THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain

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An inconvenient challenge

I am an arts and (though I shudder to associate Law with such "disciplines" as Sociology) social sciences man. My interests are literature, theatre and history. I love technology, but all I know about serious science is Professor Karl Popper's* explanation of the scientific method as the postulation of hypotheses followed by the performance of rigorous experiments to falsify them, resulting in provisional "truths".

One of the first bloggers I followed was A.W. Montford, known to me until recently only as Bishop Hill. Of late he has found a new audience on the topic of climate change. I have just finished his book The Hockey Stick Illusion. I feared it would be hard going but I was wrong. Despite some necessary (and thank goodness elegant) explanations of abstruse complexities, it is a page-turner. I commend it to you.

In reading it, I have acquired a new hero - a rare event at my time of life. Steve McIntyre has something in common with one of my other heroes, John Harrison. Both were derided by the closed ranks of the scientific establishment, largely on the basis of a snobbish reaction against an unqualified** "outsider." Harrison's inventions made the modern world possible. McIntyre's work (done for intellectual curiosity and at his own expense) may yet save it.

A prize-winning mathematician as a young man in Canada, McIntyre's family circumstances dictated a remunerative practical life as a mining engineer, rather than in academia. In retirement, he became interested in climate science, his gut instincts telling him that there was something wrong with a leaflet sent to every home in Canada in 2002 to promote the Kyoto Protocol. His reading led him to the work of Professor Michael E. Mann. Mann's paper, published in Nature on 23rd April 1998, strongly influenced the IPCC's and the world's politicians' view that anthropogenic global warming (AGW, or colloquially "climate change") was a potentially apocalyptic threat. A graph from that paper, showing the Earth's temperature as steady for centuries, with a sudden up-tick post-industrialisation, became the most influential image in selling AGW theory to the world. It (in its various forms over the years) is known as "the Hockey Stick" and its scientific supporters, clustered around Mann, are known as "the Hockey Team."

Many of you will have seen the graph behind Al Gore as he presented An Inconvenient Truth. You will certainly have seen it somewhere. It's burned onto our collective consciousness and it's in our childrens' school books. It's also based on flawed science and is pretty much discredited. Yet it continues to influence policy across the world, to the possible detriment of human civilisation.

Professor Mann is a poor scientist and a weak man, but not a bad person. He's sincere, as are the vast majority of proponents of the AGW hypothesis. He foresees catastrophic peril to humanity and is frustrated by those who doubt it and therefore impede (as he sees it) the necessary solutions. I am sure he was sincere in writing the original paper and in all his subsequent (sometimes dishonest) defences of it. I even believe, sadly, that he has been sincere in trashing his "opponents" and seeking to prevent their work from being published in the journals.

I imagine he feels such means are justified by a noble end. Sadly, that is how almost all corruption begins. One way to know you are going wrong in life is to catch yourself spinning data to serve your heartfelt objectives. His enemies point out that the paper and particularly the Hockey Stick propelled him from being a 33 year old unknown who had just completed his doctorate, to being one of the most influential scientists on Earth. He has certainly benefitted from it, but few men are evil enough to condemn billions to poverty for personal gain or glory. There are some such, no doubt, but I don't believe he is among them. It seems sadly clear however that for whatever (probably noble) reason, he has betrayed his calling as a man of science.

AGW proponents denounce sceptics as conspiracy theorists; ridiculing the straw man idea that so many distinguished scientists could be induced to conspire for political ends. I have never believed in such a conspiracy. I simply believe in the human weaknesses I see every day, not least in myself. Chief among these is pride. Exalt a man for a piece of work that proves flawed and his ego-involvement will lead him astray if he is anything less than a saint. He will defend it and call in every favour from his friends to do likewise. John Harrison's enemies were sincere too. Yes, their motives were mixed. They wanted the huge prize he had so clearly earned. They wanted to maintain their respected status against the rising fame of an interloper. But they were no cartoon villains and neither are the Hockey Team. Sadly, you don't need to be Dr. Evil to hold back the advance of civilisation. You just need to be misguided and proud.

That Mann is a scientific Salieri does not make McIntyre Mozart. He has exposed Mann's methodological errors, but he has never purported to attempt an alternative analysis. He has no more disproved AGW theory than Mann has "proved" it. The Bish's excellent book merely shows that the members of the Hockey Team are (as are we all) weak humans trapped in a mesh of pride. We should not allow our distaste for their perversion of science to divert us from seeking truth. That truth will take dangerously longer to establish provisionally because of their (and their supporting politicians') unscientific interference with honest attempts to test it.

* A nice moment of my life was Professor Popper's [grand-daughter][see correction in comments] (a friend of Ms Paine the Elder) spotting his books in my home and exclaiming that she had never seen copies before. But that's a story for another post.

** McIntyre, as a cursory glance at his Wikipedia biography will confirm, is far from the uneducated autodidact that Harrison was (and neither would he claim Harrison's status as a world-changing genius) but my point still stands.

France and Germany; enemies of knowledge / Technology - France to oppose Google book scheme.

Having lived in countries with weak enforcement of intellectual property rights I am by no means of the trendy "Pirate Party" persuasion. There's a reason you can't buy CD's or download MP3s of Russia's rock bands, to give a trivial example. It's because, thanks to widespread piracy, they don't make records. They can only make money from live concerts. That's a loss to us all; one of many such. Envy of the likes of Madonna (whose oeuvre apparently represents the most valuable IP asset on the planet) should not blind us. Ensuring that creative people benefit from their efforts is good for us all.

France and Germany's governments, however, are taking this too far. Google's project to digitise the world's libraries and make their content available online will, when realised, revolutionise intellectual life. It's potentially the biggest thing since Gutenberg. In the US, creative lawyers and judges have found a way to compensate authors still in copyright for their contributions without (such is the genius of the Common Law) any government involvement. Google is looking to find a way to do the same across the world.

Google does not always live up to its motto "do no evil". It cooperates with tyrannical regimes in censoring the internet for example (arguing it's better their populations have half a loaf). On this occasion, however, it is trying to be a benefactor. Imagine the ability to search all of world literature in the same way you can search the trivial burblings of bloggers!! If that doesn't move you, you are an idiot (or a French or German politician). But I repeat myself.

Remember Chirac's hamfisted efforts to create a state-owned French rival to Google because he couldn't bear the thought of the world's main online portal being American? I have no doubt from the tone of the French pronouncements on the subject that they are motivated by the same crude, envious anti-Americanism. These fools will one day be remembered as the 21st Century equivalents of the church officials who suppressed Galileo's writings.

The most brilliant of the Useful Idiots?

Link: Man Who Loved China, THE: Simon Winchester: Books.

One reason I have posted so little in recent days is that I have been lost in this splendid biography. Joseph Needham, Companion of Honour, Fellow of the Royal Society, Fellow of the British Academy and holder of the Chinese Order of the Brilliant Star was the sort of magnificent eccentric that England occasionally produces. He will be remembered for the Needham Question; for writing almost single-handedly the encyclopaedic 17-volume work Science and Civilisation in China and for the institute that bears his name at Cambridge University. In his day however he was rightly scorned as a Communist stooge (having led a scientific delegation which was fooled by Chinese and Russians intelligence agencies into believing America was dropping infected small mammals onto the enemy during the Korean War). As his biographer drily notes;

Needham was intellectually in love with communism; and yet communist spymasters and agents, it turned out, had pitilessly duped him

He was a nudist, a Morris Dancer, a pre-hippy proponent of free love and "open marriage" and an uncritical supporter of every left-wing cause. As Master of Gonville & Caius College, he once passed a note out of the window of his office to the '68ers "sitting-in" outside, in which he simply said that he agreed with all their aims. He was also a close friend of Zhou Enlai and an acquaintance and admirer of history's greatest mass-murderer, Mao Zedung. Politically, the man was a startling idiot - a total naif. Yet he was also an undoubted genius.

A biochemist by training, he became fascinated by China when he fell in love with his lifelong mistress Lu-Gwei-djen who shared a menage a trois with Needham and his wife and whom he married when the latter died. He learned to speak and write Chinese fluently, so that he was able to research his monumental work from the original sources. A visiting Russian academic, disturbing him at his labours, enquired if Needham knew who had translated one of his academic books into English. Only when he consulted the book, did Needham remember that he had done it himself when he was an undergraduate. He was perfectly capable of such feats in German, French, Greek, Italian and of course Chinese. The book is a sobering reminder that it is never safe to assume a man a fool in all respects because he is in one.

Needham may seem, from the above, to be hardly the sort of chap I might admire. And yet, having read this well-written biography by Simon Winchester, I most certainly do. To be fair, almost all of us are fools in some respects yet very few are as brilliant as Needham was in others. As the Royal Society wrote when he was made a Companion of Honour ("About time!" he is said to have remarked just out of the Queen's hearing at the ceremony);

Joseph Needham, CH, FRS, FBA ... one can count the number of living holders of those three titles on one finger of one hand

Winchester's account of Needham's tireless energy in almost completing a work which, in the end, he had to accept was too great for one man, puts the stresses of lesser mortals into context. His fluency in so many languages (not taxi/restaurant "fluency" but a grasp of a language so great as to permit serious study of its ancient texts) puts our faltering steps across language barriers in the shade. it is impossible not to admire such a man, however annoying one might have found him in person.

The Needham Question or Needham's Grand Question asks why China, which led the world in science for centuries, suddenly stopped inventing in about 1500. Up until that point, the country's intellectuals were (Needham estimated) averaging 15 major scientific discoveries a century. The first outline of his 17-volume masterpiece was simply a long list of Chinese innovations, most previously thought to have originated in the West. Needham explained the effect of Confucianism and Taoism in promoting scientific development, but could never explain why the effect stopped working to the extent that China was overtaken by a Europe where religion was much more inclined to impede science. Some say it is a stupid question. China's progress didn't stop; that of Europe simply speeded up. Others have sought to answer it in a variety of ways.

By 1500, China was secure and at peace, whereas Europe's warring statelets were in constant contention. Perhaps European technological advances were driven by military needs, rather as 20th Century space technology was driven by the Cold War? Others speculate that China's political stability was to blame. The brightest young people took the examinations that led them into the Imperial bureaucracy. Life as a mandarin was better than life as a scientist and thus the springs of creativity were dammed and diverted. †French Enarques might like to give that theory some thought.

Whatever the truth it is a fascinating question that needs an answer, for the good of all mankind. I am ashamed that I never heard of this man while he was alive. He died in 1995, which is not so long ago and so was still pottering around Cambridge when I lived there. He transformed the West's arrogant view of China as irretrievably poor and backward. He also explained China's arrogant attitude, even at her poorest and weakest, to the West; an attitude exemplified by Emperor Qianlong's observation to Lord Macartney, leading a British delegation in 1792;

We possess all things ... I have no use for your country's manufactures

Few men have changed Europe's view of history as much as this eccentric leftist naif. His life reminds us that no man's ability to contribute should be lightly dismissed, however mad he may seem in some respects! It should also remind us, by way of corollary, that no man's views on a given topic should be given more weight because of his undoubted brilliance in other fields. Those inclined to be influenced by the political or religious views of actors, singers and other celebrities - however talented - would do well to bear that in mind.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid

Link: The Reluctant Fundamentalist: Mohsin Hamid: Books.

FundamentalistMy wife recommended this book to me. There was a time I recommended books to her, but the other demands of my life have now made her my literary pathfinder. It has lain for some months on the "to read" pile that reproaches me nightly as I take to my bed. I picked it up today to take out to my solitary Sunday lunch (we are separated for some weeks by the renewed prickliness of the Russian authorities about renewing foreign residents' visas). I read it all with such relish that I cannot remember what I ate.

It has been a long time since a book so impressed me. The writing is sparse and melodic. There is a gentle, seductive rhythm to it. It is set in the present day. It is one side of the Pakistani narrator's conversation with an unknown American in a cafe in Lahore. The American's identity and intentions are unknown.

I will not spoil it for you  by revealing the story. I will only say I have never read better prose and that I am torn between admiration, respect and envy. This is an important book. Don't be put off by that. It gave me an insight that is not always easy for a Westerner of my ilk to find. Even if you only usually read non-fiction, or if your reading of fiction does not normally run to "literature", I commend it to you. The author's "voice" is beautifully distinctive and you will learn much that you will be wiser, safer and perhaps even better, for knowing.