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« What next? | Main | Brendan Montague »

Schooling the Royal

Ben Pile explains the limits of science to Paul Nurse, and asks him to consider if maybe he isn't missing the point rather.

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Reader Comments (37)

Yes Ben Pile clinically, irrefutably, nails Nurse's lie about Lawson’s position there.

Nurse gets vague and deals with generalities when he wants quite easily - all he does is lead into his desired points by tip toeing in with inarguable scientific generalities and then embeds his suppositions as if they are latent inevitable consequences.

This is where scientific hubris really is a problem for me. The self-delusion that - "Hey! I'm a scientist I think of the details all the time so it’s impossible for me to let my prejudices slip in" seems a recurring feature that pisses me off with this new generation of righteous scientists.

Feb 19, 2013 at 9:43 AM | Registered CommenterThe Leopard In The Basement

In New Zealand we have a word called Mana for chaps like Nigel Lawson.

Feb 19, 2013 at 10:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterAndy scrase

Ben’s film clearly nails Nurse’s lie that sceptics are responsible for “overspilling” the politics into the science. Ben goes on to say (10’ 50”):

The question that remains then is whether Nurse and his predecessors are simply naive, or are aware of what they are doing. I prefer the former argument.
Naive or deliberately mendacious? This may well become a most important area of debate within the sceptic community.

Feb 19, 2013 at 10:08 AM | Registered Commentergeoffchambers

Very well done indeed. I was muttering to myself about 'projection' as I watched the Nurse clips, but what good do such mutterings do, even if promoted? Compared to this work by Ben Pile, I'd guess almost nothing of any benefit to anyone. He has captured the speciousness of Nurse and placed it side-by-side with the reasoned views of Lawson, and the result is edifying.

As for the discussion of uncertainty in climate science, I remember one very clear thing from an Edinburgh Royal Society public address meeting (a few harmless questions from the audience got in in a brief spell at the end) on this very topic a year or two ago. One of the speakers made it quite clear that in his subculture of science the view was that politicians can all too easily ignore advice that comes with warnings of uncertainty attached - they need, so goes this patronising and convenient view, clear and unambiguous guidance to do what's right. There was not the slightest twitch that I could see on the faces of the panel, or murmurs from the audience, to disagree with this perspective.

There are published views of leading scientific alarmists to back this up, and perhaps the most notorious of these is from the late Stephen Schneider about how he liked to interact with the mass media, a key way of reaching the political class:

That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.

These scenarios do get through to vulnerable people and upset them deeply, and so the spiral of alarm spreads. For example, here is one such, a Stephan Lewandowsky:

So anyone who says that we shouldn’t act on climate change because of uncertainty is really inviting you to ride towards a brick wall at 80 km/h because it might not hurt. Are you feeling lucky? Or shouldn’t we better cut emissions in light of the uncertainty?


But while the uncertainties are appreciable and admit a wide range of speculation about the future, even alarming scenarios taken at face value are insufficient to justify extreme policy decisions in our times according to Lawson. Here then is an important area for further debate by non-scientists, and the above presentation created by Pile shows that Lawson could have a great deal to contribute to it.

Meanwhile, the presentation suggests that Nurse is just another victim of those 'scary scenarios' and their widespread adoption by others of his political persuasion.

Feb 19, 2013 at 10:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Shade

One of the things that put me firmly in the "denier" camp is raised by Nigel Lawson, and that is that the people in the developed world will bear the brunt of this reduction in the use of fossil fuel. I happen to disagree with him, they won't, because they have no intention of letting a group of bien pensant parasites tell them how to run their countries and their economies.

This led me to the conclusion that whether the scientists/environmentalists have got it right in telling us to reduce our CO2 outputs, or not, it will make not the slightest bit of difference. Since I first formed this idea CO2 emissions in China have gone up to the extent that where they churned out our total annual output in six weeks they now do it in only three weeks.

The only result from these policies being proposed by scientists/environmentalists will be the empoverishment of the Western Industrial Civilisations. Which, of course for some of them, is the whole point of the exercise.

Feb 19, 2013 at 10:32 AM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

So, as the head of the RS Nurse reads an alarmist article denigrating sceptics in the journal Science- and takes the whole thing on board. Ask a sceptic for a contrasting opinion? You must be joking, Nurse is a scientist and sceptics are all lunatics and subversives in the pay of big oil.

Feb 19, 2013 at 10:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterMessenger

Can Nurse explain why it was necessary for some “top” "climate scientists" to resist scrutiny of their so-called science?

How sad that a once-great institution, to which many eminent scientists aspired, should have lost so much credibility through poor leadership.

Feb 19, 2013 at 11:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterDrJohnGalan

Like many in the UK, I get frequent cold calling with regard to the miss-selling of payment protection insurance. I wonder if in a few years time we can expect calls about the miss-selling of environment protection insurance?

Feb 19, 2013 at 11:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterBloke down the pub

Feb 19, 2013 at 10:09 AM | John Shade

[Ben] has captured the speciousness of Nurse and placed it side-by-side with the reasoned views of Lawson, and the result is edifying.


Meanwhile, the presentation suggests that Nurse is just another victim of those 'scary scenarios' and their widespread adoption by others of his political persuasion.

I watched this earlier today, John, and I completely agree with the first part of your assessment above. Ben did an excellent job. But I don't see Nurse as a "victim". As a scientist, - particularly one in such a lofty position of leadership - surely he has a responsibility to conduct his own examination of the evidence (such as it is) rather than recycling a slightly kinder, gentler, version of the tropes and factoids in Bob Ward's "playbook".

As for the scary stories ... now that the UNEP (parent of the IPCC / UNFCCC, both of which are receiving fewer and fewer mentions these days, in proceedings under UNEP auspices) has been "upgraded" and "strengthened" - pursuant to Paragraph 88, of the Rio+20 outcome document, aka The Future We [don't need or] Want - they have lots more in store for us.

Did you know that - according to the UNEP - the world is facing a "fertilizer crisis"?! And that the dreaded C02 emissions might be on their way to taking a back-seat to Nitrogen and Phosphorous! I kid you not!

And that's not the only scary stuff the new, improved UNEP is drumming up these days. More details at: [shameless plug alert]:

UNEP: conspicuous absences and inconspicuous newbies

Feb 19, 2013 at 11:26 AM | Registered CommenterHilary Ostrov

A very high percentage of the Guardian reportage of AGW can be summarised like this :

The only people who deny AGW are ignorant right wing loony ideologues like Lawson, Monckton, Ridley, Pile, GW Bush, the heritage foundation and all the others who are funded by the oil industry. Lawson has open connections to the oil industry.

Right wing loonies are effectively supporting AGW by joining the debate.

Feb 19, 2013 at 12:02 PM | Unregistered CommentereSmiff

Bish, The Nurse video is just an inert back box. This happens often with your articles and I think it has to do with agreements between UK broadcasters and ISPs or bodies like Youtube. That is, not much can be done. I'm simply reporting in case it's an internal error that can be fixed. We miss out on interesting material from you here.

Feb 19, 2013 at 12:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterGeoff Sherrington

Maxwell's Equations show there can be no net CO2-IR band emission from the Earth's surface when black body GHG band thermal emission from the atmosphere annihilates surface IR. This is straightforward radiative thermal equilibrium taught to every physics-based discipline but with a twist you get from analytical spectroscopy.

The modelling is based on a perpetual motion machine and artificial cloud data in the hind casting. Any competent professional with heat transfer knowledge can work it out but there aren't many around, particularly in academic physics nowadays.

By 2020, DECC needs to have inshore ice breakers to keep northern ports open in mid winter..

Feb 19, 2013 at 12:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlecM

GS - The video works in the US using a Chrome browser. Not obvious that this is a UK regional restriction.

Feb 19, 2013 at 12:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterRogue

I' m outside the UK and when I first opened the page all I got was a black box and gobbledeygook. I refreshed the page and it was OK.

Feb 19, 2013 at 12:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterJimmy Haigh

Geoff S. The video is hosted by Vimeo, so should be viewable in any region. You may need to update flash, or something.

eSmiff -- aw, come on!

Feb 19, 2013 at 12:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterBen Pile

No problem here (France).
With and without the VPN.

Feb 19, 2013 at 1:55 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Well astoundingly it is looking like the twerp Ed Milliband will be our next prime minister (currently evens favourite). He is already backtracking on his collective responsibilty from his role in the shambolic Brown government so it is good to have clips like this with him personally stating his position on AGW.

When the S hits the F we should be ready with a barrage of such clips just to remind everyone of his culpability and hold him to account for the energy shambles.

In this internet age none of the perpetrators should be able to get away with it by using the usual revisionist tactics (compare the excellent work on the changing Met Office forecasts).

Feb 19, 2013 at 2:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterSimonW

I love the irony of devout socialist Paul Nurse complaining about people's political views overspilling into their judgement of the science. Good to hear Ben spell this out at about 10 min.

It's a good point that there are dozens (hundreds?) of activist organisations promoting the global warming scare, but only one (GWPF) questioning it, and that's the one that gets picked on (Moonbat is in full conspiracy mode again in the guardian today).

Feb 19, 2013 at 2:21 PM | Registered CommenterPaul Matthews

It's sort of painful to watch Mr. Lawson speak, no matter how firmly I agree with him. I think his points to Nurse and Milliband went right over their heads, because they weren't even listening.

It only takes a persusal through the IPCC reports to see who invited activism and politics into the debate. The IPCC is chalk full of significant contributions from environmentalists and eco-radicals, some of whom espouse anti-human policies, of which anti-growth and anti-economic development are just components. Some of these groups have unstated or tacit opinions that human populations ought to be reduced, and no doubt a smaller component which may be ambivilent about economic suffering, famine, and mass death.

Feb 19, 2013 at 2:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterMickey Reno

Feb 19, 2013 at 12:21 PM | Geoff Sherrington

Geoff , you may have better luck here

or here

Feb 19, 2013 at 2:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterMark Well

An interesting point about the letter to Science that occasioned Nurse's reflections: it's lead author was Peter Gleick, then essentially unknown to skeptic blogs and trying to make a name for himself in the climate debate.

Feb 19, 2013 at 2:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve McIntyre

And boy has he made his name by now :)

Feb 19, 2013 at 2:57 PM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

To those complaining of not being able to view the video, Vimeo seems to want at least a bit of storage space on your hard drive. Perhaps your settings disallow such local storage? I'm not 100% sure of this as a fix, but like some of you, I was not able to view the video, so I changed my Flash settings from "deny local storage" to "allow 1 mb of local storage." The video started playing immediately.

To alter storage settings, right click on the video, select "Settings" then run the slider control to the right (uncheck the "Never ask again" button if it is checked).

Feb 19, 2013 at 3:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterMickey Reno

Socialist Nurse used to be President of the Galton Institute, until 1989 the Eugenics' Society. In 1934 the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei put into action the first of the German Eugenics' laws, which allowed hospitals to kill deformed babies. Late last year, this practice, under the Liverpool Care Pathway was stopped from being done in UK Hospitals under the guise of reducing suffering of the new born.

It's a repeat of the 1930s from a surprising direction except it's being funded by Soros, Grantham etc

[BH Update 11/11/13 The claim re Nurse appears to be false]

Feb 19, 2013 at 3:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlecM

I just noticed this:

"The Young Academy brings together some of the most able and innovative young academics, entrepreneurs, artists and professionals in Scotland, with the aim of harnessing their creativity to develop a coherent and influential voice on behalf of the most talented people of their generation. The Academy members will be encouraged to work across disciplines to consider many of the most challenging issues facing society either domestically or globally, in fields as diverse as climate change, the economy, ethics or the arts."

No comment.

Feb 19, 2013 at 4:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterAndy

Feb 19, 2013 at 11:26 AM | Hilary Ostrov

I followed through on your link to the 'Tunza' event, and read a little more, including Steiner's address to the gathering. Thereby gaining glimpses into another world, somewhat similar I suspect to that of the international socialist evangelism of the old Soviet Union in which 'mobilising the youth' was part of the longer game. To borrow a phrase from a song of one of their sympathisers, When Will They Ever Learn? Perhaps they have just never given up.

Anyway, while still metaphorically gasping a bit about the UNEP monster (within which a modern Mary Shelley might find scope for several novels), I take your point about Paul Nurse and his responsibility to conduct his own examination of the issue on which he has chosen to speak out. But his tv programme showed no sign of any penetration into it - see for example his missing the blunder about the relative importance of human CO2 contributions, and his ingenuousness about computer models tracking cyclones as evidence of their value for climate prediction. The programme was not a display of a powerful mind getting to grips with important matters as one might have hoped to see from such a distinguished scientist. It could have been delivered by a newbie journalist following a brief to illustrate a particular point of view.

Nurse's recent remarks in Australia are far more sophisticated (, at least until he jumps down from making high-level generalities to look at the specific case of climate policy. It is on that section that Ben Pile’s, and more recently in the Spectator, Andrew’s, observations focus. Nurse’s final comments in that section contain a paragraph which could easily find a home in sceptical blogs concerned about alarmism in science and associated political adventurism:

Another feature, as I've already mentioned, is the complexity of climate science which leads to uncertainties in predictions. And this allows space for poorly evidenced but confidently stated opinions, which are sometimes mixed with personal attacks and misrepresentations to attract public and political attention. So there's a bit of an unholy mix in all of this.

So the man is not all bad! He’s just a bit mixed up.

Feb 19, 2013 at 5:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Shade

Re Nurse: for more than a century, the socialists were on a mission to deliver us from the capitalist menace. Now they presume to deliver us from the capitalists' emissions.

The more things change . . .

Excellent video, Ben Pile. I'm over here in California and confess to being unfamiliar with your work before today. I hope you do more videos in this vein.

Feb 19, 2013 at 6:17 PM | Unregistered Commentertheduke

A Bish's fool
Sees theduke
Has enough viewed
To make him puke.

The eatin's
Plenty fillin'
Short of
Potter's Field.

Feb 19, 2013 at 6:43 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim

kim: you are sooo clever. I'm grateful. Not everyone gets immortalized in a poem.

Speaking of Potter's Field, if it's not too presumptuous, might I suggest that Ben Pile do a video on fuel poverty and the surge in deaths attributed to cold weather in the UK?

Feb 19, 2013 at 7:07 PM | Unregistered Commentertheduke

Thank you for a great video Ben Pile, as you say it amazing how people can accuse others of political bias (and I do at times) without examining their own - The President of the Royal Society shows his built-in bias without a trace of recognition for what it is.

I still marvel at the unchanging scene flowing from the likes of Nurse and even Moonbat. As I have said before I think of them as the useful idiots who will still be telling the same AGW story as the ice cap moves over them.

Notice how Nurse still claims there is warming - have James Hansen and Julia Slingo not told him yet?

I get the impression, and I think I am a realist, that many good scientists are now questioning the "consensus" - You can't have a theory that increasing amounts of CO2 will raise the Earth's temperature. Then create an experiment with an unprecedented increase in the rate of CO2 emission which delivers "No Warming" and ignore it scientifically.

Well the only ones who can have an agenda which Paul Nurse summarises very well in the piece.

Feb 19, 2013 at 9:16 PM | Registered Commenterretireddave

Thank you to all those who suggested fixes to video viewing. It started to show first time, for a few seconds, then stopped. On other days, the black box has words like "Withdrawn at request of maker" or similar. Ooodles of HDD space, but several Oz computer-savvy friends this week are also reporting Flash problems on their systems. I'll try some alternatives. Nice of you all to be so helpful. Geoff.

Feb 20, 2013 at 4:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeoff Sherrington

Thank you to all those who suggested fixes to video viewing. It started to show first time, for a few seconds, then stopped. On other days, the black box has words like "Withdrawn at request of maker" or similar. Ooodles of HDD space, but several Oz computer-savvy friends this week are also reporting Flash problems on their systems. I'll try some alternatives. Nice of you all to be so helpful. Geoff.

Feb 20, 2013 at 4:55 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeoff Sherrington

While Lord Lawson's book illustates the hazards of dinner table peer review, Nurse ought not to have elided his book on policy with the antiscietific nonsense his son Dominic Lawson , and his son's brother in law, Christopher Monckton, have unleashed over the decades on the public at large and Spectator readers in particular.

Pile's failure to note that ex RS President Lord May's most recent publication in Science is a denunciation of environmentalist hype about extinction rates is in keeping with Nurse's very fair charge of cherrypicking.

Feb 21, 2013 at 8:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterRussell

Russell - did you watch the vimeo piece?

Feb 21, 2013 at 10:18 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

Pile's failure to note that ex RS President Lord May's most recent publication in Science is a denunciation of environmentalist hype about extinction rates is in keeping with Nurse's very fair charge of cherrypicking.

It would be, if I had known and if the article says what Russell says -- which I doubt. What I remember most about May's comments on extinction rates was this, from a 2007 article in the LRB:

Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with around 15–40 per cent of species potentially facing extinction after only 2°C of warming.

... Which was a inaccurate rehash of a comment in Stern's review, which in turn took the comment without its caveats from the the IPCC. The comment in the Stern review read as follows:

‘Ecosystems will be particularly vulnerable to climate change, with one study estimating that around 15 – 40% of species face extinction with 2°C of warming’

May.. The scientist... No, May the former President of the Royal Society chose (cherry-picked?) to present the single, worst-case study without its caveats.

As someone with expertise in population biology, he has no excuse -- those NGOs will be citing him as an authority on the subject.

Of course, May's agenda while president of the RS was to rescue the organisation's reputation from the NGOs, who it had lost a PR battle with over the issue of GMOs. That meant going hell-for-leather on the climate issue, and flattering the environmentalists, their hype, warts and all.

Feb 21, 2013 at 10:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterBen Pile

If May has had a change of mind, then, hurrah. However, he is someone environmentalists have turned to to advance theirs -- and his -- hype. Passing the buck to environmentalists is hardly a reflection on his own role in the reproduction of hype.

Russell - did you watch the vimeo piece?

If Russell is Russell Seitz -- as the condescending tenor of his post suggests -- I've never seen any evidence that he is capable of taking the slightest notice of what anybody else says before responding to it nonetheless.

Feb 21, 2013 at 10:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterBen Pile

May's latest is "Can We Name Earth's Species Before They Go Extinct?" [paywalled]. The abstract mentions "alarmist estimates of extinction rates," but from this post, it seems that they placed an upper bound on extinction rates at 5%/decade, which hardly seems conservative -- half the species extinct in 140 years.

The purpose of the article seems less a "denunciation of environmentalist hype about extinction rates" than a plea for more funding of taxonomists.

Feb 21, 2013 at 11:14 PM | Registered CommenterHaroldW

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