The…er…science, of climate change

There are lots of problems with what passes for science much of the time now. Peer review is not all it’s cracked up to be, in fact Einstein hated it and his most famous work never underwent the process. The whole concept of statistical significance is under question (in medical matters it often bears no resemblance to clinical significance), and there has been a lot of flagrant bad behaviour in the hot political areas of science. Many ‘scientists’ (loosely defined) suffer from the same malaise as ‘experts’. There’s plenty of crossover between the two spurious groups. I hate putting such established terms in inverted commas, but one feels driven to it.

Part of the problem is the ‘publish or die’ atmosphere in many academic centres. The scientific and medical literature has expanded exponentially. One would sensibly doubt that the quality has kept pace.

But you know, there are some rules, generally accepted terms of reference. Here’s one fine example from the works of sociologist (not the rubbish kind) Robert K Merton. He is the man who originated those everyday phrases “unintended consequences,” the “reference group,” the “role model,” and “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Quite a body of work in its quotability, like a Shakespeare of Sociology:

In his landmark 1973 work The Sociology of Science , Robert Merton established norms upon which scientists should rely . These Mertonian norms include: communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, originalism, and organized skepticism… These norms have been described as follows: “Communalism: Science is public knowledge, freely available to all . . . Universalism: There are no privileged sources of scientific knowledge . . . Disinterestedness: Science is done for its own sake. Originality: Science is the discovery of the unknown . . . Skepticism: Scientists take nothing on trust…” Merton’s original work was done in the aftermath of World War II and is understood as making the argument for the necessity of these norms to scientific advancement in a democratic society.

The National Academy of Sciences built on Mertonian norms by establishing guidelines of its own that seek to foster a “community characterized by curiosity, cooperation, and intellectual rigor…” While the Academy encourages open debate and criticism, id . at xv, it treats the falsification of data, intent to mislead, and retaliation against critics as examples of serious research misconduct.

Great stuff, clear and almost noble idealism.  If you don’t have rules that are widely accepted, then you get dud science and useless outcomes. Just look at the problems with reproducibility,  which anyone who ever did O-level chemistry should intuitively understand.

You might have guessed that the reason I’m plugging Merton is his relevance to the scientific chaos surrounding climate change, and the quote above came from Mark Steyn’s update on his legal battle with the egregious Michael Mann. The provider of the quote is a real scientist, Judith Curry, who has heroically joined the fray.

Every medic knows that people more often than not publish for their CV and the career – it’s a necessity. Few  people are really good at scientific research. It’s a lot harder than surgery by and large, if you’re doing it well. Most of it is forgettable, irrelevant or possibly plain wrong. Scientific endeavour  from a position of preconceived bias will almost certainly be bullshit in, bullshit out.

To quote Anglo-Irish physicist George Johnstone Stoney:  A theory is a supposition which we hope to be true, a hypothesis is a supposition which we expect to be useful; fictions belong to the realm of art; if made to intrude elsewhere, they become either make-believes or mistakes.

And there’s a lot of the latter about.

..he said in 10 years we won’t know what snow is…


Great landscapes: Benjamin Williams Leader

It may be a month early, but this is exactly what it’s like out there. Leader was highly regarded in his day, but is vulnerable to accusations of being kitschy, in our cynical 21st century eyes. I think it’s masterly on many levels. Look at the expanded image, the water is rendered brilliantly, despite the ‘photographic’ quality the brush strokes are almost impressionistic.

February fill dyke. Benjamin Williams Leader, 1881. Birmingham Museums Trust


Scottish climate change

According to the Daily Mail, there is a (tiny) risk of Yellowstone Park being the centre of a huge volcanic eruption, with the direst of consequences. As a handy comparison, they described the shocking events of 200 years ago:

A huge cloud of ash thousands of miles across would also likely cause a year-long winter, say the study authors. The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Pacific produced an ash cloud tens of miles across caused ‘a year without a summer’ across the globe with snowfall in the North Eastern United States in June.

My God, surely not, ‘a year without a summer’. Catastrophe.

I blame the SNP.

Scotland, July 2015. It didn't really improve much.
Scotland, July 2015. It didn’t really improve much.

Poetry corner: Winterreise

Schubert is the most poetic of composers. His ear for the emotional tune is matched only by Beethoven, or occasionally Chopin. However, if you write more than 600 songs for solo singer, never mind the other works, there may well be a problem with consistency. In attempting to get through every piece on Hyperion’s remarkable 40 CD recording of the complete songs (all 2,851 minutes of it), Damian Thompson of the Spectator eventually admitted defeat. Part of the problem is the words, Schubert always used other writers’ poems.  To quote Thompson:

Despite Richard Wigmore’s sparkling translations, many of the poems are garbage. In ‘Der Liedler’ (1815), a minstrel saves a maiden from a werewolf by smashing his harp against him and then hurling him over a cliff. Even Schubert couldn’t polish this particular turd. Long, corny, cod-medieval ballads never showed him at his best. Short, commonplace love poems weren’t a problem, however. Schubert could invest the plainest lament — his poets were champion lamenters — with emotions far beyond the grasp of the writer. A lilting rhythm jumps into the pianist’s left hand; a flattened sixth creates a flicker of fear; a predictable cadence dissolves into a remote key. Earthbound verse takes flight.

Which makes Winterreise all the more remarkable. The poet is Wilhelm Müller, and, put frankly, it’s a very bleak and miserable trip. The spurned lover sets off into a very cold, dark, threatening landscape, bereft of hope. In the era of the romcom, this is its antithesis. Here is the translation by Celia Sgroi. It’s not great poetry in English, but it’s effective, and the sentiments are clear (and timeless, we’ve all been there to some extent). The German is more melodious, even in plain speech:

Gute Nacht
 Fremd bin ich eingezogen,                      I came here a stranger,
Fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus.                     As a stranger I depart.
Der Mai war mir gewogen                        May favoured me
Mit manchem Blumenstrauß.                   With many a bunch of flowers.
Das Mädchen sprach von Liebe,              The girl spoke of love
Die Mutter gar von Eh’, –                          Her mother even of marriage –
Nun ist die Welt so trübe,                        Now the world is so gloomy,
Der Weg gehüllt in Schnee.                     The road shrouded in snow.
Ich kann zu meiner Reisen                       I cannot choose the time
Nicht wählen mit der Zeit,                       To begin my journey,
Muß selbst den Weg mir weisen              Must find my own way
In dieser Dunkelheit.                                In this darkness
Es zieht ein Mondenschatten                    A shadow of the moon travels
Als mein Gefährte mit,                              With me as my companion,
Und auf den weißen Matten                     And upon the white fields
Such’ ich des Wildes Tritt.                         I seek the deer’s track.
Was soll ich länger weilen,                       Why should I stay here any longer
Daß man mich trieb hinaus ?                    So that people can drive me away ?
Laß irre Hunde heulen                              Let stray dogs howl
Vor ihres Herren Haus;                              In front of their master’s house;
Die Liebe liebt das Wandern –                   Love loves to wander –
Gott hat sie so gemacht –                          God made it that way –
Von einem zu dem andern.                        From one to the other,
Fein Liebchen, gute Nacht !                      My dearest, good night !
Will dich im Traum nicht stören,              I don’t want to disturb your dreaming,
Wär schad’ um deine Ruh’.                         It would be a shame to wake you.
Sollst meinen Tritt nicht hören –               You won’t hear my step,
Sacht, sacht die Türe zu !                           Softly, softly the door closes !
Schreib im Vorübergehen                           I write in passing
Ans Tor dir: Gute Nacht,                             On your gate: Good night,
Damit du mögest sehen,                            So that you may see

An dich hab’ ich gedacht                            That I thought of you.

The key to it all, is Schubert and his extraordinary gift for plangent melody. Here is Gute Nacht performed by Daniel Barenboim and Thomas Quasthoff. When you consider Quasthoff’s disability, married with his amazing voice., it’s hard not to discern an extra level of poignancy. Try the piece whilst reading the lyrics and translation, that is the real poetic Schubert.


**For interested readers, this blog and its successors are pretty good on the whole Winterreise thing. This podcast is worth a listen if it remains available, and this geeksite is pretty comprehensive re past recordings and other links.

A gift for language ~ Mark Steyn and climate change

A lot of people can write well, a few can consistently write brilliantly. Amusing is easy, laugh out loud funny is difficult. Combining the two is very rare indeed. R Emmett Tyrrell  and  Rod Liddle spring to mind,  and Mark Steyn, another hero of our times, currently locked in an epic First Amendment battle in the USA, with chippy ‘scientist’ Michael Mann.

This post is here simply to highlight Steyn’s ability to wrap up an argument in the most succint, pointed and righteously indignant way. From about 5 years ago:

He took the words out of Michael Mann’s mouth and served them up to impressionable readers of the New York Times and opportunist politicians around the world champing at the bit to inaugurate a vast global regulatory body to confiscate trillions of dollars of your hard-earned wealth in the cause of “saving the planet” from an imaginary crisis concocted by a few dozen thuggish ideologues.

That about sums it up, the subsequent image of “Al Gore, reclining naked, draped in dead polar-bear fur, on a melting ice floe” is too much for a family blog.

The bears found a use for a climate change scientist
The bears found a use for a climate change scientist

Climate change: “When you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had”

Michael Crichton in 1977
Michael Crichton in 1977

One of the very worst aspects of ‘climate change’ and the associated shenanigans and gravy trains is the abuse of science, and the corruption of the scientific process. In medicine that can get you struck off.

The Knife wrote twice about this recently. Only this week have we seen two scientists disagreeing regarding the floods. The highly paid head of the Met Office, Dame Julia Slingo, claiming that the floods were due in some mysterious way to climate change, but in the same breath conceding that there was no actual evidence for this. One of her colleagues, Professor Mat Collins, then denied her claim, pointing out – as he should – the complete lack of evidence.

Evidence being the key word in all this.

It’s also worth noting at this juncture the Met Office’s specific prediction in November for the next 3 months:  there was a “slight signal for below-average precipitation” for December, January and February.

Their credibility could be better, to put it politely.

The great Mark Steyn is about to enter into an epochal climate science free speech court battle. On his excellent, and very funny, website he has posted a few times on the late Michael Crichton‘s take on scientific method, and the dangers of a so-called consensus. Science relies on proof, not consensus. Crichton was the Harvard medical graduate and polymath who created, among many other successes, Jurassic Park and ER. He revered true science and the scientific spirit, and often wrote about it.

Here he is giving a lecture at Caltech in 2003. Read the whole thing, it’s brilliant  :

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had.

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world.

In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

In addition, let me remind you that the track record of the consensus is nothing to be proud of. Let’s review a few cases.

In past centuries, the greatest killer of women was fever following childbirth. One woman in six died of this fever.

In 1795, Alexander Gordon of Aberdeen suggested that the fevers were infectious processes, and he was able to cure them. The consensus said no.

In 1843, Oliver Wendell Holmes claimed puerperal fever was contagious, and presented compelling evidence. The consensus said no.

In 1849, Semmelweiss demonstrated that sanitary techniques virtually eliminated puerperal fever in hospitals under his management. The consensus said he was a Jew, ignored him, and dismissed him from his post. There was in fact no agreement on puerperal fever until the start of the twentieth century. Thus the consensus took one hundred and twenty five years to arrive at the right conclusion despite the efforts of the prominent “skeptics” around the world, skeptics who were demeaned and ignored. And despite the constant ongoing deaths of women….

….I would remind you to notice where the claim of consensus is invoked. Consensus is invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough.

Nobody says the consensus of scientists agrees that E=mc2. Nobody says the consensus is that the sun is 93 million miles away. It would never occur to anyone to speak that way.

Bear in mind that Crichton was speaking 11 years ago, specifically about climate change, and the best that’s on offer today is still a ‘consensus’.  It’s pitiful, and, given the Met Office’s recent dud forecast mentioned above:

“Nobody believes a weather prediction twelve hours ahead. Now we’re asked to believe a prediction that goes out 100 years into the future? And make financial investments based on that prediction? Has everybody lost their minds?”

Somerset, last week (or The Deluge, by Francis Danby, 1840. Tate Gallery)
Somerset, last week (or The Deluge, by Francis Danby, 1840. Tate Gallery)

Climate change: moral atrophy

This one has been doing the rounds on Twitter, and a good thing too. It’s pretty much true.  The last paragraph says it all. What is going through the ‘crazed sex poodle’s’ head, that he accepts the Nobel Peace Prize ahead of this lady? We know that the Nobel committee is a busted flush, but some of the nominees might be better than that.


It should be noted that Irena Sendler was a real person, with real achievements. Al Gore is a real multimillionaire fraud.

Climate change: “the science is settled” (2), and the fatal conceit

...oh dear
…oh dear

The previous two posts on this blog have been taking the piss out of the climate change obsessives, who continue to wreak financial and environmental havoc, through misguided public policy.

The Knife has never subscribed to the whole anthropogenic global warming (AGW) rubbish. It’s partly who is saying it, partly its malign consequences, and in a very large part, it’s because of the intellectually offensive way in which it is propagated.

Proof is lacking, to put it mildly.

Most of the AGW propagators are not people who appear to readily subscribe to a system of higher belief (other than AGW itself of course). Religion is not normally on their radar, which is fair enough. They must be judged by the relevant intellectual principles of rational inquiry and thought.

Happily, in Standpoint recently, is a very handy summary by Jonathan Neumann, of the great Friedrich Hayek’s view of intellectual progress and society. He was not pushing religion, merely outlining the rational process of inquiry in the absence of a higher belief :

Hayek sees the centralising impulse of contemporary Western political economy as stemming from a “presumptive rationalism” which he calls “scientism” or “constructivism”, and which expresses the “spirit of the age”…. Specifically, he cites four basic philosophical concepts which, during the past several hundred years, have formed the basis of this way of thinking: rationalism, which denies the acceptability of beliefs founded on anything but experience and reasoning; empiricism, which maintains that all statements claiming to express knowledge are limited to those depending for their justification on experience; positivism, which is defined as the view that all true knowledge is scientific, in the sense of describing the coexistence and succession of observable phenomena; and utilitarianism, which “takes the pleasure and pain of everyone affected by it to be the criterion of the action’s rightness”….

…To clarify, Hayek induces from these definitions several related presuppositions: that it is unreasonable to follow what one cannot justify scientifically or prove observationally; that it is unreasonable to follow what one does not understand; that it is unreasonable to follow a particular course unless its purpose is fully specified in advance; and that it is unreasonable to do anything unless its effects are not only fully known in advance, but also fully observable and — as far as utilitarianism is concerned — seen to be beneficial.

These beliefs – rationalism, empiricism, positivism and utilitarianism – are very definitely the mindset, in theory, of the AGW group. In reality, they don’t remotely adhere to these, as the last two posts make clear.

Hayek himself wasn’t proposing this limited view of knowledge and experience, preferring to acknowledge that there are some things that we cannot know in such black and white terms. Again, to quote:

The problems with these approaches, Hayek explains, are that they show no awareness that there might be limitations to our knowledge or reason in certain areas; they do not consider that part of science’s task is to discover those limits; and they show no curiosity about how the extended order actually came into being, how it is maintained, and what might be the consequences of undermining or destroying those traditions which did create and do maintain it.

Effectively a plea for intellectual humility, just as important as the other facets of that particular virtue.

So, by the normal criteria of research and finding out the facts, as outlined above, AGW fails pretty dismally. The secondary failure is in the refusal to accept that there may be things that exist that we cannot know of, despite the fact that this acceptance through blind faith actually constitutes most of the argument for AGW, and all of its many deleterious consequences. It really is a substitute religion.

Hayek’s last book, published in 1988, four years before his death, had a name for this lack of humility, that seems to fit pretty well with the whole AGW racket: The Fatal Conceit.

Hayek hears about the Academik Shokalskiy
Hayek hears about the Academik Shokalskiy

Climate change: “the science is settled” (1)


Doctors don’t always make good scientists, but we all receive training in scientific methodology. We can all critique a published paper, we understand peer review and why it matters.

So, here’s a scenario for a study.

We have to have a hypothesis. It’s that prawn cocktail crisps kill you.

We have to have a clearly identifiable and important outcome. In this case it’s easy: death

We set ourselves a timescale, say 5 years, and measure all the crisps eaten by our study population.

Then we wait for them to die.

However, after 5 years, there are no deaths, despite gorging on crisps. What must we reasonably conclude?

The obvious answer is that there’s no problem with the crisps. It’s possible, though highly unlikely, that we didn’t study for long enough, but we can extend the trial, no problem.

What we cannot sensibly conclude, is that the crisps are indeed dangerous, but in ways that we can’t explain or justify. We  likewise cannot mount a campaign to ban these tasty snacks on the basis of our study. Remember that it was us who selected both the hypothesis and the outcome measure, no-one forced them upon us. If we did continue to claim that the crisps were a lethal problem, then we would be widely – and rightly – derided and mocked. Our credibility would be shot.

This slightly silly scenario has just unfolded before us in another guise. No prizes for guessing that it’s climate change.

The chosen outcomes have been no snow, or melted ice caps, though there are lots of others to choose from. At least those two are easy to observe. It was Al “crazed sex poodle” Gore (and many others) who predicted the melted ice caps, within 5 years (5 years ago), and the fantastically hubristic Dr David Viner of the entirely dodgy (on many levels) University of East Anglia famously claimed  ‘within a few years winter snowfall will become “a very rare and exciting event”. “Children just aren’t going to know what snow is’.

Neither of these clowns felt the need to say that ‘climate is not the same as weather’, so sure were they.

So, when Dave emerges  with no proof whatsoever, and:

The prime minister told MPs that there were more “abnormal” weather events occurring and he “suspected” they were linked to global temperature changes.

…and when the leader of the bad climate science brigade turns obsessively litigious, and Arctic and Antarctic ice fail to melt, and in fact increase, and when countries don’t disappear due to non-existent rising sea levels…..

…then we’re all entitled to look at the lack of evidence, and the absurd obfuscations and inventions that inevitably follow it, from the climate changers, and draw our own conclusions.

As good scientists should.

The Maldives: stubbornly dry
The Maldives: stubbornly dry

Climate Change: Al Gore meets Adolf Hitler (sort of)

Then……(William Bradford, Ship Trapped in Pack Ice, c. 1871)

Not everyone will immediately remember Lewis Gordon Pugh. He was the ‘explorer, environmentalist and lawyer’ who, in 2008, announced his intention to kayak to the North Pole, in order to demonstrate the terrible and real effects of global warming. He was to be followed all the way by a TV film crew. Presumably as an educated  ‘explorer, environmentalist and lawyer’, he’d done his homework in advance on what to expect, and indeed I recall nearly nightly bulletins, breathlessly describing the heroic progress. To quote the pre-trip publicity, Lewis…

…will be using his unique skill set and talents to accomplish something that hasn’t been done in recorded human history: he is going to Kayak across an ice free North Pole. With many scientists predicting an iceless Arctic Ocean this coming year, Pugh has decided to call attention to the fact by making his away across the now open waters traveling only by kayak, a feat he claims couldn’t have been accomplished even last year, thus affirming the urgency with which he feels we must approach the issue.

…and as Lewis himself modestly said:

“There’s one side of me that desperately wants to get to the North Pole to be able to shake the lapels of world leaders to get them to understand what has happened there, but then there’s the other side of me that says I really hope I don’t get there. I hope I fail because if I am able to get there we really are in deep trouble.”

You can guess what comes next.

Pugh’s kayak trip ended at 81 degrees north, about 1000km from the Pole. (A) barrier of sea ice . . . eventually blocked his route north . . .

This slight setback didn’t shake Lewis’ belief and mysteriously omniscient knowledge of global warming (this was about the time the GW crowd decided to rebrand it all as ‘climate change’, just in case), as he sagely observed:

“Ironically, global warming played no small part in undermining the entire expedition. We believed that the greater melting of summer ice would open up large areas of sea and allow us to paddle north at good speed. What we did not fully appreciate was that to the north of us there was a widespread melting of sea ice off the coast of Alaska and the New Siberian Islands and the ice was being pushed south towards us … The evidence of climate change was stark”

Of course it was Lewis, we should have guessed. Perhaps you should have too, before you set off. Strangely, he’s not made a repeat attempt.

Anyway, fast forward to now. Many people have been sniggering about the antics at the opposite end of the earth, our climate change experts still trapped in Antarctic pack ice, at the hottest time of the year, the Antarctic Summer. As one of the ‘experts’ on the Akademik Shokalskiy said:

“…the ice was much thicker than usual for this time of year”

That’ll be global warming then. Or climate change. Whatever.

Obviously this is all very embarrassing for the climate change fanatics. Their mantra along the lines of “as you know very well, climate is not the same as weather” has worn thin. Particularly as these expeditions were conceived and planned according to their stunning understanding of…er…climate. They’re not normally bashful about how certain they are in knowing what’s going on, even when they clearly don’t have a clue. A fine example is Tom Chivers, on the normally excellent Telegraph blogs:

Personally I’m quite pleased that there are scientists trying to study what’s going on with the fantastically complicated system of ocean currents and ice sheets and atmosphere, and I think hilariously glib little comments of the “it’s snowing outside, so much for global warming LOL” kind are largely unhelpful from purportedly serious commentators.

All of which raises the genuinely fascinating question: why do these apparently intelligent people continue to behave like this?

This blog post implicates a bizarre addiction to cognitive dissonance, and there’s something in that. It’s along the lines of continuing to dig when you’re in a hole. However, I think GK Chesterton was closest with his sublime observation (no less true for now being a bit of a cliche):

When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything

That’s not to claim that religious belief is the only way forward, but to point out that religion substitutes tend to be  a menace. Which happily brings us to Hitler.

The author and historian Michael Burleigh has a fascinating habit of unpicking the belief systems behind politics, particularly totalitarian systems, his wonderful book Sacred Causes is a fine exposition of this.  As the Guardian, of all newspapers, helpfully summarised Burleigh’s view of Nazism:  what if you were to explain the Nazi phenomenon, not so much a political ideology, but as a surrogate religion, wrapped up in stylised and sentimental rituals?

Here he is, in the introduction to his remarkable history of the Third Reich:

In April 1937…an anonymous writer..explicitly compared Nazism to a secularised religion. He called the result a ‘church-state’ or a state ‘counter-church’, with its own intolerant dogma, preachers, sacred rites and lofty idioms that offered total explanations of the past, present and future, while demanding unwavering dedication from its adherents. Acquiescence was not enough; such regimes demanded constant affirmation and enthusiasm from their own populations.

and citing Robespierre, an antecedent of Hitler in roping in religious tropes to justify mad ideologies, Burleigh goes on:

…it reflected the belief that Providence had sanctified a specific social order through which alone happiness would reign on earth. Anyone who opposed this belief was not only in error, but part of a demonic conspiracy…Opponents were not simply misguided, and hence amenable to persuasion, but fit only for extinction, regardless of whether they had done anything other than exist.

Given the inevitable and intentional implication of climate-change ‘deniers’ being in some way comparable to Holocaust deniers, a standard tactic of the GW crowd, the above quotes don’t seem too far fetched, though it’s ironic that the new Nazis are the climate change fans, not the deniers.

So, Godwin’s Law proves its worth again. Last word to the Guardian: “a surrogate religion, wrapped up in stylised and sentimental rituals”.

Spot on.