Science Heresy - November 2011
Angus Millar Lecture of the Royal Society of the Arts
Edinburgh, 31 October 2011
It is a great honour to be asked to deliver the Angus Millar lecture.
I have no idea whether Angus Millar ever saw himself as a heretic, but I have a
soft spot for heresy. One of my ancestral relations, Nicholas Ridley the Oxford
martyr, was burned at the stake for heresy.
My topic today is scientific heresy. When are scientific heretics right and when
are they mad? How do you tell the difference between science and pseudoscience?
Let us run through some issues, starting with the easy ones.
Astronomy is a science; astrology is a pseudoscience.
Evolution is science; creationism is pseudoscience.
Molecular biology is science; homeopathy is pseudoscience.
Vaccination is science; the MMR scare is pseudoscience.
Oxygen is science; phlogiston was pseudoscience.
Chemistry is science; alchemy was pseudoscience.
Are you with me so far?
A few more examples. That the earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare is pseudoscience.
So are the beliefs that Elvis is still alive, Diana was killed by MI5, JFK was
killed by the CIA, 911 was an inside job. So are ghosts, UFOs, telepathy, the
Loch Ness monster and pretty well everything to do with the paranormal. Sorry to
say that on Halloween, but that’s my opinion.
Three more controversial ones. In my view, most of what Freud said was
So is quite a lot, though not all, of the argument for organic farming.
So, in a sense by definition, is religious faith. It explicitly claims that
there are truths that can be found by other means than observation and
Now comes one that gave me an epiphany. Crop circles.
It was blindingly obvious to me that crop circles were likely to be man-made
when I first starting investigating this phenomenon. I made some myself to prove
it was easy to do.
This was long before Doug Bower and Dave Chorley fessed up to having started the
whole craze after a night at the pub.
Every other explanation – ley lines, alien spacecraft, plasma vortices, ball
lightning – was balderdash. The entire field of “cereology” was pseudoscience,
as the slightest brush with its bizarre practitioners easily demonstrated.
Imagine my surprise then when I found I was the heretic and that serious
journalists working not for tabloids but for Science Magazine, and for a Channel
4 documentary team, swallowed the argument of the cereologists that it was
highly implausible that crop circles were all man-made.
So I learnt lesson number 1: the stunning gullibility of the media. Put an
“ology” after your pseudoscience and you can get journalists to be your
A Channel 4 team did the obvious thing – they got a group of students to make
some crop circles and then asked the cereologist if they were “genuine” or
“hoaxed” – ie, man made. He assured them they could not have been made by
people. So they told him they had been made the night before. The man was
poleaxed. It made great television. Yet the producer, who later became a
government minister under Tony Blair, ended the segment of the programme by
taking the cereologist’s side: “of course, not all crop circles are hoaxes”.
What? The same happened when Doug and Dave owned up; everybody just went on
believing. They still do.
Lesson number 2: debunking is like water off a duck’s back to pseudoscience.
In medicine, I began to realize, the distinction between science and
pseudoscience is not always easy. This is beautifully illustrated in an
extraordinary novel by Rebecca Abrams, called Touching Distance, based on the
real story of an eighteenth century medical heretic, Alec Gordon of Aberdeen.
Gordon was a true pioneer of the idea that childbed fever was spread by medical
folk like himself and that hygiene was the solution to it. He hit upon this
discovery long before Semelweiss and Lister. But he was ignored. Yet Abrams’s
novel does not paint him purely as a rational hero, but as a flawed human being,
a neglectful husband and a crank with some odd ideas – such as a dangerous
obsession with bleeding his sick patients. He was a pseudoscientist one minute
and scientist the next.
Lesson number 3. We can all be both. Newton was an alchemist.
Like antisepsis, many scientific truths began as heresies and fought long
battles for acceptance against entrenched establishment wisdom that now appears
irrational: continental drift, for example. Barry Marshall was not just ignored
but vilified when he first argued that stomach ulcers are caused by a particular
bacterium. Antacid drugs were very profitable for the drug industry. Eventually
he won the Nobel prize.
Just this month Daniel Shechtman won the Nobel prize for quasi crystals, having
spent much of his career being vilified and exiled as a crank. “I was thrown out
of my research group. They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying.”
That’s lesson number 4: the heretic is sometimes right.
What sustains pseudoscience is confirmation bias. We look for and welcome the
evidence that fits our pet theory; we ignore or question the evidence that
contradicts it. We all do this all the time. It’s not, as we often assume,
something that only our opponents indulge in. I do it, you do it, it takes a
superhuman effort not to do it. That is what keeps myths alive, sustains
conspiracy theories and keeps whole populations in thrall to strange
Bertrand Russell pointed this out many years ago: “If a man is offered a fact
which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the
evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand,
he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his
instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.”
Lesson no 5: keep a sharp eye out for confirmation bias in yourself and others.
There have been some very good books on this recently. Michael Shermer’s “The
Believing Brain”, Dan Gardner’s “Future Babble” and Tim Harford’s “Adapt” are
explorations of the power of confirmation bias. And what I find most unsettling
of all is Gardner’s conclusion that knowledge is no defence against it; indeed,
the more you know, the more you fall for confirmation bias. Expertise gives you
the tools to seek out the confirmations you need to buttress your beliefs.
Experts are worse at forecasting the future than non-experts.
Philip Tetlock did the definitive experiment. He gathered a sample of 284
experts – political scientists, economists and journalists – and harvested
27,450 different specific judgments from them about the future then waited to
see if they came true. The results were terrible. The experts were no better
than “a dart-throwing chimpanzee”.
Here’s what the Club of Rome said on the rear cover of the massive best-seller
Limits to Growth in 1972:
“Will this be the world that your grandchildren will thank you for? A world
where industrial production has sunk to zero. Where population has suffered a
catastrophic decline. Where the air, sea and land are polluted beyond
redemption. Where civilization is a distant memory. This is the world that the
"Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts", said Richard Feynman.
Lesson 6. Never rely on the consensus of experts about the future. Experts are
worth listening to about the past, but not the future. Futurology is
Using these six lessons, I am now going to plunge into an issue on which almost
all the experts are not only confident they can predict the future, but
absolutely certain their opponents are pseudoscientists. It is an issue on which
I am now a heretic. I think the establishment view is infested with
pseudoscience. The issue is climate change.
Now before you all rush for the exits, and I know it is traditional to walk out
on speakers who do not toe the line on climate at the RSA – I saw it happen to
Bjorn Lomborg last year when he gave the Prince Philip lecture – let me be quite
clear. I am not a “denier”. I fully accept that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse
gas, the climate has been warming and that man is very likely to be at least
partly responsible. When a study was published recently saying that 98% of
scientists “believe” in global warming, I looked at the questions they had been
asked and realized I was in the 98%, too, by that definition, though I never use
the word “believe” about myself. Likewise the recent study from Berkeley, which
concluded that the land surface of the continents has indeed been warming at
about the rate people thought, changed nothing.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that you can accept all the basic tenets
of greenhouse physics and still conclude that the threat of a dangerously large
warming is so improbable as to be negligible, while the threat of real harm from
climate-mitigation policies is already so high as to be worrying, that the cure
is proving far worse than the disease is ever likely to be. Or as I put it once,
we may be putting a tourniquet round our necks to stop a nosebleed.
I also think the climate debate is a massive distraction from much more urgent
environmental problems like invasive species and overfishing.
I was not always such a “lukewarmer”. In the mid 2000s one image in particular
played a big role in making me abandon my doubts about dangerous man-made
climate change: the hockey stick. It clearly showed that something unprecedented
was happening. I can remember where I first saw it at a conference and how I
thought: aha, now there at last is some really clear data showing that today’s
temperatures are unprecedented in both magnitude and rate of change – and it has
been published in Nature magazine.
Yet it has been utterly debunked by the work of Steve McIntyre and Ross
McKitrick. I urge you to read Andrew Montford’s careful and highly readable book
The Hockey Stick Illusion. Here is not the place to go into detail, but briefly
the problem is both mathematical and empirical. The graph relies heavily on some
flawed data – strip-bark tree rings from bristlecone pines -- and on a
particular method of principal component analysis, called short centering, that
heavily weights any hockey-stick shaped sample at the expense of any other
sample. When I say heavily – I mean 390 times.
This had a big impact on me. This was the moment somebody told me they had made
the crop circle the night before.
For, apart from the hockey stick, there is no evidence that climate is changing
dangerously or faster than in the past, when it changed naturally.
It was warmer in the Middle ages and medieval climate change in Greenland was
Stalagmites, tree lines and ice cores all confirm that it was significantly
warmer 7000 years ago. Evidence from Greenland suggests that the Arctic ocean
was probably ice free for part of the late summer at that time.
Sea level is rising at the unthreatening rate about a foot per century and
Greenland is losing ice at the rate of about 150 gigatonnes a year, which is
0.6% per century.
There has been no significant warming in Antarctica, with the exception of the
Methane has largely stopped increasing.
Tropical storm intensity and frequency have gone down, not up, in the last 20
Your probability of dying as a result of a drought, a flood or a storm is 98%
lower globally than it was in the 1920s.
Malaria has retreated not expanded as the world has warmed.
And so on. I’ve looked and looked but I cannot find one piece of data – as
opposed to a model – that shows either unprecedented change or change is that is
anywhere close to causing real harm.
No doubt, there will be plenty of people thinking “what about x?” Well, if you
have an X that persuades you that rapid and dangerous climate change is on the
way, tell me about it. When I asked a senior government scientist this question,
he replied with the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. That is to say, a poorly
understood hot episode, 55 million years ago, of uncertain duration, uncertain
magnitude and uncertain cause.
Meanwhile, I see confirmation bias everywhere in the climate debate. Hurricane
Katrina, Mount Kilimanjaro, the extinction of golden toads – all cited wrongly
as evidence of climate change. A snowy December, the BBC lectures us, is “just
weather”; a flood in Pakistan or a drought in Texas is “the sort of weather we
can expect more of”. A theory so flexible it can rationalize any outcome is a
To see confirmation bias in action, you only have to read the climategate
emails, documents that have undermined my faith in this country’s scientific
institutions. It is bad enough that the emails unambiguously showed scientists
plotting to cherry-pick data, subvert peer review, bully editors and evade
freedom of information requests. What’s worse, to a science groupie like me, is
that so much of the rest of the scientific community seemed OK with that. They
essentially shrugged their shoulders and said, yeh, big deal, boys will be boys.
Nor is there even any theoretical support for a dangerous future. The central
issue is “sensitivity”: the amount of warming that you can expect from a
doubling of carbon dioxide levels. On this, there is something close to
consensus – at first. It is 1.2 degrees centigrade. Here’s how the IPCC put it
in its latest report.
“In the idealised situation that the climate response to a doubling of
atmospheric CO2 consisted of a uniform temperature change only, with no
feedbacks operating…the global warming from GCMs would be around 1.2°C.”
Now the paragraph goes on to argue that large, net positive feedbacks, mostly
from water vapour, are likely to amplify this. But whereas there is good
consensus about the 1.2 C, there is absolutely no consensus about the net
positive feedback, as the IPCC also admits. Water vapour forms clouds and
whether clouds in practice amplify or dampen any greenhouse warming remains in
So to say there is a consensus about some global warming is true; to say there
is a consensus about dangerous global warming is false.
The sensitivity of the climate could be a harmless 1.2C, half of which has
already been experienced, or it could be less if feedbacks are negative or it
could be more if feedbacks are positive. What does the empirical evidence say?
Since 1960 we have had roughly one-third of a doubling, so we must have had
almost half of the greenhouse warming expected from a doubling – that’s
elementary arithmetic, given that the curve is agreed to be logarithmic. Yet if
you believe the surface thermometers, we have had about 0.6C of warming in that
time, at the rate of less than 0.13C per decade – somewhat less if you believe
the satellite thermometers.
So we are on track for 1.2C.
Remember Jim Hansen of NASA told us in 1988 to expect 2-4 degrees in 25 years.
We are experiencing about one-tenth of that.
We are below even the zero-emission path expected by the IPCC in 1990.
Ah, says the consensus, sulphur pollution has reduced the warming, delaying the
impact, or the ocean has absorbed the extra heat. Neither of these post-hoc
rationalisations fit the data: the southern hemisphere has warmed about half as
fast as the northern in the last 30 years, yet the majority of the sulphur
emissions were in the northern hemisphere.
And ocean heat content has decelerated, if not flattened, in the past decade.
By contrast, many heretical arguments seem to me to be paragons of science as it
should be done: transparent, questioning and testable.
For instance, earlier this year, a tenacious British mathematician named Nic
Lewis started looking into the question of sensitivity and found that the only
wholly empirical estimate of sensitivity cited by the IPCC had been put through
an illegitimate statistical procedure which effectively fattened its tail on the
upward end – it hugely increased the apparent probability of high warming at the
expense of low warming.
When this is corrected, the theoretical probability of warming greater than 2.3C
is very low indeed.
Like all the other errors in the IPCC report, including the infamous suggestion
that all Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035 rather than 2350, this mistake
exaggerates the potential warming. It is beyond coincidence that all these
errors should be in the same direction. The source for the Himalayan glacier
mistake was a non-peer reviewed WWF report and it occurred in a chapter, two of
whose coordinating lead authors and a review editor were on WWF’s climate
witness scientific advisory panel. Remember too that the glacier error was
pointed out by reviewers, who were ignored, and that Rajendra Pachauri, the head
of the IPCC, dismissed the objectors as practitioners of “voodoo science”.
Journalists are fond of saying that the IPCC report is based solely on the
peer-reviewed literature. Rajendra Pachauri himself made that claim in 2008,
“we carry out an assessment of climate change based on peer-reviewed literature,
so everything that we look at and take into account in our assessments has to
carry [the] credibility of peer-reviewed publications, we don't settle for
anything less than that.”
That’s a voodoo claim. The glacier claim was not peer reviewed; nor was the
alteration to the sensitivity function Lewis spotted. The journalist Donna
Laframboise got volunteers all over the world to help her count the times the
IPCC used non-peer reviewed literature. Her conclusion is that “Of the 18,531
references in the 2007 Climate Bible we found 5,587 - a full 30% - to be non
Yet even to say things like this is to commit heresy. To stand up and say,
within a university or within the BBC, that you do not think global warming is
dangerous gets you the sort of reaction that standing up in the Vatican and
saying you don’t think God is good would get. Believe me, I have tried it.
Does it matter? Suppose I am right that much of what passes for mainstream
climate science is now infested with pseudoscience, buttressed by a bad case of
confirmation bias, reliant on wishful thinking, given a free pass by biased
reporting and dogmatically intolerant of dissent. So what?
After all there’s pseudoscience and confirmation bias among the climate heretics
Well here’s why it matters. The alarmists have been handed power over our lives;
the heretics have not. Remember Britain’s unilateral climate act is officially
expected to cost the hard-pressed UK economy Ł18.3 billion a year for the next
39 years and achieve an unmeasurably small change in carbon dioxide levels.
At least sceptics do not cover the hills of Scotland with useless, expensive,
duke-subsidising wind turbines whose manufacture causes pollution in Inner
Mongolia and which kill rare raptors such as this griffon vulture.
At least crop circle believers cannot almost double your electricity bills and
increase fuel poverty while driving jobs to Asia, to support their fetish.
At least creationists have not persuaded the BBC that balanced reporting is no
At least homeopaths have not made expensive condensing boilers, which shut down
in cold weather, compulsory, as John Prescott did in 2005.
At least astrologers have not driven millions of people into real hunger,
perhaps killing 192,000 last year according to one conservative estimate, by
diverting 5% of the world’s grain crop into motor fuel.
That’s why it matters. We’ve been asked to take some very painful cures. So we
need to be sure the patient has a brain tumour rather than a nosebleed.
Handing the reins of power to pseudoscience has an unhappy history. Remember
eugenics. Around 1910 the vast majority of scientists and other intellectuals
agreed that nationalizing reproductive decisions so as to stop poor, disabled
and stupid people from having babies was not just a practical but a moral
imperative of great urgency.
“There is now no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact,” said George
Bernard Shaw, “that nothing but a eugenics religion can save our civilization
from the fate that has overtaken all previous civilizations.’’ By the skin of
its teeth, mainly because of a brave Liberal MP called Josiah Wedgwood, Britain
never handed legal power to the eugenics movement. Germany did.
Or remember Trofim Lysenko, a pseudoscientific crank with a strange idea that
crops could be trained to do what you wanted and that Mendelian genetics was
bunk. His ideas became the official scientific religion of the Soviet Union and
killed millions; his critics, such as the geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, ended up
dead in prison.
Am I going too far in making these comparisons? I don’t think so. James Hansen
of NASA says oil firm executives should be tried for crimes against humanity.
(Remember this is the man who is in charge of one of the supposedly impartial
data sets about global temperatures.) John Beddington, Britain's chief
scientific adviser, said this year that just as we are "grossly intolerant of
racism", so we should also be "grossly intolerant of pseudoscience", in which he
included all forms of climate-change scepticism.
The irony of course is that much of the green movement began as heretical
dissent. Greenpeace went from demanding that the orthodox view of genetically
modified crops be challenged, and that the Royal Society was not to be trusted,
to demanding that heresy on climate change be ignored and the Royal Society
could not be wrong.
Talking of Greenpeace, did you know that the collective annual budget of
Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth was more than a billion dollars
globally last year? People sometimes ask me what’s the incentive for scientists
to exaggerate climate change. But look at the sums of money available to those
who do so, from the pressure groups, from governments and from big companies. It
was not the sceptics who hired an ex News of the World deputy editor as a spin
doctor after climategate, it was the University of East Anglia.
By contrast scientists and most mainstream journalists risk their careers if
they take a skeptical line, so dogmatic is the consensus view. It is left to the
blogosphere to keep the flame of heresy alive and do the investigative reporting
the media has forgotten how to do. In America, Anthony Watts who crowd-sourced
the errors in the siting of thermometers and runs wattsupwiththat.com;
In Canada, Steve McIntyre, the mathematician who bit by bit exposed the shocking
story of the hockey stick and runs climateaudit.org.
Here in Britain, Andrew Montford, who dissected the shenanigans behind the
climategate whitewash enquiries and runs bishop-hill.net.
In Australia, Joanne Nova, the former television science presenter who has
pieced together the enormous sums of money that go to support vested interests
in alarm, and runs joannenova.com.au.
The remarkable thing about the heretics I have mentioned is that every single
one is doing this in his or her spare time. They work for themselves, they earn
a pittance from this work. There is no great fossil-fuel slush fund for
In conclusion, I’ve spent a lot of time on climate, but it could have been
dietary fat, or nature and nurture. My argument is that like religion, science
as an institution is and always has been plagued by the temptations of
confirmation bias. With alarming ease it morphs into pseudoscience even –
perhaps especially – in the hands of elite experts and especially when
predicting the future and when there’s lavish funding at stake. It needs
Thank you very much for listening.
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