17 February 2010

Advertising Agency

This is nothing to do with the Anomaly advertising agency. It's not my fault; I've been writing under this heading since 2003, and on this site since 2004. Paul Graham formed the Anomaly UK advertising agency in 2009 (Britannica). Note, that's not the same Paul Graham that I've written about previously, the technologist and essayist.

I write here about politics: mostly these days about the problems of democracy itself. There's a kind of summary here

Much more interesting than some advertising agency, which if you really want you can find here

13 February 2010

The Hockey Stick Illusion

I've just finished The Hockey Stick Illusion. I bought it partly out of duty - I was doing my bit by buying Bishop Hill's book and adding to its circulation figures. I didn't expect it to be so good.

One of the things that puts me off public debate generally is that, whatever the forum, it is always too shallow to reach any kind of conclusion. "I think X". "Well, I think Y.", "But X is true because of A". "Ah but you're ignoring B". "Well, C means... oh dear, is that the time, I must be going".

The Hockey Stick Illusion is not about climate. It is not about environmentalism. It is not about science. It is not about global warming. It is 482 pages about one paper published in 1998, criticisms of it, defences of it, attempted replications of and alternatives to it. As such, almost uniquely, it goes into sufficient detail and depth that having read it I feel that I've actually learned something. It's exceptionally well-written, modest in its approach, and overwhelming in its conclusion. Halfway through, I got a little bogged down in the sheer overkill of the weight of damage the hockey stick suffers - did I really need to read any more? But then I read the Phil Jones interview. There is much debate over whether the Medieval Warm Period was global in extent or not. That is an answer to the only question that Montfort's book asks, and it is the right answer, and it is from one of those people who was most determinedly defending the wrong answer until last year. This is what a won argument looks like - gaze on it in wonder, for it is a rare thing indeed in the world of soundbites and opinion polls.

As to the wider debate, well, this was one small point. The hockey stick can be wrong, and every other claim of the warmists right. But it is immensely valuable, because of the context I have been describing recently. It proves we can be right, even when the warmists are at their most shrill insisting that we are utterly, insanely wrong. It is evidence that, even if we are wrong, we are playing the game, and are entitled to be taken seriously and not shouted down or excluded.

I strongly recommend this book.

08 February 2010

Scientists' Fear

In my previous post on the future durability of the AGW scare, I mentioned the reason why scientists tend not to view climate sceptics as presenting a legitimate scientific viewpoint. I took the opportunity of a wild kick at my other favourite target, democracy:

"If scientists treat creationists and the like with respect, and argue honestly and fairly, they will be screwed by elected politicians."

Because I was off on a tangent, and not giving the argument the separate post that it deserves, I didn't provide any evidence that this attitude really exists among scientists.

As it happens, I picked up Dawkins' "The God Delusion" from the library at the weekend. Imagine my smug self-satisfaction, then, when I read the following this morning on page 91

In parts of the United States, science is under attack from a well-organized, politically well-connected and, above all, well-financed opposition, and the teaching of evolution is in the front-line trench. Scientists could be forgiven for feeling threatened, because most research money comes ultimately from government, and elected representatives have to answer to the ignorant and the prejudiced, as well as to the well-informed, among their constituents.

Dawkins is putting that forward as an excuse for scientists to make public statements that they don't believe - in this case for being overly sympathetic to Christianity, in order to keep moderate Christians as allies against creationists. He considers it an insufficient excuse - "The real war is between rationalism and superstition", but he believes that some scientists are concealing their real views for tactical reasons in the war against fundamentalists and "elected representatives". I think he is right.

The fundamental point, which I've touched on on a number of occasions, is that if you want to be a scientist in a democracy, where "most research money comes ultimately from the government", as Dawkins says, then you have to be a bit of a politician. That comes through just as strongly in Phil Jones' cri de coeur in today's Times - "I am just a scientist. I have no training in PR or dealing with crises."

I really don't believe that more than one in ten of the warmist scientists would spin, lie and conspire in the way they have just to support their pet theory against scientific opponents - even with the stakes as high as they are in terms of funding and career opportunities. They would see that as a betrayal of science, and their consciences would not allow it.

But The Discovery Institute is not a scientific opponent - it is an anti-scientific opponent. Its dishonesty and ulterior motives disqualify it from participating in the normal scientific process according to the normal rules, and in dealing with it, scientists subordinate the scientific process to political tactics.

The key fact about the climate debate is that, because of where the initial scepticism came from, many scientists saw it in the same light as intelligent design. As I wrote yesterday, once they had made that assumption, they were trapped: if you believe your opponents are enemies of science, then stronger arguments from the enemy spur you not to greater doubt, but to greater determination. Also, since the more politically aware bodies in science closed ranks against climate sceptics, they found support largely among that minority more accustomed to working with the political right. The association of climate sceptics with minor right-wing think tanks and a Republican senator confirms in the mainstream scientists the view that they are dealing with a political enemy, not a scientific opponent.

I wrote in my giving-up-on-politics post, "not only do my good arguments not win against my opponents' bad arguments, my good arguments do not even win against my allies' bad arguments."

The problem that causes is that the arguments most likely to persuade the public that you are right, are likely at the same time to persuade the well-informed that you are wrong.

We are seeing the knock-on effect of that situation. In order to win over the ignorant and indifferent, prominent people on both sides of the dispute are employing arguments that are weak, irrelevant, or downright dishonest. Such techniques achieve successes, but at the cost, on both sides, of convincing the opponents more strongly of their own rightness. And, both convinced of their own rightness and dismayed by their opponents' undeserved popular successes, each side becomes more unscrupulous still in response.

The really difficult question is; does all this mean that the scientists were wrong to 'go political' over evolution? Once they had arrogated to themselves the right to decide that evolution was true and they needed to do whatever was necessary to keep teaching it, was an overreaching such as is happening over climate inevitable?

I don't have to answer that question - I can just blame the problem on democracy, the only system which makes convincing the ignorant and indifferent an essential part of everything from studying the climate to putting on a museum exhibition.

06 February 2010

Views changing?

Via JoNova, there has been a large shift in opinion against global warming in the UK.

There has been a lot of triumphalism on the sceptic side - James Delingpole talking about the "imminent death of the AGW scam", and so on - but I think it is misplaced.

I would guess that the surge in scepticism in Britain owes a lot more to the exceptionally hard winter than to the revelations from East Anglia or the antics of Pachauri, none of which have made very much impact on the public.

The cold winter is not insignificant, of course. It may be just normal variation, but the popular presentation of AGW has mysteriously ignored the fact that the temperature changes they are talking about are barely even measurable, and nowhere near enough to actually notice compared to ordinary year-to-year variation. Therefore, while a cold winter in Britain tells us nothing about climate change as described in the journals, it is a clear falsification of global warming as it has been presented by the media since the 1990s

That is why the media has been uncharacteristically open to both sides during the present kerfuffle. Various scientists are scrambling, not for sake of the movement, but for their own jobs. The movement itself can just sit this out and wait. The IPCC isn't going away (even if Pachauri does), nor are the politicians who have made climate concern a key part of their image. They'll wait until summer, and if they get a warm one in the USA and Britain, they'll crank up the machine again. They won't bother arguing the toss about tree-rings, Indian glaciers or Chinese weather stations, they'll just brush it all off as petty troublemaking in the face of the overwhelming threat. And the media will take sides, as they always do, on the basis of which politicians they want to gain and which they want to lose from the whole process.

The exposure of climate science's guilty secrets, then, will not stop the process in the short term. In the long run, it may have an effect. As I discussed before, it has allowed some people who never believed the exaggerations to say so in public. This in turn may persuade a future generation of politicians that global warming is not what they want to attach their reputations to. For the Obama/Cameron/Milliband generation, it is too late. In a democracy, being indecisive is worse than being wrong, and they cannot afford to change their positions now. But the next decade's politicians are constructing their positions now, and the choices they make will drive the media landscape of the 2020s.

Ironically, one of the biggest causes of the original AGW error cascade, as Eric Raymond calls it, was George W Bush. For the rank and file in the world's science departments, Bush was pretty much the most despised figure in history, because of his association with fundamentalist Christianity and the resulting policies, above all against Stem Cell research. To the typical scientist, the theory that the president was attacking climate science because he was in league with oil interests was so intrinsically likely that it wouldn't make sense to even question it. This was the man who prohibited park rangers from denying young-earth creationism at the Grand Canyon. From that point on, any criticism at all of global warming was presumptively an attack on science itself on behalf of religion and commerce and was to be dealt with on that basis, not studied and reasoned with as if it was part of a real scientific debate. The controversy fell into the pattern of the evolution/creation controversy, rather than the pattern of arguments over Dark Matter or Psychoanalysis. That attitude still persists, and will be very hard to shift, because once it is established, then evidence which strengthens the deniers, while it might start to persuade some of the faithful, will produce in most of the faithful a renewed determination to defeat the anti-science enemy which has become more dangerous through the unfortunate developments which have increased its appeal. Thus the error cascade is perpetuated.

The difficult thing is that I sympathise with these people. I can understand why they are doing what they are doing, and I can't see a way to shake them out of it. They have learned over the decades that if they treat creationists and the like with respect, and argue honestly and fairly, they will be screwed by elected politicians. And they are applying that lesson. If they didn't just happen to be wrong, they would be doing the right thing.