Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Dissecting a Politician

The unlucky focus of my dissection is Nigel Lawson who was actually the MP for the constituency where I grew up. The book I wanted to take some quotes from is "An appeal to reason: A cool look at global warming".

Even before the main text starts he uses some political tricks. This is from the Foreword:
"... this book, despite being promoted by an outstanding literary agent, was rejected by every British publisher to whom it was submitted - and there were a considerable number of them.

As one rejection put it: 'My fear, with this cogently argued book, is that it flies so much in the face of the prevailing orthodoxy that it would be very difficult to find a wide marker'. The prevailing orthodoxy can be both stifling and intolerant. Those that have the temerity to question it have to become accustomed to being labelled 'deniers' - a loaded term ..." 
Now this is already loading the book for the reader. There is no sense of objectivity and reason here. This is saying here is my reasoned argument that has been rejected by closed minded orthodoxy and I am right and they are wrong. The prevailing orthodoxy might actually be correct and so it might be the right thing not to publish something that is wrong.

Next in the Introduction:
"By way of preamble, I readily admit that I am not a scientist. But then neither are the vast majority of those who pronounce on the matter with far greater certainty than I shall do here. Moreover (and this is frequently overlooked) the great majority of those scientists who speak with such certainty and apparent authority about global warming and climate change, are not in fact climate scientists, or indeed earth scientists, of any kind and thus have no special knowledge to contribute."
So, he is ignorant but that is alright because everyone else is ignorant as well. So his voice should count equally to all the others. Actually there are various levels of ignorance. If you are stuck in an isolated valley on a camping trip with a party of friends and you break a leg. None of the party are doctors, but who would you rather have treat you, your friend the vet or your friend the accountant? I might not be a climate scientist but as a scientist I know how to weigh up data and make scientific arguments and I know what limitations there are in the data. This is a use of an appeal to authority and underneath it all his authority is that he is a famous politician who now sits in the House of Lords where they debated these issues. I remember Lord Ackner giving a similar argument about his authority as head of the bar and why it should not be questioned. Authority should always be questioned.

Next in chapter one is the absolute howler:
"Nor, incidentally, does the fact that a scientific hypothesis has been published in a 'peer reviewed' learned journal provide ipso facto any evidence either that the science is 'settled', or that the hypothesis in question is likely to be proved correct. It does not even mean that the author's data and methods are available for scrutiny, or that his results are reproducible, as scientific journals, in contrast to most leading economic journals, do not require this."
That is wrong in so many ways. Firstly they do require the data and methods to be available for scrutiny. Most of the references cited come from Science and Nature which are both poor at making the methods and data available in the articles as they are in the accompanying web material as they have strict limits on article size. Real scientific journals should contain all the details. Here he is using an ad hominem argument against all science. He also cites Popper and how theories need to be refutable, but here he talks about proving a hypothesis. According to Popper you can NEVER prove a hypothesis, knowledge is always contingent.

I hate peer review as well and as he later points out it can lead to conventional wisdom dominating and a lack of  risk taking,  but if done well by open minded reviewers who take it that they might be wrong it does strenghten papers by improving the arguments. This is so long as it is not used as a political tool as it so often is. Economics is actually critiqued by Popper in the Poverty of Historicism where he says we cannot predict the future and so it is doomed to fail, as it is based purely on induction. What we observe now might not be what happens in the future.

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