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« The great still | Main | 1970s global cooling alarmism »

Retirement is opportunity

Sir John Beddington's retirement is now only a few weeks away and he is taking the opportunity to warn everyone, just one more time, that the end of the world is nigh. On about three or four dozen different fronts.

In his speech to the Royal Academy of Engineering a few days ago he had this to say.

Sir John warned that low probability, high impact events are becoming increasingly frequent, and highlighted other concerns such as space weather events and unexpected effects from computer trading in financial markets.

Is there any empirical evidence to support this claim? Any at all?

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Reader Comments (42)

It may or may not be that high impact events are becoming more frequent. In that case their probability would, by definition, be rising. But 'low probability, high impact events are becoming increasingly frequent' sounds like an oxymoron to me.

Mar 2, 2013 at 9:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterJK

...Is there any empirical evidence to support this claim? Any at all?

Is there any evidence AGAINST it? If not, then he's quite safe saying it.

By the way, have you noticed the latest AGW argument?

If the weather is getting warmer, it's all because of CO2, and we must cut our industry and energy usage.

If the weather is getting colder, it's all because of SO2, and we must cut our industry and energy usage.

Neat, eh?

Mar 2, 2013 at 9:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterDodgy Geezer

Old people always do say "apres moi la deluge". It's one of the symptoms of ageing, along with rheumatism and fat bellies.

Space weather events are increasingly high impact because we've found out how to use things in space. Like, say, GPS and comms satellites. Beddington's point there is like saying, well, mankind has moved out of Africa so now we need to be aware of weather in Europe.

Yup, you're right. And?

And as to computer trading in financial markets, please spare me. If Beddington were even able to identify those markets where there is substantial computer trading I'd be surprised. I'd be amazed if he could link it to any recent problems. And completely gobsmacked if he could link it to our current problems. Given that there is no such linkage.

This is the same ol' same ol'. I agree, admit, and happily so, that Beddington is an expert in things that I have no clue about. On those things that he is an expert in I would do well to listen to him.

But as Feynman pointed out, off their area of expertise scientists are just as stupid as the next guy.

There's a tiny slice of life (and it is indeed tiny) where I really am the guy. And I know very well that being that guy in that tiny slice doesn't make me an expert in any other area of life at all. I'm just running my prejudices like everyone else and my arguments stand or fall on my evidence.

Would that all experts recognised the same thing.

Mar 2, 2013 at 9:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterTim Worstall

What am I missing here? Am I being unreasonably dim?

What, in the name of all that is holy, are 'space weather events'?

Can the saintly Sir John possibly mean – I hazard a mere guess – rain? Or perhaps he is talking about sunshine. Or wind? Perhaps the seasons? Even the difference between hot days and cold ones. After all, these are all are connected with 'space' in the sense that they take place in the 'space' in which we exist. They all no less clearly constitute 'weather'. And they are certainly 'events'.

I suspect there is a better explanation: that Sir John's vast and mighty intellect has now reached the kind of advanced consciousness that leaves us mere mortals gasping, dazzled by his higher brain functions much as a Mespotamian shepherd might have reeled in amazement when confronted by a new and ever more vengeful priestly sect.

Given that it couldn't possibly be the case that he is talking out of his rear end, I am at a loss to think of any more convincing explanation.

Mar 2, 2013 at 10:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterAgouts

Perhaps he's preparing us for scaremongering about Space Climate.

Mar 2, 2013 at 10:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoe Public

I doubt it. The man is a buffoon.

Mar 2, 2013 at 10:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Shade

An irresponsible buffoon.

Mar 2, 2013 at 10:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Shade


I guess this can only mean that the very shape of the relevant probability distribution function is being transformed within our lifetime until the area under the curve sums to more than one. It goes without saying that this would be fully consistent with global warming as we know it and if we cannot disprove this it would surely finally justify inverting the null hypothesis. This is the elusive proof we have all been pursuing for so long and now literally anything can and WILL happen with non-vanishing probability. This is truly AMAZING science that we are all priveleged to be able to witness and will surely result in someone being nominated for a Nobel prize.

(Is it necessary to add /sarc?)

Mar 2, 2013 at 10:44 PM | Registered Commentermatthu

The end is nigh indeed.

Mar 2, 2013 at 10:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn M

Sir John, I believe, is an 'economic biologist' or some such. So he knows just heaps about 'space weather'. Maybe they're gonna blame us for meteorite showers? Or urge we build solar-wind farms in space?

Mar 2, 2013 at 10:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterPhilip Foster

It is shameful that neither the various academies nor the Government has seen through this charlatan. BS masquerading as science.

Mar 2, 2013 at 11:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterDavid S

"There is no error so monstrous that it fails to find defenders among the ablest men." --Lord Acton

Mar 2, 2013 at 11:01 PM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar

In 2012/3 we have run large national polls in Argentina, China, Brazil, India and the US. There are majorities "believing in" climate change and high levels of concern in all, and backing for renewable energy etc. Moreover, in Brazil and India we also asked if people had noticed the climate was changing (a personal but evidence-based judgement) and most said yes. Notably, about 20 per cent more said so than said they believed in climate change, which has become an "identity" question.

If people are happy to say they have noticed something they don't believe in, you should be careful about attributing causality to poll results.

Chris Rose

Director Campaign Strategy Ltd, Wells next the Sea, Norfolk

(If people are really noticing things happening that they don't believe in, is this consistent with low probability events being seen to happen more frequently? We ought to be told what is really happening.)

Mar 2, 2013 at 11:17 PM | Registered Commentermatthu

Large solar storms (solar flares) as I understand them explained, are a potential hazard because they can cause serious damage to satellites, earth-based electronics, and power systems. We have not yet had a "biggy" since satellites became so important. That is, we have no meaningful historical record to make comparisons with.

Climate, on the other hand, is, allegedly, more likely to cause problems. Because, errrrrrr, we do have a meaningful historical record to make comparisons with. And it used to kill us a lot more frequently before we had proper heating.

Is that right or wrong, John Beddington?

Mar 3, 2013 at 12:06 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

I'm surprised that the gentlemen (probably a few ladies also) at these august events, sit there silently and let these Sir Johns and Sir Pauls waffle, lie and defame with impunity. Are there ANY "eminent" engineers, scientists, etc who belong to these bodies, who still read or who still INQUIRE or most importantly, have the guts to interject? Or does eminence and the chance of a Sir or a Lord (or in OZ, an AC or AO) etc, mean that you automatically become an establishment toady, a yes person, a betrayer of Science and a person complicit in the defrauding of the nation.

Mar 3, 2013 at 12:45 AM | Unregistered CommenterMichael Lewis

This is the sort of thing he's talking about.


And the full paper at.

Mar 3, 2013 at 1:03 AM | Unregistered CommenterEntropic man

By "space weather" he is probably thinking of something aanalogous to the Carrington flare.

Mar 3, 2013 at 1:10 AM | Unregistered CommenterEntropic man

In recent years this is showing as weather patterns generated by instability at the Polar cell boundary.

Mar 3, 2013 at 1:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterEntropic man

Mar 3, 2013 at 12:45 AM | Michael Lewis

That is the problem,Mr Lewis, under duress of the socialists we've become too PC polite to get up and tell the git that he's talking out of his butt. ;)

That this is so blatantly obvious to the layman reflects poorly on the so-called "experts".

Mar 3, 2013 at 1:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterStreetcred

Is there any empirical evidence to support this claim? Any at all?
Try googling "flash trading" or HFT.

Mar 3, 2013 at 1:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterHoi Polloi

I suspect Beddington is actually Hanrahan in disguise.

Mar 3, 2013 at 3:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlex Heyworth

Entropic man you are BBD and I claim my £5.

Mar 3, 2013 at 3:59 AM | Unregistered Commentergeronimo

In the USA there is a radio show whose tag line ends with "...and all the children are above average."
It is a nice oxymoron, a subtle joke on many levels, but I think we can now place Sir John's new stab at oxymoron immortality in a place of higher honor.

Mar 3, 2013 at 4:06 AM | Unregistered Commenterlurker, passing through laughing

From the Ecclesiastical Uncle, an old retired bureaucrat in a field only remotely related to climate with minimal qualifications and only half a mind.

Par for the course.

A look at the Academy's web site reveals all that is needed to know. About 60% of its income comes from government grants, and about another quarter from contracts that I have been too lazy to confirm are with government or quango and do not have quantifiable outputs.

If driven to it, Sir J would say that he is just doing his job, the usual follower where some sort of leader is required. Had be been the required especially good chap he would have turned down the chief scientific advisor job when it was offered, "because I am not worthy", or some sort of wise one, because the job is daft: as has been pointed out above scientists know more and more about less and less and are idiots outside their specialities.

Accordingly because its scope is too wide and members cannot possibly understand the technicalities of fellow members (probably past) occupations, the Royal Academy of Engineering is no more than a club - like the Pall Mall ones of old where old buffers who have been propelled to the top meet to exchange yarns. Most of their grants will, one supposes, be disbursed down the well oiled slipways of the old boy's network. Some form of audit, the public accounts committee maybe, is missing a trick here, it seems. And nobody should take any notice of what they say - unless, of course, there's money in it.

But narrowing the focus a bit, there's no doubt that government feels totally separated from science - to the average politician it must seem a very strange way of earning a crust. So it is understandable that they were easily persuaded that creation of a chief scientific advisor post might help to close the gap. But we must wonder whether they have benefited from Sir J's tenure. We, cognoscenti in respect of energy and climate, know that Sir J talks nonsense about that, and are clearly right to suppose he talks nonsense about most of the other scientific disciplines outside that which occupied him when he was gainfully employed. At least to us, he has demonstrated how ordinary he is. But, prior to appointment, when the idea of appointing a chief scientific adviser was collecting papers in fat files circulating from ministry to ministry, denizens of the corridors of power should have spotted that the requirements for the post were special and that over the years the scientific education system had not developed in a way that would produce a large number of suitable candidates. And we, the citizenry, surely have a right to expect better from the senior mandarinate.

So it's them I would blame. Don't be too hard on poor Sir J. Like most of these situations what we have here is an institutional, rather than a personal failure. Granted, Sir J has failed, but so will anybody who is asked to do the impossible.

Mar 3, 2013 at 4:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterEcclesiastical Uncle

Catastrofic Anthropogenic Climate Stabilization?

Mar 3, 2013 at 6:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterJon

Beddington was recently suggesting that Heathrow Airport would be made into a huge reservoir and the population of London would all move to Dumfries and Galloway.

Mar 3, 2013 at 7:18 AM | Unregistered CommenterAndy scrase

Stop criticising Beddington, the man is an intellectual genius. Douglas Adams predicted this in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Beddington has actually done it. Behold the infinite improbability drive.
Beddingtons is even more advanced, instead of being powered by bills from Italian Restaurants it's powered by the bullshit of man made climate change and for longevity he also invented something called space weather to ensure it never runs out.

Mar 3, 2013 at 8:14 AM | Unregistered CommenterStu

Stu, you are correct and the UK's premier news outlet The Daily Mash acknowledged this a while back

Meanwhile, Mr Hammond has also asked Professor John Beddington, Britain’s cleverest man, to build a time machine, visit every winter for the next 50 years and then come back to 2010 and tell us how much salt we should order at the last minute. -


Mar 3, 2013 at 8:40 AM | Registered CommenterAndy Scrase

I'm waiting for somebody to blame the sink hole in Florida on climate change, what with the dramatic increase in temperature and the rising sea level causing enhanced leaching away of the subterranean limestone. Sounds plausible.

Mar 3, 2013 at 9:23 AM | Unregistered CommenterIan_UK

Hey! Leave the guy alone.

Just because the world didn't end this weekend doesn't mean the great fiery serpent won't eat it next week (as he now predicts).

See you all on the hillside for the end of the world next week. Same time. Same place.

Mar 3, 2013 at 10:01 AM | Unregistered CommenterStuck-Record

Wrong message

Mar 3, 2013 at 10:55 AM | Registered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

Is there any empirical evidence to support this claim?

What do you mean evidence? i don't need evidence
i am a scientist and you have to believe everything i tell you

Mar 3, 2013 at 11:53 AM | Unregistered Commenterdave38

Is there any empirical evidence to support this claim?

What do you mean evidence? i don't need evidence
i am a scientist and you have to believe everything i tell you

Mar 3, 2013 at 11:53 AM | dave38

I presume that was sarcasm. Here's your chance to demonstrate how scientific debate should be done.

I just provided three sources of evidence supporting Sir John Beddington's position. Why am I not buried in the rush as you all present your evidence in refutation?

Mar 3, 2013 at 1:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterEntropic man

Why am I not buried in the rush as you all present your evidence in refutation?
Because reasoning with trolls is a futile occupation, perhaps? Because this is Sunday and we can't all be po-faced all the time? Or any other reason why.

Mar 3, 2013 at 1:44 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Mike Jackson

Every fantasy world should have trolls, even this one.

Mar 3, 2013 at 2:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterEntropic man

Evodence? We got a scientific consensus. We got £10s of billions in government money. We got a state propaganda broadcaster and the rest of the media obedient & willing to lie. We got knighthoods and quango jobs.

We don't need no steenkin' evidence.

Mar 3, 2013 at 3:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterSir John

ETman- for once you are talking about an area within your expertise - Space (cadet) weather.
Now tell us the interesting connections you have spotted between increased solar storms and industrially produced CO2?
I am always keen to listen to the calm voice of reason.

Mar 3, 2013 at 4:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Keiller

Hmm. The odds were astronomical for some things happening, and now they're not as astronomical as before.
As Michael Crichton observed, an expression that can mean anything means nothing.

Mar 3, 2013 at 7:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterJustin Ert


Mar 3, 2013 at 8:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlecM

Now tell us the interesting connections you have spotted between increased solar storms and industrially produced CO2?
I am always keen to listen to the calm voice of reason.

Mar 3, 2013 at 4:49 PM | Don Keiller

Now you are being absurd. There is no cause-and-effect link between them.

They are, however, both events/processes whose precise timescale, intensity and effects are subject to uncertainty, which makes them difficult to advise on. You may have noticed the way politicians like their complex science diluted down to a simple number on which to decide policy.

Mar 3, 2013 at 11:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterEntropic man

'We're aaaall DOOMED, Captain Mainwaring - DOOMED, I tell ye...!'

Mar 4, 2013 at 1:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterDavid

A low probability high impact event would be a punch on the nose.....please form an orderly line....thank you.
Who do we want today?
Beddington, Nurse?.......Mann!!!

Mar 4, 2013 at 8:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames Griffin

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