The Rational Optimist on Crop Circles and other Scientific Heresies

Must read text of Matt Ridley’s Angus Millar lecture at the RSA in Edinburgh on Bishop Hill.

Matt Ridley is author of The Rational Optimist, one of the main influences that turned me way from entrenched doomerism, and writes a blog of the same name. In this stunning talk he weaves together most of the main issues in the climate change debate, baldly stating how he sees much of the “consensus science” is pseudoscience- on a par with Crop Circles!

Funnily enough I was just writing about crop circles myself, and the strong influence of pseudoscience in the green movement, and had just fished down from my bookshelf The Field Guide- The Art, History and Crop Circle Making by Rob Irving and John Lundberg.

You can read one of my early forays into critical thinking on the subject here– but note that in those days I was breezily referring to “climate change denial” as pseudoscience!

The story of crop circles and the two distinct groups of the Circle Makers and the “researchers”- who “study” the circles to determine which ones are “hoaxes” and which ones are “genuine” -ie of paranormal origin- is surely one of the most fascinating in the canons of the New Age. The Circlemakers are quite open about needing the researchers and the legions of the faithful to give meaning to what they see as a sort of subversive performance art. Publicly they always stated that they believed all crop circles to be of human origin- although there were probably various teams of circle makers at different times who may not have all known each other- but had a strict rule of never confessing to the being the creator of any specific circle. The whole thing depended on the impossibility of proving that all crop circles were man-made. The steady improvement of techniques and increasing ambition and complexity of design helped perpetuate the myth.

At one point in the book I think Lundberg describes how it felt walking incognito back into a crop circle he had just spent all night creating to find a crowd of hippies standing there holding hands in a circle waiting for the Second Coming. You can see how irresistible it must have been…

Climate alarmism is similar in as much that nearly any effect in the weather can be attributed to the effects of CO2, and any prediction can be made without any certainty that it will not come about- but with little evidence to support it either:

“A theory so flexible it can rationalize any outcome is a pseudoscientific theory.”

Ridley’s point though is that things like climate change alarmism are not art or pranks, but perpetuated by vast sums of money, and vested interests and are leading to hugely costly yet ineffective and unnecessary policies- the cure is worse than the disease:

At least crop circle believers cannot almost double your electricity bills and increase fuel poverty while driving jobs to Asia, to support their fetish.

At least creationists have not persuaded the BBC that balanced reporting is no longer necessary.

At least homeopaths have not made expensive condensing boilers, which shut down in cold weather, compulsory, as John Prescott did in 2005.

At least astrologers have not driven millions of people into real hunger, perhaps killing 192,000 last year according to one conservative estimate, by diverting 5% of the world’s grain crop into motor fuel*.

That’s why it matters. We’ve been asked to take some very painful cures. So we need to be sure the patient has a brain tumour rather than a nosebleed.

What is truly scary is as Matt explains how hard it is now to distinguish between science and its pseudo-version: no longer can we rely on just quoting the peer-reviewed evidence- we will have to look much more closely than that to be sure.

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4 thoughts on “The Rational Optimist on Crop Circles and other Scientific Heresies

  1. Apologies for taking this slightly off topic, but I have a — perhaps unwarranted — aversion to trusting Ridley’s opinion. I get the impression that he uses his “rational optimism” to push his laissez faire economic views and argue against government regulation of the economy. Remember, he put those theories into practice when he was chairman of Northern Rock — and look where that ended up. That said I haven’t read the The Rational Optimist, so I’m probably being unfair. I just need to get over my preconceptions and pick up the book I guess.

    • Hi Lennie
      fair question- I think he was non-executive chairman, so I’m not sure how much role he had in actually making bad decisions at NR, although presumably he failed to stop others from making them….
      The political debate is over the relative size of government- do you think big government is really so great? For example, in Ireland the issue is surely not just the banks- they should have just been allowed to fail like any failed business would have done; but the government has bailed them out -with our money!
      However, the issue here is, is he right about climate science? and I think broadly speaking he is- it is pretty clear to me that the consensus science is not nearly as scary as we have been given to believe, and the whole issue has become politicized to the extent that anyone who questions the policies being driven forward- of rapid and draconian decarbionisation are referred to as “deniers”. The political agenda of the alarmists would seem to be rapid increase of centralised state control over energy policy, and through the IPCC, the creation of unaccountable international bureaucracy. Unfortunately in the case of climate science, many of the scientists are on board with this same political agenda, and seem to be willing to allow science to be corrupted for this agenda.
      I hope you do read Ridley, and if anyone doubts what the climate change issue is really all about, I would encourage them to read Montford’s The Hockey Stick Illusion , Mosher and McKitrick’s The CRUTape Letters and Laframboise’ The Delinquant Teenager about the IPCC.

  2. Sorry for the slow reply Graham!

    This may meander off topic, but sure no harm….

    I don’t think government is really so great, not at all. But it does strike me that a lot of the quite rational commentators who are fighting against climate change “alarmism” are connected to free-market think tanks etc, which are pretty much always funded by large corporations with a vested financial interest in fighting any regulation of their emissions. (As a side note I tend to dislike all words like alarmism, denialism etc — except for perhaps for the most ridiculously exaggerated commentaries — as I think they just get in the way of rational dabte, and are designed to automatically ‘rubbish’ an opinion before it’s even considered)

    That’s not to say they don’t make valid points — they do. I have to say that my own “alarmism” has dwindled over the past year or so, though I still think climate change is a major issue. And I absolutely understand your skepticism of the environmental NGOs who want to cut emissions drastically now.

    I just find it frustrating that the vast majority of voices arguing for a different approach are essentially being funded by big business (including a lot of the commentators you would link to regularly). And while I’m skeptical of green groups etc, who I agree exaggerate worst case scenarios, and who I think (at least in the case of many) really see climate change as an opportunity to push for the sort of low-consumption semi-agrarian lifestyle they idolise, I do think that most environmentalists are reasonably well intentioned and probably think what they’re advocating is best for everyone — I couldn’t say that about the free-marketeers who I would suspect are mostly just trying to minimise the extent to which they’re regulated in their own self interest.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that the vast majority of voices in the GW discussion are vested interests, and clarity is hard to find. I’m skeptical of anyone with agenda beyond ‘the science’.

    Even your own blog — one that’s designed to pinpoint scientific fallacies behing green arguments — is far more likely to showcase when green arguments are flawed than when they’re accurate.

    You wrote: “The political agenda of the alarmists would seem to be rapid increase of centralised state control over energy policy, and through the IPCC, the creation of unaccountable international bureaucracy.”

    I’m not sure I can agree with that — what alarmists want rapid central control over energy policy and international bureaucracy? Most ‘grassroots’ greens I know believe in decentralised democracy. I don’t really see what interest green NGOs would have in the establishment of international bureaucracy, though maybe I’m missing something. However I do think it’s quite possibly that politicians — for example at EU level — might see climate change as an opportunity to centralise power, something politicians are often likely to do. But again the key thing is to look past motivations and look at the science.

    I did a quick search on some of the books you suggested. I have to see seeing this page on Donna Laframboise’s website left me a bit skeptical: http://noconsensus.org/smart-people-beg-to-differ.php

    George Carlin and Michael Crichton, is that best she can come up with? But that’s an aside…

    On a philosophical note, and aside from the global warming discussion, I’m not convinced an “optimistic” take on the future of global energy supplies is rational. To me, it seems a lot of the argument coming from those who argue against ‘energy descent’ (and just to be clear, I’m not in favour of a Transition-style rapid energy descent) is that technology will save us, it has in the past and we’re an innovative species, so everything will be fine. That really strikes me as being pretty far from the idea of an evidence-based energy policy. Sure, technology might provide cheap clean energy sources in the short/medium term, but then again it might not. Surely the rational approach is to maximise energy efficiency while investing heavily in R&D of new energy technologies?

    • Thanks Lenny
      enough issues here to provide material for many blog posts, so Ill just make a few points in response:

      But it does strike me that a lot of the quite rational commentators who are fighting against climate change “alarmism” are connected to free-market think tanks etc, which are pretty much always funded by large corporations with a vested financial interest in fighting any regulation of their emissions

      This is the conventional view of the Left- that skeptcis are funded by Big Oil; but the actual skeptics like McIntyre of Climate Audit dont seem to be funded at all, and have taken on their work on their own initiative; as Ridley says, the WWF, Greenpeace and FoE got $1 Billion last year- are you questioning this? or are you saying, you dont belive it because Ridley is a free-marketeer?
      Jo Nova looks into the finding of the alarmist machine here. She can also be dismissed of course – because she is on the Right! Political ideologies are at least as strong as religious ones- in my personal experience, some people simply cannot question the consensus on AGW simply because it would be a betrayal of their political tribe.
      Funding is a huge issue for the warmist position I think. Ben Pile has a piece here about Bob Ward who seems to be hedging his bets with interest in Big Oil AND renewables; while this piece on the Climategate Inquiries discusses just how much finding is at stake for scientists at the CRU for “towing the party line”. Dont forget that Enron and other big financial corporations postioned themselves to benefit from, and campaigned for, carbin trading.

      Even your own blog — one that’s designed to pinpoint scientific fallacies behind green arguments — is far more likely to showcase when green arguments are flawed than when they’re accurate.

      I think you answer your own question- that is why it is called Skepteco! But the underlying narrative is, there is precious little science in the green movement anyway, loads of woo and very strong- anti-science views.

      You wrote: “The political agenda of the alarmists would seem to be rapid increase of centralised state control over energy policy, and through the IPCC, the creation of unaccountable international bureaucracy.”

      Well Monbiot wrote a book a few years back called The Age Of Consent, putting the case for a one-world gvt. I mentioned this recently to a prominent Transitioner and PO activist, who looked at me blankly, saying “of course we need a one-word gvt- how else are we to implement global CO2 reductions?”- he is not the only one to say such to me recently. See also The Green Agenda for lots of similar quotes from prominent activists. I thin again you make my point for me- the big NGOs ARE unaccountable international bureaucracies- they make their money (lots of it) by fear-mongering. The IPCC is the biggest one- it has huge funding, which you are not likely to get a share of if you question the party line too much. It is supposed to be a sort of Supra-national organisation that can control fuel use over and above any democratic control from the populations it represents. Im afraid I would see your de-centralist activists as lambs to the slaughter- supporting causes that seem progressive but in reality are anything but.

      George Carlin and Michael Crichton, is that best she can come up with? But that’s an aside…

      Well on the same page she has Freeman Dyson, widely regarded asd one of the world’s leading physicists. But dont discount Crichton- his novel State of Fear, a fictionalised view of the climate change issue, is very good and contains an essay by him on the politicisation of science which is well worth reading- he does understand science.

      Surely the rational approach is to maximise energy efficiency while investing heavily in R&D of new energy technologies?

      Absolutely. This is exactly what Lomborg advocates for example- but there is a big difference between finding R&D into renewables and funding … renewables now. The latter is wasting some of the money that should be going towards the former. Wind and soalr cannot do what is being asked of them- other technologies may be more promising, obviously nuclear, shale gas, maybe in the future oil from algae, I dont know. The shale gas issue is fascinating- there is a new and very large source of energy and the Peak-oilers, rather than saying “we were wrong” are trying to stop its exploitation! To me, that says a lot. Of course I’ll explore these issues much more in the blog; but it doesnt make sense to say “we might not find new sources of energy, so let’s assume we wont”- shale gas IS a new source of energy, there is likely at least 100 years of it available, possibly more. That is energy for a long time- how likely is it that in 100 years we will suddenly stop innovating? Add in new forms of nuclear and we can see a slow transition away from oil, but this will take decades. Energy efficiency is critical of course, but again this will mainly come from new technologies, not from Transition-style lifestyle changes.

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