Perhaps like me, you watched the BBC Two Horizons program Monday night presented by Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society and Nobel Prize winning geneticist for his discovery of the genes of cell division. Perhaps like me you were particularly keen to see this program because it had been hyped that day as containing an interview with the bellicose Telegraph columnist James Delingpole where this fellow was purportedly made to look a bit stupid. I find it difficult to read Delingpole's writing. It's not that he's a particularly bad writer, it's just that he's so damn smug and full of himself (unlike me ;-). Check out his latest for a taste. That one is actually quite mild.
Delingpole has angered me with his vitriolic denunciations of peer reviewed science and stubborn denial of man-made climate change, and this has caused me to say some things about him from time to time that have been somewhat uncharitable. Perhaps this is because I always assumed he was a shill. Well I think I may owe Delingpole an apology. Having watched that Horizon program I am now convinced that he believes every word of it. And I now find that I feel a bit sorry for Delingpole, although he probably doesn't deserve it. Here's what happened. You can watch the video for yourself:
Poor James. He really believes there's some kind of mainstream science "warmist" conspiracy against the brave outliers who dare to challenge the consensus. He really believes that "climategate" is a real scandal. He fails to understand that it is a common practice in statistics to splice together two or more datasets where you know that the quality of data is patchy. In the case of "climategate", researchers found that indirect temperature measurements based on tree ring widths (the tree ring temperature proxy) is consistent with other proxy methods of recording temperature from before the start of the instrumental temperature record (around 1950) but begins to show a decline in temperature after that for reasons which are unclear. Actual temperature measurements however show the opposite. The researcher at the head of the climategate affair, Phil Jones, created a graph of the temperature record to include on the cover of a report for policy makers and journalists. For this graph he simply spliced together the tree ring proxy data up until 1950 with the recorded data after that using statistical techniques to bring them into agreement. What made this seem particularly dodgy was an email intercepted by a hacker in which Jones referred to this practice as a "Mike's Nature trick", referring to a paper published by his colleague
Poor James. I'm struck by one thought as I watch that video, and it's this. He could have recovered. When Nurse asked Delingpole the very straightforward question of whether he would be willing to trust a scientific consensus if he required treatment for cancer, he could have said "Gee, that's an interesting question. Let me think about that and why it's different." If he had an ounce of humility he could have saved himself. Instead, he became defensive and lost his focus. Eventually he would make such regrettable statements as this one: "It is not my job to sit down and read peer-reviewed papers because I simply haven’t got the time, I haven’t got the scientific expertise… I am an interpreter of interpretation." Oh dear. Would he trust a scientific consensus if his life depended on it? He evidently wasn't prepared for that question, which does seem a bit strange. I'll bet he's thought of at least a dozen answers to it now. In case he needs one more, here it is. In a parallel universe where James Delingpole is not the "penis" that Ben Goldacre describes him to be, he might have said the following:
Gee, that's an interesting question. Let me think about why it's different. (Thinks) Well, it seems to me that when evaluating a scientifically agreed treatment for a disease such as cancer, we have not only all the theory to peruse and the randomized and blinded trials, but also thousands if not millions of case studies where people have undergone the intervention. We have enough data to estimate a person's chances of recovery and know that on average they will do better. When discussing climate change, we really only have the one case study. Just the one earth. And it's a patient that has not undergone any intervention. The scientific consensus is therfore entirely theoretical and intangible. This makes it more difficult for the lay person such as myself to trust it.It seems to me that this would be a fair, if somewhat misguided, answer to the question. And that brings me to the final point, upon which Sir Paul ended the program saying "Scientists have got to get out there… if we do not do that it will be filled by others who don’t understand the science, and who may be driven by politics and ideology."
More on that here: http://www.leftfootforward.org/2011/01/james-delingpole-climate-conspiracy-theorist/