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Days of Yore and Days of Wonder

Many years ago – I recall not when – I was driving to a place – I recall not where – whilst listening to the radio – I recall not why – and someone was speaking – I recall not who.

In fact, I remember next to nothing relating to this anecdote, apart from what the gentleman on the radio said in his interview. He was clearly some grand fromage within his field and he was blathering on about a scientific subject for which I couldn’t give a monkey’s. Besides which, the rush hour traffic was demanding all the attention I was prepared to pay. That is, until I heard the following:

“You see,” he opined, “there is this new theory that is getting all the government research grants. And I think that is a dangerous thing. It won’t take long under such selection pressure before we find that the integrity of the scientific community engaged in this area of research will be called into question. I fear for its future.”

“That,” I replied indignantly, “is nonsense on stilts.”

Nobody was in the car with me, but that didn’t stop me from going on to explain to my fantasy audience why Man-in-Talking-Box had spoken with forked tongue. “You see,” I explained patiently to the passenger’s seat, ”it is in the very nature of the scientific method that no such loss of integrity could be possible. This guy obviously doesn’t know what he is talking about.”

It was probably another five miles down the road to Damascus (or was it Doncaster?) that the penny finally dropped and I suddenly realised that the gentleman was absolutely right. If one is dealing with a science that is low on experiment and high on long-term predictions, there is actually nothing left in the scientific method that can guarantee immunity from the insidious bias that policy-based funding introduces. This was a pivotal moment in my life, because it was at that point (I recall not when, etc.) that my confidence in the scientific community was irrevocably compromised. All those years rejoicing in the un-impeachability of scientific objectivity – years, it transpires, spent in naïve infatuation. I could have wept.

I have put you through this rather vague anecdote because, without hearing it, you could never fully understand why a scientifically educated, self-identified intellect such as myself could possibly fall into the evil hands of the climate science deniers. It goes without saying that the gentleman on that car radio, many years ago, was talking about anthropogenic global warming, but that hardly matters; I couldn’t back then give much of a toss regarding the intricacies of the science involved. What kindled on that fateful day was a new outlook on the whole scientific endeavour and a realisation that, first and foremost, science is a social undertaking subject to all of the rules that guide the emergence of societal understanding. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going all postmodern on you – science still rules. But it did turn me into an obsessive sceptic who, upon hearing any scientific ‘fact’, would immediately ask the question, “Yes, but how do the social dynamics of scientific practice bear upon the credibility of that assertion?” Global warming just happens to be the most topical, and most important, of those subject areas for which that question seems germane. But, believe you me, the principle extends far and wide within science, covering all of its manifestations – yes, even my beloved physics: String theory anyone?

So when the good folk at The Conversation finally lost patience with me, and banned my efforts to ask the credibility questions, I can’t say I was terribly impressed. I was even less impressed given that they chose to do so when I was commenting upon an article that was seeking to dismiss the idea that groupthink could possibly be a concern within the climate science community – a subject dear to my perverted, rotten, contrarian heart. For those who are interested, the comment moderated by The Conversation read as follows:

I agree with everything this article says regarding groupthink in climate science. As indeed I must if I don’t want my comment to be removed in accordance with The Conversation’s new moderation policy.”

Of course, most of you will know me well enough by now to understand that my professed agreement was an exercise in irony – merely an experiment to see whether The Conversation’s perfervid moderators could be goaded into deleting a comment that was ostensibly in full agreement with the author they sought to protect. I say ‘goaded’, but let’s be honest, it required only the gentlest of prods – no more than the mere suggestion that their ‘zero tolerance’ moderation policy might eradicate up to 99% of bacterial denialism, but only by rendering all subsequent metrics of consensus meaningless. Theirs is a method of data selection taken from the top draw of the scientific method (hint: more irony here). Of course, there is a lesson to be learnt from all of this: If someone is censoring idiotically, then one must expect that any attempt to point this out will be idiotically censored.

Admittedly, the above experiment was designed only to examine the craven groupthink tactics employed by climate science’s journalistic halo (as it surrounds the saintly heads encasing climatology’s finest brains). It was never intended to provide evidence that groupthink actually exists amongst climate scientists. So what might?

This is the point where I should launch into a mercilessly hostile critique of the haplessly naïve and trite Conversation article that had first attracted my attention, but I will resist that temptation. Suffice it to say, I am more saddened than surprised that there are still folk out there, purporting to work in serious science (and still others working within cognitive science) that are peddling the sort of nonsense I might also have peddled long ago, before I discovered the true meaning of wonderment. So, instead of becoming embroiled in one of those tedious social theory of science debates, I will just quote Professor Gary Yohe, a serial lead author for the IPCC:

Achieving consensus is, to be clear, one of the major objectives of IPCC activities. Paragraph 10 of the amended Procedures Guiding IPCC Work, for example, states that ‘In taking decisions, and approving, adopting and accepting reports, the Panel, its Working Groups and any Task Forces shall use all best endeavors to reach consensus’.

It would seem to me difficult, to say the least, to maintain that groupthink is impossible within an organisation that (by its own admission) had been set up with the expressed intention of thinking as a group. It is even more of a challenge when one reflects that the organisation concerned thought it important enough to point out such intentions in an official procedure. Unfortunately, without any further guidance as to what ‘best endeavours’ might cover, one has to be left wondering – unless, of course, you are one of The Conversation’s moderators and your days of wonderment are long behind you.

Coda:

It is important to appreciate just how emotionally invested one can get in the cult of the scientific method. After all, what finer mode of thinking do we have by which we can understand the universe? So it is no surprise that people can get very indignant and angry when they encounter viewpoints that do not appear to be sufficiently respectful of the scientific community. It is easy to dismiss such viewpoints as irrational and ill-conceived. I too have felt those emotions and can fully understand why others do.

For example, many years ago I read a book called ‘Fuzzy Thinking’ by a guy called Bart Kosko. He seemed to have an enormous chip on his shoulder and spent much of his time bleating on about how his pioneering work in fuzzy logic was belittled by the scientific mainstream. His book even had a section titled ‘Don’t confuse science with scientists’. His disregard for the scientific consensus angered me so much that I did something I had never previously done, nor have I done since: I ceremoniously threw a book into a dustbin. I even invited all my imaginary friends around to personally witness my stand against the anti-science movement. (Well, they were all invited but some of them didn’t show up. It is at times like this that you find out who your imaginary friends really are).

 

 

26 thoughts on “Days of Yore and Days of Wonder

  1. Pingback: Days of Yore and Days of Wonder — Climate Scepticism – uwerolandgross

  2. Extremely helpful John. It does seem to be time to revisit our most cherished assumptions. I had been wanting to get back to the Enlightenment in the light of Tom Holland’s latest book Dominion. But before that there’s the article Upgrade your cargo cult for the win on what the scientific method really boils down to. Judith Curry called it a must read in August and it got me thinking. But, for sensitive souls, it’s written by a woman and she well and truly gets her own back on Francis Bacon and other male pioneers of the Western scientific tradition, and their use of blatantly sexual metaphors, including the rape of women, for their manly uncovering of nature’s secrets, at least as it was seen in those early days. You have been warned.

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  3. This reminds me of Matt Ridley’s Angus Miller lecture, where he says the hockey stick was a big revelation:

    I was not always such a “lukewarmer”. In the mid 2000s one image in particular played a big role in making me abandon my doubts about dangerous man-made climate change: the hockey stick*. It clearly showed that something unprecedented was happening. I can remember where I first saw it at a conference and how I thought: aha, now there at last is some really clear data showing that today’s temperatures are unprecedented in both magnitude and rate of change – and it has been published in Nature magazine.

    Yet it has been utterly debunked by the work of Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick. I urge you to read Andrew Montford’s careful and highly readable book The Hockey Stick Illusion*. Here is not the place to go into detail, but briefly the problem is both mathematical and empirical. The graph relies heavily on some flawed data – strip-bark tree rings from bristlecone pines — and on a particular method of principal component analysis, called short centering, that heavily weights any hockey-stick shaped sample at the expense of any other sample. When I say heavily – I mean 390 times.

    This had a big impact on me. This was the moment somebody told me they had made the crop circle the night before. [emphasis mine]

    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/11/01/thank-you-matt-ridley/

    My own early impressions of the hockey stick were that it can’t be as bad as the skeptics say. There’s probably a lot of subtle points that I don’t understand and that Michael Mann is being made into a cardboard villain. After investigating and reading The Hockey Stick Illusion, I found that the hockey stick was even stupider than the skeptics were saying and that Mann really is a cardboard villain!

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  4. It’s weird, I can’t even remember a defining moment when I became a ‘sceptic’. I just kind of drifted into it some time around 2006. I never paid much heed at all to global warming before that, so I can’t say I was an avid believer even. I’ve just always been rather passionate about the environment and very interested in meteorology from a young age. Even Climategate passed me by until some time after the event. I sometimes wish I too could claim a revelation, a sceptical Eureka moment, but the junk science just kind of grew on me – like mould.

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  5. Like Jaime, there was no great revelation for me. I first encountered climate change years ago when I was enthusiastic about the prospect of human civilisation expanding into the solar system and then the galaxy – nanotech would give us all vastly increased longevity and we would also build space elevators and giant orbiting space habitats and so on.

    What could threaten this marvellous vision, I wondered? I started to put together a list – asteroid impacts, nuclear winter, airborne viruses and so forth – and then I found global warming.

    Hmm, that looks as if it could be serious, I thought. I then started to read everything I could on sites like Realclimate, but slowly something occurred to me. It wasn’t anything about the science or the maths itself, because I wasn’t in any position to assess or critique any of it. It was the behaviour of the people promoting and championing the science – I found them astonishingly and neurotically defensive about the whole thing, as if underneath they had no real confidence in it and were compensating by being obnoxious. Innocent questions from commentators would be batted away with quite unwarranted arrogance and disdain – as if there were things in this world that shouldn’t be looked at too closely or subjected to awkward questions.

    It just plain smelled wrong, that could be the best way to put it.

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  6. Great story.

    We are not Vulcans. I doubt we even want to be. Yet even if we achieve this evolution one far future day when our much beloved emotions shrivel away, until then science only rules when it isn’t corrupted by culture, which happens very frequently if not always comprehensively. As you imply regarding all the normal social rules, finding consensus is a social process not a scientific one, and to place consensus as a paramount goal is more or less to invite in a cultural king to rule the roost. But even climate science is not a complete goner yet; the most dangerous consensus, that on imminent apocalypse, is still outside of mainstream science pressuring to get in. The antics of XR and Greta etc will gain more adherents, but likely create more skeptics for every recruit (polarization), and especially, one would hope, shock some of the scientists out of their timorously mute conditions regarding the indefensible. There have been some noises of rejection, which could start their own ball rolling…

    I didn’t take much notice of global warming way back when. Was busy pursuing cultural evolution and memetics in spare time (along with other interests). Then someone gave me the (at the time new) Al Gore DVD as a present. Noticed immediately it was packed full with classic memes and rhetoric devices, and appeared to have very little in the way of real science – which I went off to check up on anyhow. I wasn’t happy with with what came back, and at that point I had a coincidence of interests – a fantastic new cultural beast (fantastic in terms of a great specimen, you understand) to observe and probe. WUWT was already up and running then, but less than a year old I think.

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  7. For me, it was the rewriting of history. Real science, like Astronomy, paleontology, biology and physics, embraced and builds on the past. Climatology explicitly rewrites or flat out lied about the past. Real science embraced debate. Climstology suppressed and censors debate.

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  8. For me it was reading “The State of Fear” which gave me the key out of a conundrum. I had joined the School of Environmental Sciences at UEA and found that some of my science had come under attack by those proselytizing CAGW at CRU. I learned that the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age, which I was taught were global events were being reinterpreted as being only regional events – confined to the Northern Atlantic basin. Not my subject area, but it made me uneasy that I could find no geological support for this reinterpretation. I also knew that in the geological past, CO2 levels were much, much higher which didn’t fit well with CAGW.
    After receiving my key I researched all aspects of the subject and found much that was being hidden and swept under the carpet. My infamy began when I started to inform students that there was much information that they were not seeing and that before they made up their minds, students ought to be presented will all the facts. When I was accused by members of the Tyndall Centre of being in the pay of Big Oil,I knew I was effective.

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  9. Back when Channel 4 news still had a forum, a guy posted there who called themselves Chairman Al. He usually posted anti-climate stuff with links. One day, he posted a link to what I think was “Caspar and the Jesus paper”, or closely related to that, from Bishop Hill and I decided to read it to see what nonsense he was talking about. I didn’t get much work done that afternoon because I quickly ended up on Climate Audit and the science equivalent of car crash TV. I was both bemused and outraged by the various attempts to pass off Mann’s shit as solid gold and squash valid criticism. I couldn’t trust people so obviously enthralled with the message to produce objective science.

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  10. I’m sorry I’ve taken a while to respond to people’s comments but, sadly, I’ve had to put my beloved dog down and so my mind has been on other things.

    The only reason why I can remember my genesis as a climate science sceptic is because it coincided with my becoming a science sceptic. And when I say ‘science sceptic’ I don’t mean ‘anti-science’. I mean a person who was circumspect in accepting what society presents as the view of those who work under the banner of ‘science’. Since my scientific education had been in physics, I naturally gave physics an exemption from scrutiny – it alone, I believed, could hold its head high. Instead, it was the many proclamations that were being made in the field of health and welfare that first drew my attention. Consequently, I gravitated towards subjects such as cholesterol and statins, salt in diet, the obesity ‘crisis’, the hokum surrounding much of the mental health dogma, the fantasy of a nation of dehydrated children, etc. Even so, it wasn’t long before I had to admit that the controversy surrounding string theory meant that I could not keep physics out of the firing line. Furthermore, once I’d read about Deutsch Physik, I realised there truly are no areas of science that are exempt.

    As for global warming, I can’t remember when this started to dominate my thoughts regarding the sociology of science (certainly, Andrew Montford’s book was an eye opener but I think it pre-dates that). In that respect, my experience was similar to Jaime’s. Also, I fully understand Alex’s testimony. It wasn’t sceptical pseudoscience or the so-called merchants of doubt that influenced me, it was the attitude of some of the scientific community who were pushing the mainstream view. It was, and remains, very smelly.

    Finally, can I just say, I have always been a huge fan of science and I pride myself in having a very sound education in it. Therefore, I find suggestions that I am in any way anti-science or a Flat-Earther risible. I just like to think that I now have a more mature, nuanced and sophisticated attitude when it comes to evaluating scientific proclamations. Not necessarily more mature than others, but more mature than I used to have.

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  11. So very sorry to hear your dog has passed away John. RIP sweetheart. Having gone through that horrendous experience so many times myself, I’ve got a good idea how you might be feeling. I’ve got way too many canine-shaped holes in my soul and they never seem to repair. Not good.

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  12. Jaime, Alex, Richard,

    Thanks for that. This is actually my fifth time, and it isn’t getting any easier. The process is a profoundly disturbing experience, and the ensuing sense of loss is quite numbing. Still, one has to remember the good times.

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  13. @John – 5th time!!

    you must have had many happy years with all your dogs, and with the last as you say remember the good times.

    I know this is trite, but, reading your post & later comment, I find myself thinking of – Desiderata

    take care

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  14. My moment of revelation came when I saw ‘The Great Global Warming Swindle’ back in 2007. Until then I had been too busy working to even think about “global warming”. Seeing Piers Corbyn on the programme and knowing from first hand experience what a brilliant physicist he is, I thought there must be something in this and so I started investigating. The rest is history for this climate change sceptic.

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  15. Sorry, John, that you lost man’s best friend. I lost my Border Collie last Xmas and am still sad, 16 years with Lockie, so many joyful walks along the sea shore, he understood sentences, was benign and like very young children, was free of guile.

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  16. John. My recommendation to anyone who has lost a beloved pet is (if feasible) to get another as quickly as possible. As Jaime has intimated the new one never can replace that whom you have lost but soon new memories are made and new bonds forged and your loss made more tolerable. I still feel the loss of dogs I lost decades ago.

    Now we always try to have two dogs, a more elderly and a youngster. When the older leaves us, the younger requires our full focus to assuage its grief, and thereby help heal our own. In a year or so our surviving pet becomes an elder.

    May your memories be fond, but any grief be shortlived.

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  17. I never realised there were so many doggie people on here. We haven’t been without at least one dog (sometimes as many as four) for 20 years now – all rescues. Currently two scamps to look after and today’s fond memories consist of getting getting very wet, very muddy and having to prise a rotting fish head heaving with maggots from between firmly closed jaws – which is remarkably similar to last week’s fond memory actually (minus the maggots)!

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  18. So, ‘synchronicity’, a term coined by the brilliant Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. We’re here talking about scepticism and sadly, the conversation has got onto dogs. Today, Susan Crockford has announced that the University of Victoria has rescinded her adjunct professor status for the sin of being sceptical about the demise of polar bears due to global warming. In her article, she mentions her rise to prominence after being involved in a Nature documentary ‘Dogs That Changed the World’ about the domestication of the wolf. I haven’t seen this interesting sounding documentary so I intend to watch it on Youtube, having been fascinated by the history of canine domestication for quite some time. It’s a great shame for Susan. Academic censorship is now rife.

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  19. Many thanks to all who have taken the time out to express their sympathy.

    Alan, you are quite right that the best thing after losing a dog is to go out looking for another, but I think this time may be different. My wife has said that the only thing she would be interested in next time around would be a Labrador puppy (our very first dog was a Labrador). We still have a 3 year old border collie to keep us company, and the memories of her puppyhood are still too frighteningly fresh in the mind for me to contemplate repeating the experience!

    But yes, let us move on and talk about Susan Crockford now. That is the real news story.

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  20. For reasons best known to itself, WordPress no longer allows me to ‘like’ comments. So Beth and Alan, consider your latest comments to have been ‘liked’.

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  21. That ‘like’ by me was an experiment, John. No, I don’t know either.

    Jaime: That seems a rather deep synchronicity. It’s infuriating to hear that the UVic has rescinded Crockford’s adjunct professor status. One hopes she can take a leaf out of Peter Ridd‘s book. And I too am very interested in the wolf-to-domestic pet story. I was also thinking about a Cliscep post on ‘Deniers and their Dogs’. (Other titles would be available.) Not least because I’d like to examine again our deep commitment to and love for nature, broadly defined, as is true for so many voters who are pretty uninformed about the details of climate. But not our love for Nature, sadly, not these days. The comments here are moving in their own right. I think they could also point to a useful way out of the worst pits of ‘green’ (faux-green) demonisation.

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