The whole saga about Matt Ridley and his recent Times article called Policy-based evidence making feels a bit like a semi-professional version of ClimateBallTM. His article didn’t go down well with some, including Richard Betts and Mark Maslin (a Professor at University College London), who tweeted some strong criticisms. Matt Ridley responded to this criticism (which you can read at the end of the repost of his article on his blog), but it’s more a form of tone trolling, than a genuinely measured response. He finishes his response with
A reaction of bluster and invective hardly reassures me that science takes my point on board. For the moment, I remain of the view that …. The overwhelming majority of scientists do excellent, objective work, following the evidence wherever it leads. Science remains (in my view) our most treasured cultural achievement, bar none. Most of its astonishing insights into life, the universe and everything are beyond reproach and beyond compare. ….But Dr Betts’s reaction has weakened my confidence in this view.
So, he’s basically suggested that Richard Bett’s response has done further damage. Let’s, however, remind ourselves of what he actually said in the article that provoked the strong response. The Times article is called Scientists must not put policy before proof and his blog repost is titled Policy-based evidence making ….. Science is being corrupted by political bias. Well, that’s not a great start. Hard not to interpret that as some scientists (general rather than specific) are using their policy preferences to influence their scientific results.
He presents some examples of this. One given was
the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a supposedly scientific body, issued a press release stating that this is likely to be the warmest year in a century or more, based on surface temperatures.
Well, no, they had a press release with a title 2014 on course to be one of hottest, possibly hottest, on record. They do say if November and December maintain the same tendency, then 2014 will likely be the hottest on record. So, they did not say 2014 is likely to be the warmest in a century or more, they said it was likely if November and December – like many months during 2014 – maintain the same tendency to be amongst the warmest on record.
Another example he gave was the homogenisation adjustment of the Rutherglen temperature record. He suggest they
claimed the adjustment was necessary because the thermometer had moved between two fields, but could provide no evidence for this, or for why it necessitated such a drastic adjustment.
Well, no, the evidence is here. He might argue that the evidence doesn’t support the need for an adjustment (although quite why he would think he would be qualified to do so would be beyond me) but he can’t dispute its existence.
He then goes on to criticise the Royal Society and suggests that one of their past presidents (Paul Nurse) has
called for those who disagree with him to be “crushed and buried”.
Well, according to Paul Nurse’s letter to the Times, he was suggesting that serial offenders [who] continue repeatedly to misinform people about science …. should be crushed and buried and that crushed and buried was metaphorical, not literal. Well, I find it hard to believe that anyone who was interested in the proper representation of science would disagree with this. Why would we want to let people get away with serially misinforming people about science. I had assumed (naively, I admit) that Matt Ridley believes that he isn’t misinforming people about science. That he seems to object to what Paul Nurse said makes me think that maybe, deep down, he knows that he is.
So, essentially, Matt Ridley writes an article implying that some scientists (and, presumably, not an insignificant number) are letting their policy preferences influence their science. He then provides some examples that don’t actually support this position and which he doesn’t even represent correctly. His article provokes strong responses from scientists and he then gets to complain about the tone of their response without actually addressing their criticisms in any substantive way. He also gets to imply that this response has exacerbated the problem (and, ultimately, insulting those who responded). In a way, though, I’m impressed that even a member of the House of Lords plays ClimateballTM. Of course, that doesn’t change that it’s a fundamentally childish game.
I’ll finish on a more serious note. What struck me about Matt Ridley’s response (and he’s not alone in expressing these kind of views) is the sense that he thinks he’s seen things that make him dubious about some science and about scientists, and he now wants people to put effort into convincing him of their honesty and integrity, so that he can regain his trust in science. Well, why would anyone do that? Science isn’t perfect and there are certainly things that could improve, but there’s no reason to do so simply because someone with an over-inflated sense of their own self-importance wants to be convinced that he should be less dubious. Not everyone can be convinced and not everyone needs to be convinced. If he wants to be dubious and wants to not trust science and scientists, he can; it’s a free world. Noone needs to care that this is how he feels and – in my opinion – noone should.