Simon Singh: Is There Anything He Doesn’t Know?

Singh by Josh
Singh by Josh

Congratulations to Simon Singh. Not only is he Britain’s third most famous celebrity mathematician after Carol Vordermann and Johnny Ball but he is also, it seems, a supremely persuasive debater. His fluent performance in last week’s Spectator global warming debate was adjudged by both Andrew Neil and Spectator editor Fraser Nelson to be the best of the evening.

As Nelson noted in a Tweet:

Simon Singh @slsingh makes superb defence of climate orthodoxy. It’s the “don’t think trust experts” argument, but delivered brilliantly.

Singh chose to take offence at this, prompting Tweets of sympathy from fellow travellers including columnist David Aaronovitch and BBC talk radio host Simon Mayo. To put Nelson in his place, he fired off what he apparently considered to be the five killer questions which proved his point entirely:

1. Do you agree that increases in CO2 and other greenhouse gases lead to an increase in the global temperature?

2. Do you agree CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased from 280ppmv to 380ppmv (35%) during period of industrialisation?

3. Do you agree that the Earth’s climate has warmed by 0.6 degrees in the last 50 years?

4. Do you agree human contribution to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is major factor in the warming over the last century?

5. Do you agree best scientific predictions estimate further rise of 1.1 to 6 C over 100 yrs based on good (not perfect) models?

Er, can anyone else detect in Singh’s response the sound of Punxsutawney Phil, scrabbling his way out of his little groundhog hole for the billion and first consecutive day in a row?

Let’s have a shot at answering them for him.

1. No. This remains an unproven hypothesis, predicated on assumptions of positive climate feedbacks which exist only in computer models not observed reality.

2.  Yes, CO2 levels have certainly risen in that period, but correlation is not causation. And in any case, CO2 levels have continued to rise since 1998 when there has been no global warming.

3. Possibly, though the unreliability of the temperature data sets which have been artificially adjusted by politicised, parti-pris institutions like NOAA and the CRU makes it hard to be sure.

4. No, this remains at best an unproven hypothesis.

5. No: almost every word of that sentence is based on politics not science. The models are hopelessly flawed and inevitably so given that climate is a chaotic system. Even if they were accurate and the 6 degree rise is looking increasingly implausible greater warmth will, on balance, be good for the planet. It’s global cooling we should fear far more.

Do I know all these answers (suggested improvements welcome, by the way) because I’m the most brilliant scientist of my generation who could have solved Fermat’s Last Theorem in five minutes if only I could have been arsed? Why, no. I’ve become acquainted with this really very basic, entry level climate science using a technique I practised occasionally on my Oxford English literature course known as “reading.”

“Reading” is a good way of learning stuff. Singh ought to try it some time, as perhaps ought his celebrity chums Aaronovitch and Mayo (who claims to have quit reading the Spectator because of its ‘anti-science bias’.) It really would make all the difference to their understanding of current thinking on Climate Change.

That list of killer questions brandished by Singh as his ne plus ultra of scientific authority? Well it might just about have passed muster  five years ago, when the public was still treating films like An Inconvenient Truth as if they were the Sermon on the Mount.

But since then, there have been one or two changes.

Books like this and this have been written.

Sceptic sites like this, this and this have acquired critical mass.

Stories like this have broken.

This isn’t to say that it is compulsory to believe every word they say. (Though I’ve yet to read a successful refutation of Andrew Montford’s book, for example) But what is utterly, credibility-shreddingly, intelligence-insultingly risible is for people like Simon Singh to stand up in a public debate hall and act as if none of them has ever happened.

Yet this is just what Singh did in the Spectator debate. (And what the rest of the Warmist establishment continues to do too: watch this space for an account of the University of East Anglia’s desperate attempts to silence this column).

He resorted to that last refuge of the scoundrel: the Appeal to Authority.

The reason you should believe in AGW, he argued, is because most of the world’s expert scientific bodies do. Since Simon Singh apparently so reveres the thing he calls “science” (but which I would call the ruling science establishment hegemony: something altogether different from the disinterested pursuit of knowledge which I believe “science” properly is), let me invoke two great scientific thinkers to put him back in his box.

I’m grateful to Nicholas Hallam at Bishop Hill’s blog for drawing them to my attention:

When men are established in any kind of dignity, it is thought a breach of modesty for others to derogate any way from it, and question the authority of men who are in possession of it. This is apt to be censured, as carrying with it too much pride, when a man does not readily yield to the determination of approved authors, which is wont to be received with respect and submission by others : and it is looked upon as insolence, for a man to set up and adhere to his own opinion against the current stream of antiquity ; or to put it in the balance against that of some learned doctor, or otherwise approved writer. Whoever backs his tenets with such authorities, thinks he ought thereby to carry the cause, and is ready to style it impudence in any one who shall stand out against them. This I think may be called argumentum ad verecundiam.

John Locke, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, Book 4, Chapter XVII, 19


Today, the appeal to the authority of experts is sometimes excused by the immensity of our specialized knowledge. And it is sometimes defended by philosophical theories that speak of science and rationality in terms of specializations, experts, and authority. But in my view, the appeal to the authority of experts should be neither excused nor defended. It should, on the contrary, be recognized for what it is an intellectual fashion and it should be attacked by a frank acknowledgement of how little we know, and how much that little is due to people who have worked in many fields at the same time. And it should also be attacked by the recognition that the orthodoxy produced by intellectual fashions, specialization, and the appeal to authorities is the death of knowledge, and that the growth of knowledge depends entirely upon disagreement

Karl Popper, Author’s Note, 1993, The Myth of the Framework

Some readers may detect a soupcon of withering contempt towards Singh and his kind in this particular blog post. I wonder what else he expects when he refers to climate change sceptics as “Muppets”. Unless Singh can raise his game and actually engage with the argument rather than bullying his opponents with the help of Sleb Twitter pals and his Ipse Dixit logical fallacies, I think we all know who the real muppet is.

Related posts:

  1. Simon Singh’s for the joy of solar energy
  2. The curious double standards of Simon Singh
  3. The Spectator’s editor agrees: the only way out of this ghastly Euro fudge is OUT
  4. RealClimategate hits the final nail in the coffin of ‘peer review’

2 thoughts on “Simon Singh: is there anything he doesn’t know?”

  1. John D says:3rd April 2011 at 12:56 amHey James, maybe you should retitle your article as “James Delingpole: is there anything he does know?” given your performance on the BBC documentary…
  2. Nige Cook says:3rd April 2011 at 8:05 amThe man dismissed in Socrates’ Apology, according to Plato: “οὖτος μὲν οἴεταί τι εἰδέναι οὐκ εἰδώς, ἐγὼ δέ, ὥσπερ οὖν οὐκ οἶδα, οὐδὲ οἴμαι”.“This man, on the one hand, believes that he knows something, while not knowing. On the other hand, I – equally ignorant – do not believe.”

    This fine distinction between peer-reviewed crap and proved facts is clearly explained by Professor Richard P. Feynman’s address, “What is Science?”, presented at the fifteenth annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association, 1966 in New York City, published in The Physics Teacher, vol. 7, issue 6, 1968, pp. 313-320:

    “You must here distinguish – especially in teaching – the science from the forms or procedures that are sometimes used in developing science. … great religions are dissipated by following form without remembering the direct content of the teaching of the great leaders. In the same way, it is possible to follow form and call it science, but that is pseudo-science. In this way, we all suffer from the kind of tyranny we have today in the many institutions that have come under the influence of pseudoscientific advisers. … We have many studies in teaching, for example, in which people make observations, make lists, do statistics, and so on … They are merely an imitative form of science … The result of this pseudoscientific imitation is to produce experts, which many of you are. … As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

    Pseudoscience, not science, is the consensus of expert opinion; pseudoscience is defended by fashion, mud slinging, etc.

    Professor Irving L. Janis, “Victims of Groupthink,” 1972, p. 197:

    “Eight main symptoms run through the case studies of historic fiascoes. … The eight symptoms of groupthink are:

    1. an illusion of invulnerability, shared by most or all the members, which creates excessive optimism and encourages taking extreme risks;

    2. collective efforts to rationalize in order to discount warnings which might lead the members to reconsider their assumptions before they recommit themselves to their past policy decisions;

    3. an unquestioned belief in the group’s inherent morality, inclining the members to ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions;

    4. stereotyped views of enemy leaders as too evil to warrant genuine attempts to negotiate, or as too weak and stupid to counter whatever risky attempts are made to defeat their purposes;

    5. direct pressure on any member who expresses strong arguments against any of the group’s stereotypes, illusions, or commitments, making clear that this type of dissent is contrary to what is expected of all loyal members;

    6. self-censorship of deviations from the apparent group consensus, reflecting each member’s inclination to minimize to himself the importance of his doubts and counterarguments;

    7. a shared illusion of unanimity concerning judgments conforming to the majority view (partly resulting from self-censorship of deviations, augmented by the false assumption that silence means consent);

    8. the emergence of self-appointed mindguards – members who protect the group from adverse information that might shatter their shared complacency about the effectiveness and morality of their decisions.”

Comments are closed.