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Sunday, 11 September 2011

I Have the Best Daughters-in-Law

There is no doubt that Carrie thinks more quickly than I do. Blogging suits me better than Oxford Union debates would.

For more than a year I have been trying to deal with a quick riposte of hers. I had been going on about "improbabilities" in the Darwinian account. "What is more improbable than me?" she demanded. For what it is worth, my answer is: "Improbable though you are, you are."

Red is Carrie – Blue is me.

I have read quite a bit of your blog now, and while there are many details I'm tempted to take issue with (in a loving sort of way!), I'll restrain myself and try instead to look at the broad themes that seem to inform the way you approach your chosen topics. I trust you'll tell me if I'm wide of the mark.

A major theme throughout your posts - actually the only one I can identify that connects issues as wide-ranging as medical science, climate change, economic policy, evolution and Catholicism - is a sense that you are standing up for minority arguments that you think are under-represented in the public sphere; or at least, under-represented in the particular public discourse which is dominant among PLU in the UK. In general, I think that taking seriously those with non-conformist views is a vital intellectual and moral exercise. Everyone would do well to do more of it. However, if you are going to throw your weight behind them, I think you really have to be precise about why you are doing it. And this is where I sometimes can't follow....

There is nothing in this that I would disagree with, except to say that I'm doing it because "Good Science" destroys "Bad Science". Observation trumps computer models every time.

I see myself as standing up for points of view that are deliberately misrepresented by many high-profile opinion makers. Two examples will have to do here. One: the consistent charge of "creationism" levelled by some Darwinians against ID theorists. I have blogged about Michael Ruse. Two: the enduring myth that there is a quarrel between Christians and Scientists; that there was a great battle and the Scientists won. Most Christians in 1859 had little objection to Darwin and his theory – it was his scientific contemporaries who disagreed. My objection to Darwinism is completely independent of my Catholicism.

Two things I would like to table in this regard:

First, the importance of distinguishing moral debates from factual debates.

I'm not quite sure about this. Facts and Morals inhabit different domains; but Logic rules in both.

Second, the fascinating study of innovation in general - how new ideas surface and overpower old ones, sometimes through a process of "creative destruction" that naturally involves overcoming the resistance of the incumbent ideas (and their proponents and institutional support). This is a field you will find extremely interesting if, as I suspect, you haven't discovered it already.


So, to the first point. As a lawyer I have been sensitised to this because my job - like any good political blog - requires me to make strong statements about things I only partially understand. In building a case therefore, the first task is to determine which questions of fact have to be farmed out to experts - people who really do understand, say, the dynamics of explosive blasts in an industrial accident, if that is the subject of litigation. Once the factual arguments are established (and, for any complex issue of causation, many of these will be arguments rather than irrefutable statements of fact), then these are embedded in the legal case. For example, when x did y, there was a z per cent chance that q would result (factual - physics). Due to her expertise in the field, x should have known this (factual - professional standard). As a matter of law, x is therefore liable for outcome q (legal - liability threshold test). Furthermore, it would be morally outrageous if x could get away with causing q and the victims remain uncompensated (moral narrative).


Of course, when one is forming opinions about the world, one cannot always be so precise. But the basic point is still valid: if you make a statement that involves a factual argument that you are not qualified to make yourself, then you have to rely on someone else for that input. You have to demonstrate that you're aware you are relying on someone else, and justify why you have chosen that person - the more controversial their testimony, the more the onus is on you to explain your choice.


Once you've cited your sources, you can go on to make moral statements that build on this factual basis (i.e., z per cent chance is actually so low that for the following moral considerations, x shouldn't be liable...). But the distinction is paramount. So when you say you think the consensus view on climate change is rubbish, say who you're relying on and why you think they are a more reliable source for scientific information than the IPCC. If you don't, that's one step more that someone with a different view will have to take before they can engage in a debate with you, and that's a barrier to engagement.

See below.

I suspect, by the way, that you'll find it isn't the science you can actually take issue with, but the political consequences advocated by people with a different political outlook - their view of what constitutes a sensible level of precaution in the face of great uncertainty, their view of justice, their view perhaps on cultural guilt. All of these things are interesting angles, and they benefit a lot by not being muddled up with the many and complex factual questions that underlie them.

True, I am sure that the economic/political consequences of spending unimaginably huge amounts of money to achieve unimaginably tiny effects are already having and will continue to have disastrous effects. One example is that of paying huge subsidies to farmers to produce ethanol, thereby increasing the cost of food.

Climate Change Science.

The alarmists base their case on climate models rather than observation. In my view, this immediately makes their conclusions suspect. It is universally agreed that weather – let alone climate – is mind-bogglingly complex. We are all familiar with the chaos theory example of butterflies and hurricanes. It is that complex. When meteorologists fail reliably to predict the weather (with the help of super-computers) more than a few days in advance, then commonsense argues that extreme scepticism should be the order of the day.

Moreover, the modellers have produced graphs which eliminated the Mediaeval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. So, at least some of their conclusions are counterfactual – another reason for scepticism. They are condemned out of their own mouths. They have declared their determination to "get rid of" the MWP. They have admitted that it is a "travesty" that there is no warming at present. They promise to manipulate the peer review process to suppress research which calls their conclusions into question. They confess to using "tricks".

They allege that the consensus favours them, not a scientific argument. It may be that the majority of climate modellers are largely in agreement – people who adopt a common methodology are likely to come to similar conclusions; but they ignore the very large number of meteorologists who are doubtful. They resolutely ignore the observations which seem to demonstrate clearly that there is nothing unusual about the very modest warming which did take place in the twentieth century – mostly when carbon dioxide levels were much lower than they are now.

They draw graphs which seem to indicate that CO2 and higher temperatures go hand in hand. They disregard the conclusion that, because temperature changes go up before CO2 concentrations, it is more likely that the former causes the latter.

They intemperately smear their opponents by accusing them of being in the pay of "big-oil". The time to make that kind of accusation is after you have demolished the positions of your opponents.

There is more. But I will leave it to a later post.

1 comment:

  1. Chris

    There are two issues here:

    1. Is the world heating up?

    2. If so what is causing it?

    It is a fact that there is a higher concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere than there was 30 years ago. Currently the content is 391ppm by volume. 30 years ago it was about 338ppm. 50 years ago it was 315ppm. These facts are by observation and not from computer models and so I am sure you will have no argument with them.

    CO2 is an important constituent of the atmosphere as it absorbs and emits IR radiation. This is designed (by whom we may argue about!) to stabilise the earth's temperature. However as the concentration increases, the balance of stabilization is thrown and it starts to act as a blanket, thus causing the world to heat up. i.e. the IR emitted from the earth is reflected by the C02. As in any feedback control system, which clearly this is, there are hysteresis gaps and this is probably why it might be possible to observe, at times, the temperature going up before the C02 concentration increases.

    You can probably prove the above by a simple experiment at home if you could assemble a greenhouse, a bottle of C02 and a thermometer!

    What causes the C02 concentration to increase is not so clear cut but there is no doubt that we are pumping more C02 into the atmosphere than we did by way of vehicles, ships, aircraft and industrialization in general.