Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Delingpole pwned by Sir Paul Nurse, but can the media convey science?

Last night I watched the Horizon programme on Science Under Attack  in which climate change denying journalist James Delingpole is pwned by Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, who asks him if a dear relative was suffering from a fatal disease, would he opt for the "consensus" treatment recommended by doctors, or advice to drink more orange juice offered by a fringe maverick quack?

This results, pleasingly, in a halt to Delingpole's verbal diarrhoea, and a request to change the subject. You can enjoy the 5 minute clip here.

Delingpole, having had time to think, responds on his blog:

Nurse’s analogy is shabby, dishonest and patently false. The “consensus” on Climate Change; and the “consensus” on medical care bear no similarity whatsoever.
In the field of medicine, treatments are tested in a semi-open market. Those with more favourable outcomes (the patient gets better) will quickly gain popularity over those with less favourable outcomes (the patient gets worse). Sure there are market distortions (eg the vast marketing budgets and rampant greed of the big drug companies; inefficiency and incompetence in the public healthcare sector), but generally in the field of medicine, the “consensus” on what constitutes good, bad or indeed “quack” treatment is a fair representation of the facts as they are currently known and empirically tested.

Note the way he brings the market model in. His argument skims over the detailed work in medical research designed to eliminate the placebo effect. For him, the test of efficacy for a treatment is whether it sells on the market. Market consensus is most definitely not the way that medicines are validated. All too often, invalid treatments prevail because of false consensus, and the scientific approach is to test every statement to see if it stands up to experiment.

But every analogy is only an analogy. The real issue is whether man-made climate change is a problem. There most certainly is scientific consensus on climate change.

Delingpole rejects all the science, and fights the idea that there is consensus, because if AGW is happening, his fixed ideology, the free market, cannot address it; we need a common international approach that will guide the energy market. Therefore AGW in Delingpole's view is a Communist/Green conspiracy, and the plotters have somehow subverted the scientific community to create a false picture of what is happening to the earth's climate in order to achieve their goals.

This being the case, the prospect for a reasonable dialogue between scientists and deniers is not rosy. On the other hand, the general conclusion of Nurse's Horizon programme is correct: scientists need to communicate their findings to the masses. We have to debate with the deniers in order that the Undecideds will be able to make a reasonable choice between the conspiracy theorists and the community of scientists who have been assembling millions of bits of climate data for three or more decades.

The question is - how? The media is geared up for sensation. Their eyes go all glassy when facts are on the table. They judge their output not in terms of whether it is true, but whether it sells newspapers. Still, we must keep trying.

Climate Change FAQs.


H Davis said...

“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
Lord Kelvin, British mathematician and physicist, president of the British Royal Society, 1895
Sir Paul Nurse is clearly following in Lord Kelvin's distinguished footsteps.
Anyone who talks about a consensus in science understands nothing about science.
As Einstein wrote, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong”.

DocRichard said...

Hello H

Your Einstein quote is quite right. He is setting out the Popperian view. Thomas Kuhn talked about consensus. It does exist, but is not claimed to be "proof" - just evidence that the scientific community is by and large won over by the evidence and arguments.

Which is the situation regarding AGW.

As the links here show.

This may help/

DocRichard said...

One prominent scientist makes a dumb remark.
Therefore all scientists who make remarks which I disagree with are dumb.


Anonymous said...

When the science of Cancer treatment was as new as Climate Change; the consensus view was to treat with leaches.

DocRichard said...

When we treated cancer with leeches, we weren't using science.

Anonymous said...

There is always consensus in science and most of the scientific community are generally 'won over' by the arguments of the day

Until the Next Big Idea comes along... and they all subscribe to that.

I do subscribe to the 'consensus' view on AGW, but I wouldn't be all THAT surprised were our understanding to be markedly different in 10 years, perhaps in ways we cannot even predict currently

Paul said...

It was a crass exchange. Expected on behalf of Delingpole - but Sir Paul faired no better.
Delingpole questioned climate data - it's interpretation and methodology - Sir Paul ignored this opportunity, and replied with cancer.
These are two distinct data sets which Sir Paul tried to conflate through an appeal to expert consensus.
Consensus, if it is to exist at all, must have an explicable foundation, and it was Sir Paul's role in this film to explain the foundation of climate science and its data. Instead of which he deflected the dialogue to cancer, and to trust. At which point the balloon deflated (from BOTH sides).
Delingpole is a transparent reactionary with an 'absolute' position that cries "conspiracy" in the face of all.
Sir Paul, on the other hand, is a scientist, who on the evidence of this exchange, is unwilling to talk about the process of science! He too was seeking an absolute. He jumped into bed with Socrates: the experts come to their conclusions (THEIR consensus), and the demos shut their mouthes.
Heaven help us!
Is science so impossible to discuss?

Absolutes never inspire research.

Climate research is politicised, it seeks patronage, influence and funds. Yes, its called science - we squabble and jockey for position, we highlight the data that supports our views and question that which doesn't. We appeal to the media: "this is important - support us!" Science is a passionate, politicised business - always has been. And yet, miraculously, we inch are way forward.
Have the debate - talk about the data - listen and exchange. If consensus is to be the heart of progress, then Sir Paul should have talked of climate data, not cancer. Who knows, Delingpole might even have been persuaded (ahem), at least softened. The consensus would thereby expand.
Instead of which, the two 'sides' just fan the flames. And research, sadly, falls somewhere between them.
(Long comment - sorry - but it was excruciating!)

Paul said...

'inch OUR way forward'
My god - blame the coffee!

DocRichard said...

"There is always consensus in science and most of the scientific community are generally 'won over' by the arguments of the day

Until the Next Big Idea comes along... and they all subscribe to that".

RL: It's not quite like that. There is a process of debate, sure. But it is not an empty dialectic.

Science walks on three legs: Observation, Hypothesis Formation, and Experimentation designed to refute the hypothesis. If the hypothesis survives (often with modifications) a reasonable amount of experimentation, it becomes accepted as the consensus.

It is not a random walker. Each step or cycle adds to what we know, taking us as it were closer to the truth about how reality works.

New ideas are a matter of pattern recognition aka induction. It is very very clear what the pattern is with regard to man made heat trapping gases on the planet.

But there's none so blind as them that will not see, and the oil companies and free marketeers ones who are threatened by climate science, and therefore they will not see the pattern.

The "sceptics" try to make out they are the valiant vanguard of a new view. In fact they are the rearguard of the early 20th century view, which was that CO2 could not affect the planet, based on a misunderstood experiment by Koch to test a hypothesis by Arrhenius. The "Warmists" are in fact the new, revolutionary idea.

Thanks for posting this. I will put it up as todays blog post, because I have been taking surgeries all day, so no time to comment on the 1001 things going on in the world of politics.

DocRichard said...

Hi Paul

Nice to see someone all fired up about science.

P: Consensus, if it is to exist at all, must have an explicable foundation, and it was Sir Paul's role in this film to explain the foundation of climate science and its data. Instead of which he deflected the dialogue to cancer, and to trust.

RL: I share some of your disappointment. I didn't think it was a brilliant film, and Sir Paul ( I only use the handle to avoid confusing him with you) confused science with technology at one point, which is a bit poor.

However, I am with the consensus (by which I mean the vast majority of #newsnight tweets) which delighted in his cancer analogy, and Delingpole's dumbfoundment.

Here is a big scientist using clear analogy with success on the media. The media can handle analogies. Just.

Of course, the analogy is about authority, not the scientific argument. But hey, life is short. In accepting the word of our surgeon, we trust him to be telling us the truth as he knows it. We accept his humanity, and the attendant risk of failure, but to get by in life we accept the word of experts a lot of the time. Life is too short for everyone to check every detail.

Last year I realised that I had to gen up on the detail of AGW. It was fascinating, and took months. The distillate of my months of debate with sceptics is here.

The same anon as above said...

Hello Doc

hope the day wasn't too tough with all those surgeries. Feet up and a glass of red often does the trick for me.

I wasn't in any way trying to give any credence to the arguments against AGW at all - surely the evidence best fits that explanation at present.

I was thinking more of the numerous 'revolutions' in scientific thinking that have often meant we've needed to completely reappraise what we thought was happening. Copernicus, Darwin and Russell, Mendel, Einstein explaining relativity not long after Lord Kelvin stated there was nothing more to be discovered in physics, Niels Bohr and co revolutionising physics with quantum theory, Wegener and plate tectonics relatively recently etc.

I just wonder if people think of these sort of things when climate change and AGW is mentioned but no other views are countenanced - I know the other views seem crazy but I think it might be the dismissive attitude that puts laypeople off and makes them view us scientists as untrustworthy because when something else comes along, we change out minds and promote that hypothesis... I am sure that most people do not have the time nor the inclination to delve deeper into science and how it 'works'.

How to change this in a limited time span? Mmm... I'll get back to you. I'm just trying to get my year sevens to use full stops and that's enough for one man.

Take it easy

DocRichard said...

Hi Anonymous

Yes, I know you're on the right side, i went off on a rant one because one thing led to another.

The revolutions in science: Copernicus, Darwin, Wegener &c all overturned established paradigms, moving science forward to new levels of accuracy and understanding.

As I said, AGW is the new revolution, overthrowing the misconception that CO2 had no effect because of its saturation.

Clearly, there is enough knowledge, especially combined with Peak Oil, to cause us to decarbonise. The resistance is coming from the fossils, and the ideologues who will have nothing but the free market.

I agree that scientists need to engage far more with the public debate. There are excellent resources out there on the web. Here's my very brief and simple page, linked to a couple of more profesisonal ones.

The challenge is for scientists to present their case briefly, laced with analogies and pictures. They tend to be boring on the media, trying to establish each point in detail, as they would if presenting to their peers.

Good luck with your great work in educating the little savages. (This is said in a playful spirit).



weggis said...

"The revolutions in science: Copernicus, Darwin, Wegener &c all overturned established paradigms, moving science forward to new levels of accuracy and understanding."

Yes, but right or wrong those advancements did [do] not threaten our very existence. This one has an edge, because if we call it wrong we may not live to tell the tale.

In terms of importance, new paradigms have to be viewed in the context of potential impact on survival.

Who the fuck cares if this planet is the centre of the universe or not, or if we are descended from apes. But I'm damn fucking sure that I care about tomorrow's supply of beer.

DocRichard said...

As ever, you cut through the crap and get straight to the essence of the problem.