Monday, 16 November 2015

Eight out of ten cats are correct, says Richard Tol

Professor Richard Tol has done some sums and come to the conclusion that, if you put a variety of cat meat products in front of a range of feline pets, incrementally, eighty per cent will choose one brand in particular over all the others. He revealed this information to Roger Harrabin on the BBC Radio 4 programme, I Know I Might Have Said Something Else But..., broadcast today.

 In other news, Professor Richard Tol has found 300 previously unknown climate science papers in the back of his wardrobe. He knew they must have been the ones he's been looking for as they were covered in snow and guarded by a pretty impressive lion. In other other news, Professor Richard Tol has said he was misquoted by Roger Harrabin who missed the word "gremlins" from the interview. The line in question should have read "Of course there were mistakes, gremlins, in my earlier analysis but I am such a wonderful person I couldn't possibly be wrong."

 In other, other, other news, Roger Harrabin says Richard Tol was quoted accurately, with the word gremlins included in the transcript.

 In ..... news, Richard Tol would like it to be known that he is not the same Professor Richard Tol who cannot learn from his mistakes, chases pointless arguments down a rabbit hole and doesn't like John Cook.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

It all STEMs from education, Ms Odone

I was a nerd at school. Still am. Can't remember the last time I read a novel from start to finish. Haven't been to an art gallery in decades. Don't listen to classical music. Never have.

But when I was at school I was forced to do humanities and arts. I was forced to read Shakespeare. I was forced to forced to read George Eliott and Joseph Conrad. I had Beethoven and Debussy rammed down my throat whether I was interested or not. I didn't want to do drama and I had no passion for daubing bits of paper with garish tones of pigment or shaping sloppy clay into interesting shapes.

None of that was for me. Give me a physics textbook and some equations to play with and I was a happy bunny.

And what did all that liberal arts education give me?

When I left university and finished twenty years of formal science education, I went to the non-science parts of the local library and binged. I read novels. I read history, not just the kings and queens sort, but the history of literature and art too. I ever read poetry, from Auden to Graves, Chaucer to Donne (hat tip to my friend Sheila White).  I even listened to some classical music.

Christina Odone, of the Daily Telegraph, has written an execrable piece about her daughter who has to study science because...  Well, not because the government insists and it is a ruddy good idea to have some idea about the world around you and how it functions, but because it is a feminist ideal for women to do things that men typically do and which benefit humanity in general.

The daughter seems to be some shrinking violet who cannot think for herself and just get on and learn some science.  Actually, I don't believe that. I think it is the mother who is being a bit of a bully and throwing her credentials around as a right wing commentator to make a pretty vapid point about feminism.  In doing so, she not only displays her prejudices but also her ignorance.  In Britain we have had something of an Ada Lovelace season, celebrating the mathematical talents of a woman (perish the thought, eh, Ms Odone?). We could have done the same with Rosalind Franklin's biological talent, or Dorothy Hodgkin's, and so on.

I suppose Odone looks up to the towering talents of such women as Natalie Portman, the Academy Award winning actress (Black Swan, remember?). Not only is she talented but attractive too, the latter no doubt being the important characteristic as far as Odone is concerned.  Odone has probably even seen her in films, though the boys ones, like Thor and Star Wars, might not be to her taste. Never mind. Portman is a role model,to Violet Elizabeth Botts everywhere. You can have children. You can do dressing up and pretending to be someone else. You can make pots of money and do it while being a woman as long as you stick to the arts and not mess with the laddish sciences.

Er, what's that, you say? Natalie Portman did what?  She studied for a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and published original research in a scientific journal?  Really.  She did?

So strike Natalie Portman from Odone's consciousness because she has clearly let all of womankind down by not sticking to flower arranging and making jam while her husband is out at work and studied science instead.

If she doesn't count, what about Mayim Bialik in The Big Bang Theory? She only plays a scientist, right?  Wrong she is a neuroscientist, properly qualified, PhD and all. Dr Bialik.

Lisa Kudrow of Friends has a biology degree. Teri Hatcher studied maths and engineering. See, lots of women can actually be women, be arty and be scientific too. It's easy. In fact, I reckon it is not only easy but women do the scientific thing without realising. My hairdresser teaches me science every time she cuts my hair, because she learned the science of skin and hair when she was at college learning to do perms and streaks and blow dries.

So, Christina Odone, your daughter should do science. For one thing, she will use it, even if it is assessing the right treatment for indigestion. For a second thing, you don't know if your supposedly shrinking violet daughter might actually get interested in science, just as I got interested in medieval literature, Renaissance art and Sakespeare by being allowed to experience it at school. I learned so much at school, not because I thought I might need it or my teachers did, but because my teachers allowed me to know it existed. Does a parent really want to close off their child from an understanding of the beauty of nature, the means of thinking critically about medicine, or energy, or nutrition, or evolution, or any other scientific idea? Apparently, in this case, the answer is yes. How terribly sad?

Friday, 6 November 2015

Rob Newman. That's him not understanding science, that is.

He used to be a comedian, but he fell out with his comedy partner and wrote some novels instead to while away the time and earn a crust.  Oh, for those heady days in the mid-nineties when comedy was the new rock and roll and the Mary Whitehouse Experience was cutting edge stuff.

For those that don't remember the Mary Whitehouse Experience, it was one of those rare things, a cult radio comedy series that transferred from BBC Radio 1 (the music channel) to BBC2, the more highbrow of the BBC TV channels of those days.  It was required listening and viewing.  Decide for yourself.

Be that as it may.  Newman and Baddiel became huge stars, selling out Wembley Arena and making comedy the new cliche of the day.  That was then, this is now.

For some unknown reason, Newman has been touring and is now on BBC Radio 4 with a piteously unfunny show entitled Robert Newman's Entirely Accurate Encyclopaedia of Evolution, a title correct in almost none of its words.  The radio version, available here (though I don't know for how long), is a series of lectures on the subject of evolution with a distinctly group selection bias and a distinctly anti-Richard Dawkins theme.  There is, however, an enormous problem.

To get a flavour of the problem, let's look at some interviews and reviews of the stage show.  First up, the venerable Daily Telegraph had a piece entitled "Robert Newman: 'The Universe Richard Dawkins Imagines Couldn't Exist For Five Seconds' (archived because of the Telegraph pay wall).  You might be able to tell just how sweeping that statement is.  And just how tiny a dent Newman puts into even his faulty understanding of Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene.

Newman says:
“Darwin’s theory of evolution has been hijacked by quite a narrow individualist philosophy that derives from Hobbes and I think it’s having a terribly negative effect. It’s giving people a very pessimistic idea of human nature. What I think Dawkins has done is brought back a particularly virulent form of original sin. He’s actually a deeply religious thinker – ‘We are born selfish therefore let us try to teach altruism’, 'If your genes are selfish, you are.' Not true." Warming to his theme, he continues: “It’s a virulent repudiation of Darwin. What Darwin says is that those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and produce the most offspring.”
Oh, dear.  We have a comedy writer straying into the arena of science and thinking they know more about science than the scientists do.  Here's what Jerry Coyne had to say on group selection:
Group selection isn’t widely accepted by evolutionists for several reasons. First, it’s not an efficient way to select for traits, like altruistic behavior, that are supposed to be detrimental to the individual but good for the group. Groups divide to form other groups much less often than organisms reproduce to form other organisms, so group selection for altruism would be unlikely to override the tendency of each group to quickly lose its altruists through natural selection favoring cheaters. Further, little evidence exists that selection on groups has promoted the evolution of any trait. Finally, other, more plausible evolutionary forces, like direct selection on individuals for reciprocal support, could have made humans prosocial. These reasons explain why only a few biologists, like [David Sloan] Wilson and E. O. Wilson (no relation), advocate group selection as the evolutionary source of cooperation.
 Jerry Coyne has recently retired as a biology professor at the University of Chicago. He has written the widely admired Why Evolution Is True and the even more admired Speciation. He has more of a clue than Robert Newman.  He has steeped a lifetime in understanding evolution.  Newman is just skimming the surface.

More Newman from the earlier piece:
I’m arguing that cooperation drives evolution as much as competition – I’m not discounting competition but cooperation is there as well. Dawkins is a reactionary thinker and he does a lot of damage. The universe he imagines couldn’t exist for five seconds. People say “It’s the law of the jungle isn’t it?” “It’s dog eat dog.” Well dogs don’t eat dogs - very rarely. Look at African hunting dogs - if they don’t share they get rolled in the dust and made to. [Peter] Kropotkin – responding to Darwin - saw how if a buffalo falls in a ditch the rest of the herd make efforts to rescue it. Contrary to what male primatologists were saying in the mid-70s about baboons, it’s not about a dominant male with his harem of submissive female. They organise around a female kinship network. If a male wants to join the group he has to know a female and even then has to serve a probationary period in which he proves his work by performing foster care – looking after offspring that are not his genetic material. You can look at sterile female ants too…”
I am not sure what Newman has been reading, but I don't think he has actually read too much modern evolutionary thinking.  Rather he has chosen, witness Kropotkin, to take an ideological viewpoint.  He wants cooperation to be the dominant driver of evolution without realising what competition means here.  There are technical scientific meanings to these terms that merge into the public consciousness with the more general meanings overlain upon them. Newman appears to take the non-scientific meanings for the scientific ones.  This clearly generates a problem.  By using non-scientific cliches, he allows the invalid thinking to dominate.

In a review in the Guardian, the ideology is even more evident. 
He starts by asking why Herbert Spencer's view of evolution ("survival of the fittest") has prevailed over Darwin's more nuanced take. It's ideology, says Newman: big business wanted to roll back the gains of postwar social democracy, and selfish-gene theory offered them scientific legitimacy. But nature is just as rich in examples of selflessness as ruthlessness. Newman is armed with dozens of them.
A reading of The Selfish Gene should demonstrate that there is no scientific support to be found there for turning back social democracy.  The change from optimistic, wide eyed society of the sixties to the more pessimistic, more cynical version of the eighties is more likely to be found in the growing environmental movement as technology and industry were found to cause problems as well as solve them. and the economic crises resulting from the oil price increases in the mid-seventies.  We may have landed on the Moon but we also caused global warming.

In The Big Issue, Newman's thesis is summarised thus:
Newman thinks that Richard Dawkins and other ‘neo-Darwinists’ are wrong: genes aren't selfish, and believing they are distorts our thinking. He insists that modern experts and the author of the Origin of Species are on his side.
The comedian has the scientific chops to refute three myths of the age: that fighting is creatures’ natural state; that women are biologically ‘domestic’; and that individual animals are just conduits for passing on genetic material. He uses baboons, vampire bats and single-celled organisms to make his case.
Dawkins’ theories celebrating competition, says Newman, are in vogue because they assist the dogma of free-market capitalism. Meanwhile, the natural world is in crisis.
 Scientific ideas are not in vogue because they are fashionable.  They stand or fall on the evidence given for them, and just because we can find plenty of examples of altruism, that doesn't mean we should dismiss the ideas that Dawkins espouses.  And those "myths", strawmen more like.

The clearest exposition of Newman's lack of scientific realism comes in an interview in the New Left Project:
The dog eat dog version of evolution which now dominates the discourse has had a disastrous effect on morale, on how we see ourselves, how we see our place in nature. It has given us what I call Anthropophobia, a fear of our own humanity.

I argue that Richard Dawkins's Cardboard Darwinism is profoundly opposed to Charles Darwin's central ideas such as the one about how we are born with 'social instincts'. Dawkins repudiates this when he writes: "We are born selfish". This doctrine derives not from Darwin but from the central dogma of the Protestant Reformation – Original Sin.
There's lots here. Disastrous effect on morale - really?  Cardboard Darwinism - I guess he doesn't even know that Dawkins is a very strong Darwinist.  I can only assume he hasn't read The Extended Phenotype, River Out Of Eden, The Blind Watchmaker, The Ancestor's Tale or The greatest Show On Earth.  Or if he has, he didn't understand a word.

But then he claims original sin comes from the central dogma of the Protestant Reformation, which happened about a thousand years after the concept became theologically founded.  Not something to inspire confidence.

Well, it's no coincidence that There Is No Such Thing As Society comes at the same moment as Selfish Gene in the UK and EO Wilson’s Sociobiology in the USA. I don't think that these things are a backlash to the sixties so much as a backlash against the spirit of ‘45 and the historically unprecedented social equality and social mobility.
But of course it could easily be a coincidence.  Dawkins Selfish Gene was based on work that had gone on through those hippy dippy sixties, and Wilson's foundation of sociobiology was his intimate understanding of ants, something he had been researching throughout the sixties.  Like I said, it was more than likely a coincidence.

In the show I argue that the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act unleashed a reaction from male primatologists, social anthropologists and biologists who sought to prove that gender roles in childcare are biologically determined. The arguments were best countered by the female primatologists who at the end of the seventies went into the Congolese jungles and discovered that, say, baboon troops are not organised around dominant alpha males but female kin networks. The nearly forty years since the publication of Selfish Gene in the UK and EO Wilson’s Sociobiology in the US have not been kind to genetic determinism, nor to the idea that DNA is destiny.
This stretches it somewhat.  And, as ever, outsiders seem to think scientific books are set in stone whereas a scientific book that lasts more than a few years is rare.  Science builds on what is already known. New discoveries are made.  Sociobiology has moved on, and many discoveries have been made.

This exchange shows there is a deep flaw in Newman's research:
                  It’s clear you have done a huge amount of research for the show. If someone wanted to                       explore the topic further which texts would you recommend they read?

                  Well, pretty much any Stephen Jay Gould essay collection, An Urchin In the Storm, say.                     Mary Midgley's The Solitary Self – Darwin and the Selfish Gene. There's some great free                     downloads on I-Tunes such as Simon Blackburn's How Are We to Think About Human                         Nature.

I shall admit ignorance of Simon Blackburn [actually, I have read some of his work without remembering until I looked him up, so it clearly didn't make much impression] but not of Gould or Midgley.  Odd that Newman should have chosen An Urchin In The Storm, the worst of all his anthologies, being a collection of book reviews.  And as for Midgley, perhaps the less said the better for someone who wrote a book called Evolution As Religion and still claims to be a philosopher.

Adam Rutherford, science broadcaster, makes a comment at New Left Project which deserves to be quoted in full:
  • As someone who has studied, researched and written about genetics and evolution for the whole of my adult life, I recognise very few of the arguments represented here. First, I don’t really understand what is meant by the ‘dog eat dog version of evolution’. Competition is certainly a powerful Darwinian force, but population genetics and the emergence of the understanding of the gene (poorly defined itself) as the central unit of selection I populations also forcefully contributes to widespread observations of altruism and cooperation throughout the biological realm. Certainly, Dawkin’s popular work focuses not around behaviour as selfishness, but the central idea that genes are replicating bits whose own behaviour in consort with others in the same organism and family, and with the environment, conspires to replicate themselves efficiently. Dawkins has made this point on countless occasions, and expressed regret that the title the Selfish Gene has been misconstrued so often, as appears to be the case here. Indeed, Midgley seems persistent in recent years in misreading Dawkins. I believe he argues strongly against biological determinism (as does pretty much every evolutionary biologist and geneticist I’ve encountered for several decades), and that an evolved ability to act differently from a biological imperative is critical to our survival.
    I am desperately unclear what point there is to be made about transposable elements, epigenetics and reverse transcription. These are Darwinian, and specific aspects of the molecular biology of inheritance, and it’s hard to see that they can be used to make a political argument about the nature of natural selection. I suspect that it is in fact a total coincidence ‘that There Is No Such Thing As Society comes at the same moment as Selfish Gene’. Most of the ideas expressed in popular form by Dawkins in 1976 and subsequently had been described at least a decade earlier by Bill Hamilton in the 60s, and indeed the emergence of modern evolutionary thought by the founders of the modern synthesis.
    I am not so naive to think that science exists in an apolitical bubble, but I think it’s very dangerous to use pure science texts to make such precise political points, when they are not inherent in the source material. I’m sure science-influenced biological deterministic arguments have been used over time, but just like nature versus nurture has not been an academic debate for several decades, it has not been a serious discussion amongst scientists for years. 
I think that rather wraps it up.  Newman is wrong but convinced he is right.  An evolution denier, a sort of natural selection lukewarmer in that he agrees with Darwin (or at least the bits he likes) and denies selection at the level of the gene.  And it is clear that the desire to accept group selection is not because Newman has assessed the scientific evidence fully but has been led by his wishes.  If only everyone got on with one another, was kind to his neighbour and not so beastly to other people, wouldn't that be wonderful.

Well, yes, of course it would.  But that isn't what cooperation and competition and selection and selfish genes and so on actually means in scientific terms.

And, in true Stephen Jay Gould fashion, I turn to my main point.  Robert Newman read English at Cambridge University.  He is an intelligent man who seems to have an inquisitive nature.  However, he seems to lack the scientific skills to be able to understand scientific debates correctly.  I am pretty certain that I couldn't make literary insights into the writings of, for example, Coleridge, or Hardy or Virginia Woolf.  It doesn't mean I can't enjoy either those authors or the writings of the critics.  But I am not in a position to cast a new theory of, say, Woolf's interior monologues.  I haven't read enough nor understood enough to be able to do so.  I would not be so arrogant to claim I could.

But Newman has done just that in a field of science that has such a large pile of evidence in its favour.  He makes the mistake of thinking that a few hundred hours of study (about the length of an couple of undergraduate science units) is the equivalent of the thousands of hours that scientists like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Stephen Jay Gould, Steve Jones, Nick Lane, Neil Shubin and so on, have put in.  The disagreements and discussions with fellow scientists over coffee in the common room, the rejected papers with their lengthy lists of improvements from the referees' report.  

We see this all the time in the world of denial.  With a laptop and Microsoft Office, access to the Internet and a misplaced confidence in their own ability, we see plenty of non-scientists treading on the toes of scientists.  Do we see the same thing in the world of English literature?  I don't know.  Perhaps I'll do that.  Look out for my next post: William Blake's Tyger is about fish really.


Thursday, 5 November 2015

Monckton Pause Update - it's got to go

Monckton has held the start of the pause as February 1997.  But it's about to go.

Monckton, about to auction off his xerox machine version here.

Cached here.

Key quote:
From next month on, the Pause will probably shorten dramatically and may disappear altogether for a time.
Sorry, your Lordship.  If it is real and not a mathematical artifact of the data that you are selecting, then it won't disappear because it has happened.  The man is, however, a scientific nonentity.

How do we know:
The Pause – politically useful though it may be to all who wish that the “official” scientific community would remember its duty of skepticism – is far less important than the growing discrepancy between the predictions of the general-circulation models and observed reality.
The Good Lord is changing his tune, just as the non-pause is going to disappear from his Casio calculator.

Good riddance, say I.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Ingenious Pursuits: Lisa Jardine

When I was looking for a title for this blog, I looked up at my bookshelf and saw the vermillion spine of one book catching my eye. Ingenious Pursuits by Lisa Jardine.  The book is an excellent history of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I recommend it highly.

But I bring it up because the author, Lisa Jardine, has passed away from cancer at the age of 71. I owe her a big debt and will try to honour it by supporting science in the face of mindless criticisms that it faces from without and sometimes from within. From the distance that the printed pages lends, she taught me much. Her father was equally inspirational, Jacob Bronowski.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Matt Ridley goes off piste again and gets a kicking

Once upon a time, there was a pretty good science writer named Matt Ridley.  He worked for a prestigious magazine and wrote some entertaining and educating popular science books. Then he wrote a book more ideological than scientific, in parts scientifically wrong. Now he has published another book and it has been reviewed in the current issue of New Scientist.  The book gets a kicking.

The kicking is not for the science but for the ideology, which the reviewer clearly does not agree with.  Put simply, Ridley argues that there is too much regulation, including a whole wealth of regulation that his bank, Northern Rock, showed did not work.  It is commonly held, amongst those that I talk to, that regulation was at fault in the 2008 crash and its wasn't because there was too much. Arguments might be made that national government should govern less, but I suspect those that argue that have little bits of protection they are not willing to give up.  I bet Ridley is the same. His bank, and by extension himself, went cap in hand to the Bank of England to get them out of the hole they had dug themselves into by selling mortgages at both ends.

I haven't read the book but John Gray has and gives Ridley a similar kicking in the Guardian. Gray's review centres around Ridley's lack of historical mouse. Ideas that look like social Darwinism so often find events showing how wrong they are. Ridley seems to want to apply natural selection as an idea to the world of human ideas but it has a simple limitation that you might think someone as brainy as Ridley would have noticed: ideas do not live or die on which one is the best idea but which one has the most powerful proponents at the time.  To an extent I am sympathetic to some of Ridley's earlier ideas. But I don't think small government works because powerful people seem to accrue more power where they can. It feels like a result of our evolution but it is nothing for which I have evidence and may easily be wrong. Confirmation bias makes it all too easy for me to go down that road but I stop myself following the logic to where it leads. Others don't, and it is those others that produce ideas that approach evil and sometimes reach it, both on the left and the right of the political spectrum.

I haven't read the book but Peter Forbes has in the Independent. He also says that Ridley has gone political in this book and the politics isn't pretty. Ridley, Forbes says, stresses the importance of evidence to science (although Ridley is a bit cavalier with evidence when it comes to climate science) yet he adduced anecdote and authorities to bolster his argument rather than evidence. Ridley, it seems, misses the effectiveness of central government in making much more peaceful societies than, say, the law enforcement of drug cartels in central and South America.  If Ridley wants to write this book, I would hope he missed reading Steven Pinker's excellent The Better Angels Of Our Nature which is an immense evidence based triumph, showing how violence has declined over the course of history.

I haven't read the book and I doubt I will. One reason is an interview in the New York Times in which Ridley recommends Andrew Mountford's book The Hockey Stick Illusion as recommended reading for the Prime Minister. This is a book the reviewer in Prospect magazine called McCarthyite and not worth reading and Chemistry World described as pedantic. You would think Ridley would know better but he has been blinkered against the real story of climate change for twenty years or so. Even The Spectator  is less keen on Ridley's thesis than one might have expected, following that magazines publication of some of his egregious articles on climate change. One line I enjoyed ridiculed Ridley's use of Nigel Lawson as a climate science authority. Ridley seems hamstrung by his desire to present a nature red in tooth and claw selection process for ideas that he misses some of the successes of ideas helped along but the very things he wrote about in The Origin Of Virtue all those years ago. Humans are both hierarchical and social, following leaders and helping one another. The best governments use those basics wisely. Science is powerful because it subverts individualism into a collective but competitive endeavour. Watson and Crick get all that credit for discovering the structure of DNA and sir paper in Nature is recalled to this day. The next paper along in the same edition was by Wilkins and Franklin and supplied details of the evidence Watson and Crick used. Here is an example of the competitive and cooperative nature of a human endeavour. Simplistic, perhaps, but real in many respects (I await comments that give me better understanding here).

Ridley's thesis is that bottom up solutions work better than top down ones through a more organic process, a more evolutionary process.  Counter examples are not hard to find.  Take, for instance, the railway system of London.  That's the mainline, overground system.  This schematic shows how wonderfully logical the termini appear.

But this is a modern version.  Following lengthy reorganisation, and omits some terminus stations and does not show the actual locations of them. This, more realistic map, shows a deeper truth.
There were extra termini at Bricklayers Arms, Cannon Street (still exists), Farringdon Street, Broad Street (no longer in existence but was right next to Liverpool Street), not to mention Fenchurch Station (the one on the British Monopoly board that no one has heard of otherwise).  There are others I haven't mentioned.  The system grew because individual companies built the lines and there was no overarching plan.  London's railway system battles that lack of planning to this day.  Lines approaching Charing Cross reach a bottleneck just where it would be advantageous for them to open out into more lanes. Hemmed in by buildings and streets, there is no room for expansion.

We should not forget that to build a railway in nineteenth century Britain, an Act of Parliament had to be sought.

Ridley's current book is his second that goes off his scientific piste and into more political snow.  The consensus of the reviews I read suggests the science is well received but the politics less so.  This is not surprising, because in the UK there is nothing similar to the US Tea Party movement and although UKIP polled well in the May General Election, there seems to be a feeling that, actually, their one shot at a breakthrough failed.  There is a temptation to chat to your own and have your opinions confirmed but Ridley ought to know better.  He has a scientific background and many of the scientists he looks up to are mainstream scientists who express the need for both a sceptical view and a careful, fact checking outlook.  But Ridley has bought heavily into a substantially right of centre worldview with regards regulation and government.  The success of Japan, for instance, demonstrates that small government can be trumped by big government.

Why did Ridley get his biology so right, in my opinion, yet his climate science so wrong?  I cannot put my finger on it but one possibility is that he is of a generation that thinks technology is the answer to everything.  Look at how his (and my) technological world has changed: we listened to large valve radios, watched black and white TV and had fixed, landline phones.  Now we carry in our pockets a miniature device that will allow us to do each of those three things, and more, wherever and whenever we wish.  In 1979, my school had a computer room which did what it said. It housed the computer.  Within a couple of years, the BBC's computer push led to computer rooms in schools which housed class sets of computers. They might have been ancient boxes of electronics from the stone age compared to what we can do now, but they revolutionised school IT in the UK.

So being optimistic that humans can change the world is something Ridley and I can point a finger at and say it happened, and for the better (in general).  But there is no evidence that such optimism will always work out.  In fact, the technological solutions to worldwide problems (ozone hole, infectious diseases, etc) also requires international cooperation and big government.  Locally based conservation groups can do much, and they do, but to make the necessary impact to solve global issues, global teamwork is essential.

But the most disappointing thing about Ridley is recent years has been his decline into the same old denialist tropes that he really should have been clever enough to avoid.  In his own self-justification, What the climate wars did for science there is much on show that betrays Ridley's slack work.  He inflates non-experts to the level of experts.  For example, our old friend Jim Steele becomes a distinguished ecologist when in fact distinguished and ecologist are hardly appropriate for someone with only a self published book on his publication list.   Steele has what appears to be a vendetta against Camille Parmesan but, unsurprisingly, Ridley takes Steele's side (even when an explanation for Parmesan's actions has been published) and cites wattsUpWithThat as support.

Unsurprisingly also, Ridley cites Lysenkoism in his whine about climate science. It looks as if Ridley has gone through the list of debunked and failed arguments at Skeptical Science and decided they look tasty when in fact they are ready to become pig swill.  Read what Ridley wrote in self justification and try not to spray your screen with coffee.  It is sometimes hard to remove from the keyboard.  For someone who has spent a lifetime working around scientists, reading scientific papers and translating them for a less scientifically literature readership, Ridley's justification is riddled (pun intended) with arguments that don't work and never will.  His audience will applaud his assertion that Tol has demolished Cook13's consensus measurement.  That Tol has failed to do so, has been shown to be a ridiculous figure in this (by asserting 300 papers that don't exist) and for pursuing it when he really should have given up, isn't mentioned and won't be.  Inconvenient that Jonathan Powell in the latest issue of the Skeptical Inquirer argues that Cook13 is, indeed, wrong.  Powell says the consensus is really 99% and more.  Pity the article is paywalled as it should be read by all deniers and should annoy them intensely.  The logic Powell uses is impeccable, so far as I can see.

Ridley ends his justification on a downbeat note.  Having cherry picked and misrepresented a pile of denier/realist confrontations, he says:
I dread to think what harm this episode will have done to the reputation of science in general when the dust has settled.
He is right for all the wrong reasons.  The reputation of science is being dirtied deliberately.  Now we know that Exxon sat on research about climate change while giving support for denial, one wonders how Ridley will take that on board. How did he respond to Merchants Of Doubt, both book and movie?  Ridley's one sided take on the climate debate is weird for someone who so clearly gets the science of evolution, when that side is to misrepresent evidence and mishear the debate.  That there is a debate on the science itself is odd.  That Ridley should be so clearly wrong suggests one thing and one thing only.  His recent books give the answer: he listens to his politics on this one and not what the science says.  When someone says the hockey stick graph is a scandal, you know they're wrong.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Did the BBC base Count Arthur Strong on Lord Christopher Monckton?

Significant similarities between the fictional character, Lord Christopher Monckton, and the former variety star and current subject of a BBC reality TV series, the eponymous Count Arthur Strong, have been revealed in an investigation into the well known left wing bias of the BBC.  It is so well known that we don't need to detail any of it here.

The similarities are too close to be described as anything but uncanny, though that has never stopped Lord Monckton from making a logical leap too many and allege a deliberate act.  So let's examine the evidence and, as ever, let the reader make up their own mind (though, of course, the evidence will be presented in such a way that no one will be able to do anything than accept my conclusions).

1.  The look
Monckton has been dressed in his fictional world in the tweeds and paraphenalia of the minor and not long established aristocracy.

Strong dresses in tweedy clothes befitting his aspirations to be seen as a real aristocrat but who really can only trace his dynasty in the peerage back to 1947 when his grandfather was ennobled for services to appeasement.

2  Mode of speech
Monckton's writers have given him a speaking style that means he says things that sound quite impressively intelligent but are actually gibberish. Watch this sketch from his ITV4 sketch show, The Christopher Monckton Half Hour.

Count Arthur Strong has a natural gift for talking nonsense, tripping over his words and making malapropisms, in spite of his eminence as a variety performer and actor (he narrowly lost out to Sean Connery for the role of James Bond in the early sixties).  But amongst it all he has the natural charm of someone who is descended from a long line of two preceding Count Strongs.

3 The Politics
I think it is impossible to discount this piece of evidence.  The two are identical, politcally.  Here is that evidence.  Read this spoof article from the website,, a satirical website hosted in America where the craziest and most stupid ideas are presented as if they were true.  Here, the writers behind Lord Christopher Monckton, have come up with a hilarious article that would be good enough for Punch, were Punch still a going concern.  To give you a flavour, let me quote a paragraph.  I am sure you will get the point:
The madness of the governing class has now infected even the normally quite sensible British courts. For 1,000 years, the High Court in London has been dispensing (or, depending on your point of view, dispensing with) justice. A few years back, it decided to rebrand itself the “Supreme Court.” Next year, no doubt, it will be calling itself the “Pangalactic Court.”
This normally staid and sensible body of custard-faced judges has now joined in the collective madness that is the global-warming scam. Lord Carnwath, a rabid environmentalist who has much the same opinion on climate change as Prince Charles (in a word, flaky), recently held an international conference of lawyers and judges on the theme of ganging up together to prosecute, convict and imprison scientists and researchers who, like me, commit the crime of conducting diligent scientific research and publishing the results in the learned journals from time to time.
In the future, if Lord Carbuncle gets his way, an inexpert panel of international judges will review our research and pronounce on the extent to which it conforms to the climate-communist party line he so passionately espouses. Those of us whose research dares to point out, for instance, that the data show no global warming for approaching 19 years even though one-third of man’s supposed warming influence since 1750 has occurred over the same period will be found to have committed truth-crime and we will be locked up.
Now watch this clip of Count Arthur Strong making a political speech and you will have to admit that the similarities are uncanny so close to identical as to be evidence of a conspiracy by the BBC

4  Current career
Lord Monckton's writers have given him a career of going to small halls and giving illustrated talks to bored housewives and those sheltering from the unseasonably extreme rainfall and/or heatwave.  The writers expect us to see his failure to live up to his ambition to be a scientific expert, legal expert and stand up comedian with the sympathy you normally reserve for those that have tried but failed and as still in reception class at infants school.
Strong earns his living these days, since no one will seriously employ him as an entertainer, giving talks about his heyday on stage and TV pilot shows.  You might notice that no one laughs at the jokes which fail miserably and we are asked, in the BBC reality show that follows him around with a camera crew, to be sympathetic to this rather lonely and sad character.

It is clear, then, that the BBC has based its reality series on the celebrated variety star and film and TV celebrity Count Arthur Strong on the fictional life of the bat shit crazy Lord Christopher Monckton.  Case closed.  Except to point out that "Lord Christopher Monckton" needs to be put into quotation marks.  It's what he would have wanted, if he existed.