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Matt Ridley is a Biased Hypocrite

August 8th, 2012

In the past I would have called him a “stupid smart person,” but I’m moving away from that term, I think, as it’s too prejudicial, in favor of being more specific.

Ridley is primarily a writer doing various sorts of science journalism, and definitely a smart guy, but also something of a provocateur.  Controversy brings attention…and book sales.  Wonder if that could bias a person?

Now, he’s generally covered biological and social topics, areas in which there are strong biases and things can be very complicated to definitively pin down.  But he’s started taking unfair and biased potshots at science as an institution, something which probably plays well with readers of his essays in the Wall Street Journal.  Here’s the opening paragraph of a recent example:

Scientists, it’s said, behave more like lawyers than philosophers. They do not so much test their theories as prosecute their cases, seeking supportive evidence and ignoring data that do not fit-a failing known as confirmation bias. They then accuse their opponents of doing the same thing. This is what makes debates over nature and nurture, dietary fat and climate change so polarized.

He goes on to say that sometimes the “because the prosecutor is biased in favor of his case does not mean the defendant is innocent.”  So the scientists are always biased but sometimes right anyway, as if the methodologies of science don’t matter.

This guy is just a biased hypocrite when it comes down to it, falling into the fallacy many social scientists have fallen into: science is conducted by humans, subject to human biases, and operates independently (or nearly so) of evidence and reality.

Scientific thinking is not like legal thinking and scientists are not like lawyers arguing their case, it’s said.  By me and and every day by millions of scientists publishing peer-reviewed journals and issuing errata (correcting their mistakes publicly) and sending critical comments to their co-authors  I live this experience every day and we are hard critics of ourselves, usually more eager to get to the right answer than to be right, at least in the vast majority of my own experience.  Ridley uses his “it’s said” to justify his position, but by whom?  Him?  His anti-science sociology buddies?  He’s making up a position and not justifying it.  That’s suffering from confirmation bias that he’s claiming others have, but doesn’t seem to question himself.

Let me be specific and rip him the new one he deserves.  It’s really shocking how ridiculously biased he is supporting his thesis that scientists and entire fields of science are biased.  Let’s see…his latest blog series on confirmation bias among scientists starts with:

There’s a myth out there that has gained the status of a cliché: that scientists love proving themselves wrong, that the first thing they do after constructing a hypothesis is to try to falsify it. Professors tell students that this is the essence of science.

Yet most scientists behave very differently in practice. They not only become strongly attached to their own theories; they perpetually look for evidence that supports rather than challenges their theories. Like defense attorneys building a case, they collect confirming evidence.

Again, like a biased lawyer, he’s building a case against scientists.  He seems pretty biased against science.  I’d be the first to agree that scientists are humans subject to bias, but as a group and institution they work more like the entire court rather than lawyers. We might have some biased lawyers with their own positions to advocate, but we also have scientists as the jury and judge, weighing the arguments, but not to “a reasonable doubt” but significance levels measured mathematically by people who understand quantitative analysis.

Ridley’s starting off saying that my daily experience is mythological, and that “most scientists” (which means more than a majority, maybe 80%+ to me) are not trying to falsify their hypothesis, that they only collect confirming evidence.  Is he going to justify his condemnation of an entire enterprise that has led to quantitative understanding of gravity, put men on the moon, and allowed him to spread his biased message to the masses in an instant?  In the peer-reviewed pages of the Wall Street Journal?  Of course not…he’s making an argument like a lawyer, not actually trying to do the science he does not seem to respect.  And I’ll demonstrate it.

Ridley’s final essay in his “confirmation bias” series is about climatologists and their failure to be objective, how they’re biased to see CO2 as the cause of global warming.  He seems ignorant of the fact that before the turn of the 19th century, scientists had recognized both the greenhouse effect of CO2 and predicted that man-made contributions could cause warming.  Call that the hypothesis with a clearly falsifiable prediction.

Let’s see his own words:

For constructive critics, this is the problem with modern climate science. They don’t think it’s a conspiracy theory, but a monopoly that clings to one hypothesis (that carbon dioxide will cause dangerous global warming) and brooks less and less dissent. Again and again, climate skeptics are told they should respect the consensus, an admonition wholly against the tradition of science.

Last month saw two media announcements of preliminary new papers on climate. One, by a team led by physicist Richard Muller of the University of California, Berkeley, concluded “the carbon dioxide curve gives a better match than anything else we’ve tried” for the (modest) 0.8 Celsius-degree rise in global average temperatures over land during the past half-century-less, if ocean is included. He may be right, but such curve-fitting reasoning is an example of confirmation bias. The other, by a team led by the meteorologist Anthony Watts, a skeptical gadfly, confirmed its view that the Muller team’s numbers are too high-because “reported 1979-2008 U.S. temperature trends are spuriously doubled” by bad thermometer siting and unjustified “adjustments.”

Less and less dissent is warranted given the data and the studies.  More and more dissent would be occurring if there were serious competing hypothesis that weren’t failing experimental tests (e.g. one that has).  But let me get at the heart of Matt Ridley’s idiocy:

Richard Muller was a climate change skeptic funded by Koch Industries who thought the climatologists were biased and thought he could show it!  He was biased against the C02 explanation.  Fitting curves for many different models and saying which one or ones may have explanatory power isn’t being biased!  That’s doing good science!  Pointing out a skeptic with confirmation bias against his result, who agrees with climatologists, is evidence that the climatologists may have reached their conclusions fairly and doesn’t at all support Ridley’s thesis unless he mistakenly assumed Muller was a pro-C02 biased climatologist.

Dude was a skeptical physicist.  Now he thinks the climatologists were doing good science after all and not just confirming their own biases.  Great example.

And Anthony Watts is a meteorologist and not a climate scientist.  “Skeptical gadlfy” is a Wall Street Journal friendly term for obtuse denier.  The guy said he was prepared to accept Muller’s work, given his anti-C02 bias, until he didn’t get the answer Watts wanted to hear.  He’s been paid by the Heartland Institute, a conservative organization with a political (not scientific) position to oppose climate science.  Paid shill, not a scientist.

Ridley is picking on the climate scientists as biased?  The ones who will get more fortune and fame if they can overturn the C02 paradigm?  Scientists have always sought to, and been rewarded by, making NEW discoveries, not by supporting the prevailing winds.  They’ve been castigated for believing crap in opposition to overwhelming evidence, however.

Where does Ridley get this stuff?  He’s not reading primary science.  He’s reading media releases with very little understanding and heaps of bias, picking out fringe players who do not represent “most scientists.”

The essay devolves into amateur high school work that might deserve the grade of a C from a pro-Ridley biased teacher.  He goes on to quote anti-science biased Michael Crichton, non-scientist with only the credentials of a science fiction writer (and I know what those are worth):

The late novelist Michael Crichton, in his prescient 2003 lecture criticizing climate research, said: “To an outsider, the most significant innovation in the global-warming controversy is the overt reliance that is being placed on models…. No longer are models judged by how well they reproduce data from the real world-increasingly, models provide the data. As if they were themselves a reality.”

Crichton, with another anti-science book to promote, handpicked by biased politicians to whistle blow on a field he isn’t part of and failed to get right.  Wow, convincing, Ridley!  You’re hand-picking a very biased non-expert to support your position.  I guess you think that’s what everyone does, so you’ll do it, too, and not see the irony?

It gets better.  To support his biased belief that scientists fall in line and support the status quo, he doesn’t quote any scientific studies.  They could be biased, so opinion from an anonymous individual on the internet is just as good:

As one practicing scientist wrote anonymously to a blog in 2009: “honestly, if you know anything about my generation, we will do or say whatever it is we think we’re supposed to do or say. There is no conspiracy, just a slightly cozy, unthinking myopia. Don’t rock the boat.”

I’d be embarrassed if that anonymous scientist was one of my students.  I’d set them on the right path or fail them.  And I’d be more embarrassed if one of my students quoted an anonymous blog comment featuring a colossal  and unsupportable generalization to support their point.  Jesus Christ that’s weak!

What Matt Ridley doesn’t get is that the institution of science is different from individual scientists.  While he fails to make the case that “most” scientists operate like lawyers, he also fails to see the institutions of science that correct the mistakes from bias over time.  He just gives credit to the rival lawyer, without crediting the system that makes this possible and how it differs from the court system.  The goal is not to win, from the system’s perspective, or to close the books on a case.  It’s to get the right answer.  It isn’t just a bunch of squabbling people.  He seems to want to make his readers discount scientific expertise, and expertise in general, and to be able to dismiss the findings of science when it’s convenient to do so.

What I do get about Matt Ridley from his final essay in his confirmation bias series is that he lacks the expertise and acumen to evaluate science and his own personal biases.

Still, there’s a chance he’s actually ironically brilliant and wrote a badly biased essay as a joke to himself, to see if anyone else would laugh.  That might make his a smart stupid smart person…but I doubt it.  He’s just a weak, biased thinker failing to make full use of his own reasoning.  A shame.

There are things in his essays that betray his ignorance of climate science and science more generally, and the purpose of them does seem to be to enable the dismissal of science he doesn’t like because of his own biases.

OK, let’s call him a stupid smart person.  Maybe I need to keep the term active.  Just amazingly blind and stupid arguments here from someone falling into the own trap I think he’s (likely falsely) accusing others of.  In my personal experience, his general thesis is wrong, and his argument was unbelievably awful.  He could have done a better job just finding some cases of individual scientists who were clearly biased in spite of overwhelming scientific consensus against them (I know enough examples), but then he’d have to credit the general institution of science and admit it works.  His bias wouldn’t let him.

Addendum: Another similar criticism of Ridley fleshing out a point I only touched on.

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