The Curious Double Standards of Simon Singh

Because mathematics?Singh

I know I promised yesterday that I wasn’t going to post about that ruddy Horizon documentary again but I’m afraid my hand has been forced by Simon Singh.

Yes, Simon Singh as in the popular mathematician and bestselling author of Fermat’s Last Theorem. And also, more germanely to this story, the recent victim of an expensive libel action brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA). The BCA eventually dropped its action – but not before Singh had run up £200,000 in legal costs. Though some it his lawyers will be able to claim back, he’s still likely to lose £60,000 of his own money as a result of his brave, principled decision to fight the case rather than cave in earlier.

I hugely respected him for what he did. He won a victory (albeit a financially Pyrrhic one) not just for himself but for all those of us who trade in robust opinion and who believe that English libel laws are outrageously biased in favour of vexatious complainants, which is why we have unfortunately become a haven for libel tourists, some of them representing unspeakable causes.

As he said afterwards:

“English libel law is so intimidating, so expensive, so hostile to serious journalists that it has a chilling effect on all areas of debate, silencing scientists, journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and everyone else who dares to tackle serious matters of public interest.”

Among those “serious matters of public interest”, you might imagine, would be Climate Change. Urged on by the increasingly doom-laden pronouncements of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s governments are presenting taxpayers with the biggest bill in history to deal with a threat they call Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). Besides costing the global economy trillions of dollars, the threat of AGW has been used to justify everything from biofuels (which have led to the destruction of rain forests and increases in food prices, especially damaging to the world’s poor) to the blighting of countryside with wind farms and solar panels (which have wreaked havoc with economies including Spain’s). None of this is a matter of opinion and conjecture. It is provable, solidly back by much evidence and I have written about it many times on this blog – with sources and references, which anyone is free to check up on by revisiting my archive of posts.

Yet in the opinion of Singh, the worldwide Climate Change industry is the one area where the robust scepticism and empiricism he professes to believe in just doesn’t apply. Apparently, the job of a journalist is just to accept the word of “the scientists” and take it as read that being as they are “scientists” their word is God and it brooks no questioning or dissent. That’s it. Finished. There’s a “consensus” on global warming. It’s immutable and correct. And anyone who disputes it is a vexatious denier informed by nothing but ignorance and who deserves nothing other than to be hounded and bullied and abused by the Guardian, the Independent, the BBC, Simon Singh’s Twitter mob, Ben Goldacre’s Twitter mob, and the shrill nest of paid-for trolls who infest the comments below this blog not to present a reasoned case but merely to disrupt and offend.

Well I’m sick of it.

What sickens me is the hypocrisy of people who claim to be in favour of speech, claim to believe in empiricism, claim to be sceptics yet refuse to accept room for an honest, open debate on one of the most important political issues of our time.

And just this afternoon, Simon Singh – purported defender of free speech; enemy of junk science – joined the ranks of those disgraceful hypocrites with a message on Twitter.

(Yeah I know a lot of your say “Why bother with Twitter”. But Singh speaks to a reasonably large audience of 14,500 followers. His views influence people’s opinion, so it matters)

Here’s what he Tweeted:

Sorry, but @JamesDelingpole deserves mockery ‘cos he has the arrogance to think he knows more of science than a Nobel Laureate

Is that the message Singh really took from the BBC’s Horizon documentary? When did I ever make that claim?

I have no doubt whatsoever that Sir Paul Nurse knows more about genetics than I do. It is, after all, where the field in which he won his Nobel prize. As for science, sure, Nurse has the advantage over me there, too. He has a PhD. He’s a science graduate and I’m an arts graduate. But then I’ve never pretended otherwise. My case is not that I “James Delingpole have taken a long hard look at the science of global warming and discovered through careful sifting of countless peer-reviewed papers that the experts have got it all wrong.”

What I am saying, and I say almost every day, is that the evidence is not as robust as the “consensus” scientists claim; that there are many distinguished scientists all round the world who dispute this alleged “consensus”; that true science doesn’t advance through “consensus” and never has; that the Climategate emails threw the peer-review process into serious doubt by demonstrating how eminently corruptable it is; that there are many vested interests out there determined and able to spend a great deal of money by making out that the case for catastrophic, man-made global warming is much stronger than it is. And on these specific issues I can reasonably claim to be better informed than Sir Paul Nurse, regardless of how many PhDs he has, because I’ve spent much more time than he has researching them and because they are not issues which require an exclusively scientific knowledge to understand. They just require the basic journalistic skill of being able to read and analyse.

Yet despite apparently knowing nothing more about me and what I do than he has learned from a heavily politicised BBC documentary, and maybe heard from his mob of Twitter bully chums or read in the Guardian, Singh feels able to decide that Paul Nurse is right on this issue and I’m wrong. Well I don’t call that an evidence-based argument. I call that dishonest, thoughtless and – given the high ethical standards Singh claims to represent – outrageously hypocritical.

I would be genuinely impressed – and even more surprised – if Singh himself, and all those of his Twitter chums who’ve been harassing me with vile messages, were prepared to read this piece to the end, consider what it says and respond thoughtfully. I don’t mind the occasional ad homs: they have their place in an argument. But if ad homs (and Appeals to Authority: eg “Sir Paul Nurse has got a Nobel prize and you haven’t, ergo he is right and you’re wrong…”) are all you can muster, then it says much for the poverty and ignorance of your cause.

You can disagree with me all you like on whether or not you think global warming is man made; on how much we should spend to deal with it; on whether mankind is a cancer on the earth or a force for good; on any number of issues. But what I can’t abide any more is what has been happening all this week, irresponsibly orchestrated by Sir Paul Nurse, the BBC and their dishonest, ferociously lopsided “documentary”: the frenzied witch-hunt of a journalist and blogger who has done no more than journalists and bloggers should be doing in a free and open society.

Those who can come up with reasoned riposte – or indeed an apology, and that means especially you Simon Singh – I will respect.

Those who cannot are ought to look into their hearts and ask themselves: “If my cause is really so powerful and right and true, how come its response to any kind of criticism is not to engage with it through argument but merely to try to silence it with censorship, appeals to authority, crude character assassination and establishment cover ups?”

Related posts:

  1. Simon Singh: is there anything he doesn’t know?
  2. Simon Singh’s for the joy of solar energy
  3. The curious rise of bottled water
  4. RealClimategate hits the final nail in the coffin of ‘peer review’

7 thoughts on “The curious double standards of Simon Singh”

  1. Richard Treadgold says:30th January 2011 at 8:32 amJames, I had to congratulate you when I noticed just now that your “Curious double standards” article at the Telegraph has achieved a remarkable 2100+ comments (and rising). Many of them are not worth the ether onto which they’re posted, but the mere fact that such huge numbers of your opponents consider your article a suitable pennant beneath which to quarrel magnifies your reputation.

    They are a tribute to your writing skills. Writing is learning. Readers don’t understand that, thinking that they are the ones doing the learning; neither do the argumentative, seeing nothing but the bickering they relish. Only the thoughtful know how much must be learned every time words are set down to be read.

    Your writing is perceptive, fearless and enthralling. To read it is to know you, your subject and myself a little more.

    I hope you keep up your fine work.

    Warm regards,
    Richard Treadgold.

  2. Bronny says:30th January 2011 at 3:48 pmWell, I’ll point out that quantity does not mean quality, 2100+ posts or not. This was a really petty article and makes the author sound like a petulant child. Dr. Singh’s libel case was to make sure discussion can be had without fear of legal reprisals, something from which we will all benefit. But you mention it and then mangle it up in statement about only scientists being able to discuss science based issues. No-one is suggesting those not qualified to high heaven should not have an opinion, but if I had to decide on a consensus reached on a complex scientific issue by a room full of scientists and the consensus reached by a room full of Heat readers then I know which I’d have greater faith in. Unless the topic was about whether Jordan looks better blonde or brunette of course. I do believe that peer review is an essential process in assessing validity of arguments, and the ability to understand the context of the arguments being made and even the precise meanings of the words used. Consensus is a process which does exists within all sciences, however, the very nature of scientific research is not to just to prove that something does work but also to advance evidence that previously accepted statements as not now working and are invalid. It should be about constantly challenging the status quo.

    I am a scientist, but not one qualified in the area of climate variations, but should I want to learn more about the arguments then I know which publications I’d turn to to get my facts. Unfortunately Mr Delingpole many people don’t appreciate that just because you have a lot to say on the subject that you don’t necessarily know anymore than anyone else, and a blog on the web is really not the best way to get the facts on the subject (by those on either side of the argument). By helping to create a pretty nasty environment in which global warming is discussed you are really not doing anyone a favour, and perhaps, just perhaps, it is because you don’t have the rigourous background as the scientists against which you rally. It is this tone and attitude which makes you a vexatious denier not what you are saying. You contribute to an atmosphere where absolutes are stated as correct and discourage people to listen to the “enemy”, which helps absolutely no-one. Science benefits from real discussion, not from sticking your fingers in your ears singing “I’m not listening, I’m not listening”. Scientists are not doing the best job they could do at explaining why the consensus, as it stands, states a certain process is occuring – that’s something they need to deal with. However, I don’t find that your attitude in any way helpful to addressing this issue.

    As for this petulant article anyone can read back on Twitter and see that Dr Singh quite clearly proposed an opportunity for you to discuss the issue of AGW in public, on the record, with experts in the field (because he acknowledges he is not an expert in this field, just as you aren’t). You say “What sickens me is the hypocrisy of people who claim to be in favour of speech, claim to believe in empiricism, claim to be sceptics yet refuse to accept room for an honest, open debate on one of the most important political issues of our time.” and yet he proposed the opportunity for such open debate, but you had your fingers in your ears singing “I’m not listening” and then rushed off to write a really unnecessary and petty article, further riling up the others with fingers in their ears.

    I suspect this is more about your pride and the Horizon programme than you feeling bullied by the mob, but that is unbelievably selfish of you considering the importance of the global warming debate. Perhaps next time you put fingers to keyboard you could consider whether it can make a positive contribution to society and not whether it can help correct one of your petty ego niggles.

  3. Nige Cook says:30th January 2011 at 10:19 pm“Scientists are not doing the best job they could do at explaining why the consensus, as it stands, states a certain process is occuring – that’s something they need to deal with.” – Bronny

    What struck me was the arrogance of everyone except James in the BBC’s Horizon: Science Under Attack programme. Sir Paul asks the American NASA “expert” about climate change models and is shown a double screen comparison of weather forecasting a few days ahead with actual satellite data (no proof that the same model is valid for predicting climate a hundred years hence). The BBC edit it as much as possible to prevent the viewer seeing the differences, instead focussing on the American guy saying “seeing is believing”.

    The same guy also tells Sir Paul that he “doesn’t know” why critics of climate science doubt the effect of CO2 on climate (itself a remarkable admission, since if I don’t bother to learn and refute/correct for criticisms, I expect to be fired), then he suggests lamely with a shrug that he “think” the critics worry about the “details of the temperature record, or the carbon record”. Er, good guess.

    If he had bothered to research the objections further, he might actually find why the computer model is no use: (1) the tree-ring growth temperature data is all suspect because tree growth depends on cloud cover, pollution (including “natural” volcanic dust and chemicals like sulphur dioxide) and rain as well as air temperature, and (2) increased temperatures cause increased evaporation, which isn’t going into increased low level air humidity (according to measurements since the 1940s), so apparently is going into increased cloud cover instead. This usually reflects sunlight back, regulating climate.

  4. Nige Cook says:31st January 2011 at 10:31 amJames, can you sometime write something about the fraud in superstring theory, please? It’s a perfect analogy to the history of the global warming groupthink scam. The best place to start is with Dr Peter Woit, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Woit :

    “For the last eighteen years particle theory has been dominated by a single approach to the unification of the Standard Model interactions and quantum gravity. This line of thought has hardened into a new orthodoxy that postulates an unknown fundamental supersymmetric theory involving strings and other degrees of freedom with characteristic scale around the Planck length. […] It is a striking fact that there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever for this complex and unattractive conjectural theory. There is not even a serious proposal for what the dynamics of the fundamental ‘M-theory’ is supposed to be or any reason at all to believe that its dynamics would produce a vacuum state with the desired properties. The sole argument generally given to justify this picture of the world is that perturbative string theories have a massless spin two mode and thus could provide an explanation of gravity, if one ever managed to find an underlying theory for which perturbative string theory is the perturbative expansion.”

    – Quantum Field Theory and Representation Theory: A Sketch, Dr Woit, 2002 arxiv paper, http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0206135

    Please see Dr Woit’s continuing blog exposing lying hype, Not Even Wrong. His latest post is “Is the Multiverse Immoral?” http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=3419 which contains the very telling comment from the “Crackpot Index” inventor, Dr John Baez:

    “Maybe a branch of science is ripe for infection by pseudoscience whenever it stops making enough progress to satisfy the people in that field: as a substitute for real progress, they’ll be tempted to turn to fake progress. One could expect this tendency to be proportional to the loftiness of the goals the field has set for itself… and to the difficulty its practitioners have in switching to nearby fields that are making more progress.”

  5. Bert says:1st February 2011 at 3:09 amJamie

    After you have seen off the ‘warmists,’ and have put exposed the deceit of string theory, please could you set the record straight on the conspiracy that the earth revolves around the sun. Then could you prove that England’s third goal in the 1966 World Cup Final never actually crossed the line?
    What a hero you are.. What a man!

  6. Nige Cook says:1st February 2011 at 10:05 am“please could you set the record straight on the conspiracy that the earth revolves around the sun”

    Bert,

    It’s just a hoax that the sun is the centre of the universe. Einstein’s relativity says that there’s no preferred frame of reference: the laws of physics work for either a sun-centred universe or an earth-centred universe.

  7. Pingback: Climate change and the traditional skeptics: An opinion study « Shub Niggurath Climate

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