Tuesday 15 December 2009

Climate-Science and Conspiracy

“I am very happy to affirm that I am not a giant expert on climate change: I know a bit, and I know that there’s not yet been a giant global conspiracy involving almost every scientist in the world (although I’d welcome examples).” — Ben Goldacre. [1]

One can hardly trust the integrity, or else the intelligence, of someone who would cast the matter in so flippant and so adversely-framed a fashion, but it seems instrumentally, though not morally, to be the best strategy left to those who still wish to defend an obvious example of bad science.
.....It is ironic that Ben Goldacre, who has made a journalistic career out of professing to be against bad science, would speak in favour of a magnificent and glaring example of it, though we should hardly be surprised. He is another small example of why posterity, if there might still be a sapient and merry remnant of it, will laugh its head off.
.....The dichotomy which Mr Goldacre sets up is clear: either one believes it likely that the science of global warming is valid, or else one believes it likely that there is a global conspiracy, involving almost every scientist in the world, to conceal its invalidity. I can suggest a dichotomy of my own: either Mr Goldacre lacks the intelligence to understand that relatively few scientists in the world are actually involved in generating the claims of climate-science; that a few of those few in that sub-field of science have influence over the  direction of research; that all of those few find it conducive or even necessary to their careers to profess a belief in a certain theory; that some other scientists who stand outside that sub-field may be inclined to give credence to its claims; and that a sub-field of science, or even the whole field of science itself, can be warped or corrupted at various levels in many simple, subtle, and all-too-plausibly-human ways; — or he is employing a contemptible strategy designed to suggest that his opponents must believe in something highly implausible, if not absurd: something like a worldwide network and active conspiracy amongst hundreds of thousands of glint-eyed scientists all laughing madly in their secret conferences at the vast deception that they are knowingly perpetrating. But perhaps my dichotomy is a false one too. Perhaps it is a trichotomy: it could be that Mr Goldacre is none too bright, or that he is a scoundrel, or that he is both.
.....If we were to judge the success or validity of scientific theories by the number of occasions, and the degree of enthusiasm, by which they were proclaimed to be unquestionable truths as held by the vast majority of genuine and reputable scientists, then we might rightly say that the theory of anthropogenic global warming has been a very successful one, perhaps second only to Lysenkoism. But maybe Mr Goldacre finds incredible the claim that the science of biology in the Soviet Union was for many years subverted by a quack-theory. I mean, fancy believing that all the scientists of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the Soviet Union — every one of them reputable by its power to define them as such — were involved in a conspiracy against genuine scientific research! Or perhaps it was mostly that a vast public-bureaucratic government, much like our own, involving ideologies and ambitious men, much like our own, was able to kill a science and let a zombie-science arise in its place. Either way — preposterous!
.....Sarcasm aside, in suggesting the high implausibility of a global conspiracy of hundreds of thousands of witting members, I do not mean to imply that there have been no conspiracies in the case of climate-science. Clearly there have been. Some scientists have conspired in various ways to deceive a large number of scientists and non-scientists alike. Of that we know for sure. Thereto alone it is somewhat irrelevant the extent or proportion to which they were informed by benevolence, malice, hopes for large dinners, or anything else. The question of benevolence, malice, or anything else, is addressed largely to the motive-content of conspiracies, and is at a tangent to the mere fact of their existence. [2] Other conspiracies, each formed for whatever reasons and interests, some fleeting and trivial,  some long-lasting and serious, we may well suspect to exist at higher and lower levels of significance and influence. Great power and wealth are to be had and social maneuvers to be made — with the usual agent involved: a clever and aggressive species of hairless ape.
.....There is nothing surprising in the mere fact of the existence of conspiracies, or rather, there is nothing more surprising therein than that groups of school-children, company-executives, or marketing-men conspire against particular rivals and against the general outgroup, the scope whereof may extend to the public at large. To adapt a phrase from Robert Michels: who says organisation, says conspiracy.
.....Most conspiracies are largely insignificant or petty, simply occurring as natural and frequent aspects of any group-life. Some, of course, can be grander or more significant, as is clear in the case of climate-science. The most pertinent questions in this regard are about their nature and aims, their size and scope, and the relative degrees of their deliberate and systematic aspects, wherewith one ought not to make oneself prey to, nor indeed be put off by, the silliest and the unfairest connotations which tend nowadays to be associated with the word.
.....The fairly-recent and widespread refusal to believe in conspiracies, which, as I say, are in varying degrees of significance natural aspects of all groups and organizations, testifies to the increasing inability on the part of millions to think without having their thoughts subverted and overthrown by unnecessary connotations; for this refusal does come mostly by way of cravenness in the face of the justifiable fear that one will be called a nutcase in acknowledging any state of affairs to which the word “conspiracy” is rightly and significantly applicable. It seems that the word “conspiracy” cannot be taken in a prosaic sense by most people anymore; they must take it in a grand sense, by a few in reference to their own grand claims of conspiracy, and by most in mockery of any claim thereof.
.....One might have expected that the experience of the playground, in which some groups of children conspire against other groups of children, would have been enough to give most people a life-long understanding of the nature of social reality; but it seems that at some time or other in their lives the species of wit native to them, a species educable by experience, is overrun by an interloping foreign species of faux-sophisticated cretinism. A world of fools can be turned into a world of morons by selling them the idea that moronic disbelief is rational and enlightened detachment.
.....Anyway, in the absence of credible evidence, it is trivially true, of course, that the climate of the earth might be changing outside its natural pattern due to human interference, but then it is trivially true that the Zarboks of Planet Nasquib might at this very moment be pointing a giant laser-gun at the earth, ready to blast it to smithereens. But let us conspire to keep this latter possibility a secret amongst ourselves. We do not wish to give governments or corporations any more bright ideas. Inter-stellar battle-fleets are expensive to build, I hear, and no doubt Al Gore would need to be involved.

[1] Ben Goldacre, “Climate change? Well, we’ll be dead by then”, The Guardian, 12th December 2009.
[2] It is a fairly good adage that one should never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence, so long as it is not misapplied or made into a mind-emptying mantra. (The case is similar with Occam’s Razor, which is perhaps the most popularly-misunderstood and abused principle of all time.)

Saturday 12 December 2009

Tiresome Joke

“Staggering across the fringes of the [Copenhagen] summit are the people who will see their countries live or die on the basis of its deliberations. . . . Dazed Chinese and Indian NGOs explain how the Himalayan ice is rapidly vanishing and will be gone by 2035 — so the great rivers of Asia that are born there will shrivel and cease.” [1] 

Staggering? Dazed? Maybe it was the booze and the tedium of the keynote-presentations, or perhaps Johann Hari is just making things up again. Glad to say, however, that I very seldom read anything by Mr Hari: he is a bad joke endlessly repeating itself, faintly amusing on the first reading or two, but soon growing tiresome; but I do wonder if he has ever made a pretence at truthful reportage that hasn’t been immediately exposed as laughable fancy by his own ill-judged hyperbole:— laughable, I say, at first.

[1] Johann Hari, “Leaders of the rich world are enacting a giant fraud”, The Independent, 11th December 2009. (At least the title of his article alludes inadvertently to the state of affairs.)

The Argument from Haughtiness

Edward Feser has touched on the matter of haughtiness in philosophy [1] and how it may overwhelm rational commitment and truthfulness, such that there is a refusal to admit simple or obvious mistakes; and he has reminded me of something that J.R. Lucas wrote:
“When I started philosophy, Logical Positivism was very much in vogue, and my tutor tried hard to get me to believe the Verification Principle. So I asked him whether it was a tautology, perhaps showing some new meaning being given to ‘proposition’, or ‘meaningful’, so that only some selected instances could be accorded the favour of being thus described. He said No. Was the Verification Principle, then, an empirical proposition, discovered by careful research in which lots and lots of propositions had been examined, and none found to be meaningful except those that were analytic or empirical. He admitted, albeit a trifle reluctantly, that no such research had been carried out. In that case, I concluded triumphantly, the Verification Principle, if it were true, was itself meaningless, hoist by its own petard. He did not think it a very good argument, and told me to try harder to believe.” [2]
Herewith a little sketch of an argument:

I. It goes without saying that I am a very clever and careful analytical philosopher.
II. Very clever and careful analytical philosophers, such as I, do not make or accept obvious mistakes.
III. It goes without saying that I do not make or accept obvious mistakes.
IV. Anyone who does not recognise the obvious truth of (III), which logically follows from the obvious truths of (I) and (II), is making an obvious mistake.
V. Anyone who claims that I have made or accepted an obvious mistake is (a) making an obvious mistake and is (b) not a very clever or careful analytical philosopher. [From II, III, and IV.]
VI. Very clever and careful analytical philosophers, such as I, ought to dismiss as unworthy of consideration the obviously-mistaken claims of not very clever or careful analytical philosophers.
VII. I ought to dismiss as unworthy of consideration any claim made by anyone that I have made or accepted an obvious mistake. [From V and VI.]

[1] Edward Feser, “Rosenberg Responds to his Critics”, Edward Feser (weblog), 10th December 2009; last paragraph. Therein also: “in contemporary academic philosophy, what is grounds for failing an undergraduate paper can be Festschrift material for a professional.”
[2] J.R. Lucas, “A Simple Exposition of Gödel’s Theorem”, A Talk at King’s College, London, October 1996, reproduced online at the website of J.R. Lucas.

Tuesday 8 December 2009


“Copenhagen is poised to achieve a profound historical transformation: reversing the road we have travelled for 200 years.” [1]

I regret to note that the prime minister does not have in mind the overthrow of public-bureaucratic government and the restoration of the ancien régime. Unfortunately the one-eyed klepto-visionary is having another fit of “moral passion” at the prospect of “a great global project of mutual ambition”, [2] which of course is forward down the road which we have been urged to travel by the self-declared friends of humanity for the last two-hundred years. Well, he calls it “moral passion”, whatever that means, but to me it seems more like the slavering of a butcher’s dog when sensing that dinner-time is approaching at last.

[1] Gordon Brown, “Copenhagen must be a turning point. Our children won’t forgive us if we fail”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 6th December 2009.
[2] Ibid.

Sunday 6 December 2009

Lifting the Benighting Mist

“Queenie understands the drabness of Britain without immigration and grabs her chance of excitement, defiant of the heart-breaking consequences. The real point of diversity, on television and in life, is not that [it] is correct but that it is vibrant.” [1]

It seems that, for thousands of years, Europe was burdened with unremitting drabness, its hideous peoples condemned to unvibrant lives; but that now the dark ages are over, and the present age is yielding ever more to a bright future whereunder the benighting mist of the dullest and most hideous race on earth will finally lift to reveal a sunlit land of vibrant diversity. Praise the gods — or buy a Kalashnikov.

[1] Sarah Sands, “See why diversity works – switch on your set”, The Independent on Sunday, 6th December 2009. (“Vibrant and diverse” — the gibber of mass-insanity.)

Tuesday 1 December 2009


Today the Lisbon Treaty came into force, and so, in a humble way, I should just like to mark this great occasion by swearing undying enmity to the European Union.