Matt Ridley, Anti-Science Writer, Climate Science Denialist

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Matt Ridley is a British journalist whom some in the science community are now quietly referring to as an “anti-science writer.” He has taken up the cause of denying the widely held and deep scientific consensus on climate change. He has a recent blog post he seems to have been compelled to write in response to a new study on the use of tree rings as a proxyindicator for past temperatures. I’ll be writing about that research in a day or two. Ridley’s post is embarrassing, and especially annoying to me because for several years I used his book on evolutionary biology as a recommended (or sometimes required) reading in my courses on human evolution. Here, I’d like to present a simple Fisking of his post. He begins,

As somebody who has championed science all his career, carrying a lot of water for the profession against its critics on many issues, I am losing faith.

Any time I hear someone identify themselves as a champion of science, I check my wallet. Self proclaiming one’s position on an imagined high ground is often the prelude to anti science yammering. Let’s see if that is the case here. He goes on,

Recent examples of bias and corruption in science are bad enough. What’s worse is the reluctance of scientific leaders to criticise the bad apples. Science as a philosophy is in good health; science as an institution increasingly stinks.

This assumes facts not in evidence. Ridley’s assertion looking at science from the outside is that there are bad apples. But his examples of bad apples are bad examples.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics published a report last week that found evidence of scientists increasingly “employing less rigorous research methods” in response to funding pressures. A 2009 survey found that almost 2 per cent of scientists admitting that they have fabricated results; 14 per cent say that their colleagues have done so.

Remember, Ridley is ultimately speaking here of climate science. But over 83% of the respondents in that survey done by an institution that looks at biomedical ethics were in biomedical or health related areas. A mere 2% were in geosciences. This study has little do do with climate science research or how it is conducted. A champion of science should really be more careful with the data.

Also, that report notes that

Fifty-eight per cent of survey respondents are aware of scientists feeling tempted or under
pressure to compromise on research integrity and standards, although evidence was not collected on any outcomes associated with this. “

We all would like to see the way research dollars are distributed be evaluated, critiqued, and where possible, improved, but there is a large difference between recognizing pressure and showing it has an effect. But, again, any effects shown in that report are utterly irrelevant to any consideration of climate science. Ridley continues,

This month has seen three egregious examples of poor scientific practice. The most recent was the revelation in The Times last week that scientists appeared to scheme to get neonicotinoid pesticides banned, rather than open-mindedly assessing all the evidence. These were supposedly “independent” scientists, yet they were hand in glove with environmental activists who were receiving huge grants from the European Union to lobby it via supposedly independent reports, and they apparently had their conclusions in mind before they gathered the evidence. Documents that have recently come to light show them blatantly setting out to make policy-based evidence, rather than evidence-based policy.

This is a manufactured controversy, and is not related to climate science. The problem with nicotinoid issue is a case of an industry opposing some researchers findings, and there is a good chance that the sources Ridley relies on did not get the story right. (See this for example.) Ridley’s comments are really just another example of him taking sides in a debate that pits industry interests against researchers.

Second example: last week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a supposedly scientific body, issued a press release stating that this is likely to be the warmest year in a century or more, based on surface temperatures. Yet this predicted record would be only one hundredth of a degree above 2010 and two hundredths of a degree above 2005 — with an error range of one tenth of a degree. True scientists would have said: this year is unlikely to be significantly warmer than 2010 or 2005 and left it at that.

No one has suggested that if we have the warmest year it will be by much. The increase in global warming is steady and medium to long term. Also, it is a complicated issue, as pointed out by Ridley. I discuss this in detail here: 2014 will not be the warmest year on record, but global warming is still real.

In any case, the year is not over, so why the announcement now? Oh yes, there’s a political climate summit in Lima this week. The scientists of WMO allowed themselves to be used politically. Not that they were reluctant. To squeeze and cajole the data until they just crossed the line, the WMO “reanalysed” a merger of five data sets. Maybe that was legitimate but, given how the institutions that gather temperature data have twice this year been caught red-handed making poorly justified adjustments to “homogenise” and “in-fill” thermometer records in such a way as to cool down old records and warm up new ones, I have my doubts.

I tend to agree that one should not characterize the global average surface temperature of a year before the year is over, and then some, to allow for proper updates and adjustments to the data. The fact that there has been so much reporting and blogging on this was likely forced by MSM starting to report on “the warmest year”, because MSM tends to finish all their “year events” reporting before the holidays. (Though WMO has regularly come out with commentary this time of year on the meteorological year, which is not the same as the calendar year.) In any event, this is not a problem in science, it is a problem in MSM and other agents. All the climate science based reporting or blogging on the global average surface temp that I have seen post dates CNN and other media breaking the news, which forced everyone’s hand. (Again, see this.)

In one case, in Rutherglen, a town in Victoria, a recorded cooling trend of minus 0.35C became a reported warming trend of plus 1.73C after “homogenisation” by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. It claimed the adjustment was necessary because the thermometer had moved between two fields, but could provide no evidence for this, or for why it necessitated such a drastic adjustment.
Most of the people in charge of collating temperature data are vocal in their views on climate policy, which hardly reassures the rest of us that they leave those prejudices at the laboratory door. Imagine if bankers were in charge of measuring inflation.

Climate science denialists such as Ridley tend to howl about imperfections in data and methodology. They then howl some more when honest attempts are made at making sure the data are good, or efforts are made to improve methodology. This is a pretty run of the mill denialist tactic.

Ridley’s criticism of the ABM vis-a-vis the Rutherglen data has been addressed in Remember the weather at Rutherglen? BoM was right all along, of course!. See also this.

Third example: the Royal Society used to be the gold standard of scientific objectivity. Yet this month it issued a report on resilience to extreme weather that, in its 100-plus pages, could find room for not a single graph to show recent trends in extreme weather. That is because no such graph shows an upward trend in global frequency of droughts, storms or floods. The report did find room for a graph showing the rising cost of damage by extreme weather, which is a function of the increased value of insured property, not a measure of weather.

There have been numerous studies showing trends in extreme weather. Having said that, the nature of the link between climate change and extreme weather is both complex and the subject of mostly very recent research. It will take a while for the dust to settle on this. If anything, the larger scientific societies involved in this work are behind in addressing and incorporating new research. See for example, NOAA Report Misses Link Between California Drought and Human-Caused Climate Change and Explaining Extreme Events of 2013: Limitations of the BAMS Report.

The Royal Society report also carefully omitted what is perhaps the most telling of all statistics about extreme weather: the plummeting death toll. The global probability of being killed by a drought, flood or storm is down by 98 per cent since the 1920s and has never been lower — not because weather is less dangerous but because of improvements in transport, trade, infrastructure, aid and communication.

Asked and answered in the same statement. First, comparing a time before radar, satellites, advanced communication technology, warning systems, and computers to predict weather with recent times is bogus. Second, both property damage and mortality/morbidity resulting from extreme weather events is very likely to drop as pre-event upgrades, which may sometimes be very costly but that are not counted in the cost of a particular storm, are implemented. This of course applies more to industrialized nations than to other areas. This is expected. But, there is probably a limit to what can be done even in industrialize areas. Not much infrastructure improvement has helped with the California Drought, and all the work done since Katrina or currently planned is likely to provide additional mitigation of the effects of the next Katrina in the gulf.

The Royal Society’s decision to cherry-pick its way past such data would be less worrying if its president, Sir Paul Nurse, had not gone on the record as highly partisan on the subject of climate science. He called for those who disagree with him to be “crushed and buried”, hardly the language of Galileo.

I suppose Ridley could not resist a Galileo reference. Also, when one wants to disagree with scientific consensus, in the absence of a scientific argument, it is convenient to declare the issue partisan.

In any event, Nurse was talking about the very problems Ridley, as a Champion of Science, should be concerned with. I asked Dana Nuccitelli, who follows these things, what he thought about Ridley’s comments on Nurse. He pointed out this post, and noted that “Nurse was actually saying that about influential figures who distort scientific evidence to support their own political, religious, or ideological agendas. Nurse did cite those who distort climate science as one example, but he was speaking in general terms about ideologically-based science distortions (he cited GM crops as another example). Ironically, Ridley distorts Nurse’s comments about distorting evidence in order to attack him.”

Three months ago Sir Paul said: “We need to be aware of those who mix up science, based on evidence and rationality, with politics and ideology, where opinion, rhetoric and tradition hold more sway. We need to be aware of political or ideological lobbyists who do not respect science, cherry-picking data or argument, to support their predetermined positions.”

If he wishes to be consistent, he will therefore condemn the behaviour of the scientists over neonicotinoids and the WMO over temperature records, and chastise his colleagues’ report, for these are prime examples of his point.

That assumes he agrees with Ridley, which he probably doesn’t.

Ridley uses his expertise and experience from the banking industry to criticize climate science and scientist. Is this expertise and experience valuable? Andy Skuce wrote about Ridley’s involvement in the collapse of the British bank, Northern Rock in The Ridley Riddle Part Three: Like a Northern Rock, in 2011:

Matt Ridley was the non-executive Chairman of Northern Rock, a British bank that, in 2007, was the first in over a century and a half to experience a run on its deposits. British banks had all survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the end of the British Empire, until Northern Rock failed. Ridley had served on the Northern Rock board of directors since 1994 and was appointed Chairman in 2004. …

Northern Rock’s business model was a very aggressive one, centered on rapid growth of its mortgage business. Before 1997, Northern Rock was a building society, a co-operative savings and mortgage institution. Like many other British building societies, it transformed itself into a bank and was listed on the stock exchange. This led to rapid growth for Northern Rock, which grew its assets at an annual rate of more than 23% from 1998 to 2007. Before its crisis, Northern Rock had assets of about $200 billion and was the fifth-largest bank in Britain. The bank’s retail deposits did not grow at the same rate as its mortgage assets; the difference was made up with funding from capital markets. When the credit crisis hit in 2007, Northern Rock saw its funding vanish. Northern Rock’s debts were more than fifty times its shareholder common equity, making the bank an outlier even among the many other highly-levered financial institutions at that time…. The bank was unable to pay its creditors and had to turn to the Bank of England for help in September 2007. These events led to panic among its depositors, who formed huge queues outside its branches to withdraw their savings.

According to Skuce, financial experts and institutions saw the problems that took Norther Rock down, but apparently Ridley did not.

…the events leading to the credit crunch, the bursting of the housing bubble and the collapse of financial markets, were not entirely unforeseen, especially by commentators outside the banking sector. … In 2006, Robert Shiller of Yale University wrote: “there is significant risk of a very bad period, with slow sales, slim commissions, falling prices, rising default and foreclosures, serious trouble in financial markets, and a possible recession sooner than most of us expected.”…

Matt Ridley has been highly critical of the IPCC reports and of the Chairman of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, mainly for the overblown stories about the Himalayan glaciertypo and the poorly-referenced but correct accounts of the Amazon Basin’s vulnerability to drought. Yet for all the accusations that the IPCC has exaggerated impacts of climate change and “sexed-up” summaries for policy makers, its track record is solid compared to the rosy business outlook that Ridley portrayed in the Northern Rock Annual Report 2006, and published in early 2007, just a few months before the company failed.

Two senior officers of Northern Rock—the Deputy Chief Executive and the Managing Credit Director—were heavily fined in April 2010 by the UK Financial Services Authority for hiding the decline in the performance of the company’s mortgage assets in early 2007. There’s no suggestion that Ridley played any role, or, at the time, was even aware of this misrepresentation of important financial data. All the same, the transgressions happened under his watch as Chairman and, as far as I know, he has not since expressed any regret for the incident. Nevertheless, a few months after his former colleagues had been sanctioned, Ridley had the audacity to write an article for the Times in which he referred to the “discredited Dr Pachauri” in “shut-eyed denial”. Yet none of the contributors to Chairman Pachauri’s reports has ever been shown to have deliberately misrepresented any data.

For Ridley, in business as in climate, prudent precautionary measures are rejected as ruinous, whereas warnings that real disasters may be lurking are dismissed. As the Northern Rock experience showed, being dazzled by the power of virtuous circles can blind you to the fact that, if spun too hard, they can quickly turn vicious.

Now, back to Ridley:

I am not hopeful. When a similar scandal blew up in 2009 over the hiding of inconvenient data that appeared to discredit the validity of proxies for past global temperatures based on tree rings (part of “Climategate”), the scientific establishment closed ranks and tried to pretend it did not matter.

This is a key statement by Ridley. After multiple investigations and a thorough raking over of the evidence, it has been clearly established that “climategate” was unfounded. Ridley believing that climategate refers to real nefarious events is all you need to know to pretty much ignore everything else he says. He might as well be talking about chemtrails.

Last week a further instalment of that story came to light, showing that yet more inconvenient data (which discredit bristlecone pine tree rings as temperature proxies) had emerged.

This is an abysmal misreading of the peer reviewed research and an uncritical acceptance of criticism of that research that was very badly done. I’ll be posting something about the tree ring research soon, but for the time being read this post and the comments. I’ll be done with my new post in a day or so, which is probably about the same time you’ll be done reviewing all ~500 comments!

The overwhelming majority of scientists do excellent, objective work, following the evidence wherever it leads.

Yes. Yes, they do.

… It’s hard for champions of science like me to make our case against creationists, homeopaths and other merchants of mysticism if some of those within science also practise pseudo-science.

Ridley declares himself a champion of science (check your wallet!) and in the same breath attempts to link the scientific consensus on climate change with creationism. I’m shocked to see no reference here to Hitler.

In all the millions of scientific careers in Britain over the past few decades, outside medical science there has never been a case of a scientist convicted of malpractice. Not one. Maybe that is because — unlike the police, the church and politics — scientists are all pure as the driven snow. Or maybe it is because science as an institution, like so many other institutions, does not police itself properly.

Or, there could be another reason.

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33 thoughts on “Matt Ridley, Anti-Science Writer, Climate Science Denialist

  1. Dunning & Kruger should have studied this piece of work…

    If you have to keep reminding people that you “are a champion of science”, you’re not.

    Given the pen being mightier than the sword, I prefer the term, “Enemy Combatant”.

  2. I can’t see why you’re embarrassed to have used a Ridley text. Being an expert in evolutionary biology, while also being a nincompoop in the philosophy of scientific method, the politics of science and the science of global warming, is certainly a possible state.

  3. It’s a great pity that any article by Matt Ridley isn’t required to carry the following paragraph above any text:

    Matt Ridley was the non-executive Chairman of Northern Rock, a British bank that, in 2007, was the first in over a century and a half to experience a run on its deposits. British banks had all survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the end of the British Empire, until Northern Rock failed. Ridley had served on the Northern Rock board of directors since 1994 and was appointed Chairman in 2004. …

    If you replace most “scientists” with “bankers” in his article, it becomes much more accurate.

  4. Andy Skuce links to an article by George Monbiot.

    “He might not have been chastened by experience, but it would be wrong to claim that he has learnt nothing. On the contrary, he has developed a fine line in blame-shifting and post-rational justification.

    …Had the state he despises not bailed out his bank and rescued its depositors’ money, his head would probably be on a pike by now. Instead we see it on our television screens, instructing us to apply his irrational optimism more widely. And no one has yet been rude enough to use the word discredited.”

    It might also be mentioned that Ridley is associated with Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation, an organization that doesn’t have links, either direct or indirect, to environmental activists:

    “Two secret funders of Nigel Lawson’s climate sceptic organisation have been revealed. This is the first time anyone financing the group has confirmed their contributions. Both are linked to a free-market thinktank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which has admitted taking funding from fossil fuel companies and has also argued against climate change mitigation.”

    Finally, the following passage, with its anti-EU overtones, makes me believe that Ridley today leans toward the British tea party equivalent UKIP:

    “supposedly ‘independent’ scientists… were hand in glove with environmental activists who were receiving huge grants from the European Union to lobby it via supposedly independent reports…”

  5. Okay, I give up: he said he “champions science,” and then he mentioned *FAITH* and said he is “losing” is. So which is it? Championing science, or having faith? It’s either/or, not both.

    As for “… in its 100-plus pages, could find room for not a single graph to show recent trends in extreme weather.” Golly, I know of several dozen. His argument is: “Since the Royal Society did not include such a graph, therefore none exist, therefore extreme weather events are not increasing.” If he wanted to see a graph (or fifty), why doesn’t he make his own?

    There is an excellent way to filter out the crackpots on the Internet: they are the ones who don’t allow comments on their blog entries.

  6. Robert Wilson was removed as chair of IPCC. Perhaps Ridley does not know how that happened and who was involved, such that Pachauri was chosen.

  7. On the BOM issue, Ridley is extensively quoting infamous climate denier JoNova (Joanne Codling).

    So much for “has championed science all his career”.

  8. Last Sunday The New York Times had an important article that I think is relevant in this context. It illustrated and documented how Republican officials and their funders are working to undo regulations and regulatory agencies that stand in the way of fossil fuel interests.

    “Energy Firms in Secretive Alliance With Attorneys General
    Republican attorneys general have formed an unprecedented, secretive alliance with some of the nation’s top energy producers to push back against the Obama regulatory agenda, an investigation by The New York Times has found.”

    The important distinction is not between pro and anti-science, but between science that does and science that doesn’t threaten particular economic interests, so for someone like Viscount Ridley, whose social circle in all probability includes representatives of those interests (but hardly environmental activists), and who might very well have a personal financial stake in them, there’s no conflict between supporting evolutionary science while opposing science that adversely affects the fossil fuel and chemical industries.

  9. Ridely also has a financial interest in coal mining:

    I’d be interested to see what actual evolutionary biologists think about his books on the topic. I’ve noticed a certain tendency to social darwinism in some of his newspaper articles over the years, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that is visible in his work.
    Also you’d be better off starting your article with something like, “Matt Ridley is a former science journalis and failed banker”

  10. On the topic of Northern Rock, UK taxpayers (I’m one) are having to fork out a further £261m thanks to to Ridley and fellow failed management:

    and to think I also fund the expenses he claims as a member of the House of Lords (elected by 2 dozen fellow aristocrats, main rival a disgraced ex-MP who claimed moat cleaning on expenses). If anyone wants to make the case for the UK political system being broken, Matt’s your man.

    1. “… are having to fork out a further £261m thanks to to Ridley and fellow failed management:”

      It “worked” in the USA. By “worked” I mean “the massive amount of wealth was redistributed from the tax-payers into the hands of the fabulously wealthy.” It did not work in civilized countries such as Iceland: they put their bankers in prison and did not join in the “bail out” of the wealthy like the USA and the UK did (and are doing).

  11. What I see here, at the bottom of all of this, is Ridley failing to adhere to the scientific rigor that he decries the loss of. Combined with the apparent conflicts of interest he is embroiled in, his maunderings should be ignored. Greg, if the text is good…why not use it? Clearly, the dose of KoolAid he drank post dates the book. U

  12. @guthrie #15:

    I’ve never used his book on evolutionary theory in a course (only the heavy hitters get to teach courses on evolution around here), but I’ve used his popular books on genes and genetics (The Agile Gene is the only one to hand right now) as sources for other course that I’ve taught, and also just because I was interested, and they’re pretty good. On the other hand, his book on evolutionary psychology, The Origins of Virtue, was fine up to near the end, when suddenly we were presented with all sorts of evidence for Neolithic Free Trade and how we had all evolved so that this was our Natural State.

  13. He had an hisTER-ectomy.

    cosmicomics: The important distinction is not between pro and anti-science, but between science that does and science that doesn’t threaten particular economic interests

    Well said.

  14. Lars – yes, that sounds about what I was thinking I’d heard of sometime.
    Also, anyone who worships free trade like he does quite clearly knows no economic history, because actual free markets are very rare, and lots of effort goes into trying to keep them that way, lest the Ridley’s of the world conspire to keep all the wealth to themselves.

  15. Greg, believe it or not: Brazil has now a Science minister against the theory of the anthropogenic global warming

    But then, the USA has dozens…..

  16. John Mashey (#11): Robert Wilson was removed as chair of IPCC. Perhaps Ridley does not know how that happened and who was involved, such that Pachauri was chosen.

    Nit: It was Robert Watson.

  17. Guthrie:
    “I’ve noticed a certain tendency to social darwinism in some of his newspaper articles over the years, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that is visible in his work.”

    The Origin’s of virtue are full of it…

    He argues that the tragedy of the commons means we need privatization and enclosure.

    He also tries to argue a socio-biological case that “”If we are to recover social harmony and virtue, if we are to build back into society the virtues that made it work for us, it is vital that we reduce the power of the state”

    On the basis that the state corrupts our naturally evolved instincts to co-operate, claiming that “”The roots of social order are in our heads, where we possess the instinctive
    capacities for creating not a perfectly harmonious and virtuous society, but a better one than we have at
    present” “

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