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Analysis on bias and preconceptions in the climate debate

The BBC's Analysis show has been looking at how one's preconceptions and biases affect the climate debate. It reatures Dan Kahan and Roger Scruton among others.

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Reader Comments (39)

Well, they (the Beeb) should know!

Sep 19, 2012 at 9:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

Posted this a couple of days ago in comments. Its fairly interesting, both from the perspective of the subjects and the interviewer.

Sep 19, 2012 at 9:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterMorph

They plan to study their own navel?

Sep 19, 2012 at 10:14 AM | Unregistered CommenterOtter

Kahan explains the benefits of blind faith, which is certainly interesting from the point of view of understanding the other's motivations.

"Nullius in verba is ridiculous. You take people’s word for it and you build on it. And that’s an amazing thing about our species. It’s part of why we’re so smart."

The point of view has a long and venerable history. There is no profit in judging it here. But how can one explain, compactly, what the meaning of and argument for 'nullius in verba' actually is?

Sep 19, 2012 at 10:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterNullius in Verba

Nullius - I am not sure how to explain such an obvious concept. Nobody should "take people's word for it". I doubt anybody does, apart from in certain unhealthy sects.

One listens to an argument and decides if it makes sense or not. This applies to all.

In fact the original from Horace is about "iurare", ie "swearing allegiance" to somebody, in the sense of feeling personally obliged to take as Truth whatever that somebody says. IOW to take it on words without thinking about them.

Has Kahan swore allegiance to anybody, one wonders?

Sep 19, 2012 at 10:40 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos

So, no scientist included in the discussions, unless you classiy psychologists & psychiatrists as scientists, you know, the types who recently held a seminar in Exeter on the issue of Climate CHange Denial being a mnetal illness!!! The circle of insanity is complete! Stinks of Nazism, Communism, & Orwellian Super-Statism!

Sep 19, 2012 at 11:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlan the Brit

'reatures' -> features

Sep 19, 2012 at 11:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterEddy


I'm not sure I'd go that far. I understand their argument - people simply don't have the time to check the evidence for everything they're told. And as a practical matter, even scientists take the bulk of what they believe on the word of others. The point of the motto is not that you have to check everything before believing it, but that everything is subject to being checked, and no authority can negate that potential.

Thus, to use Kahan's example, you might choose to believe Newton's inverse square law without knowing the reasoning, but it is always acceptable to ask for the reasoning, and "because Newton said so" is not an acceptable answer. 'Nullius in verba' says that you always *can* ask the question, not that you always *do*; it says that you *can* accept what somebody says but you never *have* to accept it: there are no unchallengable authorities or unaskable questions in science. And it says that the questions should have been asked by somebody - it is only your confidence that they have been asked many times before that justifies sometimes skipping over the necessity.

I did try explaining it to Dan once, but it evidently didn't make an impression. Perhaps I didn't explain it very well.

Sep 19, 2012 at 11:36 AM | Unregistered CommenterNullius in Verba


We are expressing different sides of the same concept. As I said, people take on whatever makes sense to them. Blind faith is blind to reasoning, so it implies taking also what makes no sense. In Horace's original, obeying orders like a slave. whatever the orders entail.

The motto (a truism in fact) should be "Nullius in verba, omnia in sensu".

The basis for deciding then what is sensible and what isn't, is a subjective matter. For example, gravity being the same at the same distance from a planet -> force strength decreasing on the surface of an expanding sphere -> surface is 4*pi*r_squared. Hence Newton's inverse square law makes sense without knowing much about it, for anybody with a knowledge of geometry.

ps personally I try to extrapolate logical consequences as my "sensibility tool". If somebody says "it's raining outside" a quick look to see if their coat is wet will suffice.

Sep 19, 2012 at 11:52 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos

Nullius: this analysis by the Beeb is irrelevant because climate science was broken when someone claimed the Earth's surface radiates IR as if it were an isolated black body in a vacuum. This breaches Poynting's Theorem, one of the most fundamental axioms of Physics.

The fact that so many so-called scientists have missed this obvious mistake, which creates an imaginary perpetual motion machine of the 2nd kind and the artefactual positive feedback, is very worrying because it shows a desperate failure of mainstream Physics' education.

Sep 19, 2012 at 12:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlecM

Dan Kahan at 20:21:

Climate change was not born with these kinds of associations. No issue - no science, no technology - is destined to become a subject of this kind of conflict. A smart society is going to try to have a scientific understanding of the kinds of influences that saddle technologies and science with these meanings. And it's going to try to prepare itself to prevent those things from happening. Right? So if we get through climate change, if we don't die from the ice melting or die from doing something stupid unnecessarily that doesn't work, then hopefully we've learned something from climate change that will help us to avoid this kind of problem for a future technology like synthetic biology.

Dan Kahan at 21:43:

Right now, we have an information environment where the issue climate change is bound up with these associations about markets, commerce, industry. And it's almost like a logical thing. Climate change means we've got to stop doing things like producing and consuming. That's actually false. There are lots of things we're going to have to do. But many of those things actually involve more technology, more kinds of production, consumption of other kinds of things. We've done a study, for example, in which we show that when you make people aware of geoengineering, as I'm sure you know and your listeners know refers to deliberate management of the environment through scientific means to offset the consequences of climate change. Then people who are otherwise sceptical about climate change tended to be much less sceptical. The reason is that geoengineering has a different kind of association, a different meaning than, say, restricting carbon emissions. It doesn't say, you know: "Game's over, we shouldn't have been consuming so much."

"There are lots of things we're going to have to do". That's an assumption, in itself. Geoengineering is a means to "offset the consequences of climate change." But what are "the consequences of climate change"? Do they need to be offset? More assumptions, which, if not challenged, threaten to cause geoengineering to fall into the category of "doing something stupid unnecessarily".

Sep 19, 2012 at 12:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlex Cull


Nullius: this analysis by the Beeb is irrelevant because climate science was broken ...

It's amazing how many topics (and, by implication, threads on Bishop Hill) become irrelevant because of AlecM's giant intellect. And if we doubt the unique qualities of the brain concerned we are off onto another long digression that renders all other forms of intelligence void.

But I disagree. I've only had time to listen to a few minutes of the programme and read Nullius and Omno on it. But I think this is highly relevant and by no means a stupid effort, either by the Beeb or the Bish. Can we stick with the subject in question on this thread? With thanks to most of the contributors so far.

Sep 19, 2012 at 12:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterRichard Drake

Alex: the 'Geoengineering' concepts are quite frankly, pathetic because the climate is now cooling as can be seen from temperature, Total Precipitable Water and Jet Streams moving nearer the Equator.

In reality, this is a Marxist scare story to destroy capitalism and slash living standards justified by the IPCC scam!

Sep 19, 2012 at 12:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlecM

Sep 19, 2012 at 11:36 AM | Nullius in Verba
"The point of the motto is not that you have to check everything before believing it, but that everything is subject to being checked, and no authority can negate that potential."

(Nullius, is this a case of self understanding?)

Anyway, building on this, this approach works and benefits everyone because it should encourage rigour in those proposing new ideas. It motivated them to save resources.

The ‘right’ to question consumes resources , so it is important that in any proposal , the underlying assumptions made are included. Describing at least some of the assumptions should also ensure that any questions will be more focused on specific points and will start at a higher level of understanding.

After a poor result, it is fashionable to hold a ‘lessons learnt’ meeting, with a probable outcome of “We should not have made so many assumptions.” It is important to hold this type of meeting, with as wide a range of relevant experience, at the start of the process!

The only way that this can happen is to have “Nullius in Verba”.

Sep 19, 2012 at 12:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobert Christopher

We have had a discussion along these lines before but I cant remember where. Most of the regulars on this blog probably have "Take nobody's word for it" burnt into their brain. However this is a learnt response not an inborn response. We all came to it at some point in our lives but as children we take in everything as given. then we grow up and get to the stage where as George Carlin said "I dont believe anything the government tells me".
Not having time to check the evidence is bullshit, people make instant judgements about other people, sometimes even before they open their mouths or even after a few sentences written on a blog.

Sep 19, 2012 at 12:57 PM | Registered CommenterDung

I agree with you nullus about what Nullus in Verbia is intended to mean, but I do have an issue with his notion of consensus science and Newton's Laws of Gravity. Newton put his laws out there, without peer review I might add, he accompanied them with his reasoning and the sums to prove, or disprove them, and they couldn't be disproved until Einstein turned up because the sums actually worked. He didn't get a bunch of mates and announce that the laws were right because they all agreed with him. So Kahan, like Nurse before him is picking a time and not looking at the whole picture. ( I refer to Nurse's ridiculous suggestion that climate science was at the same state of knowledge as that of cancer specialists, where the practioners have thousands of diagnoses which enable them to have a reasonable guess at the problem and the treatment. 60 years ago the cancer specialists were still in a better position to judge a patients than climate scientists are to foretell the future).

Sep 19, 2012 at 1:13 PM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

Alex Cull

Thanks for that transcript, the link did not work when I tried to listen to the prog earlier. Referring to my last post, those few lines from Kahan are enough for me not to trust the man at all.

"A smart society is going to try to have a scientific understanding of ....." Is this man serious? What is a smart society?
Getting through Climate Change without dying is going to enable us to deal with future ideas like synthetic biology? As if proving Climate Change is total rubbish is going to have a bearing on whether Synthetic Biology should be accepted. I think Lew should be called in to psychoanalyze this guy ASAP

Sep 19, 2012 at 1:16 PM | Registered CommenterDung

What a straw man, how does a scientific fact change with preconception? I love the idea of travelling the stars on the Enterprise, science will either make this happen or not it doesn't matter about my preconception.

Head Drs trying to justify there Uni education since they failed at maths.

Sep 19, 2012 at 2:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterShevva

A "smart society" comprises people plagued with the same hallucinations that continually antagonise the Prince of Wales.

People who are not burdened by these phantoms are simply "deniers"

Sep 19, 2012 at 2:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrian G Valentine

"A Smart Society" is an oxymoron.
If society refers to the entire population then its average IQ is 100 and half of us are stupid.
If society is meant to include only those who make our rules (and so decide on the direction a society will take) then those people are some of the most intellectualy challenged people we possess.
Someone once said that language is the greatest barrier to communication, when you see someone use a phrase like "Smart Society" then you understand why.

Sep 19, 2012 at 2:10 PM | Registered CommenterDung

At first the programme seemed fine, with Scruton and Haidt, apart from the usual 'plug the books' approach.
Then it went downhill with Kahan and the FoE guy. Kahan comes across as a fool. He says we know the earth is round because the experts tell us so.
He has no understanding of what 'Nullius in verba' means. "Don't tell me what Newton said..." is not what it means Dan. I'd say it means something more like "please explain to me why you believe that".

Sep 19, 2012 at 2:18 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

The BBC in their inimitable patronising way excel in this type of subliminal propaganda. They take genuinely plausible prejudices about political leanings, apply them to the climate controversy reframing it into righteous science on the one hand and 'denial' on the other, while deliberately ignoring the genuine area of sceptical grievance.

Sep 19, 2012 at 2:31 PM | Registered CommenterPharos

There is a large but disparate group of people trying to control all of our lives but one thing connects them all, they have all latched onto the usefulness of Harry Potter's invisibility cloak!
Governments, the UN, NGOs all now understand one thing very well; they cant afford to tell us exactly what it is they are doing or what they are planning.
In order to conceal their true intentions all these groups now use........language, as their invisibility cloak. Language not intended to communicate truth but to obscure it. Just one example is the typical interview of a politician: "Can you answer my question yes or no?" "Well I would like to say..." "Well would you say yes or would you say no?" "Well what I would say is...."
A question is always answered with words but the words are meant to avoid giving the required information.
What the solution to this problem is, I do not know.

Sep 19, 2012 at 2:36 PM | Registered CommenterDung

At least Richard Black's gone and Harrabin's nowhere to be seen on Al Beebs science web page

Sep 19, 2012 at 2:39 PM | Unregistered Commenterhappy

Podcast of the program available here:

Sep 19, 2012 at 3:42 PM | Unregistered Commenterharold

The crude interpretation of 'Nullius in Verba' is but another sign of how ill-informed and superficial so many of those who urge alarm about CO2 on us actually are (another variant is the specious analogy about taking medical advice from a specialist and climate advice from the IPCC). The political success of that incessant urging has been remarkable, but it has not been edifying.

Sep 19, 2012 at 3:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Shade

" ... it shows a desperate failure of mainstream Physics' education."
(Sep 19, 12:18 PM, AlecM )

A true story to make your point, Alec.

A few years ago, I came across one of my old Physics A-level papers (1969). Reminiscing about my A grade, I showed it to a friend about a quarter of a century my junior. He's quite an intelligent, technical chap.

Ever seen the blood drain out of someone's face?

Sep 19, 2012 at 5:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve C

One aspect of climate science is noteworthy. Before the 80's, only a handful of academics did their primary research on it. Those glaciologists, meteorologists, atmospheric physicists, astronomers, biophysicists and oceanographers came from and were trained in the traditional scientific disciplines. There was no public interest, no agenda no cause and little or no funding for research on climates.

The huge number of recruits to its banner flowed directly from the success of the environmental movement in gaining political legitimacy and academic support and funding for a deluge of new Environmental Science departments.

These recruits got their initial interest from somewhere, and it comes as no surprise to me that the Guardian/BBC axis can claim considerable success in attracting those disposed to environmentalism in the first place and imbibing them with a predisposition to regarding human influence on climate as a threat. What Scruton and co probably have correct is that these recruits are likely to come predominantly from the metropolitan intellectual left.

Confirmation of this can be found among the 'about' pages and so on on many climate scientists web persona, for instance, and for no particular grievance, for he seems utterly sincere

Sep 19, 2012 at 8:26 PM | Registered CommenterPharos

To paraphrase a great Victorian Tory :

Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws."

"You speak of — "said Egremont, hesitantly.

"Scientists and folk who do nothing but comment in climate blogs."

Sep 19, 2012 at 9:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

For anyone who missed it, there's a link to a transcript of the show on the page the Bishop linked.


"Newton put his laws out there, without peer review I might add, he accompanied them with his reasoning and the sums to prove, or disprove them, and they couldn't be disproved until Einstein turned up because the sums actually worked."

Newton is an interesting example, actually, because he already knew that the basis for the physics was incorrect when he published it, and when a sceptical Richard Bentley questioned it, he said:

And this is one reason why I desired you would not ascribe {innate} gravity to me. That gravity should be innate inherent & {essential} to matter so that one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of any thing else by & through which their action or force {may} be conveyed from one to another is to me so great an absurdity that I beleive no man who has in philosophical matters any competent faculty of thinking can ever fall into it.

And many of the top mathematicians and physicists that followed were well aware of the problems with the theory, and worked on solutions to it.

For example, Laplace noted that the Earth is 8 light-minutes away from the sun, so if the sun and Earth are each pulled to where the other was 8 minutes ago, the forces don't balance. Newton's third law of motion is violated. The imbalance is sufficient to mess up the solar system in about 100,000 years. Laplace calculated that if gravity was a central force that propagated at a finite speed, it had to travel at least a million times faster than light. On the other hand, instantaneous action at a distance had its own philosophical problems, such as distinguishing cause from effect, and the possibility of closed causal loops.

Another of the inverse square law's quirks is at the heart of the conflict between gravity and quantum mechanics. Newton himself dodged the issue by rejecting the concept of point particles that can get arbitrarily close (what happens to G m1 m2/r^2 when r = 0?) but again it was recognised as a problem from the first and again students today are taught point dynamics today without caveats.

Weber, Gauss, Riemann, Maxwell, as well as Laplace all made attempts to fix the theory - until Einstein finally figured out one that worked. Although the popular image has always been that Newtonian gravity was sacrosanct until Einstein overturned it, in fact it was questioned and challenged from the first.

Newton's gravity is today part of the modern mythology of science, a rote formula to be accepted without question, the reasons mysterious, considered beyond our understanding. I think the way it has been taught has been incredibly damaging. Most people do not need to know Newton's inverse square law, but they do need to know how science works, and why Newton's law was so important, and a rote formula is in total opposition to that. If people are to know it, they need to know the reasons, and the history, and the known flaws and limitations. They must not be taught science as scripture; oracles handed down from priests in white coats that they are forced to recite without truly comprehending. They need to know that they *can* understand the reasons themselves, that they have the right to be told, the right not to be misled. They need to know that there was, (and still is,) a debate. There are still mysteries, and open questions, and paradoxes - and competing theories about them.

The use of authority to back the teaching of a single scientific orthodoxy makes it possible for teachers to get students of lesser ability through exams, but it sets science up as an authority figure, corrupting the public understanding of what science is. Not even Newton fully believed Newtonian gravity, why do we teach our children to do so today?

Sep 19, 2012 at 9:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterNullius in Verba

(Deleted duplicate post)

Sep 19, 2012 at 11:07 PM | Registered CommenterPharos

As it happens, Conservative Home have just linked to a video of an intellectual debate focussing on the differing views on artistic culture from the the viewpoints of the politically left and right wing, hosted by 'Intelligence squared', with the Roger Scruton for the right. I'm over half an hour into it and not a word on climate change yet, which is in itself quite remarkable!

Sep 19, 2012 at 11:09 PM | Registered CommenterPharos

Dung -
as i come from the temporarily Smart State of Queensland (formerly and once again The Sunshine State), in Australia, may i illuminate you:

Wikipedia: Ove Hoegh-Guldberg
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg is the inaugural Director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, and the holder of a Queensland Smart State Premier fellowship (2008–2013). He is best known for his work on climate change and coral reefs...

you may recall Ove boorishly disrupted Anthony Watts when he gave a talk in the Qld capital, Brisbane. there's a pic in the following of our former Premier who re-branded the State (mostly to howls and groans), and it looks like we're not so smart after all:

22 April 2012: Courier Mail: Smart State numberplates to go in Queensland
The State Government announced today it would immediately stop producing the plates, saving more than $15,000 a year.
The more popular Sunshine State plates will be the only ones available to Queenslanders.
In the 2011-12 financial year, Queenslanders have taken up 354,000 Sunshine State numberplates and only 34,000 Smart State ones.
Transport Minister Scott Emerson said having two styles was an unjustified cost.
"The fact that this duplication has been going on for more than a decade under Labor was anything but smart," he said in a statement...

Sep 19, 2012 at 11:50 PM | Unregistered Commenterpat

Come to think, Kahan was just describing an extremely conformist society, where scientists tell you what to fund, politicians tell you how to vote, and journalists tell you what to think. A warmist's paradise, no doubt.

Sep 20, 2012 at 12:33 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos


You have my sympathies! There are only two embellishments on my number plate; the red rose of English Rugby at one end and the 3 lions at the other and I will go to prison before I accept the EU flag instead.


Science and maths are basically taught as a set of rules which work on our planet. These rules are needed so that engineers and scientists can build bridges, aircraft, ships and rockets etc and be sure they work.
The average child in the UK has enough problems taking onboard those rules without confusing him/her with an explanation that actually they constitute a fudge.
PHd level can no doubt explain to those with the talent to accept and understand.


You are describing the society that the EU is trying so hard to create hehe.

Sep 20, 2012 at 10:02 AM | Registered CommenterDung


That's what everyone says, which is why they teach it that way. But I'm saying it's the average child in the UK that needs to know they're a fudge. Once they've taken that in, you can teach the rules for building ships and rockets to those at PhD level who are going on to actually become engineers and scientists.

The average child who grows up to be a hairdresser does not need to know how to build a moon rocket, they need to know how not to get taken in by shampoo adverts.

Sep 20, 2012 at 10:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterNullius in Verba


Well I just have to say that I beg to differ and leave it at that.

Sep 20, 2012 at 12:04 PM | Registered CommenterDung

I found the programme quite balanced,to the extent that no one was abusing each other. Unfortunately, we do not live in a rarified intellectual world but one of oversimplification. This includes our ruling classes who do not seem to have the most basic grasp of the minutiae of any subject. Add to the the "bread and circuses" of modern multi media and you end up with our gullible public and cynical pressure groups.At the end of the day, the sums do not add up in the warmist camp but very much like the cold war it pays to keep the public quiet when the threat is either less or nonexistent.

Sep 23, 2012 at 4:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterTrefjon

Not even Newton fully believed Newtonian gravity, why do we teach our children to do so today?

Newton had complete faith in a gravitational potential inversely proportional to distance from centres of mass, because he could derive it.

The influence of a 3rd body on the potential was probably questionable to him, since neither he (nor anyone else) could not calculate it directly. It is almost certain that he knew that the influence of odd powers of a potential represented by a series in inverse powers of distance would produce secular variations of motion

Sep 25, 2012 at 7:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterBrian G Valentine

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