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We Need to Talk About Sonia

Here’s a little teaser for you: What do Doctors Frankenstein, Honeydew and Michael Mann all have in common? No, it isn’t that they are all Muppets – Dr Frankenstein wouldn’t fit that pattern. The real answer is that they all provide an important reminder that scientists are, after all, human, and therefore prone to human frailty. As such, they can be egomaniacs, bumbling, or even both.

This is not, of course, our preferred cultural image of the scientist. We much prefer to think of them as our torch bearers for objectivity and integrity; an honour bestowed upon them at the expense of being branded nerdy and emotionally stunted. Even so, what better bunch of people in which to place our trust in a time of crisis? But wait! I’m forgetting that other group of intrepid truth-seeking heroes amongst us. Yes, I am forgetting the journalists! Not only do they enjoy, with the scientists, our highest levels of gullibility, they also get to say when we should and should not trust the man or woman in the white coat. And they can do this without ever having had to study science to any great extent. It’s a superpower, I think.

Sonia Sodha is one such superhero. With a scientific kudos that extends no further than an Oxbridge degree in politics, philosophy and economics, and having a background that includes being senior advisor to Ed Milliband, she boldly proclaims in the Guardian: Bias in ‘the science’ on coronavirus? Britain has been here before.

It’s an article that explores the uncertainties that have undermined the decisions and policies pursued by the UK government in tackling coronavirus. In so doing, Sonia displays a healthy scepticism that would not be out of place in your typical CliScep article. For example, one finds this little nugget:

“The paradox of science is that, while it aspires to peeling away bias to leave knowledge that is pure and true, it is practised by human beings who are as subject to biases as the rest of us.”

This is quickly followed by:

“As understanding of the problem of bias in science has grown, there has been much soul-searching about how to reduce it by improving the way research gets reviewed and scrutinised. But there has been much less focus on how to eliminate bias from the production of scientific advice for government.”

The role of SAGE, in particular, is placed under a critical microscope:

“Sage was set up as an ad hoc group with a rotating cast of scientists, yet is being held collectively accountable in a way that does not reflect this status. Its minutes are now being published, but do not adequately express dissenting opinion.”

By the time she has written, “Certainty comes across as authoritative, even when it is anything but”, you might be forgiven for thinking one was dealing here with a fully enrolled science denier, an ideal candidate with more than enough astute observations in her armoury for her to see behind the climate emergency. I’m almost on the verge of taking back everything I have said about journalists. Surely, Sonia is the one I’ve been waiting for – the Guardian journalist to start the fightback. After all, did she not say ‘we have been here before’?

Well, she did. However, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it wasn’t the role of scientists in advising climate change policy to which she was referring; it was their role in deciding the UK government’s mad cow disease policy. What she has actually said previously in the Guardian regarding climate change is this:

“I know we’re fast approaching a catastrophic climate tipping point.’

So I’m afraid it turns out that the woman who seems to understand all about the importance of uncertainty and the politicization of science seems to know diddly squat about how these problems might apply to climate science. According to her, it all comes down to something she just knows. The words, “Certainty comes across as authoritative, even when it is anything but” start to look very hollow, particularly coming from a graduate in politics, philosophy and economics who is pontificating upon a scientific issue. So why the catastrophic lapse of judgement? Why the failure to apply her insights when they matter most? Why can she see the problem with bodies such as SAGE but doesn’t seem to see anything remiss with the concept behind the IPCC? Perhaps this explains it:

“When I decided I couldn’t support Labour in the European elections, because of its Brexit position, I voted Green instead.”

Yes, there you go. You can rationalise as much as you want, but when the rationale flies in the face of one’s values and preconceived beliefs, not to mention what has already become culturally accepted, then there’s no competition really. Once again, someone who would have you believe she knows all about bias seems to know nothing about bias blind spot.

It turns out that it’s not just the scientists but also the journalists who are human and so exhibit human frailty – they do not possess superpowers after all. They are not even as good at science as the scientists are. Who saw that one coming? And if someone with Sonia’s grasp of the issues still can’t be shaken from her conviction that a catastrophic climate tipping point is fast approaching, despite the lessons emerging from the COVID-19 ‘following the science’ debacle, then there really does seem to be no hope for any of us.

Okay, maybe things are looking bleak, but let’s not give up too easily. Maybe if Sonia were to read this from her own newspaper: Global heating: best and worst case scenarios less likely than thought.

Yes, let’s talk about that instead.

16 thoughts on “We Need to Talk About Sonia

  1. Along the lines of that last link, we now have the best climate model, INMCM5, forecasting a mild warming 2015 to 2100. For a look at how the model inputs are dictated, and the results from the one model that can replicate historical temperature records, see
    Simulation of Possible Future Climate Changes in the 21st Century in the INM-CM5 Climate Model
    https://link.springer.com/article/10.1134/S0001433820030123

    My synopsis: https://rclutz.wordpress.com/2020/07/24/best-climate-model-mild-warming-forecasted

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  2. John, excellent piece.

    “You can rationalise as much as you want, but when the rationale flies in the face of one’s values and preconceived beliefs, not to mention what has already become culturally accepted, then there’s no competition really. Once again, someone who would have you believe she knows all about bias seems to know nothing about bias blind spot.”

    Yep, entrenched cultural values can cause severe selective blindness. Even when two of the dots are very close together indeed, those who can’t see one of them, still aren’t able to join them up.

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  3. We can only hope that more and more people are quietly seeing the big pile of steaming bs that is the actual composition of the climate consensus. The pose of academics claims ng to be interested in bias, yet kowtowing to the great Mammoth in the room creates obvious cognitive dissonance. No wonder those claiming to be true believers are so angry and fearful of actual discussion.

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  4. Andy,

    Thanks for that.

    Sonia is not alone, but she is a rather stark example of the problem. When you get a whole bunch of journalists who seem able to apply their journalistic instincts so selectively, an explanation is required. One can’t just leave it as just one of those things. And it’s not just a case of a curious lack of journalistic interest in a particular subject area; it’s a case of a curious lack of interest in the curious lack of interest. Why is it only on blogs such as CliScep that you can find anyone passing comment on this bizarre but blatantly obvious phenomenon? The fear of tipping points can’t explain everything.

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  5. John,

    “When you get a whole bunch of journalists who seem able to apply their journalistic instincts so selectively, an explanation is required.”

    Regarding the cultural explanation, one would expect behaviour like this to occur en-masse. It would be much more difficult to explain if there were just a few individuals behaving like this, especially if they were from unrelated parts of society.

    “Why is it only on blogs such as CliScep that you can find anyone passing comment on this bizarre but blatantly obvious phenomenon?”

    To be fair, it’s actually quite widespread to call out the ultimate culprit behind this selectivity. In the push for his new book for instance, Schellenberger calls apocalyptic environmentalism a ‘new religion’. And all religions have their supportive elites. Once, Christianity dominated the media, which howled at Darwin and the prospect that we were descended from monkeys. Unfortunately, the call out is still nowhere near widespread enough to overturn the religion; but I think it’s growing.

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  6. JOHN RIDGWAY

    … it’s not just a case of a curious lack of journalistic interest in a particular subject area; it’s a case of a curious lack of interest in the curious lack of interest.

    Andy’s cultural explanation of a cultural black hole in its formative stages works when there’s just the one major “blind spot.” For over ten years I’ve thought that this was the case; global warming seemed to be a unique example of wilful blindness. Now I’m not so sure.

    For all my adult life, centre left media like the Guardian and BBC have tolerated a range of opinions on almost any subject; they were highly critical of the far left, but could nonetheless occasionally publish something positive about Cuba or even Mao’s China; they were pro-NATO and pro-nuclear weapons, but it was nonetheless possible to read articles which were pro-disarmament and critical of Western policy.

    This is no longer the case. The BBC’s diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus has a fact-free opinion piece on China which is a simple echo of Mike Pompeo’s recent speech. Luke Harding in the Guardian acts openly as the mouthpiece of the British secret services, as if Russiagate and the Steele dossier were still things. Groupthink has become Unithink.

    Is the same true in the rightwing media? The Spectator and the Telegraph seem to allow a margin for disagreement on subjects like reactions to the virus, or to Brexit. And the extremism of Thunberg and XR allows them to take a critical stance even towards the defining subject of our age.

    It’s natural I suppose that a new culture like climate concern should start by first absorbing the radical wing of opinion, because that’s the curious, mentally agile part. But is it normal for it to absorb every other subject into its maw (to continue the black hole analogy?) Is the anti-Trump, anti-Putin, anti-Xi hysteria merely a reflection of opposition to fossil fuels? Or has liberal opinion suddenly stopped being liberal on a whole series of separate subjects, one after the other?

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  7. Geoff:

    “Andy’s cultural explanation of a cultural black hole in its formative stages works when there’s just the one major “blind spot.” For over ten years I’ve thought that this was the case; global warming seemed to be a unique example of wilful blindness. Now I’m not so sure.”

    GW may be the longest-rooted, most established, the most well-bounded, the most entrenched within elite / infra-structure / strategic-spending, of the modern secular cultures, i.e. the wave after pre-religions and religions, and after too the initial secular cultures such as fascism and communism, but it is far from being the only one. There are many, but an issue with most is that they are not well-bounded and as well established, plus they have complex overlaps and oppositions, and being still new, are constantly also morphing. This means, for instance, that it’s very hard to measure them using social data, which can readily be done for the GW case, despite similar (and indeed classic) symptoms are observable in them all, yet at the same time many folks who aren’t true adherents are caught up in various ways within their emotive nets.

    All of these ‘cultural trends’, to try and label such, are blind processes that attempt to expand their influence (purely via selection, they are neither agential nor sentient), alone or in alliance (more typically), as best works out according to the selection process. They will merge, split, sometimes eat each other, sometimes act in concert, etc. And each will also via the same process try and expand their scope, i.e. try to ‘apply themselves to everything’, which means overlap plus cultural collisions or convenient alliances are inevitable.

    While this may seem unique to our era, in truth relative to the sophistication of every era, the equivalent overall pattern has always occurred, albeit in waves. The 1920s and 30s were an unstable time at which many cultural trends bubbled up, and indeed the dominant one in central Europe ended up being an amalgam of what were once 3 separate entities, i.e. the ancient cultural reaction of anti-semitism, the new political expression of national socialism, and the scientifically triggered eugenics movement. Each contributed a needful component to the ‘success’ (in cultural expansion terms) of this cultural entity, as such it became once stabilised. In the same era, communism, which did so much to help defeat the above culture, also arose as a cultural entity, and still has a strong heritage today despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes.

    “But is it normal for it to absorb every other subject into its maw (to continue the black hole analogy?)”

    So yes, this is absolutely normal. Think how much, even say just 120 years ago at the start of the 20th century, Christianity controlled in the West. Pretty much every aspect of everyone’s lives, from birth to marriage to death and everything else in-between including the setting of all moral standards, the place of women, the vast hierarchy of the churches, which worked hand in glove with governments, etc. etc. Essentially, far more the GW has yet achieved, to date. But this is essentially the target that *all* cultures are *blindly* aiming at. So a) they are bound to hit each other when aiming at the same ground, even if, initially, rather like Adolf and Joe, they can start by carving up the pie between them, and b) they are bound to go too far, because they don’t themselves own a mechanism to stop, as such. The mechanism to stop them, is us. When it all gets too much, from one overweening culture or several acting together, innate skepticism triggers and droves of folks end up rejecting the dominance. This doesn’t always mean a culture free time afterwards, maybe just a culture light, as when the excesses of the Catholic church were the biggest contributor to the reaction of Protestantism.

    I see the the questions hence as: when will this point be reached? What form will the rejection take (bloodless is clearly better, but that may not work out)? and which of the rising cultural entities will be swept away (the biggest are the obvious targets, but some may escape the cull). And finally, out of such rejection is often birthed another culture, hence laying the ground for dominance again in say another 3 generations, or in this era maybe much sooner. Will that happen this time? If so, what will it be?

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  8. Geoff,

    I have no scholarly understanding of journalism and how it has changed through history. However, I would venture that the current domination of the press by those with a left-leaning, liberal outlook reflects the character and personality of the average person who is attracted to journalism as a career. I concede that this analysis simply kicks the can down the road since it still begs an explanation as to why liberalism should align with a desire to write. Whatever the reason, truth-seeking now seems a secondary consideration to the promotion of liberal agendas. Perhaps this is due to a growing lack of editorial tolerance towards a diversity of views or just a modern-day lack of courage to go where the evidence takes you – I’m not sure. However, if you were to google ‘Journalism is dead’, you will find that the internet is not short of an opinion or two on this subject.

    Incidentally, you will note that the climate change style guide that the Guardian has introduced to impose its will upon its journalists and readers is still alive and well. Hence we have “Global heating: best and worst case scenarios less likely than thought.” Given that the worst case scenarios were the pretext for introducing terms like ‘global heating’, you would have thought that at least someone on the newspaper would have noticed the irony and held the front page. But no, that would require a counter-revolution, since, as George Orwell said, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”

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  9. P.S. Trump and Brexit likely are symptoms of the above rejection, albeit to data this hasn’t slowed the cultural advances very much. Voting systems are also not nuanced, people can only express one of the options on offer, and even the best of those may not align to a solution for the perceived problem. Plus may allow an oppositional culture that’s just as bad to get in, albeit no-one’s come up with anything better than a voting system, so far.

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  10. John,

    “I would venture that the current domination of the press by those with a left-leaning, liberal outlook reflects the character and personality of the average person who is attracted to journalism as a career.”

    I doubt this is the case, because it wouldn’t explain eras / geographies where the press was dominated by right-leaning ideas, or indeed before that other cultural expression, such as religious or personality-cult orientated. Cultures work through (emotive) narrative communication, it is natural that they should spread more easily through communication networks, and other modes of imparting information such as education, or indeed gossip (in the past, an often overlooked but critical channel for culture – gossip has been called ‘power without responsibility’ – which is less overlooked now since its promotion to Twitter).

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  11. Well Geoff, good luck with “Der Zauberberg” if you approach it with thinking such as this

    the radical wing of opinion, because that’s the curious, mentally agile part.

    you would have a lot of explaining to do with Settembrini and Naphtha.

    But I guess labels matter. Tony Benn is radical. Lord Deben is a plutocrat. John Smith is radical. Iain Paisley is a bigot. Ironically, the most iconoclastic politician of his era, Enoch Powell, is anathema to everyone despite being more radical than all of them. Isn’t there something in Lenin about the need to keep on driving new frontiers for radicalism, otherwise the revolution runs out of steam. Or was that Saint- Just?

    If any of the figures mentioned above looked at a world dominated by Xi, Trump, and Merkel, what would they think? I suggest that Lenin would have applied for a pension, Benn would be looking for guidance from Lenin and the revolution waits for Merkel’s battalions to assault Berlaymont.

    Let’s face it. Positive change is unlikely from here.

    I will carry a corpse into Hades to interrogate Enoch, if someone will supply the corpse and a boat to one of the entry points. Lake Enna is OK for me, unless there is a go kart race

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  12. Sorry, late to the party. Hopefully there is still some punch left.

    I don’t think the contrast here is entirely fair. By July, a journalist spots that Wuhan Flu was overexaggerated in March, but still believes in climate apocalypse. “Fast approaching a climate tipping point” – but what is fast? 30 years? If so that would make the tempo of the climate apocalypse a thousand times slower than the WuFlu. Predictions made about WuFlu can be shown to be plain wrong very much sooner than predictions about climate tipping points.

    Also, in the exponential phase of the coronavirus, the growing slope bracketed a range of possibilities – from a damp squib to a decimation. A lot of outcomes were at least plausible, so being radically wrong was not so suprising.

    The difference with climate is that the graphs are long and show mild warming. But the new data comes in slowly enough that extrapolating forwards – even with sometimes ludicrous inflexions – the possibility of tipping points is not quite so out there. The question is why you would prefer a climate model with an upwards swerve over a continuation of what went before, which was kinda the breakthrough that enabled modern geology and evolutionary biology to flourish.

    As to things having to be false to generate a culture, I don’t believe that. If say there was an approaching asteroid that some believed was going to do a K-Pg on us, enabling a culture that demanded a halt to everything except the construction of a giant space laser to save us…. well, if the asteroid missed, that would be the end of the culture, right?

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  13. Jit,

    I’m more than happy to make a fresh bowl of punch just for you 🙂

    You say, “Predictions made about WuFlu can be shown to be plain wrong very much sooner than predictions about climate tipping points.”

    This is very true, but I don’t think it provides any exoneration for Sonia, since it wasn’t the proven wrongfulness of a COVID-19 prediction that was providing the basis for her argument. She appears to have approached the COVID-19 pandemic already armed with a distrust of any policy claiming to be based upon scientific advice. As she said, “We have been here before”. And as far as ‘WuFlu’ is concerned, she doesn’t actually say anything in her article to suggest that she had spotted it had been exaggerated. Quite the contrary, she seems to be suggesting the lockdown came too late because it was the potential for ‘lockdown fatigue’ that had been exaggerated. It was the science behind ‘lockdown fatigue’ that she thought was dodgy, and she seems to be saying this sort of pseudo-science in the support of policy-making is a common problem, as is the misplaced certitude that accompanies it.

    Well, if she is saying this then how the hell can she then justify saying things like, “I know we are fast approaching a catastrophic climate tipping point”? Even if the tipping point happens, she still can’t then say that she always knew it would. Where on earth does she think the justification for her certitude is coming from? Is climate science driven policy supposed to be exempt from everything she has just said about science driven policy?

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  14. JIT: “As to things having to be false to generate a culture, I don’t believe that. If say there was an approaching asteroid that some believed was going to do a K-Pg on us, enabling a culture that demanded a halt to everything except the construction of a giant space laser to save us…. well, if the asteroid missed, that would be the end of the culture, right?”

    There are several hundred definitions of culture, and the one you mean is not the one that, for instance a religion, or indeed catastrohpic climate culture, actually is. You appear to mean the inculcation of some team spirit, for which the term culture can indeed serve. But the former examples are emergent, not created by a conscious and deliberate end, and are not under our control. Rather, the reverse, at least for those who are adherents. Attempting to create a strong team spirit in pursuit of a theoretically rational goal, can actually backfire and produce the emergent kind, which various secular cultures, for instance Communism shows us. This has happened with climate culture too, because the trigger was a genuine scientific concern, which the culture will do it’s best to preserve and amplify (by selection only, it is neither sentient nor agential), and never resolve (which is why so many adherents will not go for nuclear power). This is highly unlikely to happen in your space-laser case, because there’d presumably be nowhere near enough time. But this is always a danger, and the advantages of strong team spirit always come with some cultural downsides of this ilk (e.g. to win a war, the enemy is dehumanised).

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  15. @John point taken. I didn’t follow the link, so wasn’t entirely clear which way she was swinging. It is true that overs and unders were quite likely to be wildly out at the beginning. One may surmise that predictions were weighted a little high. (Or not?) My reasoning for that is that no scientist would want to bet under in case their advice was followed and deaths were blamed on it and them. There may also be a case for crying wolf in climate. It depends how often you can cry wolf until you are ignored.

    Charitably the “fast-approaching climate apocalypse”, while obviously wrong to most of us here, is also considered gospel by most people over there. Maybe it’s obligatory and automatic. Myself, I like to greet solitary magpies, while still pretending that I don’t believe in luck.

    I look forward to the day when someone can seriously cry, “This is it! The longed-for catastrophic climate tipping point has arrived, folks!” It will certainly be interesting to see it, although I have the strong suspicion such a cry, if it ever comes, will be untrue, and will accompany a couple of hot days, or a torrential rainstorm, or a gentle puff of wind.

    @Andy I think my example was a tad poor. Of course I was trying to conjure up an equivalent of the climate “crisis” but failed. For one thing, it had never occurred to me that the giant space laser might shatter the asteroid and cause more harm than if there had never been a giant space laser, as transit-van-sized bits of cosmic rock zoom down to earth. However, I am sure that while washing up or some such I will come up with a tweaked version. My angle was that there would be a point at which uncertainty (will the asteroid strike us?) became certainty one way or the other, and that the folks demanding action would either be validated, or proven wrong.

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  16. JIT: “My angle was that there would be a point at which uncertainty (will the asteroid strike us?) became certainty one way or the other, and that the folks demanding action would either be validated, or proven wrong.”

    Well the timescale for an asteroid on collision course, is too short for a main culture (like a religion or CACC culture) to develop anyhow, albeit there would no doubt be some cultural behaviour in addition to the useful and rational behaviour that would occur (e.g. from many existing cultures, such as religions saying this is judgement day). The genuine uncertainty about what would happen (per rock fragments or whatever), actually helps to give cultural behaviour a foothold, yet the situation would be resolved one way or the other long before major cultural inertia can build up.

    The core narrative of all main / strong cultures is undoubtedly false, as is the case with all the examples above. Because the process through which they arise, precludes any relationship to reality or ‘truth’. Yet if a culture might happened to be right for entirely the wrong reasons, i.e. it still arose through the normal emergent and emotive system which is completely disconnected from real-world truths, but via some staggering coincidence was nevertheless largely right anyhow, the last thing you’d want in charge is a culture. Because all their mechanisms labour to produce as much effort / spend and adherent capture as possible, *without* solving the ‘problem’.

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