Henry himself could move. And to prove this point, Professor Zöllner devised a number of challenges that would be impossible for a three-dimensional entity but would be easy-peasy for those possessing the required extra-dimensional dexterity. For example, if Slade were able to entwine two solid wooden rings or untie a knot within a sealed loop of rope, what more evidence of four-dimensional shenanigans would one require? Eagerly, Professor Zöllner contacted Henry Slade to set up a suitable series of scientific tests that would surely re-establish Slade’s credibility and, with it, the credibility of the scientific community that had been insisting on Slade’s authenticity.
To give you some idea of the gravitas of the scientific consensus we are dealing with here, it may help to identify some of its leading lights. We have already met Wallace and Zöllner, but to that you will have to add Sir William Crookes, inventor of the cathode ray tube; Wilhelm Weber, who gave his name to the SI unit of magnetic flux; J.J. Thompson, discoverer of the electron; Lord Rayleigh, possibly the greatest classical physicist of the nineteenth century; Professor Miner, another professor of physics and astronomy at Leipzig university; Sir W. F. Barrett, professor of experimental physics at the Royal College of Science for Ireland, and Sir Oliver Lodge, an eminent pioneer of radio technology. There were more, of course, but I trust I have made my point. These were all individuals who carried much influence in their day. To challenge their opinion was to be antiscientific.
To be fair, Slade was not able to perform all of the tasks set for him – at least not when the laboratory conditions were sufficiently well controlled. Nevertheless, those scientists who witnessed his performances were left in no doubt regarding his mystical prowess. All concerned, according to Professor Miner, were “perfectly convinced of the reality of the observed facts, altogether excluding imposture or prestidigitation.”
Zöllner was particularly forthright in his defence against the naysayers:
“If, nevertheless, the foundation of this fact, deduced by me on the ground of an enlarged conception of space, should be denied, only one other kind of explanation would remain… This explanation would consist in the presumption that I myself and the honourable men and citizens of Leipzig, in whose presence several of these cords were sealed, were either common impostors, or were not in possession of our sound senses sufficient to perceive if Mr Slade himself, before the cords were sealed, had tied them in knots. The discussion, however, of such a hypothesis would no longer belong to the dominion of science, but would fall under the category of social decency.”
With this statement the deniers’ inevitable accusations of conspiracy theory and hoax were roundly refuted. Slade was possessed of mystical powers and that was a scientific fact.
Nevertheless, the detractors were not going to take this lying down. For example, the quarterly science magazine Bedrock had this to say of the opinions of Professors Barrett and Lodge regarding telepathy:
“It is not necessary either to regard the phenomena of so-called telepathy as inexplicable or to regard the mental condition of Sir W. F. Barrett and Sir Oliver Lodge as indistinguishable from idiocy. There is a third possibility. The will to believe has made them ready to accept evidence obtained under conditions which they would recognize as unsound if they had been trained in experimental psychology.”
And with that we come to the nub of the issue. The scientists watching in awe as Henry Slade cavorted within the fourth dimension were simply succumbing to experimenter’s bias and no amount of scientific respectability or methodology could save them from their will to believe. Science had spoken and yet the podium was still an elephant.
Despite the ringing endorsements from the many scientific luminaries, Henry Slade’s career became increasingly mired within controversy as client upon client was to expose his fraudulent behaviour. Defiantly, Conan Doyle was having none of it. Speaking of the ‘reckless statements’ made by ‘captious critics’ of spiritualism, he patiently explained that “there is truly no limit to the credulity of the incredulous.”
So where are they now?
In later life, Henry Slade’s powers degenerated as alcoholism took its toll. According to Conan Doyle, this led him to increasingly resort to deception in order to supplement his undoubted powers. Ruefully, Conan Doyle observed “that while there was an overpowering preponderance of psychic results, there was also a residuum which left the unpleasant impression that the medium might supplement truth with fraud.” Eventually, Slade died in a Michigan sanatorium and slipped gently into the fourth dimension.
Professor Zöllner died in 1882 after enjoying a relatively short but successful scientific career in which he published numerous papers on photometry and spectrum analysis, together with a somewhat controversial treatise on transcendental physics. He is the only player in this story that has a lunar crater named after him.
J.J. Thompson and Lord Rayleigh both went on to win the Nobel prize in physics for their monumental contributions to human knowledge. The citations failed to mention their unfaltering support for the honourable trade of psychic slate-writing.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remained a staunch spiritualist to his dying day. However, his reputation was severely damaged when he threw his weight behind the Cottingley Fairies. Upon first seeing the obviously fake photos, he excitedly proclaimed, “When our fairies are admitted other psychic phenomena will find a more ready acceptance.” His admonishment that the critics of spiritualism were demonstrating ‘the credulity of the incredulous’ was never more ironic.
President Obama was last seen fleeing for his life across the plains of the Serengeti, hotly pursued by a stampeding herd of angry podiums.
Ghost-writing deniers , would not have been allowed on the BBC.
David Aaronavitch show last night 8pm Radio4, used “scientists say” rather than “science says”
Mr. Obama is not ignorant. He is a reactionary bigot.
He won’t debate because deep down he realizes that his position depends on not questioning issues.
Like all bigots he holds himself out as the sole enlightened and worthy person in the room, along with those he finds in his side.
Darn it, I was supposed to be painting under the eaves and below the picture window this morning. I knew I shouldn’t of clicked on that innocent looking- transcendental physics – link. At least I don’t have to change my vote from yes to an editors noted needed on the last Theranos paper published to a complete retraction (1).
Thanks of the great references.
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John, you have quite dispelled my deluded belief that the Age of Enlightenment was the smooth, uninterrupted transition from folkloric ignorance and superstition to rationality rooted in empiricism and methodical experimental validation. You have identified here one very significant ‘hiccup’ in that process, whereby some of the finest scientific minds of Victorian England were ensnared in a dark web of groupthink self-deception. By so doing, you have rendered even more plausible the possibility that the rather less fine minds of the current generation of empiricist climate and earth scientists may be similarly entrapped by a willingness to believe in a theory which has accumulated only slightly more credibility, in terms of observational, empirical evidence, than slate-writing via the ghostly hand of the Departed. Excellent. Many thanks.
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This is a theme I find myself drawn to time and again. Having been trained in science myself, I have the greatest respect for science and how its application can make sense of the world. However, I do not sign up to the cult of science, in which scientists can do no wrong. In my youth, I resented the suggestion that science could reflect the cultural context in which it operated –how could that possibly be, given the objectivity ensured by its processes? But as I matured, I came to understand that science is, above all, a social endeavour, and an important distinction has therefore to be made between science and scientists. Obama does not appear to have arrived there yet, and that is why he fails to understand that it is not antiscientific to question the prevalent position taken by a scientific community. In the case of the scientists supporting Slade, they were simply falling in line with the culture of the day. Everyone in Victorian England seemed fascinated with the occult and notions such as the fourth spatial dimension had inculcated all aspects of culture (take, for example, Cubism within the arts). There was a big hole and Zollner just fell in it. CAGW is an even bigger hole and if you peer into it you will find many fine minds wallowing in the abyss.
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Indeed John. Note that the consensus opinion was very slow to fade, even in the absence of compelling evidence, even when the chief protagonist was convicted for fraud. But the scientists involved got back to their daily bread and contributed to the march of scientific progress. Climate change consensus opinion will be equally resilient to change, probably even more so when its protagonists are so richly rewarded with funding and international prestige. Scientific progress on climate change will march on regardless, in the background, as will the as yet imperfectly understood physical mechanisms which are responsible for driving climate change on the global and regional scale. I doubt that we have yet seen the worst excesses of the effects of climate change groupthink on society as a whole.
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John. I recall seeing a lecture on the the Cottingley Fairies a very long time ago. You wrote “Upon first seeing the obviously fake photos…”. My recollection was that the photos were inspected by a photographic expert who was unable to pronounce them fake, however, given their subject matter was not willing to vouch-safe their authenticity. I remember thinking at the time (late 1960s?) this was an example of scientific bias, to which I was also subject.
Alan, There is nothing wrong with your recollection. The photos were indeed examined by an expert (Harold Snelling) who declared that he could see no obvious signs of fakery. The same conclusion was drawn by the chaps at Kodak. However, their counterparts at Ilford did claim to have found evidence of fakery. On that basis, one could justifiably call me to task for referring to them as ‘obviously fake’. However, this would be overlooking one important detail – fairies don’t exist! Actually, this was the stance taken by Kodak. They took them to be obvious fakes despite not being able to pin-point the nature of the fakery. Of course, I also enjoy the luxury of hindsight, since the nature of the fakery is now well-understood.
Jaime, My favourite quote amongst those I came across during the writing of this article was that from Conan Doyle, when he conceded that “the medium supplement truth with fraud”. Not for the first time, I was reminded of Dr Mann and his hockey stick graph. Mann and his colleagues are not just speaking the truth – they are speaking the supplemented truth!
Obama seems to have misunderstood the whole climate issue. There are the facts (or alleged facts), which he refers to, and then there are the interpretations of the facts.
The controversy is about the interpretations, which may be linked to some facts (or alleged facts).
John. “However, this would be overlooking one important detail – fairies don’t exist!” I don’t overlook it, I try to imagine myself back just a few years after the First World War. You couldn’t legitimately say fairies didn’t exist (even today you can’t prove a negative, all you can say is that no firm evidence supports it). And here were photographs which photographic experts could not prove were fake, providing “evidence” of their existence. As Shakespeare wrote “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. Throughout the war sightings of various mythical beings were not uncommon. So some people were primed to believe. Furthermore fairies (of many different types) were reported from all over Europe and beginning in pre-history. It would not have been unreasonable to suspect a cause other than human imagination.
Do you believe in miracles or religious manifestations? Many in the Church believe, including those considered learned. I see little difference.
Thanks for this essay. I linked to it and added some thoughts.
Obama;s statement is the starting point to explore ways that even the most accomplished scientists have in the past shared beliefs that were valid only as fashionable at the time. In this post, I want to consider first why a lawyer like Obama gets science wrong, and secondly to consider the moral and religious confusion regarding our climate.
I find myself going along with everything you say – until I look once again at the photos, and the expression “obviously fake” just springs straight back into my mind. It is true that an expert’s failure to identify any ‘studio’ trickery in the photos added to their evidential weight and, given the Victorian zeitgeist, the a priori probability assumed by the public would have been high by today’s standards, but we are still talking about improving on an a priori probability of authenticity that was incredibly small. Remember, the photos are not just inviting belief in fairies, they are supposed to invite belief in fairies as depicted. I refuse to accept that, even in those days, general credulity was high enough for such purposes.
Mind you, to this day, there are those that still believe the photos, even many years after one of the hoaxers has admitted the fakery!
Thank you for joining in with the spirit of the article (pun intended). Your accompanying paragraph captures much of the article’s thrust.
JOHN RIDGWAY (06 Oct 18 at 8:57 am)
Is that the true meaning of peer (re) view?
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Cottingley fairies. Why shouldn’t they be dressed in contemporary fashions, given that they were obviously emanations of the girls’ psyches? The idea that ten year olds could make such delicately detailed chiarascuro’d copies of line drawings, and incorporate them in photos, using the primitive photographic means of the period is patently absurd. Some extraneous, possibly extraterrestrial, force was clearly at work.
A similar problem arises with the Turin Shroud. The Vatican has recently pronounced this a mediaeval forgery, which is obviously false. No-one can forge a document in the style of a future epoch, and the Turin Shroud resembles a nineteenth century photographic negative and not a mediaeval portrait. As an atheist and a fan of William of Ockham, I prefer to believe that Christ (who was no mean miracle worker, by all accounts) could project an image of his face and body on a piece of cloth, than believe the impossible nonsense of a forgery.
Anyone want to discuss 9/11?
By the way, did anyone at the time suggest that Conan Doyle should be banned from being interviewed by theTimes and equivalent media?
@John – thanks for an example of Bias taking over the argument.
when you say – “Do you believe in miracles or religious manifestations? Many in the Church believe, including those considered learned”
no offence, but who do you “considered learned” ?
I get confused, are you the North American Hunter? If so then I apologize for impinging upon your, undoubtedly more correct form of the past tense and past participle of the verb to learn. But I was using it in its adjectival sense to describe someone with both knowledge and understanding.
In Early Medieval times virtually the only learned people in Europe were in the Church for they alone read and wrote. This practice of learning has continued until modern times, in part it is said to explore and so offer up praise for God’s universe. In the sciences astronomy stands out, but all branches of science have had their practitioners – think of Mendel, and many early palaeontologists were clergymen.
But forget science, men of the cloth, have invested their lives in understanding their fellow man. Not my field but I have vague memories of early studies and understanding of human interaction being done in monasteries.
And then there are the “common or garden” clergy. They have all been to divinity school, and have varied interests. Most I have met are cultured, many wise (others of course are despicable, but that’s a different conversation).
The problem with my answer is of course that I do not know how many of these people believe in miracles and the like. I comfort myself that I have been told by two that they do and suspect that the majority of churchmen do also. Certainly the railway platforms of Lourdes are as full as ever.
The point I was trying to make to John is that believing in miracles today is not too dissimilar from a believe in fairies (and the like) in the early 20th century. People (even highly educated ones) believe in the strangest things – watch people incantate over their Lotto tickets, or explain the Earth has an average temperature that can be measured.
“The point I was trying to make to John is that believing in miracles today is not too dissimilar from a believe in fairies (and the like) in the early 20th century.”
Yes, and I accept that point. But I still feel that there has to be some degree of discretion applied when deciding what does and does not constitute credible evidence. I’ve always thought that bold claims demand solid evidence, so belief in fairies would require something a little more convincing than the Cottingley photos, with or without the declaration of befuddlement from an expert. In fact, I would go so far as to say that any belief I had in fairies, prior to seeing the photos, would cause me to question rather than accept their authenticity.
Supporting evidence is supposed to make belief more acceptable, not to make a mockery of it. The modern day analogy might be attempting to convince people of the concept of the Devil by showing a photograph of oneself arm-in-arm with a horned, fork-tailed red geezer strolling along the Blackpool promenade. I think I would want to see something a little more subtle.
Of course, it was Conan Doyle himself who wrote “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. I guess he had the impossibility of hoax in mind, but one can just as readily use the impossibility of fairies “dressed in contemporary fashions” to give credence to the hoax theory. If Bayes taught us anything, it is that the significance of even objective evidence is subjective.
John I feel that, in the matter of fairies I am on a sticky wicket. Yet I still feel some remaining firm ground beneath me. You are examining the photographs with the assurance of a 21st century man, with a history of seeing past deceptions. Transport yourself to the 1920s (not the Victorian era) and a time where knowledge of photographic fakery was scant. Furthermore it was the practice to accept the word of young ladies. At the time it would be much more likely to accept their word, thus implying the existence of fairies.
The lecture that I attended long ago gave the audience the opportunity to examine some of the photographs shown blown up on a screen. Comments were that the audience could not spot signs of fakery although none believed them genuine. The real mystery was how a teenager and a pre-teen faked the photographs so well.
I stand corrected. The Cottingley Fairies were indeed a 1920’s phenomenon, not originating from the Victorian era. I also accept that I can do no other than comment from a 21st century perspective. Nevertheless, I sincerely believe that my use of the expression ‘obvious fakes’ does not result from taking a modern day view. Throughout history, supernatural phenomena have exhibited an awkward ambivalence: they have been super whilst at the same time remaining suspiciously natural, i.e. familiar. The supernatural imagery involved is so often redolent of the culture of the day, suggesting that it is largely inspired by human imagination. I think the Cottingley Fairies fall into this bracket and the observers of the day should have been aware of the point I have just made.
That said, I accept your main point that it is difficult to place oneself into the cultural environment in which conclusions were contemporaneously drawn. I am aware that, by saying they would have been obviously fake at the time, I am making a personal judgement that is difficult to substantiate. The more relevant question, however, is whether or not my assertion that Conan Doyle’s reputation suffered at the time is true. The author of the book reviewed in the following article certainly seems to think so:
sorry for any confusion per who I am – dfhunter (sometimes dougieh) is from Isle of Man (born in Broxburn,Scotland)
I always read “Hunter” from the USA comments, as he is more interesting/relevant than me to the topic:-)
anyway, thanks for your reply.
I suppose what I meant by “but who do you consider learned in the Church” could be expanded to a clearer question.
the Pope has said – “Pope Francis’s encyclical on ecology, Laudato Si, says that climate change is real and mainly “a result of human activity.”
and (for some reason it will not let cut & paste) – https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/archbishop-of-cantebury-justin-welby-donald-trump-christmas-speech-sermon-service-criticism-populist-a8128436.html
I have no objection to these people being considered learned.
but I agree with “People (even highly educated ones) believe in the strangest things”
Dougieh I don’t believe the Pope is infallible, especially upon climate change. I also don’t believe he wrote any part of the science within Laudato Si, but approves of its contents and urgency. I consider him to be a learned man, but not in science.
An entertaining analysis of ‘parapsychology’ fraud is in the detective novel by Chris Brookmyre “The Attack Of The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks”. In it, the reporter/detective analyses just HOW people (including scientists) are persuaded to believe in the impossible.
Ghosts or ‘global warming’ – it’s all in the convincing.
Would it be possible to get Obama to at least read the paper delivered by Prof. Lindzen to the GWPF last Monday night which is the most authoritative and succinct explanation of the sceptical view that I have seen in a very long time…….I have irritated my believer friends by emailing it to them by link to the posting by Anthony Watts on his site today….they won’t of course read it and mainly because they might believe it and then where would they be..
This is an important, elegantly written article. Thank you.
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