Tag Archive | luddites

The Double Standards of Professional Contrarians

I normally avoid leaving comments on online newspaper articles as I don’t enjoy the anonymous behaviour of participants: rudeness, ignorance and unwillingness to engage in proper debate. But I did get stuck in to one of James Delingpole’s Telegraph Blog entries. (My spell-checker wants to replace ‘Delingpole‘ with ‘Delinquent‘. I’m tempted.)

Delingpole seriously embarrassed himself in the BBC’s Horizon programme Science Under Attack when he debated climate change with Nurse, a Nobel Prize winning scientist. Specifically, Delingpole described his climate change ‘journalism’ as interpreting interpretation: he didn’t read scientific papers, not even the abstracts.

More specifically, he has found a few people who share his biases and then uses their writings as evidence for his own opinions, as they use his to buttress theirs. ‘Science’ is a word used often, but the scientific method seems to be unknown to them as they resort to rhetoric instead. It seems that winning an ill-natured argument is far more important to them than actually being right. (They fervently believe they are right, of course, though they make no effort to develop secure lines of reasoning, relying on the whole list of pseudo-science techniques described here.)

The comments on the blog entries are even less nuanced, as they don’t even try to use rhetorical tricks and deceptions. If you have ever had so little going on in your life that you feel able to interact with the low-lifes that inhabit these sites, then you may skip to the end.

But this is the nature of argument from those that worship the self-important journalists such as Delingpole. Insults are the order of the day: anonymous posters are just rude. If you come up with a good argument, data that disproves a statement or even just try to act as a moderating influence, then expect to get flamed.

Ignore reasoned arguments

Tell the poster that their sort of person makes you sick and you can’t believe how much they wriggle and squirm in a proper debate. Tell them how thin skinned they are. If you are lucky, they will be distracted by your bilge and not notice that you had no answer to their line of argument.

Consensus Plays No Part in Science

If anyone has the front to point out that the specialists in the field are virtually unanimous in their judgements, so you are likely to be mistaken, bang on about the ‘fact’ that consensus plays no part in science. This is a great move, since you can act as an expert in your own right at the same time as denying real experts know anything about the reality of the science. It is, of course, nonsense. Science does not have authorities that pass judgement on theories when there is disagreement. The only way for tentative theories to enter the canon of accepted principles is for them to be debated back and forth along with the data in journals and at conferences, until everyone has had their objections answered and consensus is reached. Far from ‘consensus plays no part in science’, a lack of consensus is fatal to the progression of a scientific theory. Consensus is the only way in science.

Apply Different Standards of Evidence to Opponents

Appear to carefully pick apart statistical inferences with which you disagree, then slip in a non-sequitur based on an absence of evidence. For instance, challenge the last fifty years of warming by selecting your data from one of the regularly occurring decades where the warming slows or stops for a few years, say that there is no statistically significant warming. If there is warming, pick a new start year that is especially warm and try again to fit a negative gradient. Ignore the fact that the correlation is very weak (r=0.1) and insignificant. Try the line that since warming is not proven, so cooling must be happening. And add an insult as a diversion so no-one notices the sleight of hand.

Libel the Experts

Repeatedly point out that some of the experts are actually computer modellers, chemists or physicists, not ‘climate experts’, and make claims that they are in the pay of large governmental and NGO conspiracies. Refer to your own sources as ‘renowned climate experts’, even if they are retired engineers or computer modellers. (‘Renowned’ is the give-away term, as no reputable scientists refer to anyone as renowned.)

Quote Your Own Consensus

Quote a big, long list of scientists who signed up to an online statement supporting your view, but don’t worry if none of them are actually working in a related field of study. As long as they give academic titles and put PhD after their name, they are scientists, right? And don’t call it a consensus, as you have already claimed that consensus is not part of science.

Hide Contrary Views

To force recent posts that challenged your statements off the bottom of the first page, find a contrarian web site and cut and paste large chunks of it into your posts. This has the bonus of not requiring any thought whatsoever on your part. When the offending posts have disappeared, you can repeat what you wrote before, secure in the knowledge that new readers will not see that there are good reasons not to trust what you say.

The Lesson

This was the first time I tried to sustain interest in a blog comments section for a couple of days, and there were over a thousand posts in that time (some commenters seemed to post continually day and night – didn’t their mothers tell them to come up out of the basement and go to bed?)

I tried to direct arguments towards a discussion of evidence, towards an understanding of the statistical limits of certainty, towards the problematical bias of picking an opinion and searching out individuals who support that idea instead of dispassionately assessing opinions and evidence in the round. But it was for naught.

Delingpole told Paul Nurse in the Horizon programme that he didn’t read proper research papers, because peer-to-peer review (clever, huh!) was an improvement on peer-review because it allowed journalists and anyone with an interest to get stuck in.

And he said it with a straight face!

Metric Tomatoes, Luddites and Lord Kelvin.

Modern students, even those who have chosen to study advanced physics, cannot understand the full imperial system, and certainly are not able to calculate using them. This is occasionally demonstrated in class when a student complains that they can’t relate to the metric SI units, and goes on to immediately demonstrate that they have no idea of how many ounces there are to the pound, or stones to the ton, or inches to the yard, or yards to the mile. They are certainly unaware of the coherent imperial unit of mass, the slug or the meaning of the fathom, acre or gallon, the chain, troy-ounce or nautical mile.

I strongly suspect that this is also the case with metric martyr Janet Devers, in the papers again for heroicly refusing to display metric units alongside the imperial ones, and bravely weighing out vegetables with pound only scales. Janet is launching an appeal against her conviction, which resulted in a £5000 fine and a conditional discharge. The Magistrate said

“We note that you said you were doing this in the interests of your customers, although you ought to have known you were breaking the law in doing so.”

Indeed. Janet complained that a criminal record meant she would not be able to travel to the United States to see family. Poor thing.

Everyone under the age of 45 years has studied metric units exclusively in school, since the UK went metric in 1972, sixty-eight years after Lord Kelvin collected eight million signatures calling for the adoption of metric measures. That was a fifth of the population at that time.

Hansard records Lord Belhaven and Stenton, moving the second reading of the Weights and Measures (Metric System) Bill in 1904 as saying:

The metric system has been taught in the elementary schools under the Educational Code of 1900, but it is to be regretted that though the teachers give much time and trouble to teaching this new subject, in many cases the examiners have not asked any questions in that section of arithmetic. Therefore school teachers are very much disheartened when they find that inspectors seem to look upon it in a half-hearted way and they get no credit for the time they devote to the teaching of it. If this Bill passes it will be the means of infusing a great deal more energy into this particular subject.

and continues with

The second objection to our present system is the waste of time in teaching it to children. It is not alone the teaching of the tables which I have just referred to—it is the whole system of compound addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and the system of computation called “Practice.”

It is estimated, on high educational authority, that every child wastes one year of its arithmetical school time in learning these subjects and that in many cases the time lost is much greater. Last year inquiries were made of headmasters of schools on this subject, and 197 sent replies, of which 161 said that saving of time in teaching the metric system would be one year, thirty said it would be two years, and six that it would be three years. This gives a French or German child a great advantage over an English child, as the time saved can be applied to some more useful subject.

I should like to quote from one of the many letters received. The senior mathematical master of Edinburgh High School wrote— An average scholar would save at least a year and a half, probably two. This saving is great in itself, but if it be considered how much he saves by not being subjected to a wearisome process of acquiring the knowledge, say, to convert ordinary yards to poles and vice versâ, or square yards to perches and give a rational remainder, and the wearing out of his nervous system—not to speak of the teachers’—I conceive it to be not only a saving of time but an economy of mental effort which is incalculable. The objection does not lie only in the time which is wasted. The child is wearied and disheartened by the difficulties of the subject; and, in the case of boys at our public schools, many get such a distaste for arithmetic that they lose all desire to study mathematics afterwards, and I think this has much to do with the low standard of mathematical knowledge in this country.

Modern students, even those who have chosen to study advanced physics, cannot understand the full imperial system, and certainly are not able to calculate using them.

The Physicist, Mathematician and Engineer Lord Kelvin supported the Bill in 1904, noting in passing that the Metric system was a English invention:

While we are grateful to France for having given us the metric system, while we see France, Germany, Italy, and Austria rejoicing in the use of it, and benefiting every day by the use of it, it is somewhat interesting to know that, after all, the decimal system, worked out by the French philosophers, originated in England In a letter dated 14th November, 1783, James Watt laid down a plan which was in all respects the system adopted by the French philosophers seven years later, which the French Government suggested to the King of England as a system that might be adopted by international agreement. James Watt’s objects were to secure uniformity and to establish a mode of division which should be convenient as long as decimal arithmetic lasted.

A hundred years ago, elementary schools in England started to teach metric units, while the Germans changed over completely in two weeks without obvious difficulty.

A century later, the Luddites seem to be winning.