I’ll begin by saying that I do not consider Professor Brian Cox to be an arrogant person, although I only have his TV persona to go by. The television programmes of his that I have watched have been entertaining, informative, full of the excitement of scientific discovery, and thoroughly enjoyable. So this post is not intended to point to a defect in the good professor’s character, but to the mindset that presently afflicts scientists worldwide, and climate scientists in particular. This is a pernicious example of groupthink rather than the hubris of individual scientists, although one might be able to think of a few candidates for exception. They seem to think that their views should be unchallengeable by anyone outside their own profession.

Brian Cox presented his Wheldon Lecture to the Royal Television Society on 26th November 2010 and it was broadcast on BBC2 late on the evening of the 1st December. Under the title of Science: A Challenge to TV Orthodoxy, he spent 40 minutes exploring the controversy that now surrounds the way in which science is packaged by broadcasters for easy assimilation by their mass audiences. By coincidence, perhaps, this thorny problem is also the subject of a review ordered by the BBC Trust, which I have referred to here and here.

Cox has had an interesting career as a pop musician, as a scientist studying particle physics and as a high profile TV presenter. His undoubted talents have recently been recognised by the award of an OBE for services to science.

The subject he chose for his lecture is an important one; our lives are increasingly affected by the outcomes of scientific research and Cox cites an option poll (MORI 2004) finding that 84% of adults receive the majority their information about science from television. It is unlikely, even with the growth of the internet, that this figure has changed very much since then. However the impact that science broadcasting can have on public policy has increased since 2004 because one particular area of research has become inseparable from public policy: global warming. Television is a major opinion former, and presumably this is why Professor Cox chose to focus his lecture on this topic.

The first part of the lecture is devoted to ground-clearing in preparation for the main thesis, and this is illuminating. Apparently Cox considers that the current impact of science on public policy - particularly global warming - places great responsibility on broadcasters who cover this subject. Strangely, he makes no mention of the infinitely greater responsibility that this places on the scientists who brief the media about their work.

He then reveals that he does not consider that there have been any ‘serious deficiencies’ in television coverage of science. This is a point of view that appears to be at odds with his patrons at the BBC in view of their decision to hold an investigation in the wake of the Climategate scandal and a welter of criticism from the general public and the blogoshere. And If he is unaware of any deficiencies, I wonder why he chose to devote most of his lecture to the problems that broadcasters face when dealing with this subject?

Turning to the influence that television science broadcasting had on his own choice of career, Cox holds up Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series as a glowing example, describing it as ‘thirteen hours of lyrically [and] emotionally engaging and accurate and polemical broadcasting’. Unfortunately, he is misusing the term polemic here, and that is important as this word occurs no less than ten times in his lecture as he sets out his arguments, and it’s usage is crucial to his conclusions. A polemic is a verbal attack and not, as Professor Cox seems to think, merely the expression of a point of view[1].

After worshipping at the feet of Sagan, the next item on Cox’s list is defining science; no mean task as an aside in a single lecture, and not surprisingly the effort is superficial and unsatisfactory. Having acknowledged that this task ‘is not easy in a historical context’, he suggests that ‘vast amounts of drivel have been written about the subject by armies of postmodernist philosophers and journalists.’ Sweeping such trivialities aside, Cox settles for a brief clip from a rather light-hearted lecture by physicist Richard Feynman in which he describes the scientific method. It is certainly an example of entertaining television, but comes nowhere near ‘defining science’. But this still leads to the following conclusion:

To my mind, science is very simple indeed. Science is the best framework we have for understanding the universe.

Of course when someone describes a complex subject as being ‘simple’, warning flags should always go up. Almost invariably the person who uses this term is being very selective in the way they are formulating their opinion. In this case it is not clear whether Cox is using the term ‘universe’ in a purely astronomical sense - as in the mechanics of the universe - or in a much broader sense to cover all aspects of existence.

Since The Enlightenment, science has certainly gone some way towards replacing superstition, religious belief, and fatalism as a means of explaining the phenomena that surround us, but it is still a long way from doing so completely. On a worldwide scale, atheism remains a minority point of view, and scientists would do well to humbly acknowledge this fact rather than claim a position of supremacy and infallibility for their profession that many would dispute.

In the film clip Feynman stresses that, if a scientific proposition is not supported by observation and experiment then it is wrong regardless, as he says, of how ‘beautiful, the idea may be’, or how eminent its author may be. Cox amplifies this by saying,

Authority, or for that matter, the number of people who believe something to be true, counts for nothing.

[and]

… when it comes to the practice of science, the scientists must never have an eye on the audience. For that would be to fatally compromise the process.

This is a hostage to fortune, for without the notion of consensus and claims by eNGOs and politicians for the authority of the IPCC, promotion of anthropogenic global warming would never have cleared the launch pad. The most startling ‘findings’ in recent IPCC reports are not based on the scientific method at all, but on expert judgement by the authors, and the Climategate emails have revealed an obsessive concern among climate scientists with the response of their audience.

Having started to dig himself into a hole, Cox then redoubles his efforts recounting an incident in which he made a dismissive on-screen reference to astrology as being ‘a load of rubbish’, which resulted in complaints to the BBC from ‘all over the web’. The BBC issued a cautious statement that almost amounted to an apology, saying the views expressed in the programme were not those of the BBC, but of the presenter, a response that Cox considers to be inadequate:

Now, that’s a perfectly reasonable response on the surface. In fact, you could argue that it’s correct. Because a broadcaster shouldn’t have a view about a faith issue which is essentially what astrology is. The presenter can have a view, and I was allowed to have a view. What I did was present the scientific consensus.

But he goes on:

I think, however, that there are potential problems with broadcasters assuming a totally neutral position in matters such as this.

Cox then moves on to use a clip from a news item about concern over the use of the MMR vaccine.  In this Ben Goldacre (of Bad Science fame) gives his views on this controversy citing a Danish study showing that there has been no increase in autism among children who have received the jab, saying:

You’ve not heard about research like this, because the media chose not to cover the evidence that goes against their scare story.

This message, and its relevance to media coverage of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), seems to have passed Cox by. Instead he castigates the broadcaster for concluding the piece with a caveat that these are Dr Goldacre’s views only, in spite of his being a qualified doctor and having based his opinion on peer reviewed and published research. In support of this criticism he cites a US news anchor, Keith Olbermann, as follows:

… obsessive preoccupation with perceived balance or impartiality [is] worshipping before the false god of utter objectivity. His point was that by aspiring to be utterly neutral, it is easy to obscure the truth. And the BBC’s editorial guidelines state that impartiality is at the heart of public service and is at the core of its commitment to its audience. I’m sure that very few broadcasters would disagree with that.

This reference is striking because I have seen precisely the some argument used by the BBC to justify its anything-but-neutral position on anthropogenic global warming (AGW). There is a certain irony too in using the opinion of a US broadcaster in this way given that so many North Americans seem to envy the standards applied to public service broadcasting in the UK.

On the specific point that Olbermann makes, being ‘utterly neutral’ is obviously far less of a threat to impartiality than not being neutral. And the suggestion that being neutral may obscure the truth - which is the crux of Professor Cox’s lecture - implies that the broadcaster will necessarily be able to determine what the truth is. This conjecture becomes even more problematic when the means by which this feat might be accomplished are considered.

In Cox’s view, reporting science should hold no such dilemmas for the broadcaster: all that is necessary is for complete reliance to be placed on the peer review process. That which is peer reviewed should be the sole reference point for reporting science, and any contrary views should be disregarded.  This position is arrived at by having implicit faith in the peer review process, which may for all I know be justified if, like Professor Cox, you are a particle physicist, but it is unlikely to impress anyone who has cast a critical eye on climate science, where political and ethical considerations seem to carry at least as much weight as robust findings. But this is not the place for a detailed discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the peer review process. Instead, here are some of the propositions which Cox uses to back up his argument:

In science, we have a well-defined process for deciding what is mainstream and what is controversial. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with how many people believe something to be true or not. It’s called peer-review.

Peer-review is a very simple and quite often brutal process by which any claim that is submitted for publication in a scientific journal is scrutinised by independent experts whose job it is to find the flaws.

This is the method [peer review] that has delivered the modern world. It’s good. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the current scientific consensus is of course correct. But it does in general mean that the consensus in the scientific literature is the best that can be done given the available data.

Now you may see there that I’m redefining what impartiality means. But the peer-reviewed consensus is by definition impartial. To leave the audience with this particular kind of impartial view is desperately important. We’re dealing with the issues of the life and death of our children and the future of our climate. And the way to deal with this is not to be fair and balanced, to borrow a phrase from a famous news outlet, but to report and explain the peer-reviewed scientific consensus accurately.

So for me the challenge for the science reporter in scientific news is easily met. Report the peer-reviewed consensus and avoid the maverick, eccentric at all costs.

Such faith in the reliability, independence, and impartiality of peer review may be justified in the field of particle physics where, I assume, political and ethical considerations have a very minor role. So far as climate science is concerned, it flies in the face of what has been learned from the Climategate emails, and much else that has happened in this discipline during the last decade. How many news stories have we seen citing sensational ‘new research’ that has swiftly been discarded?  Predictions of massive sea level rise by the end of the century, an 11o C rise in global average temperature over the same period, the vanishing snows of Mount Kilimanjaro and the drying-up of Lake Chad, the imminent demise of the Himalayan Glaciers, slowing of the Meridional Overturning Circulation (MOC) with the onset of a new ice age for Northern Europe, and of course that poster-child of the third IPCC Assessment report, the Hockey Stick graph. One could go on and on.

There can be little doubt that Cox is indeed redefining impartiality, and in a way that brings us back to the sub-title of this post - an exercise in arrogance. He seems to be telling us that journalists and programme makers who report science should be guided entirely by the scientific community, and leave any critical faculties they may have at home. If this is to be the new standard for impartiality in broadcasting about science, or even a new world order, then who scrutinises the world of science? And lets not forget the Feynman clip that Cox used in his superficial attempt to ‘define science’ at the beginning of his lecture. The great physicist makes no mention of peer review, but there are strictures in both what he says and Cox’s interpretation of it that rule out authority and consensus as being relevant to the scientific method.

Having cleared the ground, the professor now moves on to the red meat of the lecture; climate change.

This is heralded by a clip from The Great Global Warming Swindle (TGGWS), which Cox dismisses as ‘bollocks’, which does him little credit either as a scientist or a TV presenter. On the other hand he accepts that such programmes should be allowed to be broadcast - one gets the impression that he thinks he is being rather daring here - so long as they are suitably labelled, not as ‘bollocks’ as one might expect, but as polemics rather than documentaries, which Cox seems to think amounts to something similar, but with a warning that it’s probably all rubbish.

In the case of TGGWS, the description ‘polemic’ may be justified. Durkin’s film was undoubtedly a vehement attack on contemporary climate research, but apparently Cox would like any factual broadcasts that do not adhere to mainstream views approved by the scientific community to be branded in this way. Presumably this would mean that a programme about the views of Michael Mann could be promoted as a documentary, while one about the views of Richard Lindzen would be a mere polemic, thereby undermining the credibility of that  eminent scientist before the audience even become aware of what he has to say.  And this raises a new problem, which Cox steers well clear of.

Climate scientists, and particularly the IPCC, have failed to acknowledge the massive uncertainties that are attached to much climate research. This, of course, feeds through into broadcasts where journalists and program makers are unwilling to acknowledge uncertainly for the reason that Ben Goldacre identified. Why water down an eye-catching  prediction by saying that it may never happen when there is no danger of the scientists concerned complaining? But under reporting uncertainty is as misleading as misreporting conclusions.

Even Cox expresses some concern that his approach may be Orwellian, but quickly backs off by saying that he doesn’t really know whether it is Orwellian or not, which makes one wonder why he raised the issue in the first place. Unsurprisingly, he quotes a passage from Nineteen Eighty-Four about history constantly being re-written so that nothing remains on record that cast doubt on the infallibility of The Party.  He may have chosen the right author, but the wrong book. In Animal Farm, the precursor of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the dim but compliant sheep are portrayed as the ruling pig’s most effective weapon in stifling opposing views and awkward questions. They can be drilled to bleat any slogan persistently enough to drown out dissent. I hesitate to draw any parallels between the arrogant culture that pervades climate science and the pigs, or between broadcasters and the sheep, but the temptation is great. Cox’s plea that broadcasters should retail only what scientists tell them is acceptable makes it very, very tempting indeed.

By this stage in the lecture, one might begin to wonder how much serious thought Cox has given to his subject, or whether he has been influenced by the views of the BBC in reaching his conclusions. As a scientist, surely he should not attempt to draw an analogy between the way in which broadcasters should treat climate scepticism and the way they should treat those who believe in astrology or question evolution. This is another line of argument of which the BBC is fond, but it makes no sense; the issues are quite different. No institution such as the IPCC is involved in debates about astrology or evolution. Tens of thousands of delegates do not flock to Copenhagen or Cancún to discus these matters and formulate a world policy, neither astrology nor evolution are new ideas, and scientists are not being funded to the tune of countless billions to conduct research in these fields.

Cox’s peroration begins with these words:

So what are my conclusions about the challenges of presenting science on television?

Well, firstly, scientific peer-review is all-important. It’s not possible for a broadcaster to run a parallel peer-review structure, but it is possible for the broadcaster to seek out the consensus view of the scientific community. This is the best that can be done and appropriate weight should be given to it in news reporting.

Documentary is different because polemic is a valid and necessary form of filmmaking. But having said that, the audience needs to know whether they’re watching opinion, or a presentation of the scientific consensus. And whilst I acknowledge that this is extremely difficult to achieve in practice, it is something that filmmakers and broadcasters must strive to do.

Cox’s final message to broadcasters is clear: they should do what scientists tell them to do and not trouble their pretty little heads with anything that might be too difficult for them to grasp properly. As to listening to ‘mavericks and eccentrics’ who question the scientific consensus established by a supposedly interdependent and reliable peer review process, that would be foolish in the extreme, like listening to astrologers or creationists. And screening the views of people who scientists might consider to be reprehensible in such a way that audiences would be allowed to make their own mind about the credibility of what they are being told would be a betrayal of the broadcasters duty to comply with a re-defined kind of impartiality; a kind of impartiality in which the broadcasters determine where the truth lies on the basis of the majority view of those who are being challenged.

This is, of course, a supremely arrogant point of view, but the scientific community seem to have convinced each other, and themselves, that society should confer such authority on them. One can hardly blame Professor Cox for falling into line.


[1]   A strong verbal or written attack on someone or something. (Oxford Dictionary of English)

147 Responses to “Professor Brian Cox’s Wheldon Lecture: an exercise in arrogance”

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  1. 101
    clivere Says:

    Ben Pile/Geoff Chambers

    Sorry but I disagree that we can tell the philosophical assumptions which underpin Cox’s attitude. The broadcast was way to light to provide any kind of view and you are arm waving without giving any reasons. If you can point me to somewhere that Brian Cox does show his philosophical viewpoint along the lines you describe then fine but I dont recall the program provides that view.

    I dont really wish to view the broadcast again because I did not enjoy it or think much of it. However I came away with a perception that Brian Cox philosophically was promoting a very idealistic view of science and did not seem to be aware of the realities of recent practice in climate science. I did not get the impression his knowledge on climate science is much greater than that of the general population. I only picked up on 2 take home messages.

    1. Peer review somehow ensures the science is ultimately correct. This ignores the gaming of the peer review system much evident from Climategate. It ignores the desire by activist climate scientists to withhold methods and data. It also does not recognise the political requirement/pressure for activist climate scientists who advocate a particular view to drive a unified message for portrayal in IPCC reports by promoting friendly papers and keeping sceptical papers out of the literature.

    2. Programs should identify where they differ from the scientific consensus on matters of public interest. This ignores the issue that for climate science the consensus is not clearly defined and subject to quite rapid change.

  2. 102
    peter geany Says:

    Ben Pile #94

    Hi Ben I should have qualified “all Scientists” a little clearer. You are correct it would be unfair to characterise all scientists in the same way. I hope everyone realises I was referring to just those scientists who produce scientific papers supporting AGW, but who’s papers do not look at the causes but are just studies in one or more effects. This is how we get all manner of changes on earth now attributed to increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere and where the links are tenuous indeed. Of course if these same scientists didn’t make the link then perhaps their funding would not be forthcoming.

    However what is happening because of this blind linkage is other factors are being ignored or missed altogether. If as most of us thoughtful engineers scientists and rational sceptics believe, other factors present a stronger case as climate drivers, then there is going to be a very large body of science beyond just climate science that is going to be null and void. This is something that the good Doctor Cox has failed to think though.

    In fact the more Dr Cox reflects on what he did with that lecture, the more he will regret it. It may take some time, but he is still relatively youthful and he needs to ensure he is still taken seriously in 10 or 20 years. This could be one of those seemingly innocuous moments that change lives.

  3. 103
    geoffchambers Says:

    clivere #101
    You are right that Cox doesn’t reveal his philosophical assumptions. A large part of Ben’s “Climate Resistance” blog is devoted to showing how often the arguments of environmentalists are based on philosophical assumptions which are not revealed precisely because the enviromentalists are unaware of them. It seems to be an occupational hazard of scientists to believe that, because objective truth is their business, their conclusions are somehow free of any underlying assumptions. Which is why environmentalists like to tack their world-view onto a scientific framework. It gives a solid, apparently morally neutral ground to stand on.
    No, I can’t point you to somewhere where Cox shows his philosophical viewpoint, and that’s what makes his case so interesting.
    Imagine if this had been a talk by an adman on “Advertising: A Challenge to TV Orthodoxy”. He would be expected to reveal his assumptions, separating the factual material from the moral judgements, and justifying his conclusions. In the background, underlying his discourse, and present in the mind of his audience, would be the generally accepted rules of advertising standards.
    Cox seems to think he is free from all these constraints, possibly partly because he’s a real cool guy with an OBE and a winning smile, and partly because he’s a scientist. But no-one, arguing a case, can argue from his own authority – as a scientist, a poitician, a lawyer – or anything else. Cox seems dimly to realise this, so he brings in peer review and consensus, apparently believing that they are one and the same, and attributing infallibility to scientists when he calls the resulting mixture “by definition impartial”.
    At this point it is clear that he hasn’t the foggiest idea about the discussion which has raged over climate science, and is therefore far less qualified to discuss the subject than the humblest non-scientist blogger here. The fact that he nonetheless feels free to dismiss opposition without the least evidence demonstrates the extent to which he is prey to his philosophical assumptions, or ideology.
    Politicians insulting voters by calling them “flat-earthers”; comedians considering a subject too serious to joke about; scientists claiming infallibility on a subject they know nothing about: in each case we see behaviour which would be considered crazy in any other context. The only explanation is that they are all subjet to the same ideology, without knowing it.

  4. 104
    clivere Says:

    Geoff Chambers – I got interested in this topic via Bishop Hill which is one of the more active blogs I keep an eye on. I see a post where someone is quoted / criticised and then follow the trail back to find what they actually said and whether the criticism has foundation and is valid. This often leads me into interesting side stories.

    In this instance I had to read the post by Ben Pile, the post on this blog, view the Ben Cox broadcast and do a bit of additional digging on BBC views on the MMR controversy. Based on your comments I have just gone back and had a further read of Ben’s post.

    I have not seen any other broadcast or article by Brian Cox. I did not find any reason to dislike him from a personal viewpoint and dont know if he regards himself as a “cool guy”. I assume he has an image he wishes to project which is fine by me. I just found the broadcast to be content light, idealistic and superficial.

    I still remain comfortable with most of what is in Ben’s post and my own observations largely complement his. In the main Ben, you and myself are largely in agreement. However I would caution you both about deriving too much from this one broadcast unless you can point to some specific illustrations. I dont mind doing a level of reading but do not wish to read Ben’s entire blog to try to find some.

  5. 105
    tonyb Says:

    Peter #99

    It’s bad enough when you don’t read what WE write (which we’ve come to expect over the years) but things have come to a pretty pass when you don’t even read what YOU write.

    In your #99 you say I shouldn’t answer for Ben but I wasn’t, I was replying to your sweeping assertion in your #95 when you said;

    “One of the points I made in my last, and now snipped, posting was that whatever the correct interpretation of the scientific evidence on AGW should be, either as reported by the IPCC, or the BBC, this was irrelevant to you guys as you’d still be against CO2 emissions controls regardless.”

    Now when you say ‘You guys’ its perfectly resonable to suppose you mean ‘YOU guys’-the rest of us on this blog, not just Ben, as you have made this sort of remark before.

    Howewer if you have come to accept at last that even sceptics are perfectly normal people I don’t need to chastise you. :)

    tonyb

  6. 106
    tempterrain Says:

    I’m not sure Ben Pile will be back, but having laid into him about many aspects of the crazy policies advocated by RCP/LM/Spiked, it is time to offer a small olive branch and suggest that some of the things they do say may at least merit further attention.

    They aren’t quite so anti-science in the way many deniers are, and they are sufficiently political to understand that the debate is driven by politic considerations rather than scientific differences.

    I’ve selected some extracts from their various articles on the topic.

    “Whatever the truth about climate change, we need to get beyond these childish tales of two legs bad, four legs good – of wicked man, and innocent beast. If the world is getting warmer due to human action, it may still make perfect sense to continue burning fossil fuels.”
    http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/2969/

    ‘To say that the science demands a certain policy response to climate change is just a wrong reading of the relationship between science and policy.’
    http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/debates/copenhagen_article/8912

    “So, if the world is going to get warmer, what’s the solution? On the one hand, we have the schizophrenic responses of greens, scientists and policymakers who either believe we must have hairshirt solutions involving significant cuts in living standards”
    http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/article/9960/

    However, what really concerns me is the politicisation of the science of climate change, and the way in which the alleged problems facing the planet are discussed in the language of ideological diktat
    http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/site/reviewofbooks_article/6300/

    So they are savvy enough to know that the science is probably correct but, on the other hand, they understand political nature of the problem that this presents to modern day capitalism. I’m not sure they have fully articulated what they would suggest we do about it but they, and incidentally most of us who do accept the scientific interpretation of the AGW issue, certainly don’t go along with the idea of de-industrialisation. They are correct in saying that it just isn’t a solution.

  7. 107
    tempterrain Says:

    Here’s another couple which really need to be included.

    http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/debates/copenhagen_article/7860/

    http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/debates/copenhagen_home

    I do have quite a bit more sympathy with their viewpoint that Ben Pile might imagine. It is noticeable that, although they do call for more tolerance for climate change deniers, but I haven’t much sympathy with that point, you might notice they don’t actually go in for the usual anti IPCC arguments. They don’t, themselves, actively go in for undermining the scientific position in the way some people who I could mention by name do.

  8. 108
    manacker Says:

    PeterM

    Despite your wishful thinking (106), I have not read anything substantiating your claim:

    So they are savvy enough to know that the science is probably correct but, on the other hand, they understand political nature of the problem that this presents to modern day capitalism.

    I see no concession “that the science is probably correct”.

    Do you? If so, where?

    The “problem that this presents to modern day human culture and standard of living” would have been a better way to describe the second part of your sentence (the impact is much broader than simply on “capitalism”, as I’m sure you’ll agree).

    So a more correct sentence would have been:

    So, while they may not have specifically questioned the scientific claims underlying AGW alarmism and calls for “action”, they understand the major impact that this presents to modern day human culture and standard of living.

    That’s a sentence that makes sense – yours does not.

    Max

  9. 109
    manacker Says:

    PeterM

    Some bloggers have gone on record here that they are rationally skeptical of IPCC claims, citing published studies by a growing number of climate scientists who share this skepticism.

    You call this (107)

    actively go in for undermining the scientific position [of IPCC]

    Call it what you will, Peter, would you say that Dr. Judith Curry is also doing this?

    [I would.]

    Max

  10. 110
    manacker Says:

    PeterM

    Thanks for posting the links to the various “Spiked” articles.

    Good stuff, well thought out and well presented.

    Max

  11. 111
    TonyN Says:

    I’ve let the last five comments stand, but it was a very close run thing. See my #91 above.

  12. 112
    manacker Says:

    TonyN

    Got the message. No more talk about the “Spiked” site.

    Max

  13. 113
    tempterrain Says:

    Ok I’ll carry on with this discussion on the NS thread if anyone else is interested.

    But I would not agree that it was off topic as far as this thread is concerned. The fact is that you agree with Brian Cox on everything else apart from climate change. Or if you don’t you aren’t admitting it!

    So, is your disagreement really on the science itself? Or have Spiked got it right when they say:

    ” That’s why so many of the battles, so many of the ideological battles, are fought through the proxies of science and scientists…..

  14. 114
    tempterrain Says:

    TonyN,

    OK To get this indisputably back on topic:

    You wrote: “Since The Enlightenment, science has certainly gone some way towards replacing superstition, religious belief, and fatalism as a means of explaining the phenomena that surround us, but it is still a long way from doing so completely.”

    Well, Tony, the thing about science is that the more we know, the more we realise that we don’t know. That doesn’t mean that we know less BTW, or that the uncertainties are greater. In that sense, it does mean that science will never explain everything completely. There will never be a time when the boss says “Well lads I’m buggered if I can think of anything else to work on. You may as well all go home. The job’s done”. There will always be something new for scientists to find out.

    You then go on to say “On a worldwide scale, atheism remains a minority point of view, and scientists would do well to humbly acknowledge this fact rather than humbly acknowledge this fact rather than claim a position of supremacy and infallibility for their profession that many would dispute.”

    [TonyN: If you are going to quote from my header post, why not use copy and paste?]

    I’m not sure why scientists should or would feel humble. As Brian Cox says the scientific method is what has delivered the modern world. Yes, some would dispute the supremacy of science. Like, the Pope maybe? Would you care to elaborate? What are you getting at? Do I detect a touch of anti-science sentiment?

  15. 115
    manacker Says:

    PeterM

    Before we move to the NS thread, you just commented:

    The fact is that you agree with Brian Cox on everything else apart from climate change.

    Not really, Peter.

    Brian Cox is a very affable young man, who probably knows a lot more about particle physics than you or I ever will (or will ever want to), but not much more on anything else.

    His statement near the beginning of the lecture made sense:

    Authority, or for that matter, the number of people who believe something to be true, counts for nothing.

    But then he blew it all with his silly statements on the sanctity of “peer review” and the “consensus opinion” (a direct contradiction of what he had said earlier).

    His off-the-cuff rejection of the TGGWS documentary as “polemic” (without addressing any of the specific points made, many by scientific experts in their field) was childish and arrogant.

    Once he gains a bit of maturity, he will probably regret having said some of the silly things he said on this interview, but maybe not.

    So you are wrong. I really don’t agree with much of anything Cox said except the opening remark that authority or the number of people supporting a premise means nothing. He should have ended his interview then, when he was still ahead of the game.

    Max

  16. 116
    TonyN Says:

    Tenpterrain, #114

    Would you care to elaborate? What are you getting at? Do I detect a touch of anti-science sentiment?

    The antitheses of humility is pride, which in excess leads to hubris and consequences that are symbolised by an encounter with Nemesis. It is not in anyone’s interest that science should follow that path.

    I have no idea what ‘anti-science sentiment’ means, although I see this term used more and more frequently by advocates of AGW, both scientists and non-scientists, when they are attempting to ward off criticism or awkward questions from sceptics.

  17. 117
    tempterrain Says:

    TonyN,

    But isn’t ‘hubris’ defined as arrogance before the gods? I still somewhat puzzled why you have chosen to bring deities into the discussion with this and your earlier remark about science and atheism.

    The process of science is as it always has been; science, and scientists, don’t have what might be termed a Nemesis type figure to fear. Again that is just superstition. There is no need for arrogance nor humility. Neither is there any reason for claims of infallibility. And to my knowledge there never have been.

    However, I’m sure nearly everyone would agree scientists can take a justifiable pride in “doing the best they can with the available data”.

  18. 118
    TonyN Says:

    Tempterrain:

    What is the point of pretending that neither you nor I know what a figure of speech is?

    ” … doing the best they can with the available data” is the very least requirement for any scientist, and therefore no cause for pride.

  19. 119
    tempterrain Says:

    You might like to take a look at Realclimate today. Yes, I know it must be hard, but there is a lot of good stuff on there!

    This article is relevant to Prof Cox’s mention of peer review.
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2010/12/science-is-self-correcting-lessons-from-the-arsenic-controversy/

    Normally peer review is taken to mean the review of a paper, by a small number of actual ‘peers’ before publication. Of course, and as this article shows, that isn’t the end of the matter, and anything which makes it into publication is then further reviewed by a wider audience, including a wider group of ‘peers’.

  20. 120
    Neil Craig Says:

    The problem with peer review & Cox’s hypocrisy, is illustrated by Cox’s complaint about astrology.

    The peers of a practicing astrologer are other practicing astrologers who all agree that what they are practicing is genuine. Ditto those “climate scientists” who are actually climate modellers paid by big government (there are some genuine climate scientists not working for the state who do not support alarmism & many studying climate but who are paid by the state & keep their heads down).

    If Cox were being honest (though still wrong) he would be calling for the BBC to censor any dispute about astrology because such peer review supports it.

  21. 121
    tempterrain Says:

    Neil Craig,

    Do you have any evidence that astrologers do, in fact, have their own system of peer review? Do they even write up anything new on the subject which might then be discussed by the astrological community generally, and which may then become the subject of some argument?

    I don’t think so. This would probably be a good test to distinguish real science from pseudoscience.

  22. 122
    peter geany Says:

    PeterM #119

    Peter have you read the comments? The article may contain some sound information about how science should work, but the first commenter to show dissent and raise some valid criticism in its attempt to compare itself with Climate Science gets savaged by Gavin. It seems we are allowed to be critical of everything except climate science. In other words its the epitome of hypocrisy.

  23. 123
    Bob_FJ Says:

    Neil Craig 120 & peter Geany 122
    By coincidence I’ve cited two articles discussing the peer review process and various aspects of scientific bias over on the NS open thread. They are mostly in the fields of medicine and biology, but the parallels with what we see in climate science are truly remarkable. They are also very well written and a very interesting read, although as an engineer I‘m shocked, appalled, angry………

    The Truth Wears Off: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/13/101213fa_fact_lehrer?currentPage=1

    Classical peer review: an empty gun
    http://breast-cancer-research.com/content/12/S4/S13

  24. 124
    tempterrain Says:

    Peter Geany,

    Th first commentator who shows some dissent is the guy who says:
    “Although the arsenic study is scientifically controversial it does not interfere with peoples fundamental values. In climate science the situation is completely different…”

    The point he’s making is the opposite of what you are claiming. ie That climate science should be treated differently because it may interfere with “peoples fundamental values”. Gavin rightly points out that he is the one bringing in the politics. So he deserves a bit of savaging by Gavin.

    There tends to be a heated debate on potentially controversial topics when scientific results are new. The same thing happened in climate science 15-20 years ago. This was unfortunately just before the internet era, so it may not be quite so apparent as any current controversy, but it would be a mistake to think that the consensus just emerged and without the usual scientific vigour being applied to the process.

  25. 125
    peter geany Says:

    PeterM That is the whole point isn’t it. Warmists love to plug peer review. Try and “peer review” anything on RC and you either get a savaging from Gavin or deleted altogether. Of bloody coarse climate science is different; in every possible way. It attempts to support a mantra that would have mankind turn back time and return to the cave. It is totally the opposite in most other areas of science that attempt to advance mankind and raise living standards.

  26. 126
    tempterrain Says:

    Peter Geany,

    Are we talking about “peer review” or “general public review”?

    Yes you could argue that science “attempts to advance mankind and raise living standards” but that’s just incidental. The primary purpose of science is to achieve an understanding of the universe. So, yes it can us know how to do various things but it can also indicate that we need to beware of certain courses of action too.

    Living standards will indeed be better, and mankind will be more advanced, in years to come, if all science, including climate science, is used as the basis for governmental policies worldwide.

  27. 127
    peter geany Says:

    PeterM What is a peer? If we are talking a press release or blog then everyone on the Planet capable of commenting intelligently is a peer. The trouble with Climate science is they want to chose their peers. Its one of the many areas where they have gone wrong.

    Another area they are completely wrong in is they have suggested the solutions which is NOT their job, and this is were we are then able to interject and become their peers.

  28. 128
    tempterrain Says:

    Peter Geany

    “Peer review is a generic term for a process of self-regulation by a profession, or a process of evaluation involving qualified individuals within the relevant field”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peer_review

    So yes I would agree with you, up to a point. Its OK for people like Max and yourself to comment on policy but not on the basis that the science is wrong or a hoax. That’s not peer review.

    The solution which scientists propose is a reduction of CO2 emissions. We still need scientists to calculate by how much they need to be reduced and at what rate they need to be reduced. Most politicians wouldn’t be able to do that for themselves.

    As to just how that should be achieved is of course open to public debate. Cap and Trade, Carbon Taxes, Carbon Rationing etc. A switch to nuclear power or use of renewables etc Although scientific and engineering advice is needed to indicate what is and is not possible.

    I suppose it also a valid argument to say that the problem may be solved by some future technology, or that there is a possibility of the warming coming in at very much the low end the projected range, therefore we could just take the risk of doing nothing right now.

  29. 129
    Neil Craig Says:

    Tempterrain are you really saying that if astrologers did a bit of paper shuffling in the manner of “climate scientists” “doing eveyy trick” to “hide the decline” & attacking non-astrologers who produce real evidence, while refusing to publish it in their journals, they would have be “scientists” as much as climate modellers who do the same?

    I tend to agree but disagree with you that this makes anybody a real scientist.

  30. 130
    tempterrain Says:

    Neil Craig,

    The existence of peer review is a necessary but maybe not quite a sufficient condition to differentiate a science from a pseudoscience.

    However, it must be pretty close. I can’t think of a single example of a pseudoscience which makes any pretence of going through such a process.

    Maybe you can think of one? And before you say it, no, I’m not accepting Climate Science BTW!

  31. 131
    manacker Says:

    PeterM

    How meaningful is “peer review”? [Bob_FJ has given some good examples of its pitfalls and weaknesses outside the climate field.]

    Climategate has revealed some of these, in relation to AGW.

    Judith Curry has underlined this in her discussion of the prevalent “group think” and the defense of the “dogma” by the insider group of climate scientists.

    The examples of Wegener and Galileo are just two, which show just how limited “peer review” really is.

    It is no replacement for empirical scientific data from physical observations or reproducible experimentation, following the scientific method.

    Science versus pseudo-science? Both use “peer review” and “consensus thinking”.

    However, even if a vast majority of western astrologers all agree that having Jupiter in the first house will bring good luck for Leos in April 2011 or Chinese numerology experts all agree that September 17, 2011 will be an auspicious wedding date for those born under the Sign of the Rabbit, this does not make the prediction any more valid than the “peer-reviewed” computer-generated stuff cited by IPCC.

    What differentiates “science” from “pseudo-science” is not “peer review” but following the scientific method and validating or falsifying hypotheses with empirical data.

    “Peer review” is only as good as the “peers” making the “review”. And if these suffer from “group think” or are simply defending a prevalent paradigm or dogma, it is totally worthless.

    IMO, this was the most egregious (and arrogant) error in the Brian Cox lecture.

    Max

  32. 132
    Neil Craig Says:

    Tempterran I believe the antievolutionists/inteligent design people run their own institue & publication where “peers” choose what to publish. This is a quite deliberate move on their part to ape (sic) real science.

    On the other hand Isaac Newton was never called a charlatan because he had not been submitted to a peer review process. Peer review is not inherent to science it is a process which grew up as science expanded. Done properly it is a useful method of separating obvious idiots from real science. However the temptation is always there to use it to exclude those one disagrees with or does not consider part of your union/consensus. Anybody with any respect whatsoever for real science will agree that Nature’s refusal to publish McIntyre’s demolition of the Hockey Stick was the latter. It must be agreed that, at least in that instance, Nature was proving not to be a real scientific publication & that its misuse of “peeer review” proves it.

  33. 133
    tempterrain Says:

    Max,

    You say Both [Science and pseudo-science] use “peer review”…..

    Science, yes, but pseudoscience? Is there anything like the “Journal of Astrology” or “Crystal Healing letters”, in which astrologers and healers write up their work for general evaluation?

    There plenty of empirical data associated with the science of global warming. Just like there is with plate tectonics. True, in neither case can we do double blind experiments with one spare Earth subject to one set of changed conditions and another spare Earth kept as a control reference but in neither case does it mean that no scientific investigation is possible.

  34. 134
    tempterrain Says:

    Neil Craig,

    Peer review doesn’t begin and end with the initial pre-publication review. That’s just the first step.

    There is continual review afterwards too, as this article from the Realclimate shows. I may have posted it before but here it is again anyway:
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2010/12/science-is-self-correcting-lessons-from-the-arsenic-controversy/

    It doesn’t matter scientifically in the long run whether or not McIntyre is published in Nature, although naturally he’ll be disappointed not to be. It matters whether he is right and in what sense he’s right.

    The general opinion at the moment is that he’s done no more than picked up on minor flaws in the ’99 paper. There has been another paper, by Mann, in 2008 and other authors have reported similar shaped Hockey sticks.

    Probably every significant paper has flaws of one sort or another. Yes they should be pointed out and corrected but that’s not the same as saying the paper is “demolished”.

  35. 135
    manacker Says:

    PeterM

    Your point on peer review in astrology versus climatology misses the key point.

    The key problem with any peer review process is the impartiality (or objectivity) of the “peers” making the “review” (as was demonstrated by the Climategate revelations and pointed out by Judith Curry).

    This is true whether or not we are talking about astrology or climate science.

    The statement by Brian Cox makes sense:

    Authority, or for that matter, the number of people who believe something to be true, counts for nothing.

    But his follow-up statement about peer review is pure nonsense:

    the peer-reviewed consensus is by definition impartial.

    Since “peer review” is performed by human “peers”, it is (by definition) not “impartial”, but is influenced by the “group think” of those “peers” making the “review”. In other words, the “consensus”, or “the number of people who believe something to be true, counts for nothing” (as Cox stated earlier)

    I’m sure that you are able to understand this (rather arrogant) flaw in Cox’s logic. Right?

    Max

  36. 136
    manacker Says:

    PeterM

    You wrote to Neil Craig about Mann’s discredited hockey stick:

    The general opinion at the moment is that he’s done no more than picked up on minor flaws in the ‘99 paper. There has been another paper, by Mann, in 2008 and other authors have reported similar shaped Hockey sticks.

    This is not the “general opinion at the moment”, Peter (except maybe by a few loons who have failed to realize the facts). If you read Andrew Montford’s detailed chronicle, you will see that the “hockey stick” was comprehensively discredited as a fraud, based on cherry-picked data and a flawed statistical analysis. This was confirmed under oath by the Wegman committee and later by the NAS panel.

    Don’t be a fool, Peter. Fight other battles, but let this one die. Otherwise you just make yourself look silly.

    Max

  37. 137
    Neil Craig Says:

    Tempterran in now saying “It doesn’t matter scientifically in the long run whether or not McIntyre is published in Nature, although naturally he’ll be disappointed not to be” you are saying the reverse of what you insisted you believed a few paras ago. If it doesn’t mater that McIntrye wasn’t allowed to pass Nature’s peer review it is obviously impossible, acting seriously, to denounce sceptics for not having been “peer” reviewed by their opponents.

    Your alleged “general opinion” (which, you may understand, is another term for consensus) is not in fact the general opinion opf anybody outside the priesthood of the alarmist religion. Certainly Professor Wegman’s report to Congress did not say any such thing. McIntyre proved Mann’s calculations were false; he proved Mann had known they were false & thus had hidden them; He proved Mann to be a charlatan hiding his data & Wegman found the entire alarmist community to be unaware of the statistical discipline that is the source of their alleged calculations.

    Obviously, by definition, nobody who can really be considered a scientist can approve of such fraud & not one real scientist does.

  38. 138
    tempterrain Says:

    Max,

    As far as I’m aware McIntyre’s criticism of the hockey stick focused entirely on Mann’s 1999 paper. But what about other hockey sticks? What about later papers by Mann? Its fair enough for anyone to suggest that one of the pieces of a jigsaw may be misplaced but that one piece doesn’t change the overall picture.

    Yes, Prof Cox is being perfectly correct when he says the “the number of people who believe something [in science] to be true, counts for nothing”. Note that he used the word “people” rather than the words “specialists in the field”.

    Prof Cox’s own opinion on the workings of science would count for something but, on the other hand, his opinion on anything outside his field of specialisation wouldn’t count for anything much either. It all sounds quite elitist to our 21st century democratic world but that’s the way science works and it is this process which has, as Prof Cox says, brought it about.

  39. 139
    Neil Craig Says:

    McIntyre’s paper that nature refused to publish dissected Mann’s previous paper. The reason why tt paper did not refer to things Mann has claimed after its publication must be obvious to even the meanest intellect. Mann’s sunsequent mouthings largely amount to personal vitriol.

    Being, at least to a small extent, honest & impartial & not just a corrupt eco-fascist hack Tempt you will be on record as having denounced Galileo’s criticism of Papal science for not having dealt with the 19thC declaration of Papal inflaibility.

    I would very much enjoy reading that criticism & ask you to provide a link.

  40. 140
    manacker Says:

    PeterM

    I can recommend that you read Andrew Montford’s detailed account in The Hockey Stick Illusion.

    It is a good read, which presents all the facts in excruciating detail.

    So much for “what” happened and “when” it did. This part is incontrovertible.

    What is not possible to state definitively is “why” these things happened.

    1. Why did Mann et al. put together a poorly researched “hockey stick” on past climate, in an attempt to invalidate all the previous evidence of past climate fluctuations?

    2. How did this rather unusual study pass “peer review”?

    3. Why did Nature publish this study?

    4. Why did IPCC jump on this report so eagerly without first doing a thorough job of “due diligence” regarding its validity?

    5. Why did McIntyre and McKitrick go to the trouble of doing an independent audit on the statistical validity of the “hockey stick”?

    6. Why did Nature refuse to publish the M+M study?

    7. Why did a committee of the US Congress decide to have an independent group of statistical experts under Prof. Wegman make a review of the “hockey stick” and the M+M report?

    8. Why did the Wegman committee conclude that the M+M critique was valid and that the Mann et al. conclusions of unusual 20th century warming were not supported by the study?

    9. Why did the same congressional committee later ask a NAS panel of statistical and climate experts for a validation of the M+M and Wegman reports?

    10. Why did the NAS panel confirm the conclusion of the Wegman committee that the “hockey stick” was flawed?

    Let me give you my opinion (as a rational skeptic) of the “whys”:

    1. In order to support the notion that 20th century warmth, caused by human GHG emissions, is unusual, as a cornerstone of the “dangerous AGW” premise.

    2. Because the “peer review” was an inside job (as pointed out in the Wegman report).

    3. Because Nature editors support the “dangerous AGW” paradigm and, therefore, only publish climate papers which are in agreement with this paradigm.

    4. Because it supported the notion of unusual 20th century warmth (caused by AGW), which IPCC wanted to sell to “policymakers”.

    5. Because they suspected that there was something basically wrong with this study and its conclusions.

    6. (see 2 above)

    7. In order to find out the truth about the claim of unusual 20th century warmth, allegedly caused by human GHG emissions.

    8. Because the panel confirmed the M+M conclusions that the “hockey stick” was artifact of flawed statistical methodology and cherry-picked data, which exaggerated recent data points while smoothing older ones.

    9. In order to get confirmation by a panel of climate and statistical experts that the Wegman conclusions were supported by the NAS.

    10. Because they could find no errors in the M+M conclusions regarding the “hockey stick” or the Wegman committee report.

    But read the book and then make up your own mind on the “whys”.

    Max

  41. 141
    manacker Says:

    PeterM

    This discussion probably belongs on the NS thread, as it has shifted from the original topic of the lecture by Prof. Cox to the “hockey stick” saga.

    There are two separate parts to the “hockey stick” story.

    The first is the Mann et al. study itself. This study was comprehensively discredited as was the scientific support for its conclusion of “unusual 20th century global warmth”; as a result, IPCC has removed the “hockey stick” from its prominent full-page display in its latest “Summary for Policymakers” report.

    The second part is the notion of “unusual 20th century global warmth”. This has been scientifically refuted by dozens of independent studies from all over the world using different paleo-climate techniques, which show that the MWP was global and slightly warmer than today and the LIA was cooler. Despite these many studies, IPCC has kept the statement below in its latest “SPM” report:

    Paleoclimate information supports the interpretation that the warmth of the last half century is unusual in at least the previous 1,300 years.

    Is this simply an oversight or is IPCC knowingly “selling” the “policymakers” a questionable premise?

    You be the judge, Peter.

    Max

  42. 142
    tempterrain Says:

    Max,

    Ok I’ve moved the previous discussion off to the NS thread.

    To get back on track: the title of this thread is “Professor Brian Cox’s Wheldon Lecture: an exercise in arrogance”

    Isn’t TonyN’s article accusing not just Prof Cox but the whole of modern day science of “arrogance” ?

    If not, why would he write:
    “On a worldwide scale, atheism remains a minority point of view, and scientists would do well to humbly acknowledge this fact rather than claim a position of supremacy and infallibility for their profession that many would dispute.” ?

  43. 143
    manacker Says:

    PeterM

    No. I do not see TonyN’s lead article as an accusation of “the whole of modern day science of ‘arrogance’”, as you suggest.

    It is rather the illogic of Cox to first argue against the validity of a scientific premise based on “authority” (i.e. it must be so because the Royal Society, etc. said so) and then to reverse himself by arrogantly stating that the “peer review consensus” is what “differentiates what is mainstream and what is controversial”.

    This logic is obviously flawed as is his ludicrous statement:

    the peer-reviewed consensus is by definition impartial

    As the Wegman committee showed in reviewing the Mann et al. “hockey stick”, a key problem was precisely the fact that the so-called “peer review” was made by like-mined insiders, who were anything but impartial.

    Fortunately, most “science” does not have the problems we observe in climate science today, where (as Judith Curry has noted) a group of ideologically motivated insiders defend the “dogma” against any threat from the outside.

    As Climategate and other examples have shown, Cox is either disingenuous or terribly naive in claiming that the peer review process works as an effective quality control mechanism in climate science today.

    But I do not believe that this is a problem seen in “the whole of modern day science”, only in the highly politicized multi-billion dollar business of “climate science”.

    Max

  44. 144
    tempterrain Says:

    Neither TonyN nor yourself answering the question of why scientists need to “humbly acknowledge” those who are more inclined towards a theistic view.

  45. 145
    Neil Craig Says:

    I’m not sure why it should be improper for scientists to “claim a position of infalibility” for the scientific method (though I think few go that far) simply because religious leaders dispute it? Religious leaders don’t get accused of impropriety because they each claim infalibility for their own particular doctrines, whichever ones thjey are. Scientists have a mass of supporting evidence for their claims while religious leaders have none.

  46. 146
    manacker Says:

    Neil Craig and PeterM

    Claims supported by empirical data can be called “scientifically validated” claims.

    Those not supported by empirical data are less clear: are they uncorroborated hypotheses in the scientific sense or simply religious dogma?

    The premise that AGW has been a major driver of past climate and represents a serious potential threat is still in this category.

    Worse yet, the most recent cooling of our planet tends to falsify this hypothesis, so unless this recent cooling can be shown to be incorrect or explained in some fashion that does not invalidate the “dangerous AGW” hypothesis, it is quite likely that this hypothesis has been falsified by the observed facts, as pointed out in detail on the NS thread.

    These are the points that Cox unfortunately overlooked in his lecture.

    Max

  47. 147
    tempterrain Says:

    Neil Craig,

    Yes, it would be improper for anyone to claim infallibility for any scientific process. No-one can claim infallibility. To my knowledge no one does. As Brian Cox says, the consensus could be wrong, but its the best we can do with the available data.

    Max or TonyN,

    Any answer of why scientists need to show more humility to the God botherers yet?

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