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Who Needs Science?

Watching the earnest tomfoolery of Extinction Rebellion (everyone’s favourite planetary rescue squad) whilst listening to the tirelessly apocalyptic narrative emanating from the BBC, it is clear that speculation about the future has become a grim business. We might just about be surviving now (I am reassured) but the future is another land; a land deemed uninhabitable for a species as eminently fragile as homo sapiens. But how, you might ask, can we know this, given that we have never travelled to that land? And is this really an unprecedented quandary we find ourselves in?

The answer to the first question is quite simple. There is an authority amongst us that can advise on such uncertain matters, and this authority is known as ‘the climate scientists’. But what about the question of precedence? In fact, this is not the first time that humanity has asked whether it could survive in a hot climate yet to be experienced. Furthermore, as is the case now, the last time this question was asked, it found a ready answer in the authority of the day. I speak, of course, of the late 15th century and the thought that had engaged every enquiring mind inhabiting the northern hemisphere: Could medieval man possibly survive the extreme temperatures of the equator?

Nothing New Under the Sun

The equatorial regions were indeed a foreign and unexplored land for the 15th century European academic. As is the case with our future climate, those in northern climes could only extrapolate from what they knew of terra cognita in order to surmise what might lie in lands over the horizon. Today’s horizon, of course, is temporal, but the problem is basically the same. People of the 15th century knew that things got hotter as they headed south – that much was not in dispute. The question was whether or not it would become too hot for survivability before the equator was reached. Today, we know that the climate is warming, but it is the extrapolation of that warming trend that vexes the curious.

So how was the question answered way back in the 15th century? The answer is: The same way it always had been – they just looked up what Aristotle had to say on the subject. And what do you suppose that might have been? Perhaps the answer was predictable: Don’t even think of going there, you’ll boil to death, and that’s a fact!

You might think that people wouldn’t take the word of an ancient philosopher when they could just go to the equator and find out for themselves, but there is a very good reason why the philosophy prevailed. You have to remember that all of this pre-dates the Scientific Revolution, as begun by Tycho Brahe in the 16th century and ended by the works of Sir Isaac Newton about a century later. Before this time, the very idea of scientific discovery was alien to the human race, and direct experience was a poor substitute for the wisdom of the ancients. The genuine belief was that all that could be known had already been determined by Aristotle and his epigones. No further discovery was necessary, so a trek to the equator would have been a complete waste of time. All that was needed was a quick trip to the library.

And Nothing Changes

Still, it would have been comforting to know that the contemporary wisdom was based upon a firm consensus. I’m sure that any half-baked survey of university dissertations of the day would have revealed that somewhere in the region of 97% of academia agreed that Aristotle was right. And I’m equally convinced that any academic wishing to make a career based upon the premise that Aristotle was a fool would have struggled to get his work published. As for any contrarians amongst the great unwashed, they would be roundly dismissed as conspiracy theorists. There might even have been a wily wag who was prepared to deride and mock naysayers from a pulpit called ‘And Then There’s Philosophy’. Still others might have taken to the streets screaming ‘Listen to the philosophers’, though I doubt that any of them would have been 16 year-old girls.

What is less certain, however, is whether there was any hard evidence to back up Aristotle’s position. Even prior to the Scientific Revolution one might have thought that there was at least some basis for the claim, rather than just saying it gets hotter as one travels south and all experiments on human physiology have demonstrated that there are limits to how much heat can be borne (I say ‘experiments’ but I really mean ‘torture’). Perhaps a climate sensitivity value had been determined, whereby they knew the increase in temperature experienced as the distance travelled south was doubled. Even so, I’m sure the measurements would have been hampered by the vagaries of weather, so maybe a value between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees was the very best they could manage. But who am I kidding? None of this was necessary. Aristotle already had the answer and no one was going to do anything to disprove him.

That is, until mankind’s entrepreneurial spirit tipped the balance.

Then Things Get Spicy

In the end, it wasn’t scientific curiosity that drove the Europeans to explore the equatorial regions – it was money. The Portuguese, in particular, were keen to establish a maritime route by which they could import spices from India, and it occurred to them that heading south whilst hugging the African coast might be the answer to their problem. So that is what they did. And lo and behold, it wasn’t too long before they were returning with healthy sun tans, boats laden with spice, and tales of civilisations loving la viva Tropicana.

Despite this, Aristotle’s authority shone on brightly, and so it would take a lot more than facts to overthrow his catastrophic anthropocentric equatorial warming theory. Indeed, anyone who challenged Aristotle’s authority would have to answer to the Pope. Take, for example, musician and mathematician, Jean Taisnier, who, having had the temerity to question the myth of Aristotelian infallibility, received a papal challenge to cite a single example of Aristotle having been wrong. Even in the early 16th Century, long after the Cape of Good Hope had been successfully navigated, the eminent philosopher, Alessandro Achillini, deemed the matter unresolved:

“However, that at the equator figs grow the year round, or that the air there is most temperate, or that the animals living there have temperate constitutions, or that the terrestrial paradise is there – these are things which natural experience does not reveal to us.”

Fortunately, a much more reasoned commentary (at least to the modern mind) was forthcoming from the likes of Giovanni Manardo, who said of the equatorial controversy:

“If anyone prefers the testimony of Aristotle and Averroes to that of men who have been there, then there is no way of arguing with them…”

Well that’s deniers for you!

The Preachy Bit

I’m sure that there are some of you reading this tale of pre-scientific nonsense who would see it as a firm endorsement of the importance of scientific enquiry and, hence, an endorsement of the current orthodoxy regarding modern-day global warming. But you should remember that I am one of those black-hearted, anti-science reprobates who never did fully sign up to Team 97. So, for me, it is not the presence of latter-day enlightenment that impresses me so much, but the fact that, whenever horizons obscure the view, we still insist that matters of science can nevertheless be settled by appeal to authority. We pride ourselves in having moved on from those dark days of blind allegiance to the ancient merchants of certainty, but one only has to scratch the surface to see that there really isn’t that much difference between what is going on today and what the powers-that-be were getting up to back in the 15th century. What was done then is what we are doing now. Sure, there is a lot more science being done today but, when it suits, we still waste little time in substituting direct experience with authoritative conjecture – supported in this case by little more than mathematical ‘experimentation’ in the form of an ensemble of climate models.

To be fair, the 15th century explorers did, ultimately, have the wherewithal to cross their spatial horizons before returning to report; we, on the other hand, do not have time machines to achieve that same purpose. So I guess we are stuck with the agonizing uncertainty that we may or may not be able to grow figs in the future; and that may be the only truth of the matter. As Francis Bacon once said, “Truth is the daughter of time”, and we cannot force time to give birth prematurely.

 

43 thoughts on “Who Needs Science?

  1. Not satisfied with the tales of doom I’ve been hearing, I recently downloaded all the maximum temperatures for my birthday from the nearest official station. They range from 10.4 to 26. The trend over 63 years is +0.0087 per year. The mean for the first 30 years is 17.41. The mean for the most recent 30 years is 17.44. I think it will be some time before my birthday temperature becomes life threatening.
    I wonder if someone who knows about sampling could tell me how many individual days I would need to do before I had a result not statistically different from the whole record.

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  2. I get those Bacons muddled up. It doesn’t help that there are two famous Francises. Apparently the full quote is “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority”.

    One of the others – it might have been Kevin – also had some sound things to say about knowledge and authority. Something like:
    “There are four impediments to knowledge: kowtowing to unworthy authority, adherence to habit or custom, popular opinion, and hiding ignorance by feigning understanding.”

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  3. Poor Aristotle gets a bad press, just because people believed him dogmatically 1500 years after his death. But he was the tutor of Alexander the Great, and in his private life he reveals an unexpected charming side

    Can James Hansen say as much? (OK he was an adviser to Al Gore.)

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  4. For authority figure of long standing who promulgated many errors of very long standing you cannot better the Greek human anatomist Galen. His understanding came from dissecting monkeys and pigs. Because the taboo on human dissection persisted for more than a century, his numerous inaccuracies went unnoticed and unchanged. This plus adherence to the four humour theory (also proselytized by Galen) set back medicine in Europe) for decades, compared with that in the Arab world.
    Oddly, and similar to what is happening today with Climate Science, when human dissection began, there was huge controversies between Galen followers and those with practical, first hand knowledge of the human body (well, the male version of it) with authority commonly trumping to expertise.

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  5. It’s not just Team 97 Consensus anymore, it’s “rock solid scientific consensus and depth of evidence”. Peter Stott of the UK Consensus HQ says so:

    Back in 2007, rock solid consensus warned us all it was worse than we thought and, 12 years later, we all now know it’s worse than we thought. Why? Because facts that’s why! Facts as neatly summarised by The Mirror whose climate science panel Dr Tamsin Edwards has recently signed up to (in addition to a TV presenter plus various policy wonks from XR, Greenpiss and Friends of the Uninhabitable Earth. If you’re a member of the public confused by climate change and you want the facts, you need only ask the panel.

    The facts (or fathom-busting ‘depth of evidence’ according to Stott) which lead to the inevitable scientific conclusion that it’s worse than we thought are, according to the Daily Mirror:

    Facts that mean we must act

    1. The increase in ocean temperatures means that we are set to lose between 70% and 90% of the world’s coral reefs.

    2. Floods in the UK have become more frequent. In 2000, we had the highest level of rainfall since records began at 337.3mm, topping the 330.7mm of 2012.

    3. Globally, the six warmest years on record were notched in the last seven years – and it is predicted that by 2050, the UK is facing a trebling of deaths caused by heat.

    4. This year saw the UK experience the hottest temperature since records began. It was 38.7C at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden on Thursday, July 25.

    5. A study found 68% of all extreme weather events, including droughts, flooding, hurricanes and tropical storms, were either made more likely to occur or more severe.

    6. Our cities are getting hotter. A rise in global temperatures of only 1.5 degrees centigrade will leave 350 million people at the risk of heat stress.

    7. The Arctic ice cap has shrunk in every successive decade since 1979.

    8. Glaciers in Central Europe, Caucasus, North Asia, Scandinavia, the Andes, eastern Africa and Indonesia are expected to lose 80% of their mass by 2100.

    9. More than 1.1 billion people – 17% of the population – could face life with severe shortages of water.

    10. Farming will suffer. If global temperatures rise by another two degrees centigrade this will see a fall in livestock production by between 7% and 10%.

    11. There has been a 60% decline in wildlife populations in 40 years. A report found that of 976 species, 47% of extinctions could be blamed on the effects of climate change.

    12. Experts predict that climate change could force between three and 16 million people into extreme poverty because of rising food prices and crop failures.

    13. Illegal logging, fires and deforestation have led to 20% of the Amazon rainforest vanishing in the past 50 years.

    15. Oceans are dying, with 30% of sharks and rays and 27% of crustaceans on the brink. Rising temperatures and pollution have created 500 dead zones – areas without oxygen and life.

    16. According to a 2016 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, climate change will cause global food prices to rise 20%.

    17. 800 coastal homes in the UK could be lost by 2034 says The Environment Agency. Sea levels are set to rise by 80cm by the end of the century.

    18. The World Bank has estimated there could be 140million climate change migrants by 2050 because of high temperatures, crop failures and flooding.

    20. Crop failures and the increased risk of flooding could lead to mass migration across the globe.

    21. The World Bank has warned there could 140million climate change migrants by 2050.

    https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/technology-science/science/climate-change-facts-mean-must-20718994

    FACTS! Facts dammit; the experts have been to the past, present and future in their supercomputers and they KNOW that it IS worse than we thought. Abolish all quaint notions of any distinction between past, present and future tenses and submit thyself to the contemporaneous, simultaneous, coeval wisdom of rock solid consensus. The experts have spoken. Amen.

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  6. Geoff,

    You are quite right. Aristotle is not the villain in this tale.

    Alan,

    You are quite right. It isn’t all down to the worshipping of Aristotle. The big three that provided the foundation for an undue reverence for ancient authority were Aristotle, Galen and Ptolemy. The only reason why the last two do not get a mention in my post is because I didn’t really need to do so in order to make my point, and it was only Aristotle who had something to say about the climate. Nevertheless, medieval attitudes to Galen and Ptolemy also provide excellent examples of how authoritative literature was considered more reliable than direct evidence. As you point out, human dissections that provided direct evidence that Galen was wrong were often ignored or tendentiously misinterpreted. As for astronomy, the overthrowing of the Ptolemeic system by that of Copernicus was hardly a straightforward affair. In despair, the astronomer, Regiomantanus, wrote in 1463:

    “I cannot but wonder at the indolence of the typical astronomer of our age, who, just like credulous women, receive as something divine and immutable whatever they come upon in books…for they believe in writers and make no effort to find the truth.”

    In this early example of misogynistic trolling, Regiomantanus was expressing a novel viewpoint by suggesting that truth could be sought in evidence and facts. The prevalent view of the time was that direct experience was all very entertaining but the ancient scriptures would remain the only reliable source of truth. This seems bizarre to the modern mind, and yet also strangely familiar.

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  7. There was a time when the Royal Society followed it’s motto, ‘Nullius in Verba’, as in the Society’s instructions to Captain Cook, ‘take with you paper and ynke’ on his 1768 journey into the South Pacific.in which the Royal Society played a significant role. This was the Society’s largest maritime venture at thee time, although, since its foundation in 1660, it had placed a high value upon the empirical observations to be gained from ships’ logs and the journals of travellers on long voyages, including, not only verbal and numerical data, but graphic records also. In order that such potentially valuable records to science should be accurate and comprehensive, the Society included ‘Directions for Seamen, bound for far voyages’ in the first volume of its ‘Philosophical Treatise.

    … Whither now, Royal Society?

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  8. Jaime,

    Or as Talking Heads would have it:

    “Facts are simple and facts are straight
    Facts are lazy and facts are lame
    Facts don’t come with points of view
    Facts don’t do what I want them to
    Facts just twist the truth around
    Facts are living turned inside out
    Facts are getting the best of them
    Facts are nothing on the face of men”

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  9. John, or a e.e. cummings wrote:

    dying is fine)but Death

    ?o
    baby
    i

    wouldn’t like

    Death if Death
    were
    good:for

    when(instead of stopping to think)you

    begin to feel of it,dying
    ‘s miraculous
    why?be

    cause dying is

    perfectly natural;perfectly
    putting
    it mildly lively(but

    Death

    is strictly
    scientific
    & artificial &

    evil & legal)

    we thank thee
    god
    almighty for dying
    (forgive us,o life!the sin of Death

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  10. For additional enjoyment, re read the cummings poem substituting “weathering” and “weather” for “dying” and “death”

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  11. Alan,

    Yep, it probably works both ways because the lyricist may have been alluding to an awkward dichotomy that lies behind the concept of ‘the fact’: Facts claim to be copies of reality but only exist themselves as statements..

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  12. Literally every item on that list of “facts” supporting the extremists is either a flat out lie or is deceptively out of context.

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  13. The Portuguese weren’t the first to circumnavigate Africa. The Phoenicians did it under Pharaoh Neco in the other direction, from the Red Sea and back via the Straits of Gibraltar. We know it’s true because Herodotus said he didn’t believe it, since they claimed to have had the midday sun on their right as they sailed westward round Africa.

    Perhaps that will be the fate of climate sceptics, to be written out of history and to survive as a footnote in the standard 21st century account of the history of science by Sir John Cook F.R.S., referring to the false beliefs of an obscure denialist sect.

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  14. Galen wasn’t too well thought of even in the sixth century. I was just reading yesterday how the Christian Fulgentius met a rather saucy Muse, Calliope, who offered to give him a guided tour of Greek mythology. Fulgentius describes the meeting thus:

    …the friendly Calliope, the epic Muse, warming this poor heart of mine with a playful touch of her palm branch, stirred the sweet itch of poetry. At her appearance she was heavyhearted, her negligent hair held by a diadem gleaming with pearls, as she gathered up her bicolored robe to the ankle… She stood close by me; and, prostrating myself, I worshipped the queen of eloquence, in time past made very familiar to me by the testimony of poets and memorable for the wordy stories I relayed with hands swollen from canings in my first steps at school. But, because it was not clearly apparent to me who she was, I asked why she had come.
    She replied, saying: “I am one of the maidens of the group of Mount Helicon […]I indulged my light spirits…with satirical plays, diverted myself with fantastic comedy, delved into serious tragedy, or put together short epigrams… and I am pleased now that the industrious labours of us two should be in holiday mood, for the mind has found things to smile at even among the evils, had it not been that I was shut out by something more cruel than wars, namely the assemblage of Galen, which is linked to almost all the narrow streets of Alexandria, where more surgical hangman’s butcherings could be counted than there were houses…”

    Rudyard Kipling had a kind word for him though:

    Yet if it be certain as Galen has said And the Sage Hippocrates holds as much
    That those afflicted by doubts and dismays Are mightily helped by a dead man’s touch,
    Then, be good to us stars above! Then be good to us herbs below.
    For we are afflicted by what we can prove, And we are distracted by what we know.

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  15. Pingback: Climate Change The Facts – As Seen In The Mirror | Climate Scepticism

  16. It’s amusing watching the responses from climate change academics to this tweet from Tamsin. The horse has bolted and now they innocently claim they had nothing to do with leaving the stable door unlocked.

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  17. Jaime, I particularly liked Maslin’s response: ‘the philosophy of fear does not work and basically you undermine everything scientists are doing.’

    This from someone who signed XR’s first open letter (co-written by Rupert Read), which was sodden with the philiosophy of fear.

    The science is clear, the facts are incontrovertible, and it is unconscionable to us that our children and grandchildren should have to bear the terrifying brunt of an unprecedented disaster of our own making. We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with about 200 species becoming extinct each day. Humans cannot continue to violate the fundamental laws of nature or of science with impunity. If we continue on our current path, the future for our species is bleak.

    That letter was published in late October 2018, at which time the front page of XR’s website still said this:

    Based on the science, we have ten years at the most to reduce CO2 emissions to zero, or the human race and most other species are at high risk of extinction within decades.

    Surely no academic would sign a letter declaring support for an organisation when they are ignorant of that organisation’s core beliefs?

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  18. I hadn’t really considered Maslin’s letter, but it’s illogical. Consider
    “Humans cannot continue to violate the fundamental laws of nature or of science with impunity.”
    Just how can a FUNDAMENTAL law of nature be violated, let alone by humans?
    Are there any fundamental laws in science?
    Also I fail to believe that violating science, if it could be done, could do any harm. Ignoring some of the lessons learned from the application of scientific enquiry might have consequences, but that’s not what’s written.
    Violating logic can have consequences.

    I apologize if this matter has already been discussed elsewhere.

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  19. Alan,

    “I apologize if this matter has already been discussed elsewhere.”

    If there is any apologizing to be done, it would simply be because you said exactly what I had wanted to say.

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  20. Regarding the claim of 200 extinctions a day: Names of the species, Please. And account for the new species that have appeared.

    WWF claims “The rapid loss of species we are seeing today is estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. MSNBC laments the “fact” that 100,000 species of flora and fauna will no longer be with us by next Christmas. And yet, WWF also estimates the number of identified unique species to be between 1.4 to 1.8 million, an uncertainty of 400,000. As someone said, “Anytime extinctions are claimed, ask for the names.” The debunking is done in detail here:
    http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2015/02/plenty_of_wiggle_room_in_scientific_certainty.html#ixzz3XIw5UJqd

    https://rclutz.wordpress.com/2018/07/03/sixth-mass-genesis-not-extinction/

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  21. Where oh where did that Phanerozoic biodiversity chart come from? I don’t believe a word of it. First it suggests biodiversity was zero at the beginning of the Cambrian, but multiple forms of life occurred in the Late Precambrian and some even within the Middle Precambrian.
    Secondly, the most abundant life on earth, and possibly the most diverse but least known, are nemotodes, yet these have virtually no known geological record. (The two most interesting facts I know about nemotodes are 1) if the entire world, except for nemotodes, was removed, it would still be visible in ghostly form because of the all pervasiveness and abundance of these organisms, and 2) some nemotode species are found only upon individual types of German beer mats).
    Thirdly, throughout the Phanerozoic there were sites where extraordinary preservation of soft-bodied species occurred (perhaps the best know being the Burgess Shale in British Columbia). Compared with the the species diversity at other sites, where only hard skeletons occurred), it is significantly greater. The vast majority of soft bodied organisms left no trace of their existence.
    Finally, species diversity even today is poorly constrained. Some groups are extremely poorly studied, and there are huge gaps in our knowledge even of extant forms. Then there are fashions, with different experts having different opinions (lumpers and splitters).
    For these and other reasons I fail to see how any estimate of biodiversity can be made for the geological past, when making accurate estimates about today’s biodiversity is so difficult. Thus identification of any significant change in total biodiversity will be similarly impossible.

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  22. Alan, perhaps the letter wasn’t proofread properly and what they really meant to say was that humans are violating the fundamental laws of naturism and scientism, which dictate that anyone taking their clothes off in public or saying ‘the science says’ must always be believed and obeyed, especially when they do both things at once.

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  23. Alan: ‘some nemotode species are found only upon individual types of German beer mats’

    Wot?!

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  24. True Vinny (although I would be put to it to find an appropriate reference now). It is a factoid so outrageous that it was instantly memorable, as was the ghostly nemotode Earth. I probably was told these factoids when I read Zoology back in the 1960s.

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  25. Pity I didn’t remember how to spell nematode.

    Ghostly nematode Earth comes from Cobb, Nathan (1914). “Nematodes and their relationships”. Yearbook. United States Department of Agriculture. pp. 472, 457–490.

    Wiki gives other extraordinary nematode facts – in topsoils alone there are estimated to be 60 billion for every human, and they make up 90% of all organic matter on the seafloor.

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  26. @Jaime (days back):

    Re: 1. The increase in ocean temperatures means that we are set to lose between 70% and 90% of the world’s coral reefs.

    Has nobody noticed that there are enormous areas of suitable habitat for corals where they do not occur because… the sea temperature is too cold?

    @Ron (yesterday):

    Only a fraction of species are known, & it isn’t really well known how large that fraction is. Based on the numbers of unique species found in tropical forest samples (identifiable as unknown, but not described) you can estimate losses of species via deforestation without ever having described them. That most of the losses are small black beetles differing only by details of their internal genitalia probably means that their disappearance won’t upset many. (I have spent a lot of time staring down microscopes at dissected beetles, so I’m probably an exception.)

    As Alan says, the diversity vs time graph is a tad dodgy. It may well be true, at least in trend if not degree. But unless the authors of it have discounted modern species that would not fossilize well, and account for the lack of sampling in earlier times, it has to be questionable.

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  27. The Tasmin / Rupert Read thread noted by Jaime above on Twitter, has continued. A young person who nearly went off the rails after hearing one of Read’s talks, has jumped in. In defending himself, Read interestingly declares: ‘For me it is all about the Precautionary Principle. That is at the heart of my work and my speaking.’ Calling John… maybe time to jump in and point out the false nature of that position, or at least maybe an opportunity to extend this post 🙂

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  28. Andy,

    There is plenty that could be said regarding the invocation of the precautionary principle, both in the general case and the specific case of CAGW. However, I think on this occasion it is perhaps best to restrict oneself to commenting upon Rupert Read’s claim that the PP vindicates his support for XR and their wildly unrealistic projections.

    Whenever anybody invokes the PP, the first question that needs to be asked is, just what does that person mean by the PP, since it is a principle that has attracted so many definitions that it would be quite inappropriate to refer to it using the definite article. So, in Rupert’s case, I think one has to be looking at the following paper, for which he claims co-authorship (most significantly with Nassim Taleb):

    https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B8nhAlfIk3QIbGFzOXF5UUN3N2c/edit?pli=1

    The abstract for the above paper proceeds with the following:

    “The precautionary principle (PP) states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public domain (affecting general health or the environment globally), the action should not be taken in the absence of scientific near-certainty about its safety. Under these conditions, the burden of proof about absence of harm falls on those proposing an action, not those opposing it.”

    One presumes, therefore, that Rupert considers those who advocate business as usual to be the agents taking action, and consequently demands “scientific near-certainty” from them that this will not lead to ruin (knowing full damn well that such near-certainty is unachievable). No such obligation appears to be placed upon those who advocate the actions that are on XR’s to-do list. I will not dwell upon this obvious double-standard. Instead, I would like to comment upon the following comment made later in the paper:

    “We believe that the PP should be evoked only in extreme situations: when the potential harm is systemic (rather than localized) and the consequences can involve total irreversible ruin, such as the extinction of human beings or all life on the planet.”

    This clearly demonstrates that the authors see the issue in extremist terms. It is not the PP that justifies this extremism; the extremism is their foundation and it seems to justify their invocation of the PP (as they have chosen to define it). Furthermore, it should be said that this is not the normal justification for advocating the PP. Yes, it applies when serious and potentially irreversible harm is possible but, for most people, the PP would kick in long before “extinction of human beings or all life on the planet” was on the cards. Moreover, it should be said, that the real reason for invoking the PP is to deal with situations in which the uncertainty is so profound that the reliable quantification of probabilities is not possible. Unconventionally, Rupert et al, it seems, would invoke the PP even if the probabilities were calculable. In fact, that is exactly what they say:

    “…the PP which addresses cases that involve potential global harm, whether probabilities are uncertain or known and whether they are large or small.”

    This flies in the face of every other enunciation of the PP that I have come across. So, when Rupert Read says “For me it is all about the Precautionary Principle. That is at the heart of my work and my speaking”, one has to appreciate that he is referring to a rather idiosyncratic version of the PP – one that the vast majority of pundits on the subject would not recognise.

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  29. Thanks for the ghostly nematode planet/German beer mat reference, Alan. A delightful read, not just for its facts but for its author’s relaxed and witty style. For example:

    An old adage assures us there is no royal road to knowledge. There is certainly no royal road to a knowledge of nematodes. The traffic in this direction has not justified the installation of through trains and sleeping cars; so he who takes this route must be prepared to put up with inconveniences, and to make the best of certain disgusting passages. To the squeamish, the lazy, the impatient, the inaccurate, about to take tickets for this journey, I should say, “Don’t do it! It won’t suit you.” But to him not afraid of work, brave under discouragements, patient, cautious, and with a good amount of ability and common sense, I would wish a hearty Godspeed, and say, “Go ahead! it’s a rough road and hard to travel, but there are some fine bits of scenery, unequaled in their way, which amply make up for the inconveniences.”

    A keeper. Available here:

    https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/IND43748196/PDF

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  30. A few days after telling Rupert Read that the philosophy of fear doesn’t work, Mark Maslin has appeared in Times Higher Ed as the organiser and first signatory of yet another open letter about the climate emergency.

    https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/universities-must-act-swiftly-and-independently-climate-change

    Humanity stands at the brink of a precipice. If we do not urgently address climate breakdown and the ecological crisis, the very future of life on earth is in question.

    It’s addressed to university administrators and asks them to support ‘new programmes, fellowships, sabbaticals and voluntary placements to help the critical efforts needed to save all life on our planet.’

    Because what’s really needed to save us all from extinction is more social scientists on paid sabbaticals and more students volunteering in Peru.

    There are many familiar names among the thousand-plus academic and activist (and academic activist) signatories. For example: Alice Roberts, Helen Czerski, Jim Al-Khalili, Rowan Williams, Julia Steinberger, John Sauven, Craig Bennett, Jonathan Porritt, Sir David King, Robert Macfarlane, Kate Raworth, Alastair McIntosh, Peter Wadhams, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Stephan Lewandowsky and Ken Rice.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Vinny, yes, Maslin’s position seems a bit inconsistent. A few weeks ago he was speaking to the public as part of a so-called citizen’s assembly, saying “This is the bit where I sort of really make sure you’re depressed…”

    Does he think that scaring children is bad but getting adults depressed is perfectly OK?

    Like

  32. John, by sheer coincidence, I notice this paper on the precautionary principle has just been released, which unfortunately appears to be behind a paywall:

    “This paper provides a large scale, empirical evaluation of unintended effects from invoking the precautionary principle after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. After the accident, all nuclear power stations ceased operation and nuclear power was replaced by fossil fuels, causing an exogenous increase in electricity prices. This increase led to a reduction in energy consumption, which caused an increase in mortality during very cold temperatures. We estimate that the increase in mortality from higher electricity prices outnumbers the mortality from the accident itself, suggesting the decision to cease nuclear production has contributed to more deaths than the accident itself.”

    https://www.nber.org/papers/w26395

    In another strange twist, New Scientist is once again warning of the scourge of Toxoplasma Gondii which brain-altering single-celled protozoan you can apparently be infected with via your cat. As many as 4 billion people (half the world’s population) may be affected, resulting in them recklessly taking too many risks.

    So I have to ask, why do we have such a big problem with people so enthusiastically invoking the precautionary principle? You might think it would be the other way round, You might expect society to be biased towards taking serious and unnecessary risks in the face of the very real danger posed by climate change. Maybe that is what’s happening. Maybe the fossil fuel shills and the Deniers are all suffering from Toxoplasma Gondii infection? Or maybe Rupert Read and fellow extremists are the sufferers in that they are promoting unnecessary and unjustifiable extreme policies which risk harming the very people they are purportedly wanting to save from extinction? i wonder how many AGW alarmists have cats?

    Like

  33. Conclusions of that paper:

    In this paper, we evaluate the downstream effects from invoking the precautionary principle following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in which Japan ceased operation at all nuclear power plants throughout the country. In an effort to meet the energy demands, nuclear power was replaced by imported fossil fuels, which led to increases in electricity prices. The price increases led to a reduction in electricity consumption but only during the coldest times of the year. Given its protective effects from extreme weather, the reduced electricity consumption led to an increase in mortality during very cold temperatures. We estimate that the increased mortality resulting from the higher energy prices outnumbered the mortality from the accident itself, suggesting that applying the precautionary principle caused more harm than good.

    Another potential welfare impact from replacing nuclear power with fossil fuels is the health effects from local air quality. In addition to the lower marginal costs of energy production, nuclear power has minimal impacts on local air quality. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, emit a wide range of pollutants that deteriorate local air quality and have significant effects on morbidity and mortality (see, for example, Graff Zivin and Neidell 2013, and references within). Indeed,estimates from the US show that closure of nuclear power plants after the Three Mile Island accident led to increased particle pollution and higher infant mortality (Severnini2017). Therefore, the total welfare effects from ceasing nuclear production in Japan are likely to be even larger than what we estimate, and represents a fruitful line for future research.

    Given this surprising result, why do governments invoke this principle? One possible explanation is that salient events, such as a nuclear disaster, affect perceived risk, which is often based more on emotions and instincts than on reason and rationality…

    Like

  34. “I wonder how many AGW alarmists have cats?”

    That’s the sort of question that ESRC loves to throw money at. Apply now before Brexit complicates things.

    Like

  35. I have 3 cats, & am sanguine about the possibility that I am infected. Perhaps we should ask instead how many of us have consumed steak tartare (I am a vegetarian).

    On the other hand, my understanding of this beastie was that rather than promote reckless behaviour, it encourages indifference. So the infected rats smell cats & just say to one another, “Do you think we should run up a drainpipe? I really can’t be a**ed, can you? Oh, is that a cat? What beautiful whiskers he has. Ow, I think I’m dying.” It does not encourage our little rodent friends to take up skydiving etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  36. On twitter Ben points out that the calling out of Rupert Read by Tamsin and others has reached at least one mainstream media source:

    https://metro.co.uk/2019/10/29/climate-scientists-blast-extinction-rebellion-speaker-told-kids-may-not-grow-11006887/

    Climate scientists blast Extinction Rebellion speaker who told kids they may not grow up

    An Extinction Rebellion spokesperson has been criticised by scientists after telling an audience of schoolchildren they may not get to grow up due to climate change.

    Like

  37. Just as not all fear-mongering is fear-mongering, not all sabbaticals are sabbaticals. Here’s Maslin tweeting about coverage of the fear-mongering open letter that asked unis to support sabbaticals for climate solutionaries:

    twitter.com/ProfMarkMaslin/status/1189836064229412864

    Calling them sabbaticals is like saying the Manhattan project was a desert holiday or Bletchley Park was a stress free country retreat with a bit if maths

    We are talking about extremely bright people work with government, business and civil society to produce meaningful action!

    The letter called them sabbaticals. The lobby group that organised the letter has called them sabbaticals right from the start, back in July.

    http://www.transitionlab.earth/projects-2/

    This October we will deliver an open letter to Universities UK, and every Vice-chancellor in the UK, to ask them to support academics who wish to take paid sabbaticals or fellowships with companies.

    Maslin is the lobby group’s top boffin. He might not have written the letter (that was probably XR’s Alison Green, who has organised several similar letters in the last year or so) but he did help publicise it when they were looking for signatories and he did sign it himself, so presumably he did read it at some point.

    But now he says it’s silly to call the sabbaticals sabbaticals.

    Funny old world, activist academia.

    Like

  38. Pingback: A Brief History of the Fact | Climate Scepticism

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