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Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Conspiracy theories and experts

Some recent correspondence from people convinced that there was a great cover-up by the Scottish establishment, legal authorities and police on a child abuse case (I won’t give this particular story any more oxygen by naming it) and a discussion with a friend about climate change and man’s contribution to it led me to re-visit certain observations I made last July on this blog relevant to the 9/11 conspiracy theory, namely that Bush and the neocons masterminded the twin towers attack. I don’t intend to make my case against that particular piece of nonsense again. I am prepared to believe many things about Bush and his ilk, almost all of them bad, but not this one.

The whole Purcell Affair has all the makings of a conspiracy theory, and I am inclined to believe that there has been some suppression of facts and evidence on this one, if not a full-blown conspiracy.

Those who deny the contribution of man to climate change tend to cite the opinion of commentators described as experts. Some are experts, some are experts but not in the field of climate change - and some experts are patently grinding the axe of vested interests in the oil industry, and have sold themselves and their academic reputations for filthy lucre. The fact is, there is a massive near-consensus by internationally reputable scientific organisations on man’s contribution to climate change.

I quote below from an online analysis of the weight of this consensus.


Specifically, the "consensus" about anthropogenic climate change entails the following:

  • the climate is undergoing a pronounced warming trend beyond the range of natural variability;
  • the major cause of most of the observed warming is rising levels of the greenhouse gas CO2;
  • the rise in CO2 is the result of burning fossil fuels;
  • if CO2 continues to rise over the next century, the warming will continue; and
  • a climate change of the projected magnitude over this time frame represents potential danger to human welfare and the environment.

While theories and viewpoints in conflict with the above do exist, their proponents constitute a very small minority. If we require unanimity before being confident, well, we can't be sure the earth isn't hollow either.

This consensus is represented in the IPCC Third Assessment Report, Working Group 1 (TAR WG1), the most comprehensive compilation and summary of current climate research ever attempted, and arguably the most thoroughly peer reviewed scientific document in history. While this review was sponsored by the UN, the research it compiled and reviewed was not, and the scientists involved were independent and came from all over the world.

The conclusions reached in this document have been explicitly endorsed by ...

  • Academia Brasiliera de Ciências (Bazil)
  • Royal Society of Canada
  • Chinese Academy of Sciences
  • Academié des Sciences (France)
  • Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina (Germany)
  • Indian National Science Academy
  • Accademia dei Lincei (Italy)
  • Science Council of Japan
  • Russian Academy of Sciences
  • Royal Society (United Kingdom)
  • National Academy of Sciences (United States of America)
  • Australian Academy of Sciences
  • Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts
  • Caribbean Academy of Sciences
  • Indonesian Academy of Sciences
  • Royal Irish Academy
  • Academy of Sciences Malaysia
  • Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand
  • Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

In addition to these national academies, the following institutions specializing in climate, atmosphere, ocean, and/or earth sciences have endorsed or published the same conclusions as presented in the TAR report:

If this is not scientific consensus, what in the world would a consensus look like?

End  of quote


(Some of these observations are from the Moridura Blog July 2009)

Private Eye's phrase, used tongue in cheek by the magazine and by many contributors and letter writers - "I think we should be told ..." is the mantra of the conspiracy theorist.

I don't reject the possibility, or indeed the reality of establishment and government conspiracies, nor of the existence of agents provocateur.

However, I am unimpressed by the eminence of experts.

It was once observed that highly intelligent, eminent people become credulous just at the point ordinary people become sceptical. There were and are eminent scientists who believe, with Archbishop Ussher, that the world was created in 4004 BC and that the theory of evolution must therefore be wrong. There are those today who have not moved one iota beyond the Monkey Trial of the 1920s - the Scopes trial.

There was an excuse for Ussher and his chronology, and for his eminent contemporaries in the 17th century,(Kepler and Newton) who believed much the same. They lived in the very early scientific age, and Darwin had not yet been born.

There is no excuse for tiny number of eminent, well-qualified scientists today who believe in the Ussher chronology - they are in denial, locked in Orwell's doublethink, holding contradictory proposals in their mind at the same time. In Britain, in Blair's faith schools, we have science teachers who hold to this belief. We have entire schools endowed and financed by a rich entrepreneur who believes in the 4004 BC fiction.

Anyone can trot out a list of eminent persons to support their ideas, but a closer examination of the eminent persons themselves is usually necessary if they are in support of an idea that goes against the prevailing consensus. Nonetheless, throughout history, there were those who challenged the prevailing orthodoxy, who were bravely in the minority, and who regrettably often suffered from it. Galileo always pops up in such discussions.

But today, we have the Web, and the most outlandish theories flourish and conspiracy theories abound. The Web is now vital to democracy, to a free world, to the exposure of tyranny, oppression, greed and corruption, so we must tolerate this, and try to sort the wheat from the chaff, the considered arguments of the truth tellers from the ravings of the deluded.

I have no doubt that small to medium conspiracies to defeat the ends of justice and democracy happen every day in America - and in Britain. These have a good chance of success. Ask me to believe that the electorate of the great Western democracies are deceived and misled by their governments every day in many ways, and I will believe it.

But I use Occam's Razor, and tend to come down in favour of the fewest number of assumptions and pieces of evidence that fit the facts.

Of course, once in the conspiracy mindset - a closed logical loop - all evidence is examined selectively and all contrary evidence, including commonsense evidence is denied or ignored. Any loopholes are attributed to the conspiracy.

Arthur Conan Doyle, a doctor, a scientist, the inventor of the logical scientific detective, Sherlock Holmes, believed in the Cottingley Fairies, photographs of paper cutouts and a fantastic story concocted for a laugh by two little girls in the 1920s.

Any magician will tell you that the easiest people to fool are highly intelligent people, especially scientists. In my consultancy career, I dealt with some very highly qualified people indeed, including scientists, and had no difficulty baffling and confusing them with little exercises designed to illuminate particular learning points.

I had however great difficulty with classes of ordinary working men and women, notably shop stewards and union officials, who could spot the con a mile off.

I think a useful touchstone of belief is to ask if there are people whose political and social sympathies ought to be with the conspiracy theory, who nonetheless reject it.

For example, there are many in this category on the 9/11 tragedy.

Truth matters more to me than winning an argument. Faced with the baffling complexity of current affairs, politics and global events in this turbulent information age, how is one to sort the wheat from the chaff? Given that it takes formally constituted inquiries, staffed by experts and fully resourced by ancillary staff, to attempt to reach the truth on major issues how can an individual come to his or her own conclusions?

There has to be intelligent assessment of the available facts, but there also has to be a recognition of the limitations, of time, resources and expertise available to the individual. I could spend a large proportion of my time on any single contested issue, and if I engaged with every enthusiastic, and often dogmatic and intolerant proponent of every issue, I would sink beneath the mass of their totally confident assertions, aggressive parade of highly selective 'facts' and 'experts', and strident demands for responses to their view of an issue, or indeed of life in general.

I make no such demands of others, and I don't expect them to make such demands of me. I offer my opinions, supported by such facts and evidence as I can muster. No one is obliged to read them or take account of them, and since they didn't pay to consume them, they have no right to demand anything of me.

I will - and do - engage in civilised discussions of ideas with those who choose to initiate them, especially when it seems that they have an open inquiring mind. One does not have to seek far on the Web, in online debates, in online newspapers and forums, to find the other kind of debate. If that's what floats your boat, go to these sites.

My approach to controversy is to look around for those I trust, not just those I know personally, but those I know by reputation, by their deeds and by their utterances.

They are often people with ideas I am diametrically opposed to, and I number such people among my friends and intimates. I evaluate facts that I am equipped to evaluate, and look for experts or those with experience that I trust to help me in areas where I am not equipped to evaluate. I listen to advocacy and to honest devil's advocacy, and I engage in devil's advocacy with myself.

This process, developed over many decades, has led me to overturn beliefs that I held strongly for many years, often at some personal cost. I am capable of changing my mind in face of the facts. This is the only way I know. But when someone tries to browbeat me, I am instantly suspicious, as I am equally suspicious when someone tries to flatter me.

Ah didnae come up the Clyde oan a bike, Jimmy.

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