The Rational Optimist Part 2:more regurgitated denialist propaganda from Matt Ridley

I have to ask, have I picked up something mainstream media failed to notice?

Most reviews of Ridley’s “The Rational Optimists” have been favourable. I appreciate that my criticisms are restricted to his discussion of climate change, but I do feel that his work was not given a sufficiently rigorous critique. But then again, his book plays well to a certain crowd.

Clive Crook, a financial journalist blogging over at Financial Times, has this to say:

My friend and esteemed science writer Matt Ridley has a new book coming out: The Rational Optimist. I’ve seen a review copy and it’s as good as I predicted.

Meanwhile, Matt has begun blogging. See his comment on a recent NYT piece about the global decline in maternal deaths, which noted that this good news was not universally welcomed.

[S]ome advocates for women’s health tried to pressure The Lancet into delaying publication of the new findings, fearing that good news would detract from the urgency of their cause, Dr. Horton [Lancet’s editor] said in a telephone interview.

“I think this is one of those instances when science and advocacy can conflict,” he said…

“People who have spent many years committed to the issue of maternal health were understandably worried that these figures could divert attention from an issue that they care passionately about,” Dr. Horton said.

Echoes of Climategate.

Climategate, oh my. These guys really do believe that climate scientists have been involved in perpetrating a massive fraud to either overstate the risk of global warming, or have fabricated it all together.

SciAm review: getting it wrong?

Michael Shermer, normally someone whose opinion on issues I admire, did not look sufficiently into the issue of Ridley’s use of sources in his review for Scientific American:

In the teeth of the recession and the reality of more than a billion impoverished people in developing countries today, this thesis sounds ripe for skepticism, indeed almost blindly Pollyannaish. But Ridley systematically builds a case through copious data and countless studies that “the vast majority of people are much better fed, much better sheltered, much better entertained, much better protected against disease and much more likely to live to old age than their ancestors have ever been.

It would seem that some of Ridley’s “copious data and countless studies” are flawed.

I remember reading Shermer’s review some time ago, and was looking forward to Ridley’s book. Indeed it is part of the reason why I bought it. Shermer is a strong advocate of the market, so I think he got carried by Ridley’s bubbly feel-good mantra and his own natural enthusiasm for the “market”.

I’ve posted some questions in the comments section attached to Shermer’s review. I’m not expecting a response, but hope other readers or an alert editor picks up on the comments.

Further exhibits of denialist propaganda

If you want further examples of just how bad Ridley is on global warming, try some of these further examples…

Exhibit four: Ocean acidification is a “back-up plan” devised by environmental pressure groups

Ridley makes the following claim:

“Ocean acidification looks suspiciously like a back-up plan by the environmental pressure groups in case the climate fails to warm: another try at condemning fossil fuels…” page. 340

Ocean acidification is a well-studied phenomena and of genuine concern. I am not sure how Ridley has come to the conclusion that this is a suspicious plan, unless one has a conspiratorial world view.

Let’s be honest here: this is a nutty claim.

I would direct readers attention to the following paper: Paleo-perspectives on ocean acidification, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Volume 25, Issue 6, 332-344, 30 March 2010.

The abstract notes:

“The anthropogenic rise in atmospheric CO2 is driving fundamental and unprecedented changes in the chemistry of the oceans. This has led to changes in the physiology of a wide variety of marine organisms and, consequently, the ecology of the ocean. This review explores recent advances in our understanding of ocean acidification with a particular emphasis on past changes to ocean chemistry and what they can tell us about present and future changes. We argue that ocean conditions are already more extreme than those experienced by marine organisms and ecosystems for millions of years, emphasising the urgent need to adopt policies that drastically reduce CO2 emissions.”

Exhibit five: No species extinction due to climate change

Ridley also makes the following claim:

“…so far, despite two bursts of twentieth-century warming, not a single species has unambiguously been shown to succumb to global climate trends” page.338

I would draw Dr. Ridley’s attention the following research: Erosion of Lizard Diversity by Climate Change and Altered Thermal Niches, Science 14 May 2010, Vol 328 no.5980 pp.894-899

The authors of the paper note:

“It is predicted that climate change will cause species extinctions and distributional shifts in coming decades, but data to validate these predictions are relatively scarce. Here, we compare recent and historical surveys for 48 Mexican lizard species at 200 sites. Since 1975, 12% of local populations have gone extinct. We verified physiological models of extinction risk with observed local extinctions and extended projections worldwide. Since 1975, we estimate that 4% of local populations have gone extinct worldwide, but by 2080 local extinctions are projected to reach 39% worldwide, and species extinctions may reach 20%. Global extinction projections were validated with local extinctions observed from 1975 to 2009 for regional biotas on four other continents, suggesting that lizards have already crossed a threshold for extinctions caused by climate change.”

I believe the peer reviewed literature is clear on the issue.

As I noted, I believe Ridley has been blinded by his obvious devotion to “the market”.

Aspects of Denial

As noted previously, Ridley uses two of the “Six Aspects of Denial”:

  • Magnify disagreements among scientists and cite gadflies – his entire case against the seriousness of global warming rests upon using the work of noted outliers/gadflies such as Lindzen, Tol etc.
  • Acceptance repudiates key philosophy – Ridley begins his book with a quote from Adam Smith, and then goes on to sing the praises of the market. He dismisses global warming because it would seem to imply global warming is a by-product of our industrial civilisation.

13 thoughts on “The Rational Optimist Part 2:more regurgitated denialist propaganda from Matt Ridley

  1. rationaloptimist says:

    Ridley is NOT a climate “denier” nor an absolutist fanatic — which the writer of this blog actually appears to be. Those interested in Ridley’s very good book might also wish to know about my own book, THE CASE FOR RATIONAL OPTIMISM (Transaction Books, Rutgers University, 2009), which makes quite similar points and arguments, but develops the case for optimism over a rather broader range of subject areas. See

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      Thanks for your comments.

      I’d not place Ridley in the camp of “denialist”such as Lord Monckton who claims there is no evidence for AGW (and that it is a conspiracy of sorts). Ridely belongs to the same school of thought as economist Richard Tol – sure it may be happening, but the effects are meaningless or at best a mild inconvenience.

      However, I have carefully examined Ridely’s footnotes and his use of sources. I note the following:

      – He does not use, or engage in serious examination of the scientific literature (apart from some references to the IPCC report and a few other papers). This is why I’ve match his claims with current peer reviewed research
      – His sources are in many instances dubious – Cato Institute, Watts up with That? Lomborg and blogs posts
      – He repeats several “debunked” claims such as polar bear populations are growing, the hockey stick of Mann is “broken” etc.

      As to me being a “fanatic”, I AM fanatical about the use of sources. When presenting an argument, then the facts need to be accurate, authoritative and up-to-date.

      Confidence needs to rest on accurate information. In my estimation, Ridely has built a weak argument based on even weaker sources.

      I’ve admired the other works of Ridley, and believe in those texts he has a sound grasp of the science, using some very good sources.

      However the chapter on climate change in this text is not up to the usual standard I’d expect of Ridley – especially since he is scientifically trained. I believe he does (or should) understand that the upward temperature trend that the “hockey stick” constructed has been confirmed by other studies. Ridley obscures the fact that his argument rests upon weak sources by barely referencing them the text.

      Actually, I rather wish the scientists where wrong. We’d all sleep easier. Optimism is a good thing. Hope is a good thing. But false hope, and false optimism is a dangerous thing.

      Look at a trend line over the past 1000 years, and things to look rather better. But along the way there have been significant “bumps”. 1/3 of Europe’s population died during the black death. The death toll for the wars of the 20th century are in the tens of millions.

      It may be in 100 years time things are better – that we respond to climate change in a responsible and pragmatic manner. But let’s try to avoid the unnecessary suffering, loss of human life and economic costs prior to that.

      Those experiencing rising waters in coastal areas won’t take much comfort in thinking it will be better “in 100 years”. Farmers in Australia watching encouraging desertification won’t take comfort in thinking farmers in Siberia will be better off.

      Ridley tries to tell us a comforting and soothing tale. But he needs to be far more rigorous in his analysis.

      Thanks for your link – I’ll take the time to read.

  2. Tim says:

    The point made in this and the former piece regarding Ridley’s book is that he obviously does not reference that bulk of peer-reviewed scientific literature which largely disagrees with the conclusions he draws in this book.
    Exhibit four, for instance, can easily be addressed in ones home with a sodastream, tap water and a cheap set of pH test strips. However, there is mounting evidence of acidification and species shifts away from the equator – which are in all likelihood the result of CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere; something Ridley, as a scientist, should have been aware of.
    What happened here is that someone has fact checked this new book and found that it’s glossy look over the climate change is not one based on the bulk of scientific understanding; indeed it’s at times bad enough to use Watts as a reference point. He may not be a denier, but he certainly doesn’t based his arguments on climate change on a strong scientific foundation.
    I would ask you, where in this piece does the write demonstrate the traits of an absolutist fanatic? Is one as such due to a reliance on scientific understanding? That would expose you as nothing more than a witch-hunter.
    I’d suggest you advertise your book where people who want to be told that “all is good” and “not to worry” hang out.

  3. rationaloptimist says:

    OK, perhaps “absolutist fanatic” was a bit harsh. But what does characterize that viewpoint is indeed itself a form of denialism — denial of the basic point made by Shermer, echoing Ridley, that the human condition has improved fantastically in recent times and that the conditions are in place for continued improvement. You really have to ignore and distort an overwhelming quantum of information to deny that, but some people are so tenaciously invested in a negativist, pessimistic mindset that they are capable of just that feat.
    Ridley doesn’t deny that climate change is happening, and that its effects will be more bad than good. Nor do I, in my book. But we both argue that humanity has shown a tremendous ability to cope with change in the past, when we had far less knowledge and technological prowess. AND — AND — climate change is NOT the gravest challenge facing us. To the contrary, by far the greater problems are the boring old unsexy problems of poverty, disease, poor sanitation, etc. That is where we should be expending resources, rather than trying to stop climate change, which cannot be achieved in any case.

    • It certainly may not be the end of us – in fact I think there are very few scientifically minded that would go to such fanatic degrees. But it will hit us hard (increasingly financially the longer we remain inactive) and it is already impacting hard on a great many ecosystems which provide invaluable services to our own health as well. There is mounting evidence for this inter-relationship between ecosystems and the concrete forests that we’ve built; unhealthy natural systems means unhealthy and increasingly expensive services to us.
      I would argue that correct optimism would be directed in providing opportunities to develop beyond this separation we’ve created from natural systems to one that adopts greater give as well as take.
      There is no doubt that life for our species has vastly improved over the past 200 centuries, but thus far it has been at the expense of all other species. My choice of returning to study and gaining my qualifications, for instance, was to develop a career that worked with farmers in third world countries (well my focus was poorer areas of Vietnam), to develop sustainable farming techniques to address the local bush meat trade; something that benefits man and beast. This is where optimism should used. Not poorly grounded “everything is better for us now, so everything is good” nonsense.
      Other benefits of shifting away from fossil use use will counter some aspects of poverty, disease and certainly pollution. Look at the potential range of malaria, for instance, in a warming climate. Disregarding the effects of our actions will only leave us less able to meet these challenges in the coming decades.

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      Actually RatOpt, I share some of your views!

      I do not deny the progress we have made as a society – and species – over the previous 120 years in a number of area. Human rights, the spread of literacy, the emancipation of women, the reduction in poverty, “democratisation” etc. I share you sentiment in celebrating these things.

      However, my concern is for what happens when a system – with numerous interdependencies and known weaknesses – is confronted with a challenge that overwhelms it’s capacity to respond.

      Let’s take the long view…

      There is no doubt that the life of the average person in China is materially better off than 100, even 200 years ago. I know China well, having an undergraduate degree in Chinese history, so can speak with knowledge (but not authority) on the topic. However, the history of China for much of the 20th Century has been a vale of tears. It’s humiliation at the hands of Western powers and Japan, the Japanese Occupation, the bloody civil war and the coming of the Communist Party, the Cultural Revolution that costs tens of millions of lives, the Rape of Nanking… I think you see my point. How much suffering – both needless and tragic – could have been avoided?

      Or take Russia. During the Second World War, the Russians suffered the largest number of combatant and civilian deaths than any other nation. Something in the order of 10% of the Russian population died. Stalin systematically ignored the warnings that Hitler was going to invade. As German planes where flying over his borders and Hitler’s divisions massed in Eastern Europe, he actually had people arrested for dare suggesting Hitler would break the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact signed in 1939. The Russians did win, and defeated what has been history’s most infamous and depraved dictatorship. But how much blood and treasure did they lose unnecessarily by ignoring warnings and “hoping for the best”?

      Let’s take an even longer view – the collapse of the Western Roman empire. Constantinople effectively abandoned the Western provinces because the costs – in manpower, tax and energy – become too much to bear. Structural weaknesses made it impossible for the Empire to continue in the West, and its capacity to maintain safe borders and the Roman “free trade zone” also disappeared. Climate, barbarians and a rotten political system led to collapse and the “Dark Ages”. Sure, but 1500 CE things where much better. But life for the average peasant between 500 CE and 1100 CE was pretty nasty. The collapse of literacy, the rise of serfdom as an institution (growing out of the old latifundia/local-strong man model of sharecropping on large estates) was not pleasant.

      My concern is that such “Olympian” views miss the very thing people champion – human flourishing. Yes, in 200 years things may be better. But if you view history as line that travels in a smooth trajectory – let’s from point A to B per capitia income has increased, we miss the suffering and privations when you “zoom in” and see the line is far more “choppy”. This “dips” represent human suffering, potentially on a massive scale.

      Thus in my opinion, climate change has the capacity to create dips and troughs. I believe our “world views” are not much different. I regard myself as a secular humanist. What motivates me is concern for others. I am fortunate to have lived in a Western democracy, with access to the best educational and health systems. I can publish these thoughts to the world thanks to the internet. Yet there are billions who can’t. I would not deny them that opportunity, but climate change presents a risk to us all. When I speak, I hope to speak for those who cannot.

      All those issues you’ve nominated are worthy problems.

      But why is it have to be a “false dilemma”? Why does it have to a question of addressing poverty only?

      You speak of humanity marvellous capacity for innovation and problem solving: then if that’s the case let us tackle climate change AND poverty.

      Let us tackle climate change, poverty AND human rights.

      Let us tackle climate change, poverty, human rights AND disease.

      Let us educate the world, and unleash the creativity and genius of children in Africa and the Middle East. Somewhere in India there is a kid who will one day grow up to help create new energy sources…

      But it is a race – a race against time.

      Should we pass key tipping points, then the “system” may become overwhelmed. Because in the end the universe is indifferent to our fate and our sense of optimism. We are cosmic mayflies – we may exist as a species for perhaps a few hundred thousand or million years. Take an even longer view and everything we do is meaningless: it all ends in dust and ashes. As the Earth is twinned to the Sun in its slow procession around the core of our galaxy, whole families of species flitter in and out of existence…

      But it’s all about perspective isn’t it?

      What angers me about the “denial movement” (I don’t include you in this sir) is it’s deliberate campaign to deny us – citizens – the right to be informed. They confuse and mislead.

      We need the optimism of the cancer patient. Sound’s strange? But we need to understand how serious and grave an illness is in order to both treat it and “recover”. We don’t need comforting fairy tales. We need to face the harsh reality that science is telling us and then tackle it.

      I do not argue against hope. I argue against false hope. Which is why Ridley’s book irks me. He uses poor information and dubious sources. That is is some ways more dangerous than outright denial. Don’t give the cancer patient a placebo. Tell them the truth, not what they want to hear.

      It is for us to tackle this great challenge of climate change, so that this civilisation “…of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

      • Very well put! I couldn’t agree with you more.
        You captured the finer points of the argument and it is good to know you have an interest in our history also.
        It was watching Monckton that made me follow what I had previously thought was trivial. His actions are as you said, deliberately confuses and misleads – and at the cost of generations that will have a harder time getting by without his knowing it.

      • Fred Orth says:

        This is VERY, VERY good!

  4. I’d like to add that I thus far have fallen short of those idealist goals of a young man, however, I do know a fair amount of farmers in south eastern Australia who have been working with various biologists / ecologists to change their practices from traditional agriculture to one that encourages greater local biodiversity which in turn provides services to the farmer (pest control, soil quality, nutrient movement etc) and to the local flora and fauna (seed dispersal, food supply, recruitment, shelter, corridors etc).
    This is useful optimism.

  5. rationaloptimist says:

    Exactly. That’s exactly what I mean by utilizing our greater-than-ever knowledge and technological prowess to cope with an always changing environment. I am in favor of your kind of “useful optimism” — my book was not titled, “The Case for Stupid Optimism.”

  6. Well useful optimism would be based on a strong body of scientific understanding – which includes an awareness of the changes resulting from our CO2 emissions, which seems not to be the case with this book. To be wise optimists, one needs to base their foresight on scientific reason. Ridley has no excuse for ignoring the bulk of scientific evidence (being a trained scientist makes it especially poor on his behalf). If we want to continue to improve the lives of our species, well we also need to understand that we are highly reliant on other species and at this point a non-renewable, finite energy supply that we’re accelerating in our use of and is causing a wide range of environmental issues. Success will come from adopting to change and developing ever increasingly sustainable practices.
    I hope this doesn’t come across as a “fanatic”; but I certainly consider myself an optimist, but one that is unlike what Mike sees in Ridley’s work.
    The environment may always be changing, but we are without a doubt becoming a driving force for that change.

  7. Fred Orth says:

    I greatly admire the intense thought and indepth analysis that you and the commentors bring to this issue. I confess that I am not scientifically inclined, nor patient enough to work through all of the detail. I do have a strong since of awareness of the environment since I travel the US and have been a geography student for life. I have noticed a substantial change over the last sixty years and I have seen paterns change for vegetation as well as animal life. My experiences cause me to concour that the science community is dealing with reality while those thay deny such science are not living in the same world that I live on.
    I came on this site because I continue to search for ammunition to converse with the majority of Americans who are willing to ignore our peril.
    Again, I deeply appreciate all of your input, and I welcome this opportunity to learn and gain wisdom.

  8. hummingbirder says:

    I, too, have been surprised by the number of glowing reviews for this book, as well as the dearth of critical reviews.

    I am not a scientist, I do not fear climate change. I believe in work, trade, and the exchange of ideas. Simply put, my idea of rational optimism is that the poor in underdeveloped countries would welcome the opportunity to work for pay, and use that money to improve their quality of life.

    I’ve read a number of books whose authors make the point for optimism for both individuals and societies, so what I read in The Rational Optimist was nothing new to me. But the other books had plenty of critics, many quite harsh.

    Even though I’m no scientist, historian, or economist, I was truly flummoxed by Ridley’s sources. Some were from Wikipedia, for goodness sakes! And as much as I believe government should be minimized, I found his views almost anarchic. The man doesn’t seem to have met a form of government he likes.

    We are not in the same camp overall, but I’m certainly glad to find a review that points out some of the many flaws in the book.

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