Orwell Explains Simon Singh (And Other Intellectual Bankruptcies)
It’s been a source of constant surprise the fact that Simon Singh, “a British author who has specialised in writing about mathematical and scientific topics in an accessible manner” would be willing to tell Wired wholly antiscientific statements such as in response to a question “How are we supposed to know what’s true?“:
Don’t come up with a view, find everybody who agrees with it, and then say, “Look at this, I must be right.” Start off by saying, “Who do I trust?” On global warming, for example, I happen to trust climate experts, world academies of science, Nobel laureates, and certain science journalists. You have to decide who you trust before you decide what to believe.
Throwing oneself into the hands of the experts? That’s a total abdication from reason, an open-armed welcome to complete foolishness as a tool for scientific debate, and a justification for chiropractors if they had any working brain cell left. It’s the “death of knowledge“, as pointed out by Karl Popper in “The Myth of Framework” (already mentioned here by Nicholas Hallam Mar 31, 2011 at 2:43 PM):
[…] in my view, the appeal to the authority of experts should be neither excused nor defended. It should, on the contrary, be recognized for what it is – an intellectual fashion – and it should be attacked by a frank acknowledgement of how little we know, and how much that little is due to people who have worked in many fields at the same time. And it should also be attacked by the recognition that the orthodoxy produced by intellectual fashions, specialization, and the appeal to authorities is the death of knowledge, and that the growth of knowledge depends entirely upon disagreement
Simon Singh’s presentation was memorable, but unfortunately mostly for the wrong reasons. He set up what he called a credibility spectrum, with scientists and academies on one side and sceptics on the other and called on us to trust the establishment on the climate change issue. His whole presentation, while outstanding in terms of slick delivery, was an intellectual void, amounting to little more than ten minutes of argument from authority, a point later made by Graham Stringer. It struck me as a little ambitious to even try this sort of fallacious approach to an audience that was likely to be both hostile and well informed on climate science itself. As catcalls of “what about the hockey stick?” rang out, it was clear that many people knew exactly what has been happening. Asking these same people to trust the word of the scientists struck me as a foolish mistake.
It’s a point made also by Fraser Nelson:
the argument “trust the experts” is becoming less persuasive as the information revolution progresses. Hierarchies are being flattened in every walk of life, and this includes intellectual hierarchies. As Mark Penn says, elites are more impressionable than the masses — so more likely to be persuaded by a scientific consensus. The public want to be persuaded, not told that they should believe the Clever People.
Fraser goes on to describe Singh’s foolishness number two, the complete misunderstanding of the debating point:
Simon Singh […] seems to be anxious to have a ding-dong with someone who doesn’t think the planet is warming and that mankind is, at least in part, responsible. I’m afraid I can’t help. My problem is with the political response to the science.
As for foolishness number 3, well, nothing better than having Singh write a web article about global warming showing zero-to-nothing knowledge of the topic beyond a quick reading of the IPCC and an insane trusting of Skeptical Science.
It’s a catalogue of offenses against thoughthood (sadly, same applies to others who should know better, such as Phil Plait and Bill Nye), a completely irrational behaviour that had been left unexplained. Until now. Note in fact how during the debate, Singh had some sort of slip of the tongue, saying that “the smart money was in Global Warming“, fully justifying James Delingpole’s rebuttal:
Unless Singh can raise his game and actually engage with the argument rather than bullying his opponents with the help of Sleb Twitter pals and his Ipse Dixit logical fallacies, I think we all know who the real muppet is.
However, if we look at it from a different point of view, it had all been described by George Orwell in “James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution” (my emphasis – there’s more to it but I’ll leave that to a different blog):
Power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. […] Within the space of five years Burnham foretold the domination of Russia by Germany and of Germany by Russia. In each case he was obeying the same instinct: the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible.
There we have poor Simon Singh then, simply continuing an established tradition among intellectuals. He believes that the pro-AGW lobby is winning, that the IPCC and the Skeptical Science’s of this world are where the “smart money” is: therefore, he “decides” to “trust” them, “decides” to “believe” in them (note the mixing up of science and faith), even roam the world to proclaim his servile, antiscientific, unreasonable stance on the topic.
Just wait until the climate wind changes then, and in 2021 Singh will be out presenting a new book on “Why people wrongly believed in catastrophic climate change“.