Mathematics, my father and me

(Robyn Williams, of the ABC’s Science program, read my piece in Quadrant about how my own world-view came to be formed, and asked could I do an Ockham’s razor broadcast about my father, mathematics and me. This is the outcome. It was broadcast on Sunday March 12th and interested readers can download the audio  here.)


If you grew up in New South Wales in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, there’s a good chance that you studied maths with the help of the textbooks written by two high school teachers, A. G. Aitkin and B. N. Farlow. I knew the books well, because I used them too, and Alec Aitkin was my father. They were mostly for the early years of high school, and he would write them, and draw all the diagrams, on the dining-room table outside my bedroom, from about 6 am until breakfast, which was one of his jobs too. In later life I followed him both in writing books and in making breakfast. He was a good role model.

Dad was convinced that everyone had maths in them, and he had stories to tell to illustrate his belief. One was about a lacklustre student at Canterbury Boys High School in the late 1930s, who explained his poor results by saying that maths meant nothing to him. A few years later Dad encountered him one Saturday morning, the young man, as one might have said at the time, ‘dressed up like a pox-doctor’s clerk’.

‘How’s everything?’ asked my father. ’You seem to be doing well!’

‘Great,’ was the reply. ‘I’m a bookie’s penciller’.

‘You?’ Dad was lost for words. ‘But you didn’t like maths.’

‘Oh, that was then,’ he replied. ‘There’s nothing to maths if you really need it. Actually, I like it.’

Dad loved that story, and we heard it many times. I could counter, later in life, with stories of my friends who had become maths teachers, and loved it, though they had not been proficient at the subject at school. I was the eldest of three boys, and all of us turned out to be decently competent at whatever we studied, but I was the cause of much head-shaking when school reports came in: ‘Don should do much better…’ was a common summary. What vexed Dad was my poor performance in mathematics.

‘You’re too quick and too careless,’ he said. ‘I know you can do all this stuff easily, but you just dash it off, and make simple errors. Why don’t you go back when you’ve finished and check everything you’ve done? You’ll do a lot better that way.’

At the end of my sixth class I followed his advice — perhaps he had given it again the night before the exams. The papers were OK, and as usual, I worked quickly. Instead of looking around to see if I were the first to finish, I went back and checked. I certainly had made errors, and fixed each of them up. When the results came out, I had scored a perfect 400 out of 400 for all the mathematics papers. Dad was jubilant, and the experience stayed in my mind thereafter. What is more, I felt at home with numbers, and still do. Today we call that feeling ‘number sense’.

In 1950 Dad went to be head of the mathematics department at Armidale Teachers College, and most of my secondary schooling was in Armidale. At the end of third year I had to make an awkward choice. My best subject was history, but I liked maths too. Alas, they were opposed, and I couldn’t do physics without both maths. My parents didn’t press for one route or the other. It was, finally, up to me. So I went down the humanities path. I have many times wondered what would have happened if I had done what my brothers did — double maths, physics and chemistry.

Meanwhile my father had become involved in teaching teachers how to teach mathematics, both in primary school and high school. He became known to generations of teachers as ‘Tin Tin’, not because of any daring exploits, but because of his Broken Hill pronunciation of ‘ten’, as in ‘tin times tin’. He already believed that the core problem was the way in which children were taught arithmetic in infants and primary school, and he set out to solve it. He developed a wide network of primary teachers who understood what he was about.

In 1957, on long-service leave overseas, he encountered the coloured rods invented by the Belgian primary school teacher Georges Cuisenaire, and fell for them at once. Back in Australia, they became a basic element in his arsenal, because their use as play allowed pupils to see number relationships for themselves. So many primary teachers, most of them women, had not enjoyed mathematics themselves, and used strict rules as the basis for their teaching. If a child asked a question they could not answer, their tendency was to put the child off, which caused the child to lose interest. In Cuisenaire rods he saw a means by which children could learn by themselves, through play rather than through instruction. His enthusiasm and competence meant that he infected young female teachers with the same possibilities, and they wrote to him about their successes. By the time he retired in 1967, there were few places in Sydney or the bush where he did not have a disciple. His greatest disappointment came when it was decided that learning through play did not sit comfortably with things like the curriculum and the syllabus. If Cuisenaire rods were any good, that would be shown through test results — an understandable perspective that entirely missed the point.

Throughout these years I visited my father regularly, and regaled him with what I was doing, where that bore on mathematics. And it regularly did. My honours and masters degree theses involved what today we would call data analysis, pretty simple stuff, from the vantage point of 2017, but unusual in their day for someone trained in history and moving into political science. I had been taught elementary statistics in psychology in my first year at university, but what I was dealing with now were large numbers — entire election results, and at every level, nation, state, region, electorate, sub-division, polling place. I could see patterns there, I said, explaining my interest, and asked him for advice. ‘You’ll work it out for yourself,’ he said, and I did.

One of the things I had noticed in my work was that in politics people often equated ‘most’ with ‘all’. For example, ‘workers’ or ‘the working class’ voted Labor. It couldn’t be absolutely true, because something like three quarters of the workforce were employees. If they had all voted Labor that party would have been in power since Federation. So what did it mean? When I looked at what passed for data, it seemed that at best about two thirds of the working class voted Labor, however you defined the working class. I thought about it, and some of Dad’s common-sense approach to numbers came to me. If half the workers voted Labor, and the other half Liberal, that meant there was no connection between class and party at all. If all the workers voted Labor, that would mean class and party were the same thing. Where did ‘two-thirds’ fit in that scheme? Well, a good deal close to 50 per cent than 100 per cent. Once you saw politics that way, the narrowness of Australian election results in over a century became clearer. All this did not come to me in a flash, though today it just seems obvious. It came as a puzzle that needed to be solved. When I explained the issue at an academic conference I was not loudly applauded, for I was disturbing fondly-held beliefs, and that does not make you a hero. It still doesn’t.

Some years later, dealing now with several million bits of information in two national surveys for some 2000 people who had found themselves talking for an hour and a half or so, I had to learn how to construct a simultaneous equations model of forty years of national electoral activity that suggested strongly how Australia had become more and more ‘national’ in election outcomes.

At first I knew nothing about simultaneous equations, since they had not been part of what I had learned at school. But, like the bookie’s penciller Dad had once taught, I needed to know, and I needed to know quickly. It proved quite straightforward. By now it was routine for me to check my own work. Yes, it is best practice for any academic, for it is much less embarrassing to detect the flaws in your own work before it is published than to have others point them out when your article or book is in print. But some of my caution went back to that early advice from my father: ‘Go back and check! You’re bound to have made errors. Find them and fix them!’

Later again, I read a paper about the use of Markov chains, and saw at once a use for them in my own work. A Markov chain, named after its Russian inventor, is a way of making predictions about a future (or past) state from the information you have at a given moment. My interest was in how long it took for children to acquire the political leanings of their parents. Remember, the modern party system in Australia started in 1910, when almost all the votes and all the seats went to the Labor and Liberal parties. I had to learn about conditional probabilities, but then I could suggest that Australia by the late 1920s was most likely characterised by party loyalties passed on by about three quarters of the electorate. Again, the bookie’s penciller had showed the way.

I did not get to love mathematics in the way my father did, or in the style of my next brother, who is a professor of mathematical statistics. But I learned two great things from my father in this domain. One is the basic truth that mathematics is not hard if you have a good reason for wishing to employ it. The other is that checking your work is always important. The skilled trades have a phrase for it: ‘measure twice, cut once!’

Too many of us fear mathematics, probably because of the way we were taught in primary school. That is a great pity, because it is a most useful tool in everyday life, and it can be fun. Long live the teachers who teach it that way!


Join the discussion 47 Comments

  • Aert Driessen says:

    A delightful piece Don, thank you. With a little bit of tongue in cheek, I have 2 sons (as well as 2 daughters). The son who understood the concepts graduated maths/physics at ANU and is now an actuary. The other son found that numbers made more sense when preceded by a $ sign and he did accounting at UC and finished up a partner of PriceWaterhouseCoopers (I think that’s the way it’s spelt these days but it’s bad grammar as I see it). I always found Julius Sumner Miller a wonderful teacher in his short grabs called ‘Why is it so’. One that stayed in my mind was about a lady who, when the phone rang, asked herself if she should pour the milk before or after she took the call, considering she wanted it hot. Answer, she should pour the milk first, then answer because everything in the universe moves down a gradient (a slope) and the steeper the slope, the faster it moves (the greater the heat loss). Keep writing.

    • Aert Driessen says:

      Actually, the reverse makes more sense. The lady reduced the slope by adding the milk (ambient and coffee temperatures) and thus minimised heat loss.

      • bb says:

        She didn’t just use the microwave then? Just joshing I to had the original which was in a series of broadcasts from the ABC I think. It was easier understand then everything was black and white.

      • bb says:

        She didn’t just use the microwave then? Just joshing I too watched the original which was in a series of broadcasts from the ABC Summer science school? I think. It was easier understand then everything was black and white.

  • chrisl says:

    People sometimes seem to be scarred (and scared) of maths at a very early age, Which is a great pity because it is such an important concept to learn . Some people reading this would still get the heebie jeebies if you mention the words times tables ! In reality there are only about 8 difficult sums in the times tables where the difficult numbers intersect
    Maths should be drummed into kids at a very early age and all the social justice claptrap can come later
    There are only four things you need to know in life… Compound interest, opportunity cost,taxation is theft and be good to your mother, Three of the four involve maths!

  • Geena says:

    Hi Don, I just listened to this little reflective essay on RN. I remember using Cuisenaire rods in primary school during the 80s, and how disappointed I felt by them. It seemed to my younger self that I had just put in a whole year of effort only to be told that nobody uses that system of math in life. My 5yr old self felt betrayed…. It wasn’t until university that I rediscovered math because I became interested in programming. Programming felt safer because it was more like learning a language rather than doing ‘real math’. In my mind ‘real math’ was mental arithmetic, the kind where you stand mortified before your peers, and try to remember which direction all these seemingly out-of-control trains were travelling in, until either the teacher takes pity on you, and allows one of the mustard-keen boys to answer or you fake an acute medical condition.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Thanks, Don, for those great facts of life. I fully agree with ” mathematics is not hard if you have a good reason for wishing to employ it” because as a school drop-out I came to wish I had paid attention a little more when I got the desire to design stuff from ideas I had.

    But I had paid more attention in primary than secondary school and the maths, trade drawing and other things stuck in my head and proved a great foundation for what became necessary application 30 years later.

    Like the bookie’s penciller by that stage I mostly didn’t find it a problem and enjoyed it but being asked by the approving experts to explain things in greater detail and my failure to give the full mechanical properties for every aspect of design usually resulted in my plans being well covered in red ink. But I always managed to get them approved. Sometimes it took a long time which was frustrating when people were waiting but I found that by going ahead without approval that many of the problems solved themselves and I learnt more myself.

    I remember with one complicated design the London experts saying it had to be a certain way [which was plainly over built and weight was critical] and no experts could agree on the correct engineering spec so I just went ahead and built it to my spec and after 3 years I advised them to the effect that the machine had done 2,000 hours work and nothing had broken. They wrote back and said, “in that case we approve it”.

    Nanny wouldn’t allow that sort of maths today.

  • spangled drongo says:

    My own father was a civil engineer with the Qld Govt and often got the brainwave that a new road needed to be built somewhere in the bush. They had very strict budgets then so for the recce he would take my brother and me out of school for a week to help do the leg work for the assessment.

    In those days [’40s] the only instrument for this work was a theodolite plus a chain measurement and the whole process was a great exercise in mathematics. And good fun to boot.

    I still have that old theodolite. I still use it and It brings back great memories.

  • dlb says:

    Don, good to hear your voice behind the blog.

    I certainly agree a good maths teacher makes a big difference. Unfortunately I gave up on by first attempt at University due to bad maths results. This was partly due to having poor teachers at Senior level, one was brilliant but couldn’t teach, and the other didn’t have a strong grasp of the subject matter. After some life experience I discovered that I am a visual thinker and by drawing graphs to understand equations and statistical distributions I found out maths wasn’t too difficult and in-fact quite interesting. Needless to say returning to Uni as a mature student maths and stats were no problems to me.
    My sister started school with Cuisenaire rods which turned out to be a disaster. A combination of being sent to school a year too early and her having a creative mind led her to build houses with the coloured pieces of wood, not understanding their numerical significance. I think many students just don’t “get” maths until a few years into their schooling, up to then they would be better off rote learning tables, but hopefully in a fun way.

  • margaret says:

    Was it Nature or Nurture at play there?

    • margaret says:

      That was in reference to the essay itself, not any comment.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      A good question. Of course I have tried to work out how much of me comes from my parents genetically and how much from various cultures. My handwriting is very like my mother’s, but I didn’t see much of hers until I’d left home, and saw her handwriting in letters. She had a facility with languages, and so do I, to a lesser degree. She had perfect pitch, and I have something close to it. In these respects I seem to have inherited something. She was a good pianist and singer, and I am competent in both, and interested as well. My next brother takes much more after our father.

      There was a family culture that I’ve imbibed, too. My father shared all the housework with Mum, and I’ve always done the same. He showed me by example that if you want more money, you just work for it. He never gambled, and nor do I. Indeed, I’ve never even been to a race course. Our extended family has strong feeling of shared responsibility for each other, and that came from my grandparents, as well as my parents, who took in my mother’s mother for the last few years of her life. That was what you do. My parents recycled everything and were self-sufficient. I still do a lot of what they used to do though now it hardly seems necessary, since there is municipal recycling. They had a compost heap. I have a worm farm — our place is too small to allow a compost heap. And so on.

      As I said in my last comment on the Pease book, much of it is a great mixture.

  • j.arimathea says:

    “There’s nothing to maths if you really need it.” I agree! In my undergraduate years in science I endured courses in statistical analysis, which I found arid and boring, although I did well enough in exams. It was only later, in my Ph.D. years, when I had my own data to analyse and a practical and intellectual reason to make sense of sometimes messy data, that I came to be an enthusiast. The excitement in seeing patterns emerge stays with me now more than 40 years later.

  • David says:

    Don two comments.

    Given that older Australians bang on relentlessly about the 3Rs not being taught to today’s students I was surprised that you went through high school without being exposed to simultaneous equations.

    I could not quite understand did you drop maths all together at the beginning of Year 9 or were simultaneous equations not taught in single level maths. In Canberra during the 1970s we were exposed to them by year 10 possibly Year 9. ??

    Your comment about female primary school teachers not being confident to explain maths, is highly questionable. My own experience was good female teachers of maths at primary school and high school.

    • JimboR says:

      “In Canberra during the 1970s we were exposed to them by year 10 possibly Year 9. ??”

      Same here in Qld. I can remember who taught them to me, and I only had that teacher in those two years. High school here was just 5 years (year 8 through 12) right up until 2015. I think simultaneous equations had to be taught before the two senior years because subjects as diverse as Physics and Economics relied on them pretty much from day 1. What’s really surprising is that Don managed to get a degree in Economics without being exposed to them. I recall them showing up in pretty much the first class of year 11 Economics on supply and demand and resource optimisation.

      “Given that older Australians bang on relentlessly about the 3Rs not being taught to today’s students…”

      Don’t get me started on that whole “back to basics” argument. It starts from a perfectly reasonable position that the system is failing kids if they pass through it without acquiring basic arithmetic skills, and then invariably morphs into some bizarre anti-expert rant, paraphrased as: “Why are we teaching kids abstract algebra if they can’t add up? I never did any of that fancy stuff, but I can check my restaurant bill, and I turned out fine”. It’s a bogus argument. The kids that are studying abstract algebra in year 12 are generally pretty good at arithmetic, and they’re smart enough to decide what to do in their heads and when to reach for a calculator.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        What is surprising is that you believe I have an Economics degree. I don’t and never said I had one. I did Economics I and Economic History as an undergraduate, learned some agricultural economics in my graduate work, and acquired other bits of economics as I needed them later.

        I don’t know you who think ‘bangs on’ about the 3Rs not being taught to today’s undergraduates. I’m certainly not one of them. In fact, I find today’s young people better educated in a wider range of subjects than was the case for my peer group in the early 1950s.

      • JimboR says:

        Sorry, my bad. So you studied Economics at tertiary level, but not enough to be exposed to simultaneous equations. You also studied Economic History. Perhaps you at least learnt there when economists started using simultaneous equations for the basics like supply and demand, marginal utility etc, even if you weren’t exposed to them yourself? I first saw them in that context in year 11 high school Economics, but admittedly that was some decades after you were at uni

      • bryan roberts says:

        My school in Sydney was teaching them, though not under that name, in the mid-fifties.

        “they’re smart enough to decide what to do in their heads and when to reach for a calculator.”

        Yeah, well, on a trip through the SW of WA a few years ago, I stopped at a corner store to buy a drink and a couple of chocolate bars. I was served by an adolescent male, who carefully entered the figures into his calculator, and came up with an answer that I knew was wrong. He did it again, and again was wrong. After a third attempt (again wrong) I paid the lesser bill, and escaped.

        “Don’t get me started on that whole “back to basics” argument”

        Well, university entrants can’t write even ordinary English, and youngsters in business can’t add up. Can you imagine the chaos if a supermarket checkout computer failed without a ‘senior’ in the queue? Dozens of ‘smart’ phones all giving different answers.

      • JimboR says:

        I can only conclude that simultaneous equations were like kerbs and gutters, they arrived late in New England, both in high school and uni. On the upside, Armidale was one of the first cities to score the NBN.

        Bryan, I think you mis-read what I wrote. I’m not for a minute suggesting all students pop out of our education system with the arithmetic and/or calculator skills needed for life, but I’ll give you good odds that your WA corner store assistant didn’t elect to study Maths C , 4 Unit Maths, or whatever the WA equivalent is.

        “Can you imagine the chaos if a supermarket checkout computer failed without a ‘senior’ in the queue?”

        I also have to conclude that either your supermarket is a lot more quaint than mine, or your memory a lot better than mine. If I got to the checkout with a trolley full of goods only to discover a computer failure, I wouldn’t get to demonstrate my arithmetic skills because I wouldn’t know any of the prices.

        • bryan roberts says:

          “I wouldn’t know any of the prices”

          Point taken, but all the women in the queue could recite them from memory.

  • Don Aitkin says:


    First of all, I entered and left high school when secondary schooling occupied five years not six. Most kids left at the end of Third Year, and a small cohort went on the Fourth and Fifth Year, now specialising. I did General Maths, which did not include simultaneous equations.

    I’m glad you had good primary teachers, as did I, though mine were all men after Third Class. The best teacher I ever had was a woman, teaching maths in my Second and Third Years at high school. My father taught hundreds of teachers maths method, and studied the teaching styles of hundreds more. What I wrote was his considered opinion. I do not think your sole experience counts for much against his decade and a half of supervision across the state.

    • David says:

      That’s fine. I am sure you had a good education. But your generation does bang on about the 3Rs, quite a lot, for a cohort that was not exposed to simultaneous equations.

    • David says:

      I can think of three good female maths teachers I had and you have provide another example of a good female maths teacher. So on what basis do you or your father conclude that female teachers put students off because they can’t understand maths?

      As is often the case, with you, it’s an evidence free conclusion.

  • JimboR says:

    “I have many times wondered what would have happened if I had done what my brothers did — double maths, physics and chemistry.”

    Me too. My guess is you would have excelled at them, and as a result your perspective on climate science would be very different. I’ve lost count of how many papers you’ve rejected with a casual “unconvincing” while happily admitting you don’t understand the maths used in the paper. It seems in later life you’ve lost the curiosity of the bookie’s penciller, or more likely, you don’t have the spare time to do the research required. The research required is significant, simply cutting and pasting stuff from dubious websites is not it. You’ll know when you’re doing it right because you’ll get that same feeling you get when you attempt to master a new instrument, or a new language… that feeling of rusty un-oiled cogs slowing starting to come to life. Do it for more than an hour and you’re probably going to need a break. Anything less is just finding dubious material that reinforces your existing world view, and on the topic of climate science there’s a lot of well-funded misinformation out there masquerading as science.

    I can relate as I too don’t have the time to fully study the details of every paper that comes my way. But I would never be so bold as to reject a paper without first finding that time, and ensuring I know at least as much about the topic as the authors. Until I find that time, I err on the side of assuming that

    1. their parents probably gave them the same advice you got from yours (and I got from mine): “checking your work is always important”

    2. there are many other researchers expert in the field also checking their work.

    Somewhere along the line (perhaps your time at ARC?) you appear to have developed a deep mistrust of science and expertise. I think that’s a great shame.

    • David says:

      Good post.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Nearly everything in your comment seems addle-pated to me. Just a couple of objections.

      Jimbo: ‘I’ve lost count of how many papers you’ve rejected with a casual “unconvincing” while happily admitting you don’t understand the maths used in the paper.’

      If you could show me an example of just one such paper I would be prepared to argue about it. I don’t there is one. If I don’t understand the maths, and I think it is important, I ask someone who does understand. The reasons that papers are unconvincing varies, but that I don’t understand the maths is never one of them.

      Jimbo: ‘climate science there’s a lot of well-funded misinformation out there masquerading as science.’

      There is indeed, and I write about the worst examples from time to time. If you think that there is a well-funded sceptical campaign you need to be able to show how much is involved, who provides it and to whom it goes. I’ve never seen a penny of it in the last decade.

      Jimbo: ‘ I would never be so bold as to reject a paper without first finding that time, and ensuring I know at least as much about the topic as the authors.’

      Alas, that just abut cuts you out of being any kind of critic, for good or ill. It is possible, with respect to any paper, to raise questions about data, logic, argument, assumptions and so on.

      Jimbo: ‘dubious websites’.

      I’m not aware of any, but I think they are the websites that you disapprove of. I rely on websites mostly to provide me with links to other writings, not for their opinion. I have my own.

    • JimboR says:

      Don, I think you have a 100% rejection rate on any published scientific paper supporting AGW that gets referenced here. I can’t remember a single instance of someone posting such a link here and you responding with “great paper thanks, it’s changed the way I view this”. What are the chances of that happening in any other scientific field in which you have an interest but lack formal training?

      I think all your musings on this topic can ultimately be summed up with two easy statements:

      1. I reject all mainstream climate science because of the scarcity of early SST data
      2. researchers at the BOM deliberately manipulate data to show warming where it doesn’t exist.

      On the other side of the coin, just about anything you tred in out there in the internet garden gets traipsed into your essays without so much as a quick foot wipe at the door mat. Most of it is too silly to even comment on, but when we do we invariably get back variations of:
      . take it up with the author if you don’t like
      . I copied it in good faith
      . I don’t have time to check everything

      I don’t track from which sites you source your dubious material, and it’s certainly not my job to approve or disapprove of your web surfing habits; those duties fall to George Brandis. I simply judge you on the quality of the stuff you choose to paste into your essays on this topic, and for the most part I think “dubious” is being generous. You are what you cut-n-paste.

      • Don Aitkin says:


        I think we should agree to disagree about what I write. I don’t recognise much in what you say about me. And there are so many assumptions in what you say. Let me just respond to a couple of points here.

        Jimbo: ‘I think you have a 100% rejection rate on any published scientific paper supporting AGW that gets referenced here.’

        The reasons are straightforward. They are usually deficient in argument and data, and they are hopelessly over-blown by the PR people. I criticise them because they are said to be important, ‘to debunk’ something or somebody. I usually pick on the famous ones. And when I do, your response is to find a sideshow, and want me to explain something else. You don’t defend the papers, or show how I am wrong.

        You seem to me to assume that if there is a graph or a table, the data in it justify the point being made. You seem to have no difficulties with data at all. I was trained to be highly suspicious of data, and to check its origin. When I do that, you object. When I explain why, you find something else to talk about.

        If you think what I write is too silly to comment on, for heaven’s sake don’t comment. Find something else to do.

        Increasingly, I find that responding to you is a waste of time. You have a fixed position. I question. Let us agree that we should ignore each other.

        • JimboR says:

          Don, I would characterise our exchanges differently. Regardless of what issues I raise with your musings you ultimately land on “but the SST data is shocking” although you often don’t play that card until you’ve explored many other futile paths.

          “Increasingly, I find that responding to you is a waste of time. You have a fixed position. I question. ”


          “Let us agree that we should ignore each other.”

          99% of your stuff I do just let go through to the keeper, but some of it is just too grievous to let pass. I don’t critique your work in the hope of changing your mind, I doubt that’s happened in 20 years. But there is a risk that some folk might actually believe some of this stuff, so I figure a counterpoint can’t hurt.

          • spangled drongo says:

            Jimb, many of us here find that Don’s writings are well supported by evidence.

            If, for instance, you find that “SST data” is supportable by good evidence and that Don is wrong, all you have to do is supply that evidence.

            A counterpoint without evidence is just blither.

          • Don Aitkin says:


            By all means ‘critique’. But I suggest you lift your game a little (actually, a lot) if you want your critique to matter. I looked quickly at your last fifty comments. A quick judgment puts 18 of them as engagements that are at least useful. You were at your best about the Capetown station measurements, where you actually knew something and could argue it well (at my expense, but you were on the right track, and I had accepted too easily what the original article had put forward).

            The rest of them were put-downs (not only of me, but of other commenters as well) without material of any consequence, or with none at all.

            And not once did you show how a scientific paper I had criticised was actually a valid one, or how my argument was invalid. What you say is that either (a) you believe what is there because it comes from what you see as a reputable source/journal, or (b) that if I take that line I must believe in creationism/fairies/the green cheese nature of the moon — they are imagined examples, but they show the way.

            So fire away, by all means. As SD says, if you think that certain data, like SST, are good, then argue it, and show why. Don’t just assert it, and point to peer review, reputation, consensus and the like. It cuts no mustard with me.

          • JimboR says:

            Don, I stand by my comments here (apart from trivial errors like accusing you of having an degree in Economics… I happily retracted that once you pointed out my error).

            You on the other hand tend to crab-walk away from your comments on an almost weekly basis. I still can’t work out whether or not you think climate researchers at the BOM set about to hide fake warming in their homongenisation algorithms. Your position on that seems to depend on who you think might be listening.

          • spangled drongo says:

            Jimb still stands by his evidence-free blither.

            But don’t feel lonely, jimb, you’re all part of the science-free consensus.

            And as Einstein said: “genius abhors consensus because when consensus is reached, thinking stops.”

            Which seems about right in your case.

          • Gary C says:


            I’ve been following your comments for some time now and agree with what you’re saying.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            ‘ I still can’t work out whether or not you think climate researchers at the BOM set about to hide fake warming in their homongenisation algorithms. Your position on that seems to depend on who you think might be listening.’

            My last on all this. The words at the centre of this passage are not mine. They’re yours. But you use them to set up a straw man and knock it over, in a typical Jimbo putdown.

            Now I don’t know who does what in the climate part of the BoM. What seems clear to me that the major statements made about ‘climate change’ when put out by the BoM are much stronger than the data. Now who does this? Well senior management must approve it. Do they think the present/past Government wants this stuff? Do they think they’ve said this in the past so they ought to say it again? I don’t know. But I do know that there is a tendency for those in charge of government agencies to put forward their stuff with the sort of spin their political masters would like to see. You have to be very strong not to do so, and I do know secretaries who have not done it, but not many of them. Their position is stronger if what they do is supported by legislation. They tend not to last long if they go on doing it.

            Stand by your comments by all means. There aren’t many of them that have much substance.

          • spangled drongo says:

            You consensuals should start a political party.

            Oh, hold on…..

          • JimboR says:

            Don, crab-walk as much as you like, but these are your words:

            “What NOAA and NASA have done in the past was not surprising, anymore than BoM’s finding a warming trend by choosing the sites that report it, and homogenising past data likewise.”

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Yep. My words. Senior management has to be responsible. Which staff members did what and when is beyond me.

          • JimboR says:

            Well if they’ve baked a warming Trojan into the homogenisation source code it’s hard to believe senior management could do that alone, they generally don’t have the skill set. To design a patch that looks like a benign fix to some other issue while introducing a warming Trojan that passes the normal code review process, takes some pretty good hacking skills (or all the code reviewers are in on it too). And that python source code is available to the public, so any of us free to search for the Trojan ourselves.

            Now I know you’re not explicitly claiming that’s how they did it, but if they did do it that way would you consider that a conspiracy, or would you consider that to be well within the realm of normal government department operations providing the minister with the trend he was looking for?

      • JMO says:

        Jimbo R
        “2. researchers at the BOM deliberately manipulate data to show warming where it doesn’t exist”.

        Hmm, maybe, but BOM have shown they cool the past. Here is a recent examp[e:

        On January 18th 2013 the temperature in Canberra reached 41.7 C. “hottest day on record claimed BOM, Canberra Times, climate doomsters etc.

        True it was – for the record of the weather station at Canberra airport where it had only been there for a little over 4 years! The previous weather station was about 1 km away at Fairbahn airport – it had been there for decades – since 1930″s (I think) -it registered higher temperatures well in the 42sC many times. The previous weather station at Yarralumla also recorded even higher temperatures. Also a surveyor late 19th century recorded 129 F(approx 52C) near where Duntroon stands today.! can found out if people are interested.

        Fast forward to January 18 2017 highest record in Canberra according to BOM – 40.0C!!!

        Once again Jimbo R Hmm…

        • David says:


          The temperature record for Australia was Oodnadatta, South Australia 50.7 C (123.3 F) on the 2nd January, 1960. Your claim of 52 for Canberra would be an all time Australian record. Happy to look at any references you have. My guess is that he was using the thermometer to stir his tea.

  • bb says:

    Excellent Don and I enjoyed it. I was a very poor scholar mainly because of family circumstance. I left school at 14 but soon realised the value and tried to do my leaving certificate, a job and apprenticeship training all of the same time. I think the influence of family is hugely important.

  • Chris Warren says:


    Excluding comments from various blogs, what are your concerns over BoM reporting or data use?

    Does it really matter, given that satellite data is showing a strong greenhouse effect?

    • David says:


      Don’s stragety is find any excuse to reduce the time series to a sufficiently short period where he can then argue their are not sufficient data to determine a trend.

      See Don’s discussion on sea temperature data.
      It’s called switch and bait.

  • David says:

    “… So I went down the humanities path. I have many times wondered what would have happened if I had done what my brothers did — double maths, physics and chemistry.

    Maths is not a science. There is plenty of scope for maths in the humanities
    Think John Nash. He won a Nobel Prize for developing the maths for Game theory. That is a study of people and strategy. John Quiggin is in the humanities. He excelled in maths.

    Economics makes a heavy use of maths and so does psychology with all its “rats and stats”.
    Your brother is in the humanities. Look at the topics that he publishes, teaching etc. Those fancy multi-level statistical models he uses were developed by mathematicians working in the humanities.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Dear Heaven. Read the essay again. I had to make a choice. The choice was History or (Pure) Maths. I couldn’t do Applied Maths unless I did Pure…

      Why are you the authority on this distinction anyway? If you search you’ll find arguments for Mathematics being sui generis, neither an art or a science, anda tool for both. Of course there is scope for Mathematics in the humanities. This is the kind of footling and futile comment that is so characteristic of you. You must have been a delight to teach!

  • […] Chris asked me, in a comment at my last essay, what are your concerns over BoM reporting or data use? I had intended to write […]

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