Features Australia

Lunch with Leo and Sir Francis

20 October 2018

9:00 AM

20 October 2018

9:00 AM

I was having a chat with renowned Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and brilliant British empiricist and champion of the scientific method, Sir Francis Bacon, the other day during a rare time warp event at my kitchen table (pace Gillian Triggs), laughing about the latest IPCC report that threatens doom to much of our cattle and other farting livestock (having castrated coal). They chuckled in agreement when I said I was giving my copy to a stand-up comedian friend of mine for use as raw material. He uses ridicule to eviscerate his targets.

(He liked a line we once came up with over a bottle of belligerent burgundy which compared the effectiveness of Australia’s CO2 emission reduction policies to losing weight by sawing off a little left toe with a blunt razor.)

To us at the kitchen table, the IPCC report of October 6, 2018 is further proof of a global state of dysrationalia among scientists, politicians and institutions. I muttered shyly to my learned friends, ‘However well-educated, people who have come to believe in the looming man-made catastrophe brought about what they call climate change are merely intelligent but not smart… they fall for Ponzi schemes and falsified science…’.

‘Absolutely!’ Leo, his bushy beard thrust forward, slapped his right palm on the table top. ‘As I said, in 1897 I think, most men – not only those considered clever, but even those who are very clever, and capable of understanding most difficult scientific, mathematical, or philosophic problems — can very seldom discern even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as to oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions they have formed, perhaps with much difficulty — conclusions of which they are proud, which they have taught to others, and on which they have built their lives.’

Sir Francis reminisced that he had always argued for the pursuit of scientific knowledge based on observation, which could be achieved by the use a sceptical and methodical approach, ‘whereby scientists aim to avoid misleading themselves. And Leo, my dear fellow, I don’t mean this to sound “I already said that” or one upmanship, but about 270 years before your words of wisdom were uttered, I did say much the same thing. Along the lines that the human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion… draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside or rejects.’

Put simply, beliefs which are closely held are the hardest to change.


We now have a name for it: confirmation bias. A large number of studies have shown that people do not like to change their minds, regardless of how much contradictory evidence they are confronted with. This ancient phenomenon is commonplace in current climate science; and when it manifests in (all too frequent) police investigations of crime, it is called tunnel vision, and it has equally negative effects on the truth; wrongful convictions.

Studies also show that when people do not care deeply about an issue, they will change their minds when presented with evidence. It is strongly-held beliefs that are the hardest to change. Religious beliefs (and their equivalents) are the obvious example, as are partisan political beliefs. Directionally motivated reasoning, whereby information is processed in a biased manner in order to reach a particular conclusion that fits our current world view, is not only common, it appears to be the dominant manner in which we process information. Misconceptions are readily accepted if they confirm people’s prior beliefs and expectations, while correct information is rejected.

In The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne (1759) puts it this way: ‘It is the nature of a hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates everything to itself, as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by everything you see, hear, read, or understand.’ (Sadly, Stern couldn’t make it to my chat with Leo and Sir Francis…)

These are some of the biases that scientists must mitigate when they ‘follow the evidence, wherever it leads’.

It apparently has led the IPCC to this: Understanding Global Warming of 1.5C

A.2.Warming from anthropogenic emissions from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea level rise, with associated impacts (high confidence), but these emissions alone are unlikely to cause global warming of 1.5°C (medium confidence).

This is junk science yet it is from the very latest paper that represents the pinnacle of global climate science. As always, the IPCC has been unable to measure how many man-made parts of CO2 drives one degree of warming. As management guru Peter Drucker famously said, ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.’

But more pertinently, as Professor Ian Plimer puts it, ‘Annual human emissions (3 per cent of the total) of carbon dioxide are meant to drive global warming. This has never been shown. If it could be shown, then it would also have to be shown that natural emissions (97 per cent) don’t drive global warming.’ — Climate Change Delusion and the Great Electricity Ripoff (Connor Court).

‘Climate is an interdisciplinary subject requiring insights from many fields. Very few scholars have mastery of more than one or two of these disciplines. Fundamental uncertainties arise from insufficient observational evidence, disagreements over how to interpret data, and how to set the parameters of models,’ as the authors of Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming put it. (Craig Idso, Robert M. Carter (1942-2016), S. Fred Singer, 2015)

As these scientists also point out, ‘climate scientists, like all humans, can be biased. Origins of bias include careerism, grant-seeking, political views, and confirmation bias.’

Confirmation bias. An historical and deeply rooted part and parcel of the human condition — and a significant contributor to dysrationalia.

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