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« Please tell me this isn't true | Main | Preposterous musings - Josh 97 »
Monday
May092011

Brian Cox and arguments from authority

From the Observer's survey of public intellectuals, Prof Brian Cox on arguments from authority (emphasis added):  

Richard Feynman said a "physicist commenting on anything but physics is as dumb as the next guy" and there is something to be said for that. Often, scientists feel they should remain within their area of expertise. But then many people from other disciplines are perfectly happy to offer their opinions on everything. It is incumbent on scientists to step up and be as vocal.

Scientists are trained to take great care over drawing conclusions from evidence and it is worthwhile offering that as a perspective in itself. If you don't put forward the evidence-based case, then how is the debate to proceed? You're left only with opinion. The Royal Society's motto is: "On the word of no one". The dilemma for the public intellectual is to remember at all times that the point of the project is to remove arguments from authority. You shouldn't stand there and say: "I am a scientist, therefore you should think this." That is the antithesis of science.

People who know things clearly make a valuable contribution to public debate, but I'm wary of iconic people behaving almost like cult leaders. It would be unfortunate if public policy were influenced by people with the biggest following.

Being a public intellectual might not be to your taste, but you have to have these debates because if you don't, somebody will. For example, Nigel Lawson will go on Newsnight and make pronouncements about climate change. The scientist can't say: "I don't want to get involved in something so vulgar" because then you get an ex-chancellor talking about climate predictions, which is ridiculous. I suppose I'm arguing for public discourse to be tempered by some kind of knowledge… a radical suggestion!

I think the bit I've emphasised is very welcome. I'm sure pretty much everyone agrees with Prof Cox's sentiments on this subject. That being the case, I wonder if Prof Cox would ask Dr Singh about his evidence that recent warming has been significant. Doug Keenan says he pointed out to Singh that this claim was not supportable a couple of weeks back.

Prof Cox and Dr Singh are appearing on stage together in Cardiff tonight, so there should be ample opportunity.

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Reader Comments (26)

Parsing what Cox says is not very straightforward. On the one hand, he rejects the argument from authority but then he spoils his case by saying "Nigel Lawson will go on Newsnight and make pronouncements about climate change. The scientist can't say: "I don't want to get involved in something so vulgar" because then you get an ex-chancellor talking about climate predictions, which is ridiculous"

As far as I knjow, Lwson never says "trust me, because I used to be Chancellor of the Exchquer". He talks about facts and argues from those. Whereas Cox simply wants to react to Lawson by reverting to the argument from authority - authority which he has just conceded should not happen. In truth, I think that Lawson has a greater grasp of the issues than scientists such as Singh, Cox, Beddington. All that Cox shows in this statement is that he is a very muddled thinker.

May 9, 2011 at 11:16 AM | Unregistered Commenterdiogenes

There's a difference between the person who says 'this is the case, I'm an expert' and the one who says 'Prove it, I'm no expert but I am reasonably intelligent'. The next step is the proof, then the rebuttal and so on. In climate discussions, the next step is 'I'm an expert, and you're not'. That is the argument from authority. It may not be used to support a claim. Anyone who is expressing a doubt over fact or interpretation is not using argument from authority no matter what their status.

Cox should not be engaging Lawson on his lack of authority, but on his arguments. That is what he claims in the first part, then immediately departs from in the second, where he is requiring Lawson to reach some position of authority before his case need be addressed.

May 9, 2011 at 11:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterRhoda

Celebrity Science

The z list factor

May 9, 2011 at 11:23 AM | Unregistered CommenterAnoneumouse

Rhoda

Excellent dissection of Cox.

Lawson seems to me to be eminently qualifed to argue not against the science - such as it is - but against the economics of the supposed solution to the alleged problem.

In 1911 the world's population was about a billion, IIRC. Maybe two billion, not sure. Today's it's about 6 billion. If you'd asked someone in 1911 what problems we might face in 100 years' time with a population 2 or 3 billion higher than then, he'd probably answer in terms of shortages of food, horses and coal. The fact that we've got to 4 or 5 billion more without being brought to a halt by any of these shows the total futility of 100-year forecasting.

Finance ministers don't plan 100 years into the future and neither does anyone else - government, compamies, whoever. The only people who do are those who have good grounds to believe and some nefarious interest in ensuring that most things will stay much the same. In the past this meant religiojs and autocracies; today it means Stalinists and ecofascists, who are very much the inheritors of the anti-intellectual, anti-progress flame.

May 9, 2011 at 11:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterJustice4Rinka

It's alright relying on 'experts'.

But when the self appointed experts have shown zero skill in their predictions and have been found time and time again fiddling the data, using inappropriate statistical methods and making claims supported (at best) by computer models deliberately tuned to give the 'party line' result; what price 'experts'?

The McIntyre and the Bish are far and away more 'expert' in exposing these cheats and fantasists than the likes of Meltdown Mann and Jones are in doing anything.

Except filling in grant application forms, maybe.

May 9, 2011 at 11:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Brumby

If you don't put forward the evidence-based case, then how is the debate to proceed?

I'm sure pretty much everyone agrees with Prof Cox's sentiments on this subject.

I disagree. This isn't a welcome standard to dictate the rules of debate. An "evidence-based" prerequisite before allowing debate is a new Orwellian concept that seems to have quietly slipped in and been accepted by many people on all sides.

The "Hockey-stick" "evidence" caused much debate from people before Steve McIntyre came along and provided some new evidence to help them dispute it. In the mean time policy decisions had geared up based on it, and started the ball rolling to todays powerful enviro lobby.
By the "evidence-base" law we now have to bow to all policy decisions based on any evidence because, even though the evidence could be incredibly bad and ropey, there is no counter evidence. If there is no motivation for the elite to look for counter evidence, then tough, shut up and take it.

In this new "evidence based" world we now have a tempting rule for authoritarians to abuse, that means any evidence of any quality trumps all debate. It must be nice to create a world of such power.


If you want more "evidence" of the power of "evidence based" authority, check out the history of Sally Clark who was effectively killed by that philosophy before anyone had the chance to bring some counter evidence to help her.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sally_Clark

May 9, 2011 at 12:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterTS

What you guys have all forgotten is that Climate Science is "different".
It's not the same as 'old' science. It's new and bright and spangly (as my daughter would say) and has its own very, very special rules.
Which basically are: I'm right; you're wrong; shut up; b****r off.
Seriously, it is worrying when people such as Cox, Nurse and others (I discount Singh; he's just a mayfly in this zoo) make an excellent case for a sceptical approach to science but then come unstuck at the 'climate change' fence. And it's not a question of demanding either that they believe in it or don't; just that they apply the same standards.
Either there is something fundamentally different about climate change (actually there is: it's neither provable nor falsifiable as presented to us, which calls into question whether it's even science) or they do not see that they are applying different standards.

May 9, 2011 at 12:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterMike Jackson

TS -
I think you go too far by interpreting evidence-based policy as "any evidence of any quality trumps all debate." The quality of the evidence is (or should be) as critical a factor in the weighing of policy decisions, as the costs involved in implementing policy. Statistical evidence requires particular care -- it is very easy (as in the case you cite) to make unwarranted statistical inferences.

May 9, 2011 at 1:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterHaroldW

HaroldW, evidence-based is becoming newspeak for 'we know best'. It no longer implies weighing the totality of the evidence, just cherry-picking some parts and denigrating the rest.

May 9, 2011 at 1:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterRhoda

To quote my full sentence:

In this new "evidence based" world we now have a tempting rule for authoritarians to abuse, that means any evidence of any quality trumps all debate.

To clarify, if you simply accept the concept of "evidence-based policy" you create a rule bound environment that you agree with implicitly, leaving you dumb about any abstract human preferences and desires. You simply accept the "scientific" rules that drive "evidence-based policy".

What if science says a genetic flaw in a racial sub-category of humans means some eugenics is in order and a suitable policy is imposed from above?

Well surely any emotional disagreements with that policy are not "evidence-based"?

So now an authoritarian can easily keep you at arms length and decry your attempts to check the "quality of the evidence" as being the act of a "denier" or a troll or just lacking "evidence based" qualities.

May 9, 2011 at 2:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterTS

The Royal Society's motto is: "On the word of no one".

Is this still true?

May 9, 2011 at 2:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterEddy

It would be unfortunate if public policy were influenced by people with the biggest following.

I never had Brian Cox down as anti-democracy. Or is this one of those "I only want democracy when my side wins" type of situations?

It boils down to "experts are classified as those people who agree with me", and therefore we should listen only to that group of people.

May 9, 2011 at 2:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterSpence

Spence

Brian Cox says:

It would be unfortunate if public policy were influenced by people with the biggest following.

There is no ambiguity there. That is a straightforward anti-democratic statement.

If I had the chance I may have thought it worth getting a T-shirt printed up with that logo and wearing it at the front of the audience at Cardiff.

May 9, 2011 at 2:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterTS

Please,

Was this not the same Cox (of the Martin Durkin 'Big Daft Cox' comeback) who told us on his BBC programme that we should separate the polemic from the documentary by succumbing to the expertise of 'consensus' and 'scientific peer-review'?

Was an argument from authority alright to be made then?

Cox seems especially pleased in making arguments where he dives into a line of rhetoric only to emerge from its opposite end.

'iconic people behaving like cult leaders'.

Heh. This applies to the the Cox camp more than he could care to admit.

May 9, 2011 at 3:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterShub

...sounds a mite pompous, does this....public 'intellectual'...

(Perhaps his next radical suggestion will be for 'some kind of' honesty.)

May 9, 2011 at 3:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterZT

we need a forum where these people can stand and speak against a pre-prepared template:

what i know of the subject
what I think needs to happen
what outcome might arrive as a result of that action.

No deviation from the strict template allowed. No appeals to save hippos/seals/polar bears/starving Bangladeshis

May 9, 2011 at 3:44 PM | Unregistered Commenterdiogenes

"then you get an ex-chancellor talking about climate predictions, which is ridiculous."

I thought the major points of contention raised by the "ex-chancellor” were regarding the cost and effectiveness of the proposed climate change mitigation actions, and the detrimental effects this would have upon the UK economy. Making the point that adaption would be a more reasonable route to take.

As such is this not an area that an "ex-chancellor" may well be able to talk about with some authority?

May 9, 2011 at 3:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterGreen Sand

I may have the wrong take on this, but Coz's former occupation of 'pop star' has seemingly led him to believe his own circular argument without seeing the obvious logical flaws in it. I suspect the cause is probably the noise levels he used to routinely subject himself to which probably did some damge to his brain's internal logic circuits. I, as others here have expressed, feel that a former Chancellor might actually know a thing or two about the nation's economy and the possible effects which various strategies to mitigate or to counter the possibility of global warming may have upon said economy.
Prof Cox may be a very erudite and well-trained physicist; I was not aware he had any expertise in economics, macro or micro.

May 9, 2011 at 5:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlexander K

an 'erudite physcist'

I am not sure that would not be percieved as an insult.

May 9, 2011 at 6:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterShub

Rhoda @ 11:22 AM on May 9, 2011

There is also the arrogant dismissal of the "not yet understood", as Brian Cox demonstrates so well:

"... but despite the fact that Astrology is a load of rubbish Jupiter can, in fact, have a profound influence on our planet ..."
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xq1aX8gsaCs

Why did he have to make such a pointed, negative remark about Astrology when he didn't have to make it to get his main point across, when there was no follow up discussion on the topic and no evidence or reference given. It wasn't said in conversation at a social gathering; it was said and edited into the programme, viewed on national TV.

Making such irrelevant and unsupported statements reduces the integrity of the scientific argument he was trying to make, and well as the speaker, himself.

If Astrology is rubbish, why mention it? If it is not rubbish, don't mention it, make another programme to discuss it more fully, scientifically even!

The same goes for any science programme on TV.

May 9, 2011 at 7:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobert Christopher

"The peer-reviewed consensus is by definition impartial".

"So for me the challenge for the science reporter in television news is easily met. Report the peer-reviewed consensus and avoid the maverick eccentric at all costs".

Just a couple of the more jaw-dropping quotes from Brian Cox's Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture given at the end of last year. I think he's well meaning, but it highlights the problems at the core of AGW. Scientists in hard science (such as Physics) overestimate the impartiality of other disciplines and loftily refuse to see the shortcomings of Peer review itself. The scientific method is impartial but the individual scientist is not. Pal review can and will obstruct and pervert the pursuit of truth and individuals will cloak themselves in the garb of reason precisely to deflect criticism and further analysis. In the long term, this will out, but how much damage shall be done in the meantime?

Brian Cox should amend his obsession with the objectivity of Peer review and his naively optimistic view of most scientists. Trust the method, not the man.

May 9, 2011 at 7:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterPirran

Robert Christopher

Could you clarify your personal position please, do you think astrology is a load of rubbish or not?

May 9, 2011 at 7:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterZedsDeadBed

How ridiculous Cox is.

An ex chancellor talking about climate change predictions. Yep, obviously as daft as a physicist telling journalists about journalism (Huw Weldon lecture)

Cox is inconsistent, and, IMHO, a bit of a joke.

May 9, 2011 at 9:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterPJon

Brian is a a little child full of himself who needs his diapers changed.

As for Singh, he needs diapers as he is making a mess.

Really sad that either have any sort of "following". Scientists are not cult heroes. They do research. Neither of these idiots know what that means.

May 9, 2011 at 11:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Pablo de la Sierra

I don't "do Astrology"; well, not yet anyway! In fact, when I meet it, I am sceptical of it; perhaps very sceptical! But I don't want to reject valid evidence just to stay politically correct as it means I haven't engaged my brain and done my own thinking; honestly, it is the only way! "Believers" rejecting new evidence is not unknown, is it?
What does Brian Cox think Astrology is? Would he say that the month you were born affects you for the rest of your life, or does he think that Astrology is just the daily horoscopes in some newspapers? He didn’t say.
I find it an intriguing area; there are usually some truths in old cultures and, we are continually being told to respect all cultures! Also, modern life does seem to push us into a plastic, sterile world, where not knowing is a failure, a sin even!
My objection is that opinions, or guesses to quote Richard Feynman, originating in scientific process, should not be defended by ridicule. It does not add credibility and only diminishes the speaker.
I have seen several skill sets successfully applied that later have been condemned by an authority that does not understand the discipline, such as the Chinese medicine, so when anyone makes off topic, off the cuff, very general remarks, like “Astrology is a load of rubbish”, I do question the motives of those who making the remarks! Why waste time during a science programme that has been edited and broadcast to the nation, to make a comment about something which he appears to know nothing about?

If it wasn't Astrology, but another discipline, then I would expect that the TV programme would still be the poorer.

I like Leo Tolstoy's quote, 1898:

I know that most men - not only those considered clever, but even those who are clever and capable of understanding the most difficult scientific, mathematical or philosophical problems - can seldom discern even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as obliges 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.

One method of defence of these "most men" is ridicule. And powerful men can get others to do the ridiculing.

The delay in answering is that I haven’t been able to upload my response in Firefox, Opera or IE, until now, of course!

May 10, 2011 at 12:24 AM | Unregistered CommenterRobert Christopher

Ah, well... paid my £25 = ouch! - but I suppose Lady Gaga tickets are about the same - £50K door = nice work if you can get it.

St. David's Hall has ghastly acoustics for voice - a decay that sounded like 500ms and the middle / upper frequencies predominating to the point where some sections sounded like the speaker was using a tin megaphone (poor PA + sound tech with a tin ear too) in a tiled warehouse.

That aside, missed the first 20 minutes.

In all - not as lame as it had the potential to be, Cox was actually more impressive than TV - managing to carry the audience well. Ben Goldacre was OK but he's got that medic arrogance thing going on - he'd do well to heed Feynman's words about being as dumb as the next guy. Goldacre was the only one to snipe at climate deniers (nutters) that I noticed ( a lot shorter in stature than I expected too) . Nobody else touched the poison chalice. Simon Singh contented himself with some reasonable and pretty safe stuff.

Worth £10, not £25 and a 70 mile round trip to not be patronised and be talked down for a couple of hours and listen to some folk with enthusiasm and commitment talk through some challenging subjects.

What I came away with was the number of times Brian Cox actually said "we don't know" and "we don't understand".

I can understand being exasperated with idiocy and stupidity and the psychologically challenged - but Feynman was a sage in these matters and I hope, from what I saw that some folk are paying heed others, patently not....

Going slightly OT If you're feeling masochistic you can check out a very prominent and medically qualified anti nuclear campaigner dotting the i's in idiocy, crossing the t's in stupidity and putting the p in psycho over here

May 10, 2011 at 3:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterTom

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