This is the third straight ‘climate change’ post I’ve done since I started the blog, and the reason is twofold. First, I can’t bring myself to write about the Prime Minister’s ‘governing’, but not campaigning, from Rooty Hill in Sydney’s western suburbs. And second, a correspondent yesterday asked me to look at Number Watch, a website in the UK. I went to it years ago, but it hasn’t been on my list of useful sites. It’s great fun, nonetheless, and well worth writing about.
Professor John Brignell, a seriously clever IT guy, founded the website, and took early retirement from the University of Southampton to write and to maintain his site. The virtuous purpose of the website is set out as follows.
‘This site is devoted to the monitoring of the misleading numbers that rain down on us via the media. Whether they are generated by Single Issue Fanatics (SIFs), politicians, bureaucrats, quasi-scientists (junk, pseudo- or just bad), such numbers swamp the media, generating unnecessary alarm and panic. They are seized upon by media, hungry for eye-catching stories. There is a growing band of people whose livelihoods depend on creating and maintaining panic. There are also some who are trying to keep numbers away from your notice and others who hope that you will not make comparisons. Their stock in trade is the gratuitous lie. The aim here is to nail just a few of them.’
My current focus is on bad data and bad argument in the area of ‘climate change’, but, being a numbers person, if my focus wasn’t there it would be somewhere else. I don’t much like Gross Domestic Product, for example, as a measure of the productivity of our society, and as I wrote the other day, I am wary of international comparisons of student progress in schools. So there is a lot for me to like in Number Watch, and I commend it to anyone who worries about the way in which we toss numbers around as though they meant something important.
Brignell takes the abuse of numbers seriously — very seriously — but the way he does it is great fun. He offers a ‘Number of the Month’, which allows him to write an essay on a new perpetrator. He offers annual ‘Numby Awards’ for egregious examples. And he writes longer essays on what he sees as the causes of this disease. An essay called ‘The March of the Zealots’ argues that this is the age of the zealot, and I think there is a lot to his point of view. His essay on global warming as a religion is first class, and indispensable for anyone who wonders about the way in which environmentalism has become a kind of substitute faith for many people.
His aim is not simply at bad numbers in global warming. He can find villainy everywhere, in epidemiology, in cancer research, in the stock market, in politics and in the media. But what I like most is the fabulous collection of scientific papers and news stories based on them that posit a link between global warming and some awful outcome. Over the years he has collected nearly 900 of them, though the links to some have fallen away, as is the case with the web (I have learned that it is unsafe to rely upon the continued existence of any link: if you think something is important, copy it now, and file it for later, because the next time you want it you may get an error message.)
The wonder of the Global Warming list is the sheer size of it, and the subjects involved. Here is just a small sample, pulled at random, partly by the titles. First is the ‘decline of circumcision’, and the author is our very own Tim Flannery, who discovered the decline in an African tribe, who have to wait for the right climate, which isn’t coming because of ‘climate change’… Oh dear.
Then there are flowers losing in their scent in Kuala Lumpur, the loss of the white possum in the Daintree area, the growth in intelligence in lizards, the fall of Mubarak in Egypt, an invasion of jellyfish in Wales, and —yet another Australian one — cold weather being a consequence of global warming. In most cases, what the reader gets is either a reported occurrence of something and the phrase ‘scientists attribute’, or the scientist himself or herself reports a finding and attributes it to this grim change. There are hundreds of them.
I knew it was bad, but I didn’t think it was this bad. Brignell argues that the phrase ‘global warming’ itself is enough to guarantee that the item will get media attention, and from what I’ve seen in our media that is certainly true here. And what goes on puzzling me is why, in this well-educated, information-rich society there is such an apocalyptic vision of the future. It is not just Australia. Brignell’s site is in the UK, and you can find the same sort of attitude in Western countries generally.
I have great confidence that humanity can advance in knowledge, understanding and the provision of a decent life for more and more human beings. I point to what we have done in the past two centuries, and even more strikingly, in the last half-century. Why do the Flannerys of this world see things so much more gloomily, and in doing so ignore the evidence that is in front of them?