A tribute to a great statistician, and ‘climate sceptic’, Ian Castles

Australia has, for 130 years, been at the forefront of the collection and analysis of national statistics, a field pioneered by Timothy Coghlan, the Statistician of NSW, in his 1885 New South Wales Statistical Register. Coghlan later produced the first official estimates of national income, and another Australian, Colin Clark, produced the first comprehensive analyses of the relative real incomes of different countries. Australia has had Commonwealth Statisticians from 1906 until 1975, and Australian Statisticians since then. Australian expertise in this field is acknowledged internationally.

Because I was interested in both Australian statistics and survey research, and needed the help of what was then ‘the Bureau of Census and Statistics’, I came to know the Statisticians from Keith Archer onwards. Bill McLennan, Statistician from 1995 to 2000, had been a formidable squash player in the 1960s, when squash was also my sport, and I knew him through our common battles. But the one I knew best was Ian Castles, Statistician from 1986 to 1994. I have mentioned Ian a few times on this blog, because it was he who pushed me into learning about global warming and then, by extension, into establishing this website, which has done its best to be calm, sensible and data-oriented about the imagined threat from ‘climate change’.

Ian Castles was a real intellectual, who liked libraries, reading and thinking, and I first met him in the early 1980s, when I was at the ANU, and there was a concerted effort on our part to try to get the new Hawke Government to increase the amount of information that would be useful to social scientists. Ian was at that stage Secretary of Finance, but when he became Australian Statistician a few years later he proved interested and able to help. I think he he was the most able of the Statisticians in the postwar period, and he served as the President of the International Association for Official Statistics in the early 1990s.

He died in 2010, and since his death his former colleagues and admirers have been developing a tribute to him. It came out a little time ago — Measuring and Promoting Wellbeing. How Important is Economic Growth?, published by ANU Press, and edited by Andrew Podger and Dennis Trewin, the latter a subsequent Australian Statistician, the former a senior civil servant and later academic.

They have done a great job. It is a fine book about a fine man. I’ve written about Ian Castles’ Treasury paper on economic growth, and I shan’t rehash that here. Instead, I’ll comment on the last section of the book, which covers some of  his contributions to the debate on global warming. Mike Keating, a former senior civil servant for whom I have great respect, had a much longer professional and personal acquaintance with Ian than I had, and he has said that Ian Castles ‘was no climate change sceptic’.

What is a ‘climate change sceptic’? I guess it is someone who does not accept that our present knowledge of climate, weather and relevant science supports the notion that carbon dioxide emissions must be curbed (indeed, greatly reduced) because they are leading remorselessly to a hotter world that will be dangerous for the eco-systems of the world and for human beings as well. I had long conversations with Ian in the 1990s and the first ten years of this century, until he died, indeed, and we exchanged a lot of writing on the subject. His position, throughout, was that everything depended on the data and their quality, and the argument that was said to be supported by the data.

He would not venture to comment on the science qua science, only on the presentation of that science where he could assess the quality of the statistical arguments being used. His demolition of the Stern Report, with David Henderson (which you can read in this book) is a splendid example of his skill. His 2001 paper ‘Scientists, Statisticians and the Prophets of Doom’ (also in the book) includes the harshest personal remark I ever read of his: ‘Regrettably, however, there are many on the science community who are more strongly committed to implementing their priorities than to the values of the scientific enterprise’. The paper is largely a defence of Bjorn Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist, and it finishes with this judgment:

Lomborg has made an outstanding contribution to the discussion of some of the most vital issues of our time. If parts of his analysis are unsound on scientific grounds, it should not be beyond the capacity of scientists to demonstrate this in free, critical and civil discussion. Those who have chosen instead to distort of suppress his message, or to engage in ill-tempered abuse, are doing a disservice to themselves, their disciplines and scientific enterprise. 

He had no success, or at best little success, in getting the IPCC to listen to his temperate but weighty criticisms of its arguments and data, and you can read some of his communications with the IPCC’s Pachauri in the book too. From time to time Ian would copy me in to something he had sent to a website. His contributions were always civil, considered and firm. I can’t remember one occasion on which he had to backtrack, or confess to error. Above all, he subjected his own work to the most intense of critical judgment, on the solid ground that you should not put things to paper until you are absolutely sure that you know what you are talking about.

Was he a ‘climate change sceptic’? He may simply have been agnostic about it all at the end of the 20th century, but ten years later, with very little sign that the IPCC and its adherents would accept any change to their position, despite growing evidence that the orthodoxy was grossly overstated, I am sure that he had become quite sceptical.

Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • David says:

    “Lomborg has made an outstanding contribution to the discussion of some of the most virtual issues of our time. If parts of his analysis are unsound on scientific grounds, it should not be beyond the capacity of scientists to demonstrate this in free, critical and civil discussion. Those who have chosen instead to distort of suppress his message, or to engage in ill-tempered abuse, are doing a disservice to themselves, their disciplines and scientific enterprise.”

    Don a very nice quote. I agree 100% !!!!! Especially that last sentence.

    “Those who have chosen instead to distort of suppress his message, or to engage in ill-tempered abuse, are doing a disservice to themselves, their disciplines and scientific enterprise.”

    I love it!!!!

  • Gus says:

    IPCC’s (or Pachauri’s) decision to ignore sound and professional advice and criticism of a distinguished scholar like Ian Castles tells us all we need to know about IPCC.

  • Richard Castles says:

    Don, I was amused at the launch when Andrew Leigh MP mentioned his disagreement with Dad on climate change, citing the 95% “consensus”. My immediate thought, after a lifetime of debating all manner of subjects with Dad, was that odds of 20 to 1 on him being right would have to be one of the best bets around.
    Richard Castles

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Richard,

      I was almost astonished that Andrew would take on Ian’s work in this way, because Andrew is clever and reasonable. But I am afraid he has become a believer…

      • Richard Castles says:

        The immediate question that came to my mind was “disagree with what?” He didn’t specify exactly what he was disagreeing with, other than the vague assumption that Dad was a “denier”. Which numbers or analysis was he challenging?

        • Don Aitkin says:

          My guesses that Ian was disagreeing with the notion that a carbon tax, or some other device, must be used to keep global warming at some unknown level though to be ‘safe’. Ian liked clarity in the use of term, because without it, you don’t know what would count as evidence.

    • whyisitso says:

      I thought the “consensus” was supposed to be 97%? It’s one of the eternal truths now isn’t it?

  • GenghisCunn says:

    Don, I had some dealings with Ian Castles over several years,
    and have always thought very highly him, and of the organisation which
    reflected his standards. My last contact
    was on a blog, where I credited him with the development of Australia’s
    National Accounts methodology which was, in part through his efforts, adopted
    as the basis of the world standards (but ignored by the IPCC’s economic modellers). With typical modesty, Ian eschewed credit, attributing
    it to the ABS rather than himself.

    Shortly after Ian’s death, and before I was aware of it, I
    recommended in a letter to The Australian that Castles be given the task of an
    independent assessment of the case for global warming.

    Don, in Ian’s comment on Lomborg, I think he would have said
    “vital” rather than virtual.”

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Thanks! And corrected. I have to read everything three times to make sure that Auto-correct has not decided I meant something else. Here I simply missed it.

  • GenghisCunn says:

    Don, my recollection is that Ian and David Henderson got to present their critique of the IPCC’s scenarios (based on flawed national accounts modelling) to a large group of IPCCers, and that several appreciated what they had done as helping them to produce a more accurate assessment. But shortly afterwards, the higher-ups slammed the door, battened down the hatches, etc. As an indication of the quality of the IPCC’s work, I recall that under one scenario, South Africa’s estimated real GDP in 2100 was equal to total world income in 1990.

  • Robert Marks says:

    Don, I’d like to republish Ian Castles’ address, The curious economist: William Stanley Jevons in Sydney, address at the dinner to mark the opening of the exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, on October 28, 2004, in the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales. have you any contact details for his widow, Glenice, or children Anne, Richard, Simon, or Jane?

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Robert,

    I do not know if Glenice is still where they used to live, and I could find out for you. But you’d really need the approval of the RS of NSW. I can’t imagine that Glenice or the children would object. But I’ll find out for you.

    Cheers,

    Don

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Robert, you should start with son Richard — richcastles@gmail.com.

      • Richard C says:

        Hi Don,

        I’ve just by chance come across this thread while revisiting this piece. Mum is well and living now in a care residence in Kew. Robert has been in touch with Anne and we are happy for him to use the paper, although we were interested in any edits that might have been made. Dad would be acutely attuned to any errors that might creep in by so doing.

        Best regards,

        Richard Castles

Leave a Reply