Hero or Zero?

If I may, I’d like to take you on a trip down memory lane. In fact, all the way back to 2015 to read an article that appeared on The Conversation website. It started with the shocking revelation that:

“The BBC is about to screen its first climate change-dedicated documentary in some years.”

Oh how times have changed. The same article written today would achieve the same shock value if it were to point out that the BBC hadn’t screened a climate change documentary since lunchtime. But that is of peripheral interest here. Indeed, the Conversation article itself is entirely unremarkable save for one thing: The documentary to which it referred was Climate Change by Numbers, and, as far as I was concerned, that documentary was noteworthy because it featured a certain Norman Fenton, professor of Risk Information Management at Queen Mary London University, who was explaining why the scientists are 95% certain that more than half of recent warming can be attributed to anthropogenic influences.

This was quite unsettling for me because it was Professor Fenton’s work on the application of Bayesian techniques within software quality assurance that had highly influenced my personal approach to that profession and had set me on a road of discovery regarding uncertainty and its quantification. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the insights he had given me lay at the heart of my scepticism regarding the socially accepted climate change narrative. If the person who made me the sceptic that I am was saying that I am wrong to be sceptical on such an important point, then maybe it was time for me to reconsider.

Matters were made worse by the fact that I had actually met the man, and my encounter (brief though it was) had left me with the deep impression that if he ever witnessed any bullshit, he wouldn’t be afraid to make his feelings known. The occasion was an object-oriented analysis seminar held at Oxford University. Two gentlemen on stage had spent the last hour pontificating on ontology and other high-brow stuff before opening up the session for questions. I was stood at the back of the room next to Norman when the microphone was handed to him. He spoke only one word:

“Bullshit!”

And with that, he left.

So it was my no-nonsense hero who I was watching on the BBC, acting as a spokesman for the dark side, and giving me such a crisis of confidence.

The Closet Sceptic

Thankfully, however, things were not quite as bad as they seemed. A little rooting around on the internet unearthed an article written by Professor Fenton, giving some background to his contribution and his personal thoughts on the subject. It was full of the sort of cautious thinking that I might have expected from the man, and it was music to my ears. Firstly, there were his concerns regarding the complexity of climate models and a hint that an alternative approach would be beneficial:

“I found the complexity of the climate models and their underlying assumptions to be daunting. The relevant sections in the IPCC report are extremely difficult to understand and they use assumptions and techniques that are very different to the Bayesian approach I am used to. In our Bayesian approach we build causal models that combine prior expert knowledge with data.”

Then there were other issues he would have liked the program to have covered:

“For example, there has been controversy about the way a method called principal component analysis was used to create the famous hockey stick graph that appeared in previous IPCC reports. Although the problems with that method were recognised it is not obvious how or if they have been avoided in the most recent analyses.”

And one for Climategate aficionados:

“Assumptions about the accuracy of historical temperatures. Much of the climate debate  (such as that concerning the exceptionalness of the recent rate of temperature increase) depends on assumptions about historical temperatures dating back thousands of years. There has been some debate about whether sufficiently large ranges were used.”

Then there is model selection bias and the role of systematic error:

“Variety and choice of models. There is no doubt that, although there are variations in the levels of confidence, all of the multiple climate models used in the study support the 95% figure. Indeed most actually have a much higher level of confidence in the impact of human C02 emissions. However, there are many strong common assumptions in all of the models used and it has been argued that there are alternative models not considered by the IPCC which provide an equally good fit to climate data, but which do not support the same conclusions.”

And finally there is my own beef that the ranks of climate science are too obsessed with a frequentist treatment of uncertainty:

“Although I obviously have a bias, my enduring impression from working on the programme is that the scientific discussion about the statistics of climate change would benefit from a more extensive Bayesian approach. Recently some researchers have started to do this, but it is an area where I feel causal Bayesian network models could shed further light and this is something that I would strongly recommend.”

So it turns out that Professor Fenton is well aware of the issues after all. Much to my relief, my hero hadn’t joined the dark side but was still the sort of hard-nosed, deep thinking, highly qualified, sceptical expert that I like. Of course, the same cultural developments that make the Conversation article’s opening statement seem so outdated nowadays have also seen the end of any meaningful, open discussion of the issues raised by Professor Fenton. To keep alive a public interest in matters Bayesian etc., he has had to look elsewhere.

Thank God for Covid-19

In keeping with many statisticians with an expertise in risk issues, Professor Fenton has turned his attentions to the Covid-19 pandemic. And, if anything, he has turned out to be even more of a renegade than even I could have reasonably expected. Firstly, there are his findings when he took a Bayesian approach to the analysis of Ivermectin’s efficacy:

“We show that there is strong evidence to support a causal link between ivermectin, Covid-19 severity and mortality, and: i) for severe Covid-19 there is a 90.7% probability the risk ratio favours ivermectin; ii) for mild/moderate Covid-19 there is an 84.1% probability the risk ratio favours ivermectin. Also, from the Bayesian meta analysis for patients with severe Covid-19, the mean probability of death without ivermectin treatment is 22.9%, whilst with the application of ivermectin treatment it is 11.7%.”

Then there is the statistical basis for believing that 1 in 3 Covid-19 cases are asymptomatic. That one crumbles as soon as one views the problem from a Bayesian angle. In this video, the good professor does little more than demonstrate how the mass testing of an asymptomatic population during periods of relatively low disease prevalence can so easily lead to misconceptions. It’s pretty basic mathematics, and yet that didn’t stop Youtube from pulling the plug simply on the grounds that it undermines a government poster campaign. Apparently, this insurrection placed the basic mathematics into the category of disseminated disinformation. All very Orwellian if you ask me, and just one step away from ‘How many fingers am I holding up?’

The truth (if you think you can handle it) is that the general problem when analysing the Covid-19 pandemic is the manner of the data collation and how it doesn’t seem to have been performed with all of the necessary analyses in mind. Inconsistencies in categorisation for everything from the vaccinated to the ill have rendered the most basic of post-fact data analyses impossible or meaningless. And nowhere is this more apparent than when trying to gain answers to the most fundamental question: Have the vaccines worked?

Here, a major problem has been the decision as to when someone can be considered to have been vaccinated. Is it the day that the injection takes place, or is it after the 7, 14 or 21 days that have variously been cited before the full immunity has kicked in? In the UK it has been the latter, and this matters because it creates a bias towards attributing deaths to the unvaccinated group, leading to the conclusion that the vaccines have been more effective than otherwise. Fenton presents a statistical analysis that appears to show that if one readjusts the classification, the vaccine benefit seems to more or less disappear.

There are a few caveats that should be made to the above. Firstly, the evidence for vaccine efficacy or otherwise, is determined by looking at all-cause morbidity and comparing figures between the two groups: vaccinated and unvaccinated. Professor Fenton is keen to point out that this is the only way to avoid many of the causal confounders that could result from a variety of other ill-defined classifications (such as whether someone did or did not die from Covid-19). However, Fenton readily admits that his analysis fails to entirely eradicate the effects of the greatest confounder of them all: age. As a consequence, he stops short of saying that he has proven that vaccines have been ineffective and merely states that claims for their efficacy are unsafe given the limitations of analysis.

Secondly, causality can only be truly determined if one can answer the key counterfactual questions. So even if the death rate amongst the vaccinated is no better than the unvaccinated (and this claim is highly suspect after one adjusts for age), one still has to ask what would have happened in the absence of vaccination. That’s a big unknown, but I can’t imagine it would have been pretty.

Thirdly, when judging the success of a vaccination programme it isn’t good enough to just do a body count. As I have pointed out in relation to the Smart Motorways controversy, governmental logic on this issue takes into account economic factors. Even if the vaccinated ended up being no better off than the unvaccinated, as long as the government had been able to open up the economy without an accompanying bloodbath, then the programme would be deemed a success. To put it into the jargon of risk management, the most successful programme is often not the one that reduces the risk the most, but the one that is most risk efficient – something that most advocates of an expedited transition to net zero seem to completely misunderstand.

Viva the Irascible

Well, that completes my somewhat selective precis of the life and works of Professor Norman Fenton. As I say, he is something of a hero of mine and I heartily recommend that you look him up for yourselves. He’s on twitter and continues to try his best to challenge the bullshit whenever he sees it. Sadly, however, he has not been immune to the attentions of the censors and the fact checkers, for whom his imperious qualifications seem to count for nothing. It may not be too long now before he is totally cancelled, so make the most of his work whilst you can. In the meanwhile, I leave you with perhaps his most notorious demonstration of chasing the herd rather than following it. I believe it’s something he did whilst out jogging in Richmond Park – some time before he was on Climate Change by Numbers, I seem to remember:

Sorry, wrong Fenton.

94 Comments

  1. I can’t devote myself to this John – yet – but it’s of great interest, not least because of that pithy one-word reaction to object-oriented anything. I’ve no doubt I would have agreed. Thank you for your very own history of ideas. And I’d forgotten Fenton in Richmond Park. The perfect ending. Will come back to this.

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  2. John, I am of an age that new stuff, especially if it involves any mathematical reasoning, leaves me cold and I took a conscious decision not to struggle with it. I skim read it, looking for simple conclusions that I might ponder and potentially absorb. Thus I read that the good and true Professor Fenton of my very own alma mater finds that he cannot conclude that anti-Covid vaccines have any efficacy and this causes me problems. A major problem because I keep being shown on the news that intensive care wards of many hospitals are full of Covid infected patients that are unvaccinated. The simple message that requires no great mathematical reasoning is that with 90%+ vaccinated, it is the unvaccinated that are being stricken. Furthermore, as time goes on, progressively it is the younger who are filling the wards. So originally it was the elderly who filled the intensive care wards but now as they have mostly been protected by vaccines, it is the unvaccinated young who fill our wards.
    So I am impressed by the big words that Professor Fenton and yourself utter, but am not convinced.

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  3. The nature of public policy under the influence of big money, motivated reasoning and entrenched bureaucrats seems to be similar, no matter the public policy issue.

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  4. Alan,

    >”So I am impressed by the big words that Professor Fenton and yourself utter, but am not convinced.”

    I’m not sure how helpful that remark is. To have any chance of being convinced you would have to let me take you through the details of the analysis. But you have already declared yourself ill-disposed to spend too much time on it. So I guess we will just have to leave it there.

    PS. You speak of simple messages but, when I look at the data we have to work with, I’m not sure there are any.

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  5. John. There was no implied criticism of you nor of Professor Fenton. There was a recognition that there was no way that I can believe I could ever get myself into a position that I could understand your reasoning. I do understand what I take to be your conclusion- that evidence supporting the efficacy of vaccines is suspect. What I don’t then understand is the reverse that those not taking the vaccine seemingly are more likely to succumb to the disease suggesting the vaccines are effective. That’s all I was trying to say.

    I don’t expect you to bust a gut trying to induct me into the intricacies of risk analysis. I’m telling you it would be a wasted effort. It is sufficient for me to bask in the glow of your reasoning, trying to pick up crumbs where possible (and I do try)(0no sarc intended whatsoever).

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  6. Alan,

    What is it that they tell us about lies and damned lies?

    Quite frankly, I think you do right not to waste your time trying to get your head around it. I have read and re-read the Fenton et al paper a few times now and I’m still not sure what to think. I persevere because it intrigues me, but it’s not everyone’s bag. A lot has been made of the slippery concept of death-by-covid, but far less has been said regarding the fuzzy concept of what it means to have been vaccinated. You would think it would be clear cut, but as far as the authorities are concerned, it isn’t. Just to give you a flavour of the problem, you should be aware that, for someone who is in hospital, the UKHSA defines them as still being unvaccinated if it is less than 28 days since their injection. This is encroaching upon the period when vaccination immunity is supposed to be already waning! It puts the message of hospitals being full of the unvaccinated in a new light and it makes one wonder whether being vaccinated is a brief state one only enjoys for just a couple of hours. As I say, being vaccinated turns out to be a very fuzzy thing. On top of that there is the one jab or two jabs or boosted categorisation to deal with.

    I am by no means anti-vaccination. I’ve had all my vaccinations and I recommend others do the same, but let us not get too swept along with the assumption that vaccinations are as good as the manufacturers claim, and let us be very wary interpreting statistics when there are so many different things going on and when even basic definitions are moot. As it stands, I rule nothing out and I rule nothing in.

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  7. I no longer know what to think when confronted with covid statistics. Unless the MSM and the ONS have told us a lot of porkies, I think it’s likely that vaccinations have saved a lot of lives. However, I do have doubts about their ongoing efficacy, and I have worries about possible side effects, not least in younger males.

    As for “lies, damned lies and statistics”, I do wonder at the point of persevering with the “died within 28 days of a positive covid test” as the ongoing measure of covid deaths. With the omicron variant so widespread (and relatively less harmful), I doubt the covid death numbers we are currently being regaled with, and suspect many such “covid deaths” are in fact people who truly died of something else but who had tested positive incidentally before their deaths. Each day’s numbers as reported represent those registered the day before: today we have 303 deaths reported; yesterday it was 534; On Tuesday it was 219. The two days before that represent weekend numbers and were lower, but on Saturday another 296 deaths were reported. Last Friday it was 277; a week ago it was 388; the day before that 346; the day before that 439; the Saturday before that 297; the day before that 288, the day before that, 330, the day before that 359, and so on.

    At a time when ICU covid cases are plummeting, as are (thankfully) hospitalisations (and if some claims are to be believed, up to 70% of hospitalisations are in any event incidental positive tests, not patients being treated FOR covid), those death numbers simply fail to pass the sniff test, so far as I am concerned. I am bolstered in this belief by the fact that nobody is much talking about covid deaths any more, even though if the numbers fairly represent them, they are pretty shocking.

    As I have opined before, I do hope all this is gone through with a fine toothcomb in due course, with a view to making PROPER sense of it.

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  8. And who knows what to make of this?

    “Lockdowns Do Not Reduce Deaths, Meta-Analysis of Empirical Studies Finds”

    https://dailysceptic.org/2022/01/30/lockdowns-do-not-reduce-deaths-meta-analysis-of-empirical-studies-finds/

    “Lockdown restrictions had little to no effect on the number of COVID-19 deaths, a new meta-analysis of empirical studies has found. The analysis, entitled “A Literature Review and Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Lockdowns on COVID-19 Mortality“, written by Professor Steve H. Hanke, Professor Lars Jonung and Jonas Herby, has been published as a working paper by the prestigious Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health and the Study of Business Enterprise.”

    The report itself can be found here:

    Click to access A-Literature-Review-and-Meta-Analysis-of-the-Effects-of-Lockdowns-on-COVID-19-Mortality.pdf

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  9. Mark,

    I don’t think there has been any deliberate attempt by the authorities to mislead here. As the authors of the paper say themselves, the way that UKHSA categorises the vaccinated makes sense if one is only interested in the vaccine’s efficacy in reducing infection; however, it isn’t appropriate if one is trying to compare all-cause mortality within the two groups.

    The paper sets off by showing that the all-cause mortality is higher for the unvaccinated within each of the three oldest age groups. These are the graphs that we have all been exposed to and their message seems clear: you need to get vaccinated. However, after looking into the data more carefully, the statisticians noticed something very unusual: for each age-group there was a spike in non-covid related deaths amongst the unvaccinated and it wasn’t occurring in all age-groups at the same time! Instead, for a given age-group, the spike was happening in its unvaccinated shortly after the age-group had been vaccinated. It simply makes no sense for a reduction of covid-related deaths in the vaccinated to be correlated with a rise in non-covid related deaths in the unvaccinated. It was that conundrum that led the statisticians to the idea that deaths within the vaccinated group (i.e. those that had received the injection) may actually have been attributed to the unvaccinated group (i.e. because they had not yet attained full immunity). Enquiries with the UKHSA confirmed that suspicion. After adjusting the data, not only did the anomaly disappear, but the resulting transfer of attributed deaths made the efficacy of the vaccine in reducing all-cause mortality start to look less impressive (also, keep in mind that it wasn’t just a spike in non-covid related deaths that had been misattributed; it was also a case of covid-related deaths being misattributed).

    This is not a tale of subterfuge; it is a tale of how the message that one can take away from the data can be altered if one re-defines what the numbers are referring to. Data that has been categorised for the benefit of one analysis can mislead when it is used for another. Since the concept of being vaccinated turns out to be very fuzzy, one has to be very careful how one proceeds.

    I’ll get back to you later on the lockdown paper and your observations on the current death statistics.

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  10. Mark,

    >”With the omicron variant so widespread (and relatively less harmful), I doubt the covid death numbers we are currently being regaled with, and suspect many such “covid deaths” are in fact people who truly died of something else but who had tested positive incidentally before their deaths.”

    Absolutely. This effect has always been present and yet it is only since omicron came along that the BBC has started to caveat the daily announcements with something along the lines of ’some of these deaths will be coincidental’. The effect is now so strong that even the BBC can’t ignore it.

    The fact is that there is something called endogenous mortality, and there is now an endemic virus. Put them together and you get what we are seeing. Omicron is the new flu, so it would be interesting to make the comparison and see how ‘died with flu’ statistics are handle. Except we can’t, because flu has mysteriously disappeared. Ain’t that the darndest thing?

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  11. And then there is this reporting of what happened on Question Time last night:

    https://www.msn.com/en-gb/lifestyle/family-relationships/an-unvaccinated-man-told-by-scientist-he-s-talking-nonsense-in-vaccine-debate-on-question-time/ar-AATsTmc?ocid=msedgntp

    It’s just one long catalogue of pompous derision aimed at an individual who dared to challenge the orthodox view with the ‘wrong’ qualifications.

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

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  12. To be fair to Jaime, she read the Fenton et al paper and understood it well. The only problem is that she is anchored to a cynical view of world government motives that I cannot share – yet!

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  13. You don’t actually need complicated analysis of lockdowns to see that their effect is small.

    We were assured Sweden was going to be blighted, because it hardly locked down at all. Nope.

    In pretty much every country, the day the lockdowns ended resulted in no change to the curve. The “experts” all warned that they were being ended too quickly, but went very quiet when it turned out they were wrong.

    After our recent lockdown in NZ ended, the rates immediately went down, despite the government ending it because it thought it had lost. On the face of it, the lockdown appeared to make things worse.

    You will likewise search for a long time to see any effect of mask mandates on the curves.

    The countries that managed to repel Covid for a long time did two things that worked: closed their borders hard and had very good track and trace. They actually make a difference. Everything else is only at the margins.

    France continues to find that its strict mandates make not the slightest difference. But they’re not really meant to. They are there to make it look like the politicians care.

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  14. Mark,

    The lockdown paper is quite long and there is a lot to read. I don’t think I will be reading it in full anytime soon, if ever. But, in the meantime, I have the following comments:

    As a meta-analysis, the authors seem to have done a good job. There is plenty of detail covering the methodology they used to select suitable papers and aggregate the results. I’m not sure, however, that any further detailed reading will answer my prime question: In order to determine whether lockdowns worked or not, one has to be able to make counterfactual comparisons, so how were the studies that are covered by the meta-analysis able to do this?

    When one is dealing with a model of reality (like the UCL one) one can do this easily by adjusting the key parameters and re-running the model – with these NPIs you will get this, and without the NPIs you will get that. But comparisons with what actually happened in real life can only validate the model to a limited extent. You cannot say that the difference between the model prediction without NPIs and the reality with NPIs is a reliable measure of either model or lockdown success. What you need instead are two realities to compare against each other: one with the NPIs and one without. For a given community, that is impossible without a time machine, so one is reduced to comparing two communities that employed differing NPIs whilst adjusting for all potentially confounding differences. And therein lies the rub. Adjusting for the confounders is nigh on impossible in any practical comparison. It just looks to me like another of those fool’s errands in which one is swamped by the statistical complexities and the vagueness introduced by fuzzy definitions.

    There are some beguiling national comparisons out there but, for the time being at least, I shall resist the siren’s call.

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  15. I’d just like to say at this point that, interesting though it is to discuss covid-19 statistics, that had not been my main intention in writing this article. The main point I wanted my readers to take away was that a statistician that was eminent enough for the BBC to put in front of the camera to explain to the plebs why they should believe everything that the experts say about global warming, turns out to share the same sort of misgivings that are regularly posted on this blog. That, I thought, would be very much to the approval of my audience. Given the feedback the article has received so far, I am not sure whether I landed that message successfully, and I will admit to being a tad disappointed about that.

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  16. PS. Another main message is captured by the article’s subheading: Hero or zero?

    The point is that whilst Fenton was presenting stuff that seems intuitively true and accords with the authorised view, he was a hero. But as soon as he employs the same expertise to present stuff that is counter-intuitive, and goes against the authorised view, he becomes a zero. That’s how life works and we need to get used to it.

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  17. John, apologies if I have helped to take comments off topic.

    Your underlying message (s) is/are worth stressing.

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  18. Mark,

    There is no need to apologise. You have not been off topic since it was me who brought up the covid work that Fenton has done. It is an essential part of the picture but not the only thing that I wanted in view.

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  19. If the open letter, co-signed by Professor Norman Fenton, and recently sent to Chris Whitty and Sajid Javid, is anything to go by, the BBC ploy of presenting expert opinion and encouraging the supercilious mocking of those who are unqualified to challenge it is falling flat on its face. From what I can see here, the BBC’s nominated experts are being seriously outgunned on this issue:

    https://www.hartgroup.org/open-letter-to-the-jcvi-pause-vaccines-for-children-pending-urgent-review/

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  20. PS. I should have pointed out that I am following up my comment posted 4 Feb at 1:26pm.

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  21. I must say that here (and elsewhere) the role and identity of an “expert” and “argument from authority” have come under severe attack – in some cases IMHO without cause. As a former expert in a number of minor erudite matters, I expected to be listened to with some modicum of respect, not immediate denial and ridicule. I might end up being wrong (often actually) but it would take evidence. Commonly critics of experts use other people’s evidence and so must accept other people’s expertise. Have we fallen so low as to question everything? It’s a good thing breathing is automatic.

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  22. Alan,

    >”It’s a good thing breathing is automatic.”

    Indeed it is, because for every expert that tells you that breathing in is the more important, there will be another that will tell you it is breathing out.

    The question of respecting expertise is often framed as one in which unqualified people trust their own judgements over the experts. However, I think it is more a question of lay people not having the expertise to decide who is correct when they see two experts disagree. We lay people will always struggle in knowing where the true expertise lies, and cherry-picking to support our preconceptions is a natural outcome. In this instance, we saw a member of the public being mocked for their supposed hubris, but behind the issue lies a deep rift between highly-qualified individuals. We do, at least, have enough about us so as to recognise when this is happening. The list of signatories for the open letter is very impressive. It is not a list of marginalised pseudo-experts.

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  23. I sympathise with Alan’s point, but only so far. Over covid and the response to it, as with climate change, UK membership of the EU, and much else, there is much disagreement among experts. And yet often media outlets behave as though there is unanimity (or near-unanimity) among experts, so that those questioning and disagreeing must be ignorant, whereas the reality, as John points out, is that non-experts are really following their own hunches as to which set of experts to agree with.

    The appeal to authority is pretty weak when authoritative voices disagree with other authoritative voices. It would be nice if powerful media voices recognised more than they do that little in life is so simple as they would like us to believe and that occasionally it does transpire that black is white after all.

    But to return to Alan’s point. I once had a client tell me that my job as a solicitor was easy, all I did was fill in a few forms, and it was outrageous that my firm wanted to charge him so much for doing so. I suggested he did the job himself and stopped bothering me. He went to another firm of solicitors and bothered them instead – it turned out that his own expertise wasn’t what he suggested to me that it was, and that when he tried to do it himself, he couldn’t.

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  24. John/Alan/Mark: I rediscovered this piece from January 2010 last night, as I was looking for something else for ‘Bit Rot’. I think it makes one of the key points about climate “experts” and laymen in the aftermath of Climategate:

    And a particular thing that happened then is starting to happen now, which is that even intelligent layman critics of the John Redwood (and Brian Micklethwait) variety are starting to understand the details of the argument better than even the very smartest of the pro-derangement scientists, of the sort who are still advising governments, or who are still receiving and still trying still to believe this advice. It’s not that these “experts” were born stupid, nor that they are now ignorant. Nor is Ed Miliband stupid, even if, what with all the other things on his mind, I suspect him of still being fairly ignorant. The climate science “experts” still know far more mere facts about this debate than John Redwood does, or than I do. It is simply that these people have now said – and nailed their egos to – too many stupid things, too many non-facts, and there is now no sensible way out for them. It’s what these “experts” still insist on saying they know, but that clearly ain’t so, that is hanging them all out to dry. The science, they keep saying, still, is settled. In their dreams.

    An equivalent ‘stupid thing’ said by Covid experts early in 2020 was that the Lab Leak Hypothesis was completely untenable. So … don’t rule out experts and don’t rule out laymen either. (The piece at samizdata.net quoted above is now only visible at Wayback Machine. Bit Rot epidemic?)

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  25. In saying “Supercilious and deadly to the 15-19 age-group” I realise that I was skipping over the big causality question, leaving that to a group John rightly says is ‘not a list of marginalised pseudo-experts’. But so much now points in this direction, like the latest paper from “experts” in the States discussed by John Campbell here.

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  26. While on John Campbell and “experts” I really liked the way John introduced Pierre Kory and then challenged him about his credibility back in April last year. Just the first two minutes will give you a feel. You can tell he’s an expert because he doesn’t mind being challenged about it!

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  27. I think this last video shows the clear difference between “experts” who rely on book learning and those who have hands-on experience. In the end it comes down to the difference between being taught and learning.

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  28. Yes, well said Bill. Though the disciplines are different in the mix one can expect. How does medicine compare with geology for the possibilities of “hands-on experience”? Alan? 😉 Or with fundamental physics and the search for a GUT (grand unified theory) of everything? Or with climate science? Anyone?

    I’m indebted to Stewgreen for this YouTube video from down-under where Andrew Bolt interviews Roy Spencer after the incredibly stupid demonetisation by Google of Spencer’s blog. For me, but not for Google’s “liberal arts majors” (as Spencer suggests they are), Spencer is a bona fide expert. He’s also a Christian and I do admire his cheerful attitude – as well as his crispness in getting the key facts across – in this chat. An expert but not a paranoid one. That makes a change 🙂

    Bolt is also very good in showing respect, as a layman, to his chosen expert. What’s not to like?

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  29. Richard,

    We are getting to the nub of the issue now. Does an expert cease being an expert the moment that they express views that you disagree with? I had that crisis of confidence in Professor Fenton. Whilst he was opening my eyes to the power of Bayesian thinking, he was my go to expert. When he started to claim that it was the key to accepting the climate emergency narrative, I went right off him. For me, that crisis of confidence is resolved now, but what about the BBC, I wonder? They were happy enough to regale him when he was putting his expert weight behind their agenda on climate change. Would they still be prepared to recognise that very same expertise now that he is giving succour to the vaccination concerned? And what am I to make of Roy Spencer? Since I am an atheist, you might expect me to find his views on religious matters to be wholly unconvincing. But is that reason enough for me to question his judgement generally? In fact, I suspect that you and I have diametrically opposed views on some pretty fundamental issues in life. But has that stopped us from agreeing on so much more? Not on the evidence that I have seen. Being able to compartmentalise is so important.

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  30. Richard. A well known saying in geology is that “the best geologists are those that have seen the most rocks”. I was very fortunate in that my first non academic post was with a government agency in Saskatchewan where I had many colleagues, access to tens of miles of rock cores and opportunities to discuss things with visiting oil company geologists. Under those circumstances you can become an expert in a limited area. As a result of this new status you get taken out for meals by company employees and build up a reputation. The other way is the academic, whereby the fortunate become experts by convincing others to fund them to research topics of interest. Building up a publication record aids getting more funding, not only for yourself but for your students until you have built up a reputation for running a research team. Some academics retain their expert status upon the laurels of the team they have built. But for young Turks in your team you increasingly become past it. In both academic and non-academic life expert status is ephemeral.

    I believe there are three main types of expertise. Book learning, and for some types of knowledge there is little else; practical experience and knowledge acquired by debate and discussion with others having similar knowledge and expertise to your own. During one’s career you acquire different amounts of each. Here, practical experience seems to be valued above other types of expertise. IMHO this is not always correct.

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  31. Very full answer Alan. It was a genuine question so I’m quids in!

    Here, practical experience seems to be valued above other types of expertise. IMHO this is not always correct.

    By ‘here’ do you mean Cliscep? When I know that I’ll try to say something sensible back – and to John!

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  32. Richard. Yes indeed, when I use the word in a Cliscep post, here does just mean specifically within this fine site.

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  33. John, further to your fine comment at 11.26 above, biases are *domain dependent*. Naturally, this includes our own, and that of the experts too. If we trust an expert in one domain, but then they opine in a domain where we have an opposing bias, indeed it is up to us to get over our biases in order to treat the expert’s argument with the same weight as we did before (though perhaps this process may cause us to see clearer, and adjust both weights). However, it is also the case that the expert may themselves be completely objective in one domain, and perhaps indeed produce major insights, yet themselves by very biased regarding another!

    I doubt that the BBC is ever going to see past its own institutional bias now; sadly I think it needs putting down.

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  34. Well,

    Here, practical experience seems to be valued above other types of expertise.

    I don’t think I agree. But that’s because I also think I have no idea what the average value ascribed to experience (by the set of Cliscep contributors, weighted by their number of comments, say) is, compared to how they value other forms of expertise.

    This began with Bill’s comment on the video of John Campbell and intensivist Pierre Kory.

    Now in medicine I personally value those who save lives rather than bureaucrats who have, in this very warped situation under the threat of Covid, actively prevented good doctors from saving lives. People like Kory, McCullough and Malone (not a front-line doctor but having, I believe, other relevant expertise) have testified about how astonished they have been meeting with health bureaucrats: that those opposite them at the table haven’t had a clue about relevant research and didn’t even seem to have curiosity about the relevant research.

    I’ve been rocked by this, no two ways about it. So that has shifted my ideas about expertise I’m sure. But I can only speak for myself. And I don’t detect that this has affected my view of geologists! I appreciate what you’ve said about that noble area of endeavour and, insofar as I’ve had dealings with the breed, at Rio Tinto mineral exploration, I agree.

    Banging rocks or being involved in exploration projects that actually lead to successful discoveries (and I learned the distinction at RTZ between technical success and the much rarer commercial kind) is not quite like saving (or failing to save) a human life in intensive care. The feedback loops are different!

    But what of fundamental physics and climate science? Since Dirac and Feynman – and Penrose and Hawking on the general relativity side – how much progress has really been made? Smolin (see John’s latest thread) is one of those trying to declare that the field is in a rut that has lasted many decades. And then there’s dear old climate and what is affectionately called science in that area when, very often, it may not be.

    This is why I asked the question about whether the Here meant Cliscep. But I liked the rest!

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  35. John:

    Being able to compartmentalise is so important.

    Very true. And maintaining as much respect as one can muster. I’ve been thinking about that because of what Tony Blair has been saying in the Times (or ST) this weekend. I think he’s right about Afghanistan, broadly speaking. About vaccinating children not so much. But on the “cost of living crisis” there’s no murmur of mea culpa about all that led up to the Climate Change Act and its subsequent impact. (Brown was PM by then but the intellectual underpinnings were set during the Blair era.) He’s not even aware of his great responsibility, he thinks he’s done right.

    Roy Spencer was impressive in that interview in many ways, for me. Cheerful for himself but concerned for the impact of demonetisation on Watts Up With That. Spencer wouldn’t have had much truck with the more extreme anti-consensus comments on WUWT but I thought he showed he cared. As he should. And so do I.

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  36. Richard, show me an instance where you feel a Clysceper values practical experiences to a lesser extent than another form of expertise. I certainly don’t feel I do.

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  37. Alan – “I believe there are three main types of expertise. Book learning, and for some types of knowledge there is little else; practical experience and knowledge acquired by debate and discussion with others having similar knowledge and expertise to your own”

    very true & leads on to “fundamental physics” as raised by Richard & John.

    40 odd yrs ago I read every library book I could find on “the universe/physics”. big seller then was “The Tao of Physics”

    I book learned to say in the pub “quark,strangeness & charm” what, you’ve never heard of them !!!

    I gave up reading those books about 20 yrs ago because I realised they just repeat (may be wrong on this tho)

    as Richard says – “how much progress has really been made?”

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  38. dfhunter,

    You ask how much progress has been made in fundamental physics in the last 20 years.

    Well, the speculations have blossomed into a beautiful meadow. Smolin wryly observes that no Nobel Prizes have been awarded in this particular field since the days of the Standard Model. He suggests that this is because such prizes are not awarded for being smart and inventive, but only for being right. That strict rule was broken this year as political relevance also became a factor.

    Nobel’s Prize Guys

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  39. John – thanks for the link back to that post

    your Mandlebrot vid from that post, makes me want to read his book “the fractal geometry of nature”

    I realise science books written for public consumption have to be a bit light on terminology/etc, but it’s nice when they treat the reader as over school age.

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  40. Dfhunter,

    If you have a renewed interest in reading books that speculate intelligently about the nature of time, space and reality, without patronising the reader, then I can recommend the following:

    “The End of Time”, by Julian Barbour

    “Schrodinger’s Rabbits”, by Colin Bruce

    “The Fabric of Reality”, by David Deutsch

    “Causality and Chance in Modern Physics”, by David Bohm

    I’ve picked these out because they have been written by eminent practitioners who are highly respected within their field, yet they propose ideas that are not mainstream. Julian Barbour, in particular, is a very interesting character. After obtaining his PhD in general relativity, he turned his back on academia to work without tenure – as a private citizen, as it were (he funded his life by working as a part-time translator). Despite this, he has made contributions to foundational physics that are widely recognised and respected. He is a true free-thinker in the finest traditions of theoretical physics.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Barbour

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  41. John – thanks for the recommends.

    I do like to dip back into the latest ideas every few years, so thanks for your suggestions 🙂

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  42. o/t – John – had a look at your https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_Barbour link.

    from that I read this partial quote –
    “He argues that we have no evidence of the past other than our memory of it, and no evidence of the future other than our belief in it. “Difference merely creates an illusion of time, with each individual moment existing in its own right, complete and whole.” He calls these moments “Nows”

    this reminds me of books I read (The Tao of Physics & books by Dr Paul Brunton for example) many years ago – “the eternal now” in Zen/Buddhism being the link.

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  43. pps – just remembered https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brane

    “In string theory and related theories such as supergravity theories, a brane is a physical object that generalizes the notion of a point particle to higher dimensions. Branes are dynamical objects which can propagate through spacetime according to the rules of quantum mechanics. They have mass and can have other attributes such as charge”

    think that was my last foray into trying to understand the universe – my head still hurts !!!

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  44. Dfhunter,

    Capra’s ‘The Toa of Physics’? That takes me back. I remember reading that as a youth, together with Gary Zukav’s ‘The Dancing Wu Li Masters’. The eastern mysticism spiced up the physics quite nicely for a youngster searching for deeper meaning, until I realised that fundamental physics is spicy enough on its own and needs no further seasoning. Besides which, the Bootstrap Theory of particle physics to which Capra referred has since been debunked by the Standard Model (though the S-Matrix is still alive and kicking). Nowadays I take Leon Lederman’s line and tend to dismiss parallels between physics and mysticism with more than a pinch of salt.

    That said, Barbour’s theories explore a concept called ‘Background Independence’, for which there is a long philosophical tradition – as you picked up on. Basically the idea is that a fundamental theory of reality has to explain the existence of space and time rather than take them as a given background within which the theory is set. Consequently, the existence of space and time has to be a dynamic solution of equations that are themselves atemporal and non-spatial. The idea is beautifully explained by Smolin in this short article:

    https://www.einstein-online.info/en/spotlight/background_independence/

    Incidentally, the books I recommended earlier are not particularly modern. And if Branes blew your mind, you might want to try reading about the Holographic Principle.

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  45. Df. Julian Barbour wrote “ that we have no evidence of the past other than our memory of it, and no evidence of the future other than our belief in it.”. What utter balder dash. Even stone-age man who had just completed a flint axe head had physical objects that complement our memories of past events and activities. Even a full belly implies our memory of eating a meal is more than just something remembered.

    I do remember as a schoolboy being exposed to some, what I considered then, rubbish speculation – that the universe and everything that had happened within it could have sprung into existence only a second ago. Although I couldn’t refute such a possibility, I think that already I reasoned – so what would be the significance of such a hypothesis – a hypothesis that ever could be proven. This seems perilously close to what Barbour was defining as “nows”. These are not scientific questions.

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  46. Alan,

    With all due respect, I believe you are missing Barbour’s point regarding memory. You may be able to point to a full stomach as evidence of a previously eaten meal but that is only because you have been able to put together a theory of how certain system states precede others, based upon your experience. As soon as you say things like ‘State A follows on from state B and so the existence of state B is evidence of a previous state A’, you have formulated a temporal theory predicated upon the concept of memory.

    However, I agree with you that it is valid to ask whether Barbour is addressing a scientific question. If one can reformulate a background dependent theory into a background independent theory that nevertheless cannot be distinguished by reference to experimental results or observation, then the choice of which is the ‘correct’ theory boils down to a matter of taste – we would be discussing metaphysics rather than physics. This is certainly how theoretical physicist Sean Carroll thinks about background independence, when he says:

    “The problem is not that I disagree with the timelessness crowd, it’s that I don’t see the point. I am not motivated to make the effort to carefully read what they are writing, because I am very unclear about what is to be gained by doing so. If anyone could spell out straightforwardly what I might be able to understand by thinking of the world in the language of timelessness, I’d be very happy to re-orient my attitude and take these works seriously.”

    Carroll prefers to retain the concept of time and believes that it owes its existence to the unusually low entropy state that the universe seems to have started with. I can highly recommend his book, ‘From Eternity to Here’.

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  47. John to explain the link between a full stomach and a previously eaten meal might well require a theory explaining the link as you say, but this fails to account for my point that the full stomach is evidence for something that did happen in the past. I may even have forgotten eating such a meal. As a geologist I dealt with objects or relationships that occurred well in the past, of which I have no memory whatsoever. In some situations there is also predictability about the immediate future – as in a pool table.

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  48. Alan,

    The past is called the past because it can be remembered in the present or future. There is no requirement that any individual has a memory of a posited past. The past is defined as that which, in principle, can be remembered, or can be reconstructed using theories that encompass a memory-based definition of ‘past’.

    If we cannot see eye to eye at this point, I venture that we never will. I could entreaty that you read some of the books that cover the various physical theories of the origin and nature of time but, ironically, I fear it might not leave you with fond memories. Besides which, I think we can agree that life is too short. 🙂

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  49. PS. I hasten to add that when I say ‘reconstructed using theories’, I am not referring to geological theories but the physical theories upon which the geological theories are premised.

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  50. John I really don’t understand what possessed me to enter a debate dealing with an aspect of physical reality. As an undergraduate many many moons ago I began to explore this subject. I have only once in my life thrown a textbook across a room in exasperation, but I did then.

    It just seems to me that you, and people you are defending, seem unable to believe that the past exists, or evidence exists for it, without human interaction (I.e. memories are involved). But I am content not to agree, nor perhaps to understand. I need not understand.

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  51. Alan,

    When it comes to matters of time, it is not a question of being right or wrong. St Augustine had it right centuries ago when he said:

    “What is time then? If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one that should ask me, plainly I do not know.”

    All I was trying to do was to defend the efforts of some who try to eradicate a concept of a background time from their foundational theories. It seems to me a useful thing to do, given how problematic time is as a concept. As for the notion that evidence of a past cannot exist without a memory-based concept of time, all I can say is that it is a quandary that may be the least of our concerns. Physics already entertains the idea that things do not have a meaningful existence until they are observed. Just ask Schrodinger’s cat.

    It is the fate of all textbooks on quantum mechanics to be thrown at a wall.

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  52. Alan & John – my fault for derailing this thread into “metaphysics” as John mentioned.

    my only added comment regarding “time/the eternal now” is all life only live & think in this moment/now.

    the past has happened as we see in rocks/dead parents graves/WW2 etc.

    but the only way we can look back is because we live “now” and the earlier “now” we remember is but a memory. it’s gone from the universe except in our mind.

    will stop before I hit my head on that wall.

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  53. Dfhunter,

    That’s okay. Metaphysics can be fun, but it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

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  54. “The past has happened as we see in rocks….

    but the only way we can look back is because we live “now” and the earlier “now” we remember is but a memory. it’s gone from the universe except in our mind.”

    Df. But we still disagree. You seem to be arguing that an earlier “now” is only a memory. It no longer exists (except in our mind). But that’s not true. I take a hammer and break a flint to reveal a previously hidden, beautifully ribbed brachiopod (this actually happened to me as a 12year old and sent me down the path to become a geologist). That moment is now long gone and as you write is only retained as a memory. But the brachiopod existed long before I exposed it (about 50 million years worth). The point I am making is that evidence of the past exists without our involvement at all. All is not memory. After I die, some of my writing may survive. Again evidence of the past not involving memory.

    I have spent much of my life reconstructing the past from geological remnants, nothing to do with memories of those events.

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  55. ‘…the earlier “now” we remember is but a memory. it’s gone from the universe except in our mind.’

    I don’t believe this is so. Everything that happens in the universe(s) has an impact, and so leaves fingerprints. Perhaps very major ones in some cases, that in turn can feature large in the causation of later events. Hence, in principle, the past can be reconstructed without any memories from life-forms at all (albeit without life-forms, presumably reconstruction would not occur anyhow!)

    Alan’s brachiopod is one such fingerprint. And indeed, the past way before human memory, or even animal memory, or even life at all (on Earth, at least), or indeed the Earth itself, is regularly reconstructed from such fingerprints. In practice, entropy degrades structure, so including these fingerprints; they get more blurred and mixed with time. But the larger the original impact, the more pronounced is the fingerprint, and it is surprising how far back one can go in many cases. The echo of the big bang is still easy to detect (notwithstanding our understanding of same has improved with inflationary theory etc), from 14.5 billion years back or whenever. And fingerprints of what went before appear to exist too, even though their message is still argued over (I’m very out of touch with the latest).

    Our many finger-print kits improve with time, too; we see more and more of what went before, at every timescale. At a far smaller scale than above, for instance, much of Tutankhamun’s life / family / ancestry has been reconstructed, millennia after all those animals and peoples possessing memories of him, had died. In this sense, the past, even the ultimate past, from the ‘beginning’ (if this term is appropriate for the start of time), is very much still with us, and this would still be the case had no sentient memory systems ever existed to observe it in real-time and record it in their memories. All with the caveat that the impacts and corresponding finger-prints get fuzzier as time increases, and that not all events are created equal; Tutankhamun left a bigger fingerprint than a random soldier in his army who, say, died fighting the Hittites or whoever, OTOH we know a huge amount generically about such soldiers. I guess there’s not likely to be a fingerprint bigger than the Big Bang, but then again, one may exist in a form we haven’t got a detection kit for yet 0:

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  56. When you look at the laws of physics, there is nothing in them to suggest that there should be something called a past, a present and a future. Time enters into the equations to show how system states are related to each other temporally but the universe described by these laws is neutral with respect to past and future. In fact, it is a basic requirement of any proposed physical law that it should be unitary with respect to temporal translation. No one is disputing that a previous system state can be discerned once one knows the present state and the necessary temporal laws, but there is nothing in those laws that can tell you which state is actually the previous state. The best we have is a statistical law that suggests that states with low entropy tend to be temporally precedent. Our abiding impression that there actually is a past, present and future is therefore a necessarily psychological phenomenon in which we deem the past states as those that are remembered. It is to that phenomenon that Julian Barbour was referring. He maintains that when you look at foundational physics properly, and remove the psychological presuppositions, there is no arrow of time flowing but a static set of system states (he calls them ‘nows’) that we happen to perceive in a sequence that gives the impression of the existence of time as a physical entity that flows in a particular direction.

    We can go on trying to debate that here, or we can all agree to go away and read his book properly before challenging his ideas further (I may not have understood or explained them properly). I suggest that life is too short for either option.

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  57. I heard John Polkinghorne give a version of this talk in London around 2002 (the year this one was given):

    Perhaps the most useful paper comes fourth, “Time in Physics and Theology,” by John Polkinghorne. Polkinghorne disagrees with Stannard’s “fixed future,” and argues that time’s nature is a metaphysical issue, and cannot be settled by unaided science. He has a marvelous discussion of how the basic laws of physics are reversible. Yet, we never see them reverse; instead we are aware of five different “arrows” pointing from the past to the future. These are: (1) the thermodynamic arrow of increasing entropy in an isolated system, (2) the arrow of increasing complexity in a non-isolated system, (3) the expansion of the universe, (4) cause to effect, and (5) human temporal experience. All five arrows point the same direction; there is no general agreement on why this is so. Polkinghorne then explores the time as just a psychological trick, time as a measure of a closed universe, time as the unfolding of an open universe, the many worlds speculations, and concludes with his own theological perspective (in the end, God wins).

    I liked it at the time but, of course, YMMV. (Polkinghorne taught me Quantum Theory at Cambridge. He just missed out on being Senior Wrangler in Maths in his undergraduate days because a close friend, Michael Atiyah, beat him to it.) And, would you believe it, the Open and Relational Theology online conference is this Saturday! I won’t be able to attend, sadly, but I do like John Sanders, one of the speakers, and his work on Cognitive Linguistics.

    Life being too short, I won’t try to say more 🙂

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  58. John I don’t have the wherewithal to dispute your claim about time and physics, however, the nearest I can come to it is to argue that physical changes have occurred over time making possibilities that were possible in the past untenable now (indicating time’s arrow). The best example I know are the natural nuclear reactors that occurred around 2 billion years ago in a uranium deposit at Oklo in Gabon. These could only occur where the uranium isotope 235 exceeded a certain value, which it did 2 billion years ago. Since then the proportion of this isotope has steadily decreased due to natural fission and no uranium deposit has sufficient U235 to initiate a fission reaction. Thus in terms of changes over time influencing the physical behaviour of atomic behaviour the Oklo deposit gives clear evidence for it having occurred.

    I believe I read somewhere that a host of short-lived isotopes once existed naturally but have since completely disappeared. So in the distant past whole chemistries could have existed that have since disappeared.

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  59. Alan,

    Thank you for that example, but I think it only demonstrates that the world undergoes physical changes of state on the macroscopic scale that are not reversible, even though the physical laws that dictate the change are themselves time reversible. And yes, you’re right that this does lead to the idea of an arrow of time. However, the concept of there being a perception of this arrow, with a remembered past and a yet to be experienced future seems linked into this entropic effect. How and why exactly, I’m not sure, and I’m not sure anyone could possibly explain it until the mystery of consciousness is solved.

    Incidentally, your Oklo mine example is fascinating for another reason. The nuclear reaction concerned involves the capture of a neutron by a samarium-149 nucleus to create a samarium-150 isotope. This critically depends upon the existence of a resonance that can only happen if the fine structure constant has a very specific value – a small deviance up or down shuts off the possibility of reaction. By examining the details of the reaction, scientists have discerned that the value the constant had two billion years ago (the time of the reaction) must have been extraordinarily close to its present-day value. This is a very significant discovery for those who are looking for signs that the fundamental constants of nature may not be constant after all. A universe in which the laws of nature change over time is a much more problematic one to deal with.

    A very good account of the mysteries of Oklo’s natural reactor and its significance for the laws of nature can be found in chapter 11 of John D. Barrow’s book ‘The Constants of Nature’. And before you go thinking ‘who is this guy who keeps all of this stuff in his head?’, I should admit that I had only just re-read that book a few weeks back.

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  60. I’m with Alan here. His example long predates any consciousness and psychology, as do many others, and would not be different had consciousness never occurred. That humans perceive many phenomena in a different way to how they are mathematically described (or supposedly so for ‘time’, given we may not have the description right yet), is hardly a surprise given our limited perceptions as bequeathed from evolution (which also cannot run ‘backwards’). This doesn’t mean that we understand time yet, and the mystery of its apparent flow, but I think (and not having read the book!) that invoking human psychology is only adding a complicating and irrelevant factor 0:

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  61. Life is never too short, of course, to be fact-checked and it has come to my embarrassed attention that Wikipedia insists that John Polkinghorne was Senior Wrangler at Cambridge in 1952. Before that he was born and brought up in Weston-super-Mare so I decided, as a penance, to take a walk along the Weston seafront in the late afternoon, with Storm Eunice brewing. When I reached the always spooky old pier I checked the BBC Weather app for tomorrow:

    And they say there’s no global warming, huh? 🙂 But it’s called a forecast. Of the future. Oh, never mind.

    On the way back into town I stop at Wetherspoons (at least, this is the order of events as I remember them) and I take a photo of the bust there of the other famous physicist brought up in the town, from age 2 or 3, after his father died in the typhoid epidemic of 1884, Sir Arthur Eddington:

    It was Eddington who coined the phrase the Arrow of Time, arguing for the asymmetry of past and future, way back. Not to be outdone, Polkinghorne called the talk I heard twenty years ago the Five Arrows of Time. Both from Weston-super-Mare, then Cambridge. Eddington was, of course, also Senior Wrangler.

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  62. Andy,

    If the self-organisation of an entity within the universe entails the monitoring and bookkeeping of the remainder of the universe, there is every possibility that such monitoring and bookkeeping would be based upon concepts that are recognisably temporal and spatial. That does not mean, however, that the time and space are inherent properties of the universe. They would instead be bookkeeping concepts. The role of consciousness in the bookkeeping process is moot. Far from relying upon psychological phenomena, Barbour seeks to demonstrate that time is an emergent property of the bookkeeping. No bookkeeping – no time. He does this by showing how the bookkeeping can be done atemporally by reference to changing relationships.

    I have to say that I am now becoming a little frustrated since I am trying to defend a book that I may have misunderstood against challenges made by people who haven’t even read it. I’m not sure that is a productive use of anyone’s time — whatever that is!

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  63. As John & others have said “I suggest that life is too short” to continue this debate here.

    only final point I would make in my defence for bringing up the “the eternal now”, is when I was in my 20’s having never been
    to Uni or studied hard at school I wanted to know/had a thirst, to how know the universe & me in it worked.

    so I tried to read every religions & mystics texts from “dark night of the soul” to eastern texts & Jung.

    along side that I read everything I could about the universe to complement this.

    that was 40 odd years ago, so my thoughts are a bit fuzzy, and I have problems putting my muddled thoughts in words.

    ps – never found the answer “yet”

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  64. “That does not mean, however, that the time and space are inherent properties of the universe. They would instead be bookkeeping concepts…”

    The book-keeping is invoked merely as a means to carry out a thought experiment. Even in principle, that which it keeps would occur in the absence of books and keeping 0: If a macro tree falls in the forest it may not make a sound, because there is no-one around to define ‘sound’, but it will still make the physical vibrations that if we were there, we would perceive as ‘sound’. That, at the quantum level, the presence of an observer may impact whether a quantum tree falls in the first place, does not change that it would still create the vibrations if it happened to fall. Nor is it the fact that an observer is intrinsically an observer, which causes this uncertainty, but only that an observation requires a minimum impact that affects the system state; a non-observing phenomenon with identical impact would introduce the same uncertainty. Hence, both sentience and book-keeping are irrelevant. Plus, the observable ‘flow of time’, occurs with macro phenomena anyhow. But I have had two macro glasses of wine 😉

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  65. Well I’m sorry, Andy, but my wine says differently. If someone were able to formulate a description of reality that does not require the concepts of space and time, one would have to conclude that space and time are not necessarily inherent to reality but merely artifacts of formulation. Time will tell.

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  66. John

    Well my glass of OJ impels me to write that I am sorry that you have become frustrated with this discussion, that was far from my intent. Reading the book would not help me. Most of the reading I do these days is here at Cliscep; I mostly only skim read my daily newspaper and it has been a considerable time (at least two years, just before I contracted Covid) since I have read a book. I just don’t have the extended concentration (or memory) necessary.

    So for me it has been a pleasure discussing matters physique and esoteric with you, and I thank you for your patience.

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  67. Alan,

    The pleasure has been mine. The frustration was with myself. I was clearly failing to get across what Julian Barbour was getting at and I could see why someone such as yourself, who made a career out of discerning geological records would balk at his reference to memory. I suspected that reading his book would be the necessary next step for you and I appreciated that that was not an option. I sought a way of retreating from the debate without appearing too high-handed. After all, Barbour’s ideas for foundational physics are far from mainstream and his is not a hill I am prepared to die on.

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  68. “If someone were able to formulate a description of reality that does not require the concepts of space and time…”

    I did not imply this in any way 0:

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  69. No, but Barbour does. That’s my point.

    If I understand correctly, you and Alan object to Barbour’s apparent rejection of realism, i.e. the notion of nature having an existence independent of conscious observation. You also appear to be assuming that this rejection of realism forms an essential part of his thesis. It is difficult to persuade you otherwise because you are not working with a detailed knowledge of his thesis as laid out in his book. I can’t really achieve a great deal without going into his book in some detail but I would, if I may, point to the fact that chapter 5, entitled ‘History of the Timeless Universe’, suggests that this is not really a question of realism, but instead the non-essentiality of invoking the concept of time to adequately describe the universe, whether consciously remembered or not. The chapter’s precis reads:

    “If things simply are [atemporal], how can history be? If quantum cosmology is merely a static mist that enshrouds eternal Platonia, whence the manifest appearance of motion and our conviction history is real? This is the great question…The kingfisher just about to set off in flight is a symbol for the task. Explaining how we see it in motion in a timeless world is no more of a problem than explaining why we are convinced that Henry VIII had six wives.’

    So even a constructed history that does not require direct memories of events falls within the purview of his theory.

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  70. Re rejection of realism, yes, with caveats. We see reality through a warped and dirty window. I can’t speak for Alan, albeit I’ve agreed with some of his statements. I (try to) address that which is stated so far on its own, without any assumption of how foundational it is or isn’t his theory. I’ve no objection to raising ‘the great question’. But saying that because, within current physics, one can change a plus to a minus and everything is apparently okay, which I presume is the meaning behind his Henry VIII quote, seems not so much to describe a theory, as avoid a theoretical exploration that one day will help clean and straighten the window that is our physics. And so, regarding the nature of time, explain the observations and statistical ‘laws’ we already know about. When a foundational rule comes along which is not unitary with respect to temporal translation, it may simply be a mistake, or it may be a breakthrough.

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  71. Andy. I live and think in a world where things can be experienced in relation to a progress in time, in terms of cause and effect. I recognise that my experience of the progress of time varies, some time periods simply fly by at breakneck speed whereas others dawdle.
    I have only once in my life seen something which appears to show time moving backwards – an experiment involving two, differently coloured very viscous fluids in a container where there is a rotating paddle. Rotate the paddle and the two liquids mix. Rotate the paddle in the opposite direction and the two mixed fluids magically unmix and return to their original state. A very careful examination reveals that the unmixing is not quite perfect, but good enough to fool most punters. It is experiments like this that apparently violate natural law that actually draw attention to those laws.

    I find it almost impossible to believe in a universe without time as is revealed by changing entropy. But then I’m just an old-fashioned, innumerate geologist. Convincing oneself that common experience is wrong must remain in the halls of physics.

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  72. Alan:

    Convincing oneself that common experience is wrong must remain in the halls of physics.

    A daring analogy occurred to me about this overnight. Some “young earth creationists” believe that God put the fossils in the rocks to make them look old when they really aren’t. I don’t agree. It makes God a conman or worse. But equally I don’t believe that He gave us the experience of time and free-will to con us. They are fundamentally known to all human beings, at least from a certain age (and that part is also interesting). No mathematical physics, however beautiful (and it is), that we can come up with and test, or at least comprehend later, perhaps dimly, can do away with this.

    John (original post):

    The occasion was an object-oriented analysis seminar held at Oxford University. Two gentlemen on stage had spent the last hour pontificating on ontology and other high-brow stuff before opening up the session for questions. I was stood at the back of the room next to Norman when the microphone was handed to him. He spoke only one word:

    “Bullshit!”

    And with that, he left.

    So it was my no-nonsense hero who I was watching on the BBC, acting as a spokesman for the dark side, and giving me such a crisis of confidence.

    One of my old employees at Objective got in touch this week about a new project he’s been working on. As a bit of background for his (rather interesting) ideas I pointed him to a video of the person who invented the term object-oriented progamming (and thus gave rise to the other, increasingly meaningless terms, used later) Alan Kay:

    The whole will be hard-going I expect for most Cliscep readers. But it’s worth taking in the first few minutes about real engineers in a field “with some tinges of science” and their dependence on those who came before. Bob Barton citing Goethe. Kay has emphasised this humility in everything I’ve read or heard from him.

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  73. The following quote from Fed Brooks seems germane:

    “Einstein argued that there must be simplified explanations of nature because God is not capricious or arbitrary. No such faith comforts the software engineer.”

    Liked by 1 person

  74. I’m going to have one more go at explaining where Barbour is coming from.

    One of the greatest challenges remaining for physics is the unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics into a so-called quantum gravity. For technical reasons, Barbour argues that such a unification will not be possible whilst one retains the idea that time forms an axiomatic background framework within which reality operates. Instead, he believes that the equations that constitute the foundational physics will be atemporal and that time will be revealed as an emergent property explained by the foundational physics. This leaves questions to be answered: If time is not foundational, why does it lie at the centre of our perception of the world? Why is there an arrow of time suggested by non-reversible macro phenomena? And why are the non-foundational equations of physics time-reversible? His thesis attempts to answer these questions. He is aware of the misconceptions that may arise regarding his thesis and he acknowledges them in the introduction to his book when he says:

    “No doubt many people will dismiss the suggestion that time may not exist as nonsense. I am not denying the powerful phenomenon we call time. But is it what it seems to be?…If time is removed from the foundations of physics, we shall not all suddenly feel that the flow of time has ceased. On the contrary, new timeless principles will explain why we do feel that time flows.”

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  75. “Instead, he believes that the equations that constitute the foundational physics will be atemporal and that time will be revealed as an emergent property explained by the foundational physics.”

    I don’t mind that the arrow of time may be secondary not primary, albeit no such emergence has yet been shown. I merely say that throughout the history of science, observations have proved king, and that this will highly likely prove to be the case in regard to the nature of time.

    He says: “I am not denying the powerful phenomenon we call time. But is it what it seems to be?…If time is removed from the foundations of physics, we shall not all suddenly feel that the flow of time has ceased. On the contrary, new timeless principles will explain why we do feel that time flows.”

    He acknowledges the ‘the powerful phenomenon we call time’. Great 🙂 He claims that one day we will be able to explain our observations about the flow of time. Great 🙂 That it may be emergent from deeper principles, doesn’t appear to me in any way to suggest that ‘it may not exist’. Cultures are emergent, yet they absolutely exist. I think he would have done far better to never have mentioned time ‘not existing’, and then he wouldn’t have to worry about anyone and everyone who may ‘dismiss the suggestion that time may not exist as nonsense.’ It it were me, I’d just have said: time may be a different kind of property to what we currently think it is.

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  76. Andy,

    >”I think he would have done far better to never have mentioned time ‘not existing’, and then he wouldn’t have to worry about anyone and everyone who may ‘dismiss the suggestion that time may not exist as nonsense’.”

    It depends on what you mean by ‘exist’. But let’s not go there. What was it that Fenton said about ontology?

    “Bullshit”, I think it was. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  77. Richard I once spent an entertaining few days sitting next to a palaeontologist on a bus during a long field excursion run by my oil company. He belonged to a religious sect that believed in the literal truth of his particular bible. This meant that he didn’t believe in an extended history of the Earth. When I expressed amazement at his beliefs and wondered how he could use his microfossils to date sediments for our company he responded that God had distributed the fossils so that he and others like him could correlate rocks but it had no time significance. We got on famously because, unusually for me, I didn’t press my case. As a confirmed Mormon, I have never seen someone drink so much or with such pleasure. A most enjoyable field trip😵‍💫

    Liked by 1 person

  78. Alan: Your penultimate sentence can be taken as stating that you were a confirmed Mormon, at least for the duration of the trip. But context – in other words, knowing you a little, plus the contents of the book of Mormon – makes me decide that the palaeontologist was the intended referent. Which is so like language generally, not least “the suggestion that time may not exist”.

    I can imagine Dr Barbour saying, for example: “I woke up one day and realised that time may not exist. So I decided to write a book about it.” The book was published some time after that decision (and no doubt some effort) and that’s the way things tend to flow. Just as your friend’s decision not to take the strictures of Mormonism about alcohol too seriously enabled you to enjoy the field trip more than you expected.

    Decisions, decisions. I sometimes elect to read Maria Popova’s thoughts on this and that but on googling for something else just now I read this for the first time:

    Having grown up in communist Bulgaria — a culture where blind nonbelief was as dogmatically mandated by the government as blind belief is by the church elsewhere — I find Feynman’s thoughts on the dogma of atheism particularly insightful.

    Richard Feynman’s take is, as usual, worth consideration.

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  79. Richard

    I think the best analogy of what Dr Barbour is saying is with Quantum Mechanics. Schrödinger’s equations are precise enough to enable engineers to design lots of neat things that just work, but if someone tries to describe what they think happens at the collapse of the wave function they get themselves a greater weirdness than Lewis Carroll or Douglas Adams could imagine.

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  80. Richard you are, of course, correct that I never have been a Mormon. Just an extremely poor piece of sentence construction. I submitted the story of my palaeontologist colleague because it was an alternative explanation, one that did not necessitate God being a con person. I felt sure my colleague had suffered a conflict in his past where he had to resolve his palaeontological knowledge with the beliefs of Mormonism and this was the best he could manage. We had much more interesting things to discuss, but I did find his beliefs interesting.

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  81. Richard – thanks for the Feynman link – quote

    “I think if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed. I think this search does not lead to a complacent satisfaction that we know the answer, not an arrogant sense that the answer is before us and we need do only one more experiment to find it out. It goes with a courageous intent to greet the universe as it really is, not to foist our emotional predispositions on it but to courageously accept what our explorations tell us.”

    reminds me of partial quote from T. S. Eliot – http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html

    “We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.
    Through the unknown, remembered gate
    When the last of earth left to discover
    Is that which was the beginning;
    At the source of the longest river
    The voice of the hidden waterfall
    And the children in the apple-tree

    Not known, because not looked for
    But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
    Between two waves of the sea.
    Quick now, here, now, always–
    A condition of complete simplicity
    (Costing not less than everything)
    And all shall be well and
    All manner of thing shall be well
    When the tongues of flames are in-folded
    Into the crowned knot of fire
    And the fire and the rose are one.”

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  82. Alan: I enjoyed the story and it didn’t surprise me. People find remarkable ways of being individuals without wholly rejecting the worldviews that they are born into or drawn into. But note I’d originally said:

    Some “young earth creationists” believe that God put the fossils in the rocks to make them look old when they really aren’t.

    Some, not all. And it was drawing a parallel between that approach (which is actually a bit similar to the Muslim belief in “Satanic verses” in the Koran – untrue statements that are put there to deceive the unwary) and those who wish to make non-knowledge of something we do know, from our earliest days, namely the existence of time and free-will (which in itself gives a direction to time, long before we learn about entropy and the like.)

    The counterargument is, a bit like Bill points to, that, as young human beings, our conceptual model of the world is nothing like Quantum Mechanics! Yet I believe in the truth of that remarkable theory (more or less, before the quantum gravity adjustment is finally revealed). How come? Well, human civilisation based on the rule of law presupposes time and the free-will of individuals. We’re sawing at the branch we’re sitting on. And that’s just for starters 🙂

    dfhunter: That’s a fine connection!

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  83. Trying to keep my mind off things, I’ve been delving through Julian Barbour’s book again to see if I could find a pithy paragraph that sums up his rationale for believing that the universe’s foundational equations must be atemporal. After considering and rejecting several such ‘summaries’, I settled on the following:

    “The central insight is this: A classical theory that treats time in a Machian manner can allow the universe only one value of its energy. But then its quantum theory [i.e. the quantisation of the classical theory] is singular – it can only have one energy eigenvalue. Since quantum dynamics of necessity has more than one energy eigenvalue, quantum dynamics of the universe is impossible. There can only be quantum statics. It’s as simple as that!”

    Well it seemed simple to me. But, there again, I had the benefit of having already ploughed through 250 pages of the book before encountering the summary. Presented out of context, I imagine it will leave many people none the wiser. If it helps, I could say that it’s all about seeking a quantization of general relativity that fully respects Mach’s Principle whilst also resolving the so-called measurement problem within quantum dynamics. The only way to do this is to treat time as non-foundational. The trick then is to explain the ubiquity of time both within our experience of the world and in our non-foundational physics.

    Well it’s better than constantly monitoring how World War 3 is getting on.

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  84. Sorry John but quantifying World War III seems child’s play compared with whatever you and Barbour are trying to summarise and educate us ignorant masses upon. Yet I have the distinct impression that WWIII is much more important (to us bipedal primates avec attitude) than even your 250 pages of book reading.

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  85. Alan,

    Importance doesn’t come into it. There is nothing I can personally do regarding WWIII, so trying to understand it only heightens the sense of helplessness and feeds my anxieties. Trying to understand Barbour’s ideas carries no importance but it is preoccupying and it doesn’t cause me any sleepless nights.

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  86. Perhaps you’re right John. Maybe I should read up upon the stratigraphy of Zechstein potash deposits of Yorkshire to take my mind off broken promises for evacuation routes. I could always be asked to look over some rock cores taken for the planning of new gas storage caverns. But I’ve been waiting 15 years since the last time.

    Heard about the one where a Ukrainian grandmother brought down a Russian drone with a thrown bottle of pickled cucumbers? There’s joy and mirth to be found everywhere (except perhaps in string theory or Zechstein stratigraphy).

    Liked by 1 person

  87. Whatever floats your boat, Alan. At this stage, the most important thing to me is peace of mind. I am trying, not too successfully, to achieve that. I just prey that NATO doesn’t start throwing pickled cucumbers.

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  88. John, you have ensured that my dictionary has had a good work-out in the last 24 hours. 😊

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