“I am testing my optimism against the facts, and what I find is that the probability of rapid and server climate change is small; the probability of net harm from the most likely climate change is small; the probability that no adaptation will occur is small and the probability of no new low-carbon energy technologies emerging in the long run is small”
Matt Ridley, Rational Optimist pg.347
Matt Ridley is a noted science writer, the author of several best-selling books on evolution and genetics (Genome, The Origins of Virtue, and The Red Queen). I have several of his books in my collection and until recently regarded him as an interesting writer with a good grasp of science. Indeed Ridley has a doctorate in zoology from Oxford.
We desperately need talented writers to help explain science to a greater lay audience, and for a while Ridley could be counted on discuss evolution and genetics. So, it is with both sadness and dismay that I report the Matt Ridley recent book “The Rational Optimist: how prosperity evolves” is a terrible book.
The book is not badly written, one can’t deny Ridley can string a sentence together.
It’s terrible in the sense that it is horribly misleading on climate science. In fact, it’s so bad that it qualifies as this year’s most dishonest piece of denialist propaganda. His butchering of science ranks up there with the efforts of Christopher “Lord” Monckton’s crude propagandistic attempts to mischaracterize science. In his discussion of climate science Ridley betrays a staggering incompetence.
That bad you ask?
Ridley’s arguments aren’t even sophisticated. He repeats the crudest pieces of denialist propaganda, which anyone with a genuine interest or understanding of science knows are factually incorrect:
- Polar bear populations are rising
- That Michael Mann’s “hockey stick” is broken
- The hoary old “scientists in the 1970s used to believe an ice age was immanent” myth
- Average temperatures during the Medieval Warming Period were higher globally than today
His text is so bad it makes me want to get on a plane, fly to England, track down Ridley and shake him by the collar and say “For ****’s sake man, have you actually read the science?”
Ridley: the new Bjorn Lomborg?
Ridley’s book is a paean to progress and optimism. He takes the long, historical view and argues that everything is getter better. Over the last 5000 years cities have grown, commerce has boomed, we live longer and we now have iPods. Says Ridley:
“This book is about the rapid, continuous and incessant change that human society experiences in a way that no other animal does. To a biologist this something that needs explaining…” (pg.2)
He then goes on in his infectious, bubbly manner for almost 400 pages explaining why everything is so much better and thus will get even better. I wish I could share Ridley’s optimism, but he has built his edifice of “Gosh isn’t it grand!” enthusiasm on a foundation of rotten, misleading denialist propaganda.
The book is a breezy read, but once you start to dig into the references you find serious issues with his arguments. Indeed, Ridley the “Rational Optimist” adopts the same techniques as the “Sceptical Environmentalist” Bjorn Lomborg in cherry picking data and misrepresenting science.
For those not familiar with Lomborg, he is a noted climate “sceptic” whose work has been roundly debunked. Lomborg’s tactic is to cite lots of references, but either misrepresent their actual findings our use dubious sources.
It would seem that building your argument on a mountain of misinformation is the new fashion for pro-market ideologues like Ridley and Lomborg. Pro-market ideologue you hear me call Ridley? Indeed, he is one record saying “government is the problem not the solution” (pace Ronald Regan):
Government is a very dangerous toy. It is used to fight wars, impose ideologies and enrich rulers. True, nowadays, our leaders do not enrich themselves (at least not on the scale of the Sun King), but they enrich their clients: they preside over vast and insatiable parasitic bureaucracies that grow by Parkinson’s Law and live off true wealth creators such as traders and inventors.
Sure, it is possible to have too little government. Only, that has not been the world’s problem for millennia. After the century of Mao, Hitler and Stalin, can anybody really say that the risk of too little government is greater than the risk of too much? The dangerous idea we all need to learn is that the more we limit the growth of government, the better off we will all be.
Ridley was also a non-executive director of the Northern Rock, the UK bank that collapsed and had to be nationalised by the UK government during the global financial crises. Indeed, Ridley was criticised for failing to see the warning signs.
Northern Rock, the British lender that last month was the target of the country’s first bank run in 140 years, said Friday that its chairman, Matt Ridley, had resigned…
Northern Rock’s management had asked Ridley to remain in his role at the bank until new funding arrangements were in place but said Friday that “the time is right to accept his resignation.”
Members of parliament had blamed Ridley, 49, and other Northern Rock directors for harming the reputation of the British banking industry by failing to recognize any risks built into the bank’s strategy.
Ridley failed to see warning signs. It would seem he has made a habit of that, facts do tend to dent one’s unimpeachable optimism.
Denialist propaganda case exhibit one: ice ages
In Chapter 10 he opens his discussion on climate change with the following paragraph:
“In the mid-1970s it was briefly fashionable for journalists to write scare stories about the recent cooling of the globe, which was presented as undiluted bad news. Now it is fashionable for them to write scare stories about the recent warming of the globe, which is presented as undiluted bad news…” (pg.328)
Immediately my “spider senses” were tingling. Global warming is a fashionable belief? This is the old “scientists predicted an ice age in the 1970s” myth only slightly amended to change it to “journalists predicted an ice age…” Ridley actually cites the hoary old April 1975 Newsweek article, a trope of the denialist movement that has become is rather tiresome but Ridley still trots it out.
We know conclusively that since the 1970s scientists have been discussing global warming, the influence of CO2 and the risks it poses. Skeptical Science summarises the issue neatly:
“However, these are media articles, not scientific studies. A survey of peer reviewed scientific papers from 1965 to 1979 show that few papers predicted global cooling (7 in total). Significantly more papers (42 in total) predicted global warming…”
The following graph illustrates the point, showing papers predicating cooling versus warming trends:
What Ridley has done is an intellectual sleight of hand. “See they – journalists, not scientists that is, but never mind the distinction – predicted an ice age! Where is it huh!”
If that isn’t bad enough, things gets worse.
Denialist propaganda case exhibit one: there is a scientific debate
Ridley then goes on to press the idea there is an actual debate about global warming:
I could plunge into the scientific debate and try to persuade you and myself that the competitive clamour of alarm is as exaggerated as it proved to be on eugenics, acid rain, sperm counts and cancer – that the warming of the globe faces in the next century is more likely to be mild than catastrophic; that the last three decades of relatively slow average temperature changes are more compatible with a low-sensitivity model of greenhouse warming; that clouds may slow the warming as much as water vapour may amplify it; that the increase in methane has been (erratically) decelerating for twenty years; that there where warmer periods in the earth’s history in medieval times…
…There are respectable scientific arguments to support all these arguments – an in some cases respectable ripostes to them too. But this is not a book about climate change; it is about the human race an its capacity to change” (pg. 329-330)
This is a “Gish Gallop”.
Named after the notorious creationist Duane Gish, it is a rapid fire presentation of unsupported and bogus “facts” that takes hours of painful deconstruction, chasing down of sources and fact checking.
Ridley tries to imply there is a scientific debate.
There is no debate.
The scientific consensus very much supports the idea the planet is warming due to human activity:
“According to the results of a one-time online questionnaire-based statistical survey published by the University of Illinois, with 3146 individuals completing the survey, 97% of the actively publishing climate scientists (as opposed to the scientists who are not publishing actively) (i.e. 75 of 77 individuals out of the 3146) agree that human activity, such as flue gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, is a significant contributing factor to global climate change. Overall, 82% reported agreeing with AGW. According to additional sources, the majority of scientists who work on climate change agree on the main points…”
Ridley’s paragraph is fraudulent nonsense.
When one turns to the footnotes section we can see how flimsy Ridley’s arguments are. In order to support his assertion that “average temperatures are more compatible with a low sensitivity model of greenhouse warming” he relies upon one discredited paper by MITs Richard Lindzen.
Real Climate has pulled this apart:
With the hype surrounding the manuscript, one would think that the article provides a sound, rock solid basis for a reduced climate sensitivity. However, our examination of the study’s methods demonstrates that this is not the case. In an article in press (Trenberth et al. 2010 (sub. requ.), hereafter TFOW), we show that LC09 is gravely flawed and its results are wrong on multiple fronts.
Ridley picks just one paper to support his argument that is fashionable amongst the denial community, but has been shown to be badly flawed by the science community.
For his contention that the average global temperature was warmer during the Medieval Warming Period, her relies upon papers from the dubious journal Energy & Environment. Again, for those not familiar with E&E, it is journal whose editor is a known sceptic and has been involved in numerous controversies over publishing flawed research:
“My political agenda is simple and open; it concerns the role of research ambitions in the making of policy. I concluded from a research project about the IPCC – funded by the UK government during the mid 1990s – that this body was set up to support, initially, climate change research projects supported by the WMO and hence the rapidly evolving art and science of climate modeling…. From interviews and my own reading I concluded that the climate science debate WAS BY NO MEANS OVER AND SHOULD CONTINUE…”
The paper in question is A 2000-year global temperature reconstruction based on non-treering proxies by Craig Loehle. The denial movement loves this paper, I’ve seen it trotted out many times. However, John Cook over at Skeptical Science has taken a very hard look at it:
“The other day I happened upon the Popular Technology blog that has a list of “700 peer reviewed papers supporting skepticism of man-made global warming.” This was news to me so I started to look into the first paper on the list. Loehle 2007 titled A 2000-Year Global Temperature Reconstruction Based on Non-Treering Proxies published in Energy & Environment. I’m sure many Skeptical Science readers are familiar with this paper and Loehle’s 2008 correction. I was not.
I decided to email Dr. Loehle with some questions and got a very prompt response from him. This was followed by a number of back and forth emails. What I got from him was that he believes himself to be one of the scientists whose work is blocked from publication for political reasons…”
Cook notes Loehle excludes critical data:
“The other critique of Loehle’s paper has been that the data ends in 1935. This, from my position in the bleachers of the kung-fu match, is much more problematic for Loehle. I know the paper is not about current warming. I know it’s about treering proxy errors but that is sort of missing the forest for the trees (pun is definitely intended). I understand why the data ends at 1935. But I just can’t buy NOT making the attempt to concatenate this data with the past 150 year of recorded temperature readings. Even if the modern temperature records are not central to the topic of the paper to not add the blade to his hockey stick is a mistake..”
Cook did ask Loehle to provide more up-to-date data, but noted that in comparison with other reconstructions you get a strange mish-mash of “home-mage” hockey sticks:
“What a bizarre, almost absurd, cacophony. What I see in this is a battle of home made hockey sticks. Some straight, some crooked, some short, some long. But I see all our kung-fu masters each beating the other with their own hockey sticks. What’s most strange to me is that it seems like the MWP battles are all about the shape of their hockey sticks and miss the rather more important question of NOW.”
Thus we see just how shakey the foundations of Ridley’s arguments are.
Denialist propaganda case exhibit two: polar bear populations are growing
On pages 338-339 Ridley makes the following claim:
“The polar bear, still thriving today (eleven of the thirteen populations are growing or steady), may contract its range further north, but it already adapts to ice-free summer months in Hudson’s bay by fasting on land till the sea re-freezes…”
I expect crude hacks like Perth’s Jo Nova to peddle this nonsense (see here), but does Ridley expect us to swallow this? This is what is happening to the population of Hudson’s Bay:
“The effects of global warming are most profound in the southern part of the polar bear’s range, and this is indeed where significant degradation of local populations has been observed. The Western Hudson Bay subpopulation, in a southern part of the range, also happens to be one of the best-studied polar bear subpopulations. This subpopulation feeds heavily on ringed seals in late spring, when newly weaned and easily hunted seal pups are abundant. The late spring hunting season ends for polar bears when the ice begins to melt and break up, and they fast or eat little during the summer until the sea freezes again.
Due to warming air temperatures, ice-floe breakup in western Hudson Bay is currently occurring three weeks earlier than it did 30 years ago, reducing the duration of the polar bear feeding season. The body condition of polar bears has declined during this period; the average weight of lone (and likely pregnant) female polar bears was approximately 290 kg (640 lb) in 1980 and 230 kg (510 lb) in 2004. Between 1987 and 2004, the Western Hudson Bay population declined by 22%…”
While the US Geological Survey notes the following:
“The U.S. Geological Survey predicts two-thirds of the world’s polar bears will disappear by 2050, based on moderate projections for the shrinking of summer sea ice caused by global warming. The bears would disappear from Europe, Asia, and Alaska, and be depleted from the Arctic archipelago of Canada and areas off the northern Greenland coast. By 2080, they would disappear from Greenland entirely and from the northern Canadian coast, leaving only dwindling numbers in the interior Arctic archipelago.”
And Ridley has a doctorate in zoology?
References and notes: playing fast and loose with the truth
The reader glides through Ridley’s book, buoyed by his cherry exhortations of “Not to worry, all is well!” until you start to examine the footnotes.
Throughout the text, Ridley is ashamed to name his references.
He occasionally mentions an expert here and there, but the text is free from the use of footnotes, the names of studies or research papers. He simply states “facts” with no context or sources is referenced. The reader is pulled along with his enthusiasm.
This is intentional.
Facts do tend to be a bit of downer. But never mind assures Ridley, those pesky things are buried at the back of the book. You don’t have to read them mind you, but if you do… well it’s here that things get ugly real fast.
His footnotes retrospectively reference his arguments in the text. You have to work damn hard to match what he is saying with his sources. One can see why. His entire argument is built upon denialist propaganda. He actually cites “Watts up with that?” as a legitimate scholarly source. I kid you not.
Let’s look at one of the worst examples that screams at you from the pages.
Denialist propaganda case exhibit three: the “Hockey Stick” is broken
The footnote listed on page 415 that discusses “previous warm episodes” to buttress his points on page 334:
“The famous hockey stick seemed to prove that the Medieval Warm Period never happened has since been comprehensively discredited. It relied far too heavily on two sets of samples from bristlecone pine trees and Siberian larch trees that have since been shown to be highly unreliable; it spliced together proxies and real thermometer data in a selective way, obscuring the fact that the proxies did mirror modern temperatures, and it used statistical techniques that made a hockey stick out of red noise..”
These are some of the worst, most debunked pieces of denialist propaganda on the internet and Ridley presents them as facts?
He cites the website Climate Audit by Steve McIntyre, articles form the dubious journal Energy & Environment back up his argument. This are all well-known platforms for “sceptical” views and hardly qualify as genuine sources.
Ridley neatly ties together not one, but two denialist myths. For readers not familiar with the debate around the “hockey stick” see the article on Sceptical Science.
The “broken hockey stick” is a much beloved myth of the denier movement:
“In 2003 Professor McKitrick teamed with a Canadian engineer, Steve McIntyre, in attempting to replicate the hockey stick and debunked it as statistical nonsense. They revealed how the chart was derived from ‘collation errors, unjustified truncation or extrapolation of source data, obsolete data, incorrect principal component calculations, geographical mislocations and other serious defects’, substantially affecting the temperature index.”
When in reality:
Since the hockey stick paper in 1998, there have been a number of proxy studies analysing a variety of different sources including corals, stalagmites, tree rings, boreholes and ice cores. They all confirm the original hockey stick conclusion: the 20th century is the warmest in the last 1000 years and that warming was most dramatic after 1920
I’ve found dozens of other examples in Ridley’s book. I’ll keep posting over these over the coming weeks as I chase down references and provide further evidence of this shear intellectual fraud that Ridley has committed.
Is it deliberate?
I think Ridley believes what he is saying, but he can only maintain his arguments by using a very narrow selection of denialist propaganda.
It’s shameful actually. The book contains page, after page of fallacies, badly sourced facts and outright fabrications.
Ridley claims he has “tested” his optimism against the facts. He has done no such thing. Instead he has indulged on a massive bout of confirmation bias, seeking out information that accords with his arguments and selectively quoting sources to buttress his overall point that “things will always get better”.
Quite frankly, Ridley needs to be called to account on this.
Aspects of denial
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. He queries the need to place limits on growth.