Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Posts Tagged ‘Bad Science

Sammy Wilson MP – an ex-Environment Minister

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Apart from Graham Stinger (a former chemist) – and Classics graduate Lord Monckton (who has turned climate change scepticism into an art form) – all sceptical UK politicians have a background in economics and/or business. As it is the economic arguments against taking action to address ongoing climate change that seem most resistant to being repeatedly debunked by people like Sir Nicholas Stern, I suspect this is not a coincidence. Furthermore, apart from Graham Stringer, all but one of the openly-sceptical MPs in the UK is a Conservative Euro-sceptic as well (more on this tomorrow).

The only other non-Conservative is the Democratic Unionist Party’s Sammy Wilson MP, who is also a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Since Wilson is clearly very intelligent, and a very dedicated and successful politician, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that his sceptical views on climate change have been prejudiced by his acceptance of these economic arguments. Indeed, his faith in the rightness of his own judgement is clearly very strong but, just as we cannot all be better-than-average car drivers (Ben Goldacre), so at least 49% of us must have worse-than-average ability to be objective. Here is his story:

Sammy Wilson’s autobiographical entry on his website makes it clear that he has an economics background; and entered Parliament after a short but very successful career in the Education sector (and first entering public service as a Belfast City Councillor in 1981).

In June 2008, Wilson became Northern Ireland’s Environment Minister and, right from the start, was not afraid to make it clear he was “sceptical that all climate change is caused by CO2 emissions” (BBC News, 10 June 2008). Within months, not surprisingly perhaps, he was in trouble with green campaigners for describing their view on climate change as a “hysterical pseudo-religion“; adding that he believed it occurred naturally and was not man-made. However, he also said he believed that resources “should be used to adapt to the consequences of climate change, rather than King Canute-style vainly trying to stop it” (BBC News, 5 September 2008). On New Year’s Eve that year, despite ongoing criticism, he was still adamant that: “Spending billions on trying to reduce carbon emissions is one giant con that is depriving third world countries of vital funds to tackle famine, HIV and other diseases… I think in 20 years’ time we will look back at this whole climate change debate and ask ourselves how on earth were we ever conned into spending the billions of pounds which are going into this without any kind of rigorous examination of the background, the science, the implications of it all” (as reported in the Belfast Telegraph [emphasis mine]). Wilson, is clearly a believer in the UN/WMO/IPCC conspiracy theory of Fred Singer, Andrew Montford, and many others

As evidence of how the Internet enables comments by public figures in local government to be seized upon as legitimising propaganda by those with vested interests anywhere in the world, within a week, this interview was reproduced in full on an American website (i.e. the West Virginia Coal Association). However, within weeks, Wilson was also facing a vote of no confidence in the Northern Ireland assembly (BBC News, 12 Feb 2009); although the DUP leadership declared their continuing support for him. However, within months, Wilson had been moved to the Ministry of Finance and Personnel (BBC News, 22 June 2009).

One could be forgiven for thinking that Wilson just likes being controversial but, if so, surely he would have at least toned-down the rhetoric after being removed from his post as Environment Minister? However, quite the reverse is true. For example, in a New Year’s message to readers of his blog in 2011, he began by confusing weather and climate (as many others like Christopher Booker have also done); claimed that global warming has stopped (as trumpeted by numerous sceptical organisations in the US); and claimed that this “has caused the Global warming fanatics to hide, change and make up data to back their increasing threadbare theories of world climate”. Furthermore, his website retains a very full and frank summary of his views on the subject:
Our climate is changing; there is little doubt that global warming had taken place in the last 30 years of the 20th century. However actual evidence (not forecasted computer models) now shows us that the earth has actually been cooling since 1998. I dispute the theory, and it is only a theory, that the world is warming due to CO2 emissions and other human activity. Throughout the history of the earth temperatures have fluctuated, and we know this due to records which state that grapes used to be able to be grown in Scotland during Roman times and ice skaters could be seen on the Thames during the Victorian era. We have witnessed a period of global warming towards the end of the 20th century and we are now entering into a cooler period. These have occurred due to the natural variations in the temperature of the planet, not because of human activity.”

This is almost a verbatim repetition of the views of Dr S Fred Singer in Unstoppable Global Warming but, it does not matter how many times they are repeated, they are still wrong: What is now happening is not like anything that has happened before; because we humans are pumping at least 100 times more CO2 into the atmosphere than all the world’s volcanoes combined.

I think the main thing we can learn from all of this is that Wilson – and many others like him – is imprisoned by his own ideology; his adherence to Adam Smith’s free market economics (despite the fact that we do not live on the frontier to a New World of boundless opportunity) prejudices him against accepting that Garrett Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is unfolding in front of our eyes (because, in the absence of a New World frontier, the utopian fantasy of pursuing perpetual growth cannot have a happy ending).

MMR and MRSA – health scares and bowel movements

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My children are of such an age that they were due to get the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine in 1998 (just when Andrew Wakefield first got his research published). I am very glad we ignored the fuss and concluded it was best to get our children immunised. With regards to the MRSA (superbug) health scare (and E. Coli and Legionalla, etc.), I can vividly remember being absolutely petrified every time anyone I knew went into hospital.

Therefore, having lived through both of these health scares, imagine my surprise to read in the final chapters of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science that both the MMR and the MRSA health scares were entirely manufactured by journalists whose sole aim was to increase their readership! This is the scale of Goldacre’s claim and, as with everything else in his book, he backs it up with great wit and style (oh, and a lot of logic and evidence too).

Of course, once it became clear that the MMR game was up, the very same journalists then tried to blame the entire media circus on Wakefield. With regards to MRSA, it is very regrettable that the late Christopher Malyszewicz , the man responsible for obtaining all the false positive results in Chemsol Consulting’s laboratory (i.e. his garden-shed), was killed in an apparently-genuine car accident soon after his lack of suitable qualifications and methods came to light.

However, what can or should we learn from all this? Perhaps, we should not believe everything we read in the newspapers? May be. Personally-speaking, since I have never had the kind of job that requires me to commute into a large city on public transport, I gave up reading newspapers (if ever I did it at all) with the advent of Breakfast TV (and that’s mostly visual chewing-gum too)!

I think the really scary thing about all of this is the realisation of just how much psychological power and influence these journalists have; and even more scary, I think they know it. That is why so many of them are so very arrogant. Unfortunately, as Goldacre points out, those that are often the most arrogant are also the least well-qualified to comment.

Although withdrawal and/or cynicism is an understandable response, it would be far more constructive to develop the ability to critically assess all truth claims yourself. This is what studying science teaches you to do. The only problem with this idea is that we are all not scientists and, boy, are we paying a heavy price for the consequences!

I guess that we must hope that, emboldened by the evidence which continues to pour in – and by the pleas of people like the Government’s Chief Scientist Professor Sir John Beddington that we should be grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method — scientists will now stand up and make their voices heard…

Why am I saying all this? Well it is because of the nature of the people that many of these foolish journalists listen to: The same people that tried to tell us that smoking, organic pesticides, CFCs, and acid rain were not dangerous have, since at least 1992, been trying to tell the world that environmental concern is misplaced, misanthropic, anti-libertarian, and/or anti-progress. Therefore, I will never apologise for getting worked-up about this; because the future of billions of people depends on us all now deciding to pull our heads out of the sand; and take the issue of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) seriously.

Written by Martin Lack

28 September 2011 at 07:13

What are the roots of this financial crisis?

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As Europe lurches from one day of crisis to another, it is common to hear people ask “Where will it all end?” However, I think it is more important to ask “How did it all start?” With regard to the UK at least, I saw a television programme recently that included a large proportion of archive film/TV footage from the 1950’s, which indicated that with the end of rationing came also the beginning of HP. Unfortunately, this particularly HP was not a new spicy tomato sauce, it was hire purchase (otherwise known as easy “buy now pay later” credit).

I often used to think that my parents’ generation grew-up believing that (with the possible exception of houses) you should save-up for something and then buy it. However, for most people my age, it would seem that this mentality was that of their grandparents: Easy credit has, apparently, been around for longer than you might think but, you may well say, so what? Well, I think we are so accustomed to it that we don’t question it but, I believe this all-pervasive assumption that we should all have everything we want as soon as we want it (and the general experience of having those wants instantly satisfied) is the root cause of the current global financial crisis (and, I would argue, the environmental one too; but let’s not digress just yet).

It was this kind of thinking that prompted me, back in July, to post an item entitled, “Is global Capitalism heading for bankruptcy?” on my old Earthy Issues blog and; I must say, I am inclined to think it is because…
The illusion of [mankind’s] unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production… based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where this distinction matters most… A businessman would not consider a firm to have solved its problems of production and to have achieved viability if he saw that it was rapidly consuming its capital…” E.F. Schumacher, in Small is Beautiful (1973)

Therefore, to answer a question I posed in an earlier post, I think the campaign of denial began over 40 years ago; in the firestorm of abuse and ridicule to which Schumacher, and writers such as Paul Ehrlich, Garrett Hardin, Dennis Meadows, and William Ophuls were subjected. However their warning about Limits to Growth (i.e. a real appeal to reason) has never been falsified – it just has not been proven to be well-founded, until now. This was also predicted:
…the more successfully society puts off its limits through economic and technical adaptations, the more likely it is in the future to run into several of them at the same time… the [model] does not run out of land or food or resources or pollution absorption capacity, it runs out of the ‘ability to cope’ [i.e. too much industrial output has to be diverted to solving problems]…” (Meadows et al (2005), Limits to Growth: the 30 year update, p.223). The emphasis here is mine; but this is exactly what we have seen happen this year (from the Arab Spring onwards).

Former World Bank economist, Herman E Daly, once put it very simply: “The Earth may be developing; but it is not growing!” Thus, whether it be on a personal, national, or global level, the urgent need is the same; we need to start living within our means.

Written by Martin Lack

21 September 2011 at 06:30

The road to hell is paved with good inventions

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…that are not true!

Earlier this year, I posted a review of Prof. Ian Plimer’s most recent 500-page epic, Heaven and Earth: Global Warming – the Missing Science, on under the title “Nice book (cover) – shame about the facts!” I was not the only one to criticise it but, it is a sad indictment of the population as a whole that the average rating for the book is 4 stars; and nearly 60% of reviewers have given the book 5 stars (i.e. the top rating)!

Regrettably (for Plimer), the book is full of red-herrings, misinformation, and false claims. One of the most stupendously stupid claims made, especially given that the author was once a well-respected geologist, is that volcanoes emit more carbon dioxide (CO2) than humans; and that humans are therefore not the cause of global warming (note the implicit acceptance that CO2 is causing the atmosphere to warm up).

Therefore, in this month’s Geoscientist magazine Ian Plimer is heavily criticised for making this claim by Colin Summerhayes (the Vice President of the Geological Society); who cites the latest United States Geological Survey analysis as having concluded that, on an average annual basis, human activity is responsible for 135 times more CO2 emissions than all the world’s volcanoes (on land and underwater) combined.

Unfortunately, as with all denialist arguments, such misleading and/or false claims are often made but hardly-ever publicly retracted. Even more unfortunately, however, they are almost invariably seized upon by scientifically-illiterate commentators such as Christopher Booker, James Delingpole, and Melanie Philips; who also never admit they are wrong – even when subsequent research shows the original claims to have been wrong – and guess who the majority of people depend upon to make their minds up about stuff like this…

That’s right… Hence the overwhelmingly-positive customer review data on! It really is a case of the blind leading the blind and, yes, unless they can be stopped, we all (blind and sighted alike) are going to end up in a very hot place.

This is just one example of how misinformation has been stated, circulated, and endlessly repeated. However, one day it will have to stop (just as it did with the pro-smoking propaganda). Like a wildfire started with one little spark by an arsonist, climate change denial can, at times, seem like an unstoppable force but, with extreme weather of all kinds now becoming more frequent (just as the IPCC predicted), I think its days are numbered. At least, I really do hope they are numbered, because it is already two years since it became the widely-accepted view amongst relevantly-qualified experts that emissions reductions (alone) are not the answer.

This is because the cumulative total of emissions determine the eventual temperature rise we will see (by the latter half of this century). Therefore, we must move towards a zero carbon economy as soon as possible: If you consider the cumulative total to be the area under a line on a graph then it becomes clear that the later we leave it to take action, the faster we will have to reduce emissions to prevent the same amount of eventual climatic change.

AGW – What would Jesus do?

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Amongst Christians, it is a popular past-time to ask “What would Jesus do?” But let’s be a little more PC about this… What would Muhammad, or King Solomon, or Buddha, or Confucius do? In fact, what would Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, or John Locke do? Bringing things right up-to-date – so as not to exclude secular humanists – what would Richard Dawkins, Stephen J Gould, Carl Sagan, or Edward O. Wilson do?… [N.B. Although we certainly have not always done so, in the last 40 years the majority of people have come to accept that we do actually have a problem but, even if you do not, will you humour me for a moment; and read on?]…

In Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, a super-computer is famously programmed to provide an answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” If we were to programme a set of computers with the entire written records of each one of the above great thinkers, alongside a summation of the AGW problem, what answer (i.e. solution) would they come up with? Hopefully, it would be something more useful than “42”!

Let’s take the weirdness a little further, let’s say computer geeks crack the problem of Artificial Intelligence, and let’s say our computers are actually robots… What would happen if we locked them in a room and told them they had to reach a two-thirds majority decision on a course of action? What solution(s) would they propose?

One thing I think we can be sure of is this: If the marketplace of ideas had demanded that robots programmed with the thinking of people like Senator James Inhofe and “interpreter of interpretations” James Delingpole had also been allowed into the room; they would be ejected for being illogical (or blow-up trying to compute the data). So then, as before, that leaves us with all the world’s great thinkers, what course of action would they propose?

Of course, no-one can know, but one thing I am fairly certain of is this, they would not reach the conclusion that there is no cause for concern; and no need to act!

I know that it will come as unwelcome news to some (influenced by Dr. S. Fred Singer and Chartered Accountant Andrew Montford) to discover that this is in fact exactly what the IPCC was asked to do. The IPCC was not asked to come up with a plan to stall Western development, halt human progress, and facilitate worldwide authoritarian government. It was asked to try and come up with a plan to decouple environmental degradation from worldwide economic development.

Our biggest problem today remains (as ever it was) that those with a vested interest in the continuance of business as usual continually seek to water-down IPCC reports (so that they are not too challenging); and to downplay, deny or dismiss the scale or immediacy of the problem we face.

However, although the long night of deception has lasted between 20 and 40 years (depending on whether you think the campaign started in 1972 or 1992), I think dawn is fast approaching. The only trouble is that we may no longer have enough time to limit the damage in the way we once could have done. At a book launch for Requiem for a Species, given at the University of Queensland on 24 March 2010, Clive Hamilton put it this way:
The presence of feedback effects and tipping points calls into question some of the most fundamental assumptions of climate change negotiations, including the belief that we can ‘overshoot’ to, say, 550 ppm and then work back to 450 ppm…, that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere can be stabilised at some level, and the belief that we can adapt to some given degree of warming.” (p.11 of 17)

Conspiracy theory – History for losers

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So says David Aaronovitch in Voodoo Histories – and he is absolutely right. (For the benefit of new readers, David Aaronovitch is an old favourite of mine but let’s not digress; unless you want to)…

In 2007, the American Physical Society (APS) decided to get off the fence and endorse the need for action to mitigate AGW; and 260 of its 48,000 members (by conventional maths that is just over 0.5%) have subsequently complained. Unfortunately, simple maths was apparently insufficient reason for influential British sceptical politicians like the Rt Hon Peter Lilley MP to choose to ignore such protests. On the contrary, he highlighted this protest in Parliament citing it as legitimate reason to question the scientific consensus that human activity is indeed affecting global climate.

The Institute of Physics (IOP) got into a similar mess after asking Energy Consultant (founder of Crestport Services) Peter Gill (just possibly prejudiced in favour of the continuance of “business as usual”?) to compile a highly sceptical submission (e.g. claiming that “Unfortunately, for many people [AGW] has become a religion, so facts and analysis have become largely irrelevant”) to the Parliamentary Select Committee investigating the UEA/CRU email scandal. The whole fiasco left the IOP looking very foolish indeed.

And yet, these losers will not (it seems) give up.

As a first step towards realising their folly, they could all do a lot worse that read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science because the continuing existence of AGW denial can only be explained by the fact that its proponents are guilty of one or more of the fundamental mistakes Goldacre highlights in his book (see my previous post yesterday). Furthermore, he is therefore right to conclude that… “You cannot reason someone out of a position they did not reason themself into”.

Written by Martin Lack

8 September 2011 at 11:58

How to be a climate change ‘sceptic’

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Washington and Cook - Climate Change DenialIf I have not said it before, the reason sceptic is inside quotation marks is because I take the view, as do Clive Hamilton, Peter Jacques, and David MacKay, that those who deny anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) are not sceptics at all.

As a consequence of this, my (MA in Environmental Politics) dissertation (researching climate change scepticism in the UK) included a threefold theoretical background, as summarised (on my old blog) as follows:
1. The philosophical roots of scepticism;
2. The political misuse of scepticism; and
3. The psychology of denial.

All of this leads me to offer readers this easy-to-use guide on “How to be a climate change ‘sceptic'”, as follows:
1. Assume everything you have been told by authority figures is a lie.
2. Assume, even though you are not an expert, that you know best.
3. Allow confirmation bias to prevent you from considering any information that might alert you to the fact that you are suffering from cognitive dissonance (i.e. “It is hard to convey just how selective you have to be to dismiss the evidence for climate change. You must climb over a mountain of evidence to pick up a crumb: a crumb which then disintegrates in your palm. You must ignore an entire canon of science, the statements of the world’s most eminent scientific institutions, and thousands of papers published in the foremost scientific journals…”George Monbiot, 10 May 2005).
4. Continue asserting your individual human rights whilst simultaneously ignoring your collective human responsibilities.
5. Maintain a utilitarian attitude to the environment (i.e. “use it up and wear it out”) despite mounting evidence to indicate that the ecological carrying capacity of planet Earth (w.r.t. humans at least) has already been exceeded.
6. Accuse anyone who asserts that there is cause for concern and/or an urgent need for radical action to mitigate humanity’s impact on the planet as being any or all of the following:- anti-human, anti-libertarian, anti-progress, anti-Western, and/or in favour of a new global socialist world government (“which is what the UN is all about, init!”).

In his book, ”Bad Science”, Ben Goldacre says that proponents of pseudoscience have succeeded in making people think science is impenetrable. However, the truth may be even more insidious because, by awakening people to the fact that they are regularly being lied to, these peddlers of pseudoscience have in fact contributed to – if not caused – a much more widespread distrust of science and all scientific authority.

Therefore, I would humlby suggest that claiming that humanity is not the cause of climate change is even more stupid – and even more dangerous – than claiming (as did Thabo Mbeki for a long time) that HIV is not the cause of AIDS.

Written by Martin Lack

7 September 2011 at 17:20


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