(What follows is a comment which Alex Cull posted on another thread. It is quite extraordinary that an ex-government chief scientific adviser and ex-president of the Royal Society should be capable of thinking like this, and Alex’s final comments is typically sharp.)


Happy New Year, all! Here’s a recent interview you may find of interest – Robyn Williams of the ABC’s (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) Science Show talking to Lord May; worth a listen/read, in my opinion. An excerpt (emphases mine): Robyn Williams: So what do you make of someone like Lord Lawson, with whom you sit in the House of Lords, who has for many, many years, having been Chancellor of the Exchequer, a brilliant man, but nonetheless talks about climate change consistently over the years as if it is highly questionable. What do you say to him?

Robert May: And particularly amazing more recently is Andrew Turnbull, who I always thought of as a very sensible person. He was the Cabinet Secretary, a civil servant, not a politician. So his career was taking advice from people who knew more about it than him, and he is right up there as a denier. Polly Toynbee wrote an extraordinarily cruel thing about him. I do find it puzzling, but I do have one perhaps unsound potential explanation. These people are all economists, and more recently I’ve come to learn a little bit more about economics and I realise it is very largely (and I don’t mean this in a sarcastic way, it’s just a statement), it is largely faith-based. It doesn’t have much in the way of testable hypotheses and things. It does have things in the way of simple models but they tend to be grounded on beliefs, and the discussions they have would have been a more familiar in Socrates’ Athens than in today’s scientific colloquium. And so I have some sympathy that just as you may believe in perfect markets or general equilibrium or hidden hands, you could have a belief that the climate can’t do that. That is a charitable explanation. There are less charitable ones, that it ultimately derives from other kinds of motives.

I had a look at columnist Polly Toynbee’s article, which I think he might be referring to; it’s from August last year and about why Britain must resist “Tea Party madness” (where else would it be but in the Guardian?) and it, too, is I think worth a read, from a climate change psychology perspective. She writes:

On matters of fact, those of us who are not scientists can only listen to what scientists say and trust such an overwhelming global consensus.

Now that’s what I call faith.

9 Responses to “Reflections on Lord May of Oxford’s new theory, faith, and Polly Toynbee’s scientific method”

  1. Do you think Lord May has been reading too many criticisms of AGW supporters by climate sceptics?!

  2. To be fair to Robert May he’s making the point that Economics isn’t like other Sciences. There is no requirement for agreement or consensus – so the question of whether Economics can be even called a Science does arise.

    Its unlikely to change any time soon. There are strongly established ‘schools’ of Marxist, Keynesian, and Hayek type free-market economists. Obviously, political beliefs are likely to be the determining factor in determining which one a budding young economist may gravitate to in the early stage of their careers.

    It can only be hoped that other sciences don’t go the same way.

    The scientific consensus may not be perfect. It has been wrong from time to time. But is there anything better?

  3. Brilliant. I love the sniffy way Lord May remarks that Lord Lawson’s reasoning wouldn’t be out of place in Socrates’s Athens. Is Lord May dreaming of a trial for corruption of morals for his Right Honourable Friend, followed by a dose of hemlock?
    As for Polly Toynbee’s call to “listen to what the scientists say” – if only. She and the rest of the media listen to their colleagues Monbiot and Carrington, who listen to the likes of Lord May and Sir Paul Nurse, who trust Phil Jones because he’s got the word “scientist” printed on his passport.

    tempterrain: “The scientific consensus may not be perfect. It has been wrong from time to time. But is there anything better?”
    Yes, there is. Reasoned argument. Like they had in Socrates’ Athens.

  4. Oh dear I fear the Alzheimer’s is catching up with Lord May. The man never made much sense when he was chief scientist, being a politician rather than an analytical adviser. We know he sold out the royal society and now he accuses others of the same behaviour. For a PhD in theoretical physics he chose a strange area to study. I would go as far to say it would not have been the ideal grounding for studying biodiversity, and perhaps why he is happy placing so much faith in mathematical modelling of the climate.

    PeterM Economics is not a science in the sense that we can measure its properties with instruments, but there is a degree of science based rigour that can be applied to the study of economics that is lamentably lacking in most of todays economists. First and foremost they should understand their subject which they most certainly do not. Marxist, Keynesian, and Hayek are political responses and have the word economics loosely applied to them, usually by those who have little understanding of economics.

    The beauty with economics though is we can look back and see history repeating itself over and over. For those looking fore an excelent piece on how its all gone wrong with many parrallels with Climate science read this.

  5. @pg – interesting piece by Jesse Norman. He completely misses the point about crony capitalism – the usual definition is

    “a capitalist economy in which success in business depends on close relationships between business people and government officials. It may be exhibited by favoritism in the distribution of legal permits, government grants, special tax breaks, and so forth”

    He hankers for a fictitious golden age where everyone was decent (as defined by him). Quite close, in fact, to a “crony” system where he decides who is a “good egg”, and new laws would enforce moral bahaviour (his morals).

  6. Hi Jack, I prefer to use the word Corporatism to Crony. I think it describes or conveys for the benefit of those who are not well versed in business a more realistic impression. Crony conger’s the image you describe above which is far too simplistic for what has happened.

    Capitalism is about competition, plain and simple and that competition leads to innovation and progress. This is the basis of our high standard of living. In the west our governments have regulated all competition out of the market, so that small business are being squeezed to extinction. It is this same regulatory mentality that is behind the policy responses to global warming and climate change.

    Jesse Norman’s piece needs to be seen in that light. It is however necessarily short and there are many examples I could quote that illustrate what has happened.

    But before we can find solutions to all our current malaises, you first need to be honest in your understanding of how we got here.

  7. I went to a talk by Bob May on Science Advice and Policy Making.

    One of the main messages was that we should consult widely, seek a wide range of views and actively encourage dissent. In fact there is a summary of his talk on the web here making this point.

    I always thought of him as a sensible person. Now I think of him as a hypocrite.

  8. Economic science is not ‘faith based’. The modern-day economic orthodoxy may well appear to be so to an outside observer, as it insists that the positivist-empiricist methodology that is useful for the natural sciences should be employed in the social sciences as well. However, this is erronerous, as there truly are no ways to ‘test’ economic laws empirically. On the other hand, there ARE economic laws – and they are incontestably true, such as e.g. Ricardo’s law of association, the law of marginal utility, the theorems of value and price, and so forth. Establishing their truth does not require ‘testing’ – it requires inner reflection and logical deduction. In this sense, economic science is like mathematics, an aprioristic science. Nevertheless, its theorems tell us something about reality. Once one has grasped the need for this methodological dualism – empiricism and testing of hyoptheses under controlled conditions for the natural sciences, aprioristic reasoning on the basis of incontestable axioms for the social sciences – one realizes that economic science is just as exact as the natural sciences are, but since it deals with human beings imbued with a free will, the way it goes about acquiring knowledge must be different. This has both advantages and disadvantages. For instance, precise quantitative prediction is not possible in economics – predictions can only ever be qualitative, constrained by economic laws. On the other hand, the basic laws can be shown to be incontestably true from the outset and do not require testing – their precision is absolute, their truth apodictic. ‘Faith’ has absolutely nothing to do with it.

  9. It would only be faith on Polly’s part if she believed it. If she knows anything on the subject she knows that the largest single expression of scientific opinion on the subject is the Oregon Petition which sayys alarmism is false and that not one single scientist has been found who supports the catastrophic warming story without being in the pay of the state. If she doesn’t know this she doesn’t know anything on the subject and thuscannot honestly hold a view on it – even a faith based one.

    The alternative is that she knows the truth perfectly well & [ snip ]. If there is another alternative I have yet to be told of it.

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