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.


  1. Some excellent points in here. I particularly like the sly dig about Northern Rock (essentially 'I showed regulations didn't work by not following them!').

    Using a public commentator's claims re. the temperature reconstruction or hockey stick graph as a rapid test to see if they know what they're talking about is also a good point. One could probably do the same with the stolen CRU emails, though there's less of a scientific case there.

    Finally, individuals rarely go off the rails in an instant. It would be instructive to read Ridley's earlier work on biology to see if the signs of his future collapse were there. His recent 'creative' retelling of the history of modern science and technology in the Wall Street Journal, essentially that publicly-funded science is unnecessary (since the Market will do), is another.

    1. I read The Origins Of Virtue and The Red Queen many years ago and bought a cheap copy of Nature Vs Nurture but never read it. Pinker had a similar book out at the same time and I read that instead. I could dig those books out and see what he says. I remember he had a slightly contrarian column with the Telegraph in the 90s. I will try a more in depth look at the evolution of his views in the near future if I have the time (big family commitment this week - granddaughter is having an operation - so might be too busy. We'll see.

  2. Come now, Ridley has been marinated in upper class capitalism since he was born, how do you think he owns those coal mines? Then after university he worked for the Economist, which wants you to think it is a bastion of free thought and evidence, but in reality isn't. I've seen many people, of all political stripes, say that they used to read it but find it was a bit wrong on their specialist topic; said people eventually realised that if they got their topic wrong, what else were they getting wrong.

    The only difference with Ridley now is that he is being open about his politics. He wasn't before, but all the evidence is that he was just as right wing market worshipping decades ago as now. It would be useful if someone familiar with the field could go through the Origins of virtue and the Red queen and see if they are slanted, I expect they are.

  3. Having read the INdependent review, despite the author of it saying that people should read the book, there really is no need to do so. Anyone who actually has looked into how the world works at different levels, as well as the history of science and of politics, knows that bottom up can work well.
    What it is important to remember is that top down authoritarian approaches are deliberately undertaken to smother bottom up approaches that do not meet the demand of the powerful (I just read that Portugals fair and free elections are now being overruled by the president because some left wing parties make the majority); on the left there is an entire history of libertarianism and anarchism which the labour party was at pains to ignore and destroy, as were the bolsheviks. And the Tories and their ilk, despite what they want you to think, are very definitely authoritarian centrists too.

    Mind you it might be interesting to see if democracy and self determination are discussed in Ridley's book. Or maybe externalisms, such as CO2...

  4. My memory of the Origin Of Virtue is that it was quote libertarian in tone. Ridley loves Dawkins but doesn't follow the same slightly left of centre tone that Dawkins does. Ridley is definitely overt about his political feelings now but one wonders what his feelings are about anti vaccine sites which use the same arguments as places like WattsUpWithThat and are just as wrong.

    1. If it were possible to approach and debate Ridely, asking about vaccines would be one way to calibrate his approaches to non-science. It is likely that he's a denialist out of the psychological need to not challenge his deeply held beliefs. But it is also likely that he thinks anti-vaccinationists are lunatics.

      There's a good guardian article now about Ridley's dodgy beliefs:

  5. I can't help wondering if this is supposed to be a spoof.
    "I haven't read the book but.. " comes up three times.
    Followed by, here's what some people who share my ideology say about it, so I'm going to unquestioningly parrot what they say.

    1. Not a spoof as such, but I was spoofing people who do that. And not my ideology either. I think I said that I had some sympathy with the thesis Ridley outlines - I am not sure governments are always best in this circumstance. But I also know that Ridley has blinkered himself. Ridley is just too simplistic in this matter. Go to Respectful Insolence and see what Orac thinks. I think the fact that so many reviews, including the right wing, libertarian, Ridley publishing Spectator agree that his book is a flaw with the book and not with my ideology or whatever.