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Mark Thompson on the GWPF

The former head of the BBC has given a lecture at Oxford about science and rhetoric and the problems of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

An extraordinary document. Read it here.

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Reader Comments (76)

Wow. WTH is the *context* of this thing?

Nov 12, 2012 at 2:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter D. Tillman

He seems obsessed by the GWPF, and he quotes Bob Ward as an authority!
No wonder the BBC got itself into such a mess.

Nov 12, 2012 at 2:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterBeeboid

"Who, after all, can be against ‘balance’ and ‘trust’?"

From the BBC, at the moment, that is beyond parody.

Nov 12, 2012 at 2:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteveW

Again, it shows the compartmentalised thinking of these people. In the paragraph describing the interaction between the environmentalist and the businessman, it does not occur to him that the businessman might also be an engineer, or scientist, or trained in those disciplines, and is able to see the complexities of the argument in much greater clarity than the environmentalist who may be educated in more 'fuzzy' skills.

You can see where the current problems the BBC has come from.

Nov 12, 2012 at 2:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

He seems to be unaware of the ability range among 'scientists', so to him the words of a not very good scientist have the same force as a very good one. And of course seems sublimely unaware that almost all scientists, whether for or against MMGW, are talking outside their specific scientific competence almost all the time, because that is the interdisciplinary nature of the beast. Yet the scenario of the person who is a genius within his tiny domain but barely capable outside of it, is well-known.

Nov 12, 2012 at 2:36 PM | Unregistered Commenterbill

"Faced with the formidable scientific institutions backing the case for dangerous climate change the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, the Royal Society and so on"

Has this gentleman just been brought out of deepfreeze. Doesen't he know that just speaking those words would choke most (reasonable) people to death.

Nov 12, 2012 at 2:41 PM | Unregistered Commenterpesadia

oh dear- shall we count the falsehoods & imaginations? no 1.

Mark Thompson:

"By contrast, one survey (xv) suggested that no fewer than 97% of atmospheric scientists believed that man-made climate change is happening."

xv he cites is of course the 'Doran survey'

Actually, Mark,
they were environmental scientists,
no atmospheric physcists were surveyed in the 77-75 scientists cherry picked out of 10,000 surveys sent out, 3000 odd responses.

96% of those surveyed were american,
1 chinese (not 1% one individual) scientist was surveyed, no russian, no indian

of course Doran is NOT the survey, the 97% figure was taken from a students MSC theis..

all here:

some feedback from scientists that took actually part in the survey
(in the actual cited paper cited for the survey, in Doran)

“..scientific issues cannot be decided by a vote of scientists. A consensus is not, at any given time, a good predictor of where the truth actually resides..” (Doran/Zimmermann feedback)

“..The “hockey stick” graph that the IPCC so touted has, it is my understanding, been debunked as junk science..” (Doran/Zimmermann feedback)

“..I’m not sure what you are trying to prove, but you will undoubtably be able to prove your pre-existing opinion with this survey! I’m sorry I even started it!..” (Doran/Zimmerman feedback)

“..and I do not think that a consensus has anything to do with whether a hypothesis is correct. Check out the history of science…you will find that scientific discovery is generally made by ignoring the ‘consensus..’” (Doran/Zimmerman feedback)

A very bizarre speech.

Nov 12, 2012 at 2:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

In a single broad stroke Thompson has set aside, nay, airbrushed from consciousness, the significant question marks that exist in relation to the 'science' and the data and the adjustments it is submitted to and portrays the debate as settled.

He paints a picture of crafty techniques being deployed by sceptics, but does exactly that by ignoring arguments about the robustness of the scientific method and the data it produces. The appeal to 'authority' is by Thompson himself as he enjoins people not to question, but to trust and believe what 'experts' tell us. No matter their models have chasms between predictions and observations and they seek to conceal information at every turn.

He was truly a BBC man with all that entails for bias and ignorance and will slot comfortably into his NYT position to continue his pitiful activism and determination to advance an agenda.

Nov 12, 2012 at 2:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterAutonomous Mind

This is the second half of something. Any link to the first half?
To those who can’t face so much concentrated sarc-soaked erudition, it’s a hatchet job on Dr Benny Peiser, accusing him of using the argument from authority (!)
Thompson’s own sources of authority, which he quotes early on, are Hume’s Enquiry into Human Understanding, Karl Popper, and the MORI poll on trust (which says that people trust scientists more than they trust journalists, and which Thompson trusts because, well because it's MORI isn't it?) .
For what’s billed as an attack on rhetoric, he doesn’t half lay it on. In one scale of the debate are the formidable scientific institutions backing the case for dangerous climate change; on the other scale, the “heavy paw” of the GWPF.
Early on, climate scepticism is described as “the weevils get to work”, and Christopher Booker’s report The BBC and Climate Change: A Triple Betrayal is dismissed with the remark: “‘Only triple?’, I want to say. We must be slipping.”
And of course, there’s the inevitable misquote from Doran and Zimmerman. Could we have a new version of Godwin’s Law? - “In any description of the global warming case, it’s only a matter of time before Doran and Zimmerman are quoted, and in 97% of cases the quote will be wrong”.

Nov 12, 2012 at 2:49 PM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

In fact, new science can only be made by ignoring the consensus. If Galileo, Einstein and all those who have their names written in stone, had not ignored the consensus of their time, today they would be just nobodies. But having gione against the grain, against the consensus, today their name is recorded in history and considered as great scientists.

Nov 12, 2012 at 2:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlex

No wonder the BBC wouldn't take the word of a businessman, they're experts on public choice and their real demands. The opposite of the BBC.

Nov 12, 2012 at 2:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterAC1

I've bee skimming through this and I'd advise everyone that it needs careful reading.

I saw the fatuous 97%, yes. We have to knock that on the head effectively.

And I saw the views of Anthony Kelly, an FRS, pitted against Bob Ward. Pathetic.

But I've also seen this paragraph:

Bjørn Lomborg has written, convincingly in my view, about how the Club of Rome’s famous 1972 report, The Limits to Growth, created a paradigm about economic growth and the exhaustion of the world’s natural resources which remains extraordinarily influential forty years later, even though virtually every one of the specific predictions on which it was based has turned out to be wrong.

That is very well said. This piece needs careful reading. I agree with Peter Tillman that some context would be extremely helpful. When and for whom?

Nov 12, 2012 at 2:54 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

We are hearing about the poor management structure of the bbc and all its problems. They were set up by Mark Thompson. He was lucky to get out two months early.

Nov 12, 2012 at 2:54 PM | Unregistered CommenterBeeboid

Heavy paw indeed. Has Benny picked up some weight, recently?

ps what were MT's qualification for becoming a lecturer?

pps Oxford ain't Oxfort no more

ppps that was a slip of the keyboard but it kind of makes sense. Dumb'em down, my braves!

Nov 12, 2012 at 3:05 PM | Registered Commenteromnologos

Well, If its the GWPF's analysis vs the BBC's then there is no contest.

and may it not be lost on Mark Thompson that the person who demolished his environment correspondent was a former BBC science correspondent who was 'let go' by his budget cuts.

Bad move, Mr Thompson.

Nov 12, 2012 at 3:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterBeeboid

Was anybody in the audience still alive after that speech?

This is a mind bending exercise to read.

Listening to it must have twisted heads off as they tried to follow the speaker's shifts of subject - object - subjugated and we who subjugate those lesser indiscriminate people. Our authority is the only authority and the people must obey... /sarc...

Nov 12, 2012 at 3:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterATheoK

He is obviously trying to ingratiate himself with his, he hopes, new employer – The New York Times. Much grovelling is needed to get the BBC / paedophile scandal put to one side.

Nov 12, 2012 at 3:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterBill Irvine

Mark Thompson:
"The conversation begins with climate change and, unsurprisingly, the business-person says they’ve got grave doubts about the so-called science behind global warming. Didn’t those scientists in East Anglia do something wrong and didn’t even the IPCC drop a clanger about Himalayan glaciers?"

almost funny, in the run up to Copenagen the world journalists were running arond the Himalays pointing to glaciers, quoting woried scientists, millkions depend on water.

BBC - Why are the Himalayan glaciers melting?

But the BBC itself found out this was bollocks, 2 weeks BEFORE Copenhagen but somehow it never got as far as Sci/env (south east asian resopndent reported it, obscure part of BBC website)

Dec 5th ,2009
BBC - Himalayan glaciers melting deadline 'a mistake' By Pallava Bagla in Delhi

"The UN panel on climate change warning that Himalayan glaciers could melt to a fifth of current levels by 2035 is wildly inaccurate, an academic says."

If you read the link, Pallav Bagla gets the whole glaciergate story completely right (this was just after Pachauris' voodoo comment)

BBC's Pallav Bagla: (dec 5, 2009)
"J Graham Cogley, a professor at Ontario Trent University, says he believes the UN authors got the date from an earlier report wrong by more than 300 years.
He is astonished they "misread 2350 as 2035". The authors deny the claims.
Leading glaciologists say the report has caused confusion and "a catalogue of errors in Himalayan glaciology". "


BBC's Pallav Bagla: (dec 5, 2009)

"Mr Cogley says it is astonishing that none of the 10 authors of the 2007 IPCC report could spot the error and "misread 2350 as 2035". "I do suggest that the glaciological community might consider advising the IPCC about ways to avoid such egregious errors as the 2035 versus 2350 confusion in the future," says Mr Cogley.

"He said the error might also have its origins in a 1999 news report on retreating glaciers in the New Scientist magazine. The article quoted Syed I Hasnain, the then chairman of the International Commission for Snow and Ice's (ICSI) Working group on Himalayan glaciology, as saying that most glaciers in the Himalayan region "will vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming".
Scientists say Himalayan glaciers need more study When asked how this "error" could have happened, RK Pachauri, the Indian scientist who heads the IPCC, said: "I don't have anything to add on glaciers."


but somehow genuises Black, Harrabin,Shukman missed all this news on their own website from the region itself, in the excitement of the run up to Copenhagen

Nov 12, 2012 at 3:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterBarry Woods

I would say this smugåsbord is a feather in the Cap for Peiser and the GWPF - they clearly have that particular member of the political class severely rattled. Three cheers for that. Meanwhile, the champagne socialists of the NYT have chosen Thompson as their saviour. The decline of the BBC beyond their eastern horizon may yet give them pause for thought, as their Duranty era coverage of a country even further east never did. The BBC have been doing a Duranty on the eco-paradise within our grasp - and I daresay they daydream of winning whatever the tv equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize is for it.

Nov 12, 2012 at 3:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Shade

I gave up after seeing his "to a former public service broadcaster like me, balance suggests an even handed debate". Did we all miss this even handed debate on the BBC, surely if it happened someone would have heard it.....someone somewhere....come on speak up...there must be one. OK, no takers, so it did not happen! No wonder the BBC is in such a mess.

Nov 12, 2012 at 3:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterDerek Buxton

"Years ago I commissioned a leading zoologist, Aubrey Manning, to make a series about geology for BBC Two"
The last programme in the series showed a sceptical Aubrey Manning musing over current climate change in the light of the last 10 thousand years and before.

Nov 12, 2012 at 3:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterConfusedPhoton

Some background:

Mr Thompson, who is himself an Oxford University humanities graduate, will take up the Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Rhetoric and the Art of Public Persuasion in honour of Philip Gould, in early November 2012.

He will give lectures on healthcare and language on Monday 5 November, on science and argument on Tuesday 6 November, and on war and morality on Wednesday 7 November - all at St Peter’s College, Oxford University. He will also take part in a symposium with Andrew Marr, David Willetts, Polly Toynbee and Gus O’Donnell on Friday 9 November to discuss how language shapes public debate. The lecture series will be called ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’.

Nov 12, 2012 at 3:44 PM | Registered CommenterDreadnought

There is an thing in the Care Bears Movie called the "Cloud of Uncaring" - seems to me that Care Bear Thompson has got them mixed up.

Nov 12, 2012 at 3:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterBeeboid

@Derek Buxton shouldn't that be: "to a former private service broadcaster like me, balance suggests an even handed debate". ;-)

Nov 12, 2012 at 3:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterChairman Al

Oh, the ...humanities of it!

Nov 12, 2012 at 3:50 PM | Registered Commenteromnologos

Latest from the Commons:

Maria Miller says the BBC Trust has "clear responsibilities" to be transparent with public funds, suggesting the National Audit Office may review the payout to the outgoing director general George Entwistle.

Tony Newbery is getting some help I'd say.

Nov 12, 2012 at 3:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

well that's as good an expose of a useful idiot as you are ever likely to see.

Nov 12, 2012 at 3:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterDolphinhead

The talk starts with three pages of smart-arseing a single, clear paragraph of Peiser. Well, it's what humanities people are taught to do . . .

Nov 12, 2012 at 3:59 PM | Unregistered CommenterCapell

What an ingnorant, self-inflated, pompous a***. (Forgive me for the tautology).
Now we know exactly why the Biased Bulls*** Corporation got into it's current state.

Nov 12, 2012 at 4:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

A glimpse of the NYT we might expect on earth day next year?:

It does illustrate the four 'elements' mentioned here:
"I’ve tried this evening to give some examples of how it is possible to parse public statements about science and disentangle them so that one can analyse and understand the different elements: exposition, assertion, opinion and advocacy. "

Nov 12, 2012 at 4:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Shade

Thompsons Cloud of Unknowing is not even very original

Nov 12, 2012 at 4:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterBeeboid

Sorry, I started to read it, then scanned a few pages, got depressed and closed the browser window.

What have we got to do to defeat these people? Moaning on blogs won't do it. There must be someone here with the organisational ability to get a hearing.

I'm too old and tired to fight this sort of battle.

Nov 12, 2012 at 4:10 PM | Registered CommenterGrumpyDenier

He talks of "science" but ignores the fact that climatescience is based upon extrapolations/predictions of climate models whereas real science is the use of data.

What a shame the data does not support the predictions.

Which is strange given his comment re how predictions of us running out of raw materials/food have all been proved wrong.

Nov 12, 2012 at 4:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterDoug UK

The problem is that he can only define the value of scientific knowledge in terms of the authority that speaks to him. He gives shamanic power to National Societies and proze winners. Which sounds fine, until you consider what they actually knwo about climate science. Is a biologist really the expert to determine the statistical evidence for an anthropogenic warming signal? No, of course not.

One almost wonders why he was picked?

Notice there is no distinction in this article beyween empirical and idealistic knowledge.

I know because I have seen... so much warming in so little time (or not)... is a statement with scientific authority. It leads back to the real world.

I know because my theory says... is not empirical. It is idealistic, possibly fantastic. And writing one's opinions in computer code does not add any relevance to those opinions.

The BBC cannot distinguish between opinioin and physical fact. That is the root of all their problems.

Nov 12, 2012 at 4:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterM Courtney

The issue is not if Thompson's conclusions make sense. The issue is that he didn't stick to language and communications, he actually went into the arguments and came up with this Hume Test about which he cannot be possibly qualified for a university lecture at Oxford.

It's amateur hour with a hint that such a master of public persuasion has just tried to score a few personal points againt Dr Evil, I mean, Benny Peiser.

Nov 12, 2012 at 4:20 PM | Registered Commenteromnologos

AFAIK Thompson was picked to give the lecture at St Peters because his old friend Mark Damazer is master there. Damazer was big in BBC News until the Kelley affair when, lucky not to have got sacked, he was booted sideways to be controller of Radio 4. Now he's master of St peters and gets all his chums into lecture in some self-glorifying pseudo intellectual justification of his checkered career.

Nov 12, 2012 at 4:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterBeeboid

Newsnight plunged the BBC into its greatest crisis because it didn't check its facts.

Now the former Editor in chief of BBC News does the same thing in not checking the source for his 99% of scientists agree etc.

Led by example eh!

Nov 12, 2012 at 4:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterBeeboid

Here is a poster advertising the series of talks he gave last week.

In one respect it seems slightly out of date: "Mark Thompson is the outgoing Director General of the BBC".

Nov 12, 2012 at 4:30 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

Thompson says:

Professor Peiser’s remarks are best seen as a demand that these authorities, generally from other disciplines, should be taken as seriously, and when it comes to policy-formulation, perhaps more seriously, than the scientists.

He certainly doesn't seem to grasp that deciding between alternative policies is the realm of politics economics rather than of science.

Nov 12, 2012 at 4:32 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

Most of you beat me to it. It's almost unreadable, isn't it and it does explain why the BBC is in the doodoo today.

Nov 12, 2012 at 4:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterMike Fowle

The most interesting thing about Thompson's lecture is its title - "THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING - Policy, rhetoric and public bewilderment"

Coming from a man whose lack of curiosity over Savile's exploits is largely the cause of the BBC's current crisis, his title contains at least some unintended irony.

For Thompson, 'knowing' is the cure for 'bewilderment'. In other words, jumping to a conclusion - regardless of its soundness or coherence - is urgently more preferable to keeping one's options open... which his title symptomises as a psychological illness.

Of course, the classic Christian text Thompson usurped his title from proposes exactly the opposite... understanding is only possible from a prior acceptance of not knowing (and reaching this position is a huge obstacle in itself for many people).

Perhaps Thompson's garbled lecture, in particular - and secular climate alarmism, in general - might be understood and responded to under the title of "THE TYRANNY OF KNOWING".

Nov 12, 2012 at 4:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter S

Paul Matthews: very amusing, thanks.

Nov 12, 2012 at 4:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

To give Mark Thompson some credit he does say this :

On still other occasions, someone may call into question the good faith of the scientists they’re in the pay of the government or Big Pharma or they’re committed to some cause and therefore their work may lack impartiality and thus reliability: we might call this corrupted or even perverted science.

State funding as a potential distortion to scientific investigations rarely gets mentioned.

Dreadnought quoted:

Mr Thompson, who is himself an Oxford University humanities graduate, will take up the Humanitas Visiting Professorship in Rhetoric and the Art of Public Persuasion in honour of Philip Gould, in early November 2012.

For a moment I thought that was satire.

For completeness, here are the other two lectures:

Lecture 1

Lecture 3

Nov 12, 2012 at 4:54 PM | Unregistered CommenterGareth

I only read 4 pages plus an excursion to Wiki to find out what epistemology was (lack of a classical education puts one at a disadvantage hehe). However with the advantage of a second reading of the first page I would have walked out of this lecture right away. It is built on the most enormous straw man which is also in flames just in case you would not otherwise have noticed it.
Thompson does not even understand the points Peiser is making and he launches his attack on Peiser by accusing him of wanting to ignore science and listen to journalists instead. In all his talk of the scientific concensus he forgets that in this area, science is not giving us solid predictions but rather a range of possible eventualities, each of which is given a percentage probability of coming to pass.
Benny Peiser points out that once the scientists have given us their range of possible futures, social considerations must influence our decisions on any action. It is not the job of scientists to decide policy but Thompson seems to think that it is.
I hope the WSJ has a good shrink available.

Nov 12, 2012 at 5:09 PM | Registered CommenterDung

The track record of the BBC on climate is so poor that this lecture deserves analysis. It would be good if we had a better understanding of just how it came to pass that climate alarmism took such a hold of the minds of so many influential people over the past few decades. No end of resolutions passed in the UN or votes taken at IPCC conferences can alter the fact that the alarm is based on a speculation about the future that has not begun to be confirmed by observations. If anything, they have been weakening the case year by year. The mystery is how this speculation, whose substance ( I exclude here the output of computer models), indicates a generally beneficial mild warming has been transformed into a certainty of impending doom and destruction calling for massive social reorganistion and hardship to fend it off (assuming powers of control over the weather system that only some of Greek gods were held to possess). The BBC surely played a part in this remarkable phenomenon.

From near the very end of the lecture, Thompson says this:

"People sometimes talk about the humanities as if they are an indulgence we no longer need or can afford, but without them, who is going to be able to address problems like the one I’ve explored this evening?"

If we substitute 'sophistries' for 'the humanities', I'd find this less contentious. Without sophistry, we should be able to explore scientific and political matters in a more focused and productive way. Ideally science itself would have no place for it. It is an indulgence of the media/political class, and given the harm already caused by it from climate-inspired policies, there is a case to be made that we can indeed no longer 'afford' it.

The quote above is near the end of the piece. I would refer readers to the start of it. See how the specious fooling around displayed in the first few paragraphs sets an unfortunate, albeit informative, tone for the rest of the lecture. I trust that would not have been missed by an Oxford audience.

Nov 12, 2012 at 5:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Shade

He mentions situations where the BBC has given something like equal coverage to controversial competing theories, and should not have done it, because the other side was harmful and was eventually completely discredited.

My response is that there is always some risk of getting it wrong, no matter which direction you jump. The math of statistics says that limited sampling will only give you a certain percentage chance that you are right. There will be false negative indications and false positive indications no matter what you do. You can reduce one of them, but only by greatly expanding the other one. You can’t get rid of both of them without UNlimited sampling (which isn’t possible).

Trying to protect your listeners from this hard truth is not doing them any favors. There is no such thing as risk-free reporting, or risk-free life.

Nov 12, 2012 at 5:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoberto

Here's what I want to know about this 'due impartiality' thing, Mr Thompson. Why is it that when an environmental issue is raised on the BBC some eco-activist group or other almost inevitably gets to shove its oar in.

Nov 12, 2012 at 5:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterCB

Ooh, you can feel the condescension dripping, indeed oozing.

Here you have, dressed up in all its self-regarding finery, the authentic voice of the new ruling class at its most odiously patronising.

Nov 12, 2012 at 5:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterAgouts

Some context I found: Thompson gave 3 talks on 5th, 6th 7th November:

Monday 5 November 5.30 - 7.00pm
Inaugural Lecture: Is Plato winning the
Drawing in particular on recent examples from American and
British healthcare reform, Mark Thompson asks whether the
language of politics is changing in ways which threaten public
understanding of and engagement with the most important
issues of the day.

Tuesday 6 November 5.00 - 6.30pm
Lecture: Consign it to the flames
Almost everyone accepts that science is our most
authoritative guide to understanding the world so why is it
so disputed and disbelieved when it comes to public policy?
In his second lecture, Mark Thompson focuses on the case
of science to look at what’s happened to the ‘argument from
authority’ in modern rhetoric.

Wednesday 7 November 5.00 - 6.30pm
Lecture: Not in my name
In his third lecture, Mark Thompson looks at what happens
when modern rhetoric and morality collide, taking the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan as his principal examples.

Friday 9 November 5.00 - 6.30pm
Symposium: Politics and Language –
Friends or Enemies?
With Mark Thompson, Polly Toynbee, David Willetts MP and
Lord O’Donnell, chaired by Andrew Marr

Oh boy that last Symposium! What words of wisdom did we miss there? ;)

Did anyone see Marr's history series? God that was awful.

Nov 12, 2012 at 6:04 PM | Registered CommenterThe Leopard In The Basement

This is the first document which uses roman numbers for footnotes that I have seen. It tells something about the selfaggrandizing, condescizing attitude of the author.

Nuff said

Nov 12, 2012 at 6:33 PM | Unregistered Commenterbacchus

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