Generally Speaking

the biggest science scandal ever

The journalist Christopher Booker has a way of trumpeting his discovery of what turn out to be non-existent science scandals.  Here he is on February 7 this year:



This article, headed “The fiddling with temperature data is the biggest science scandal ever”, turned out to be a misleading account of perfectly proper adjustments to readings from outdated measuring equipment which Mr Booker mistakenly thought showed that scientists were tampering with the historical record and trying to deceive the world about the need for action over climate change. [Full explanation of his errors here].

Mr Booker is rather given to this kind of language. Six years ago he ran an article in the Sunday Telegraph with the eerily similar heading “This is the worst scientific scandal of our generation“. The full text of this article, dated 29 Nov 2009,  is still on the ST website  [here if you want it]

Christopher Booker in the Sunday TelegraphThat ‘worst scientific scandal of our generation‘ wasn’t a scandal either, although Booker wasn’t alone in trumpeting it and calling it by the ridiculous misnomer, Climategate. And in a curious coincidence of hyperbole (unless they were hand-in-glove) another journalist, James Delingpole, wrote an article in The Spectator the following week [here if you want it] referring to the same events as  ‘the greatest scientific scandal in the history of the world‘. Gosh!

Another curious coincidence was the timing: these journalists, and a few others, broke the news of this 2009 ‘scandal’ – based as it was on a perverse interpretation of a ten-year-old stolen email, selected from thousands and quoted out of context – just three weeks before the Copenhagen Climate Summit of that year. It was therefore perfectly timed to undermine the political will so essential to making that crucial conference a success. What is certain is that Climategate – later described by Professor Sir Paul Nurse (see below) as ‘the scandal that never was’, did indeed play a part in securing the limp outcome which was so bitterly disappointing to all but climate change deniers.

At least four independent enquiries subsequently exonerated Dr Phil Jones and the Climatology Department of the University of East Anglia of all the charges of dishonesty which had been levelled so viciously against them. But the clearest description I have found of what actually happened was contained in a BBC Horizon programme by Professor Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Nobel laureate. This programme is no longer available online but I prepared a transcript of some crucial sections at the time and posted them [here]. This extraordinary account makes it clear that Dr Phil Jones’ Department was the object of a coordinated campaign to undermine its authority as a world-leading centre for climatological research, and to undermine the credibility of the warnings it, and by implication climate science in general, was giving.

That 2009 campaign by Mr Booker and others of his persuasion was all too successful. The worry is now that they have their (short) sights on undermining the climate talks which are scheduled for this year. They must not be allowed to succeed this time – the world cannot afford another Copenhagen. You might even say that the concerted effort in which they have played a not-insignificant part – either as collaborators or, hopefully, as dupes – to deceive the world over the most serious existential threat mankind has ever faced, really is ‘the biggest science scandal ever’.

The ‘enlightened self-interest’ of using the local bookshop

Telephone kiosk

My definition of ‘enlightened self-interest’ is letting the other person out of the telephone kiosk so that you can get in. Some people think it is the only reason why anyone does anything that looks unselfish or altruistic. I think that is a gloomy view and I don’t share it. But just now I want to talk about  the question of buying books at full price in the local bookshop.  Rather than buying them more cheaply on the internet. And why that really is self-interest:

Because I like having a nice, bright bookshop, full of real, physical books that I can touch, right here in the High Street. And I like having real people there in that shop who love books and can talk about them, and who do other things like acting as box office for our amateur theatricals. And I like meeting other people in the shop and talking to them. Sometimes I like actually touching people, if you can cope with that level of candor. I think all this enriches my life and the life of the town. And although you can’t measure that kind of enrichment, I see it as beyond price, and I am absolutely prepared to pay for it.

‘Self-interest’, you see. And ‘enlightened’ because the benefit is a little way down the line and not immediately apparent.

I recently heard a young man describing the way he shops for books. What he does is browse along the display cases at Waterstones, or wherever he chooses to pop, using his iPhone to photograph the spines of the items that appeal to him. He then trots off home and uses some clever app to order the same items from a vast warehouse which treats its workers like slaves and doesn’t pay tax.

He didn’t put it exactly like that but that was the gist. He seemed to expect us to be impressed by the modest amount of money he saved in this canny way. He certainly wasn’t ashamed of his behaviour. Far from it. We were supposed to be impressed, and by the fact that the books would usually arrive by courier the next day. And indeed that is amazing.

But several things struck me as I listened: First, with a job in the city and the mortgage paid off on his London home, he was not the person of my acquaintance most conspicuously short of money. Nor did he seem to be the one who was physically least capable of carrying books. But more than this, he was obviously proud of his new shopping pattern and saw it as not only thoroughly modern but also symptomatic of his prudence with his money. And this chap, let me make it quite clear, was one of the nicest and most personable people you could hope to meet. Kind to animals and small children I know for a fact. Probably concerned about bees.

But it’s a mystery to me that anyone can live like this. It must be obvious to them that bookshops in the high street will not exist in future if people in general start to behave in the same way. Perhaps they think that isn’t their worry. That it isn’t their responsibility. That it’s the future and it’s happening anyway and they’d be silly not to take advantage of what is likely to be a fleeting opportunity.

Well, I think we’ve got to fight for bookshops, and quite a lot of other enrichments of life of a similar order. Things whose benefits to us and to our society are as unmeasurable as they are beyond price.  And often not immediately apparent. And one way of fighting is to convince people that it is in their interests to look beyond the immediate price on the label and to think more deeply and in the longer term. ‘Enlightened self-interest’, you see. Letting people out of the telephone kiosk so that you can get in. Looking ahead a little to see the consequences of what you are doing.

Not very fashionable, not very smart. There’s no app for it. Who needs a telephone kiosk anyway these days. But let’s start recommending that sort of thing to people at parties. It’s all part of the dull but rather enlightened business of making a better world for the future.

Inca stonework visited

Ever since I first heard about the Incas at high school in the States I have wanted to see the famous mortar-less stonework in Peru and find out how it was done.  One of our guides in Peru last month told me the answer. Big smile, palms up and wide apart, he revealed it to me at last – “It’s a mystery“.

The corridor leading to the temple of the Sun at the top of the citadel at Olantaytambo

Some mystery. No metals harder than copper (or at least bronze); no wheel; no arch; no writing; no horses, no cattle – just camelids. Primitive ceramics, primitive art. Yet here is masonry without any explanation that I find remotely plausible. Huge stones fitted together. Perfectly, not just at the surface, but in three dimensions. Some of a  softish stone, but also some of granite. People kept muttering about “trial and error” but they can’t ever have tried leveling the legs of a chair that way.

Inca masonry in a street in Cusco

Of course we saw the big, famous places, and as it happens all of my photos of those, apart from the ones I took on my phone, are lost on a faulty memory card. But luckily I filled the doomed card and switched to the one from my wife’s camera for the last few days. And I want to share some pictures taken after that, while we were still in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. I think they illustrate something about this new world masonry which is radically different from the classical architecture with which we are familiar. I mean the way the South American stonework ‘grows’, almost organically, out of the natural bedrock.

I hope this little gallery of pictures will illustrate what I mean:

Quite apart from the beauty of the wonderfully interlocking stonework, evolved to withstand earthquakes, the intimate way it is fitted to the underlying rock seems as different as it could possibly be from the formally planned foundations of, say, a Greek temple.


My message to skeptics for Climate Week 2014

For at least three decades and with increasing urgency scientists throughout the world have been warning about dangers to the future of civilisation if we do not take radical steps to reduce carbon emissions.

You think the chance of them being right is smaller than I do, but we both accept that the chance exists. But in this particular case the warnings are so dire, are being voiced by such an overwhelming majority of scientists, and the consequences are so momentous, that for either of us to actively oppose the precautions being urged would be irresponsibility of the highest order.

However, for anyone to oppose these precautionary steps deliberately, by knowingly misrepresenting the science, or by deliberately setting out to undermine the scientists involved, in order to further the short-term interests of individuals or corporations with vested interests in maintaining the present course, would surely be a new kind of crime against humanity.

That is why people like me are passionate about the evil of organised climate change denial.

James A R Willis   Retired GP, Author, Grandfather

Climate Week 2014

A ray of light in the Isles of Orkney

P1120381The Stones of Stenness, Orkney

Visiting Orkney – the islands just off John O’ Goats at the northern tip of Scotland – a few days ago, we were entranced, as every visitor is, by the 5,000 year old archeological sites. Older than most of the pyramids, twice as old as Homer and ancient Greece, these stone structures that you walk around all over the place are evidence of a society of amazing sophistication.

One of the most notable features of the surviving artifacts is that, like Stonehenge 700 miles to the south (much nearer home for us) some of them are lined up accurately with the solar solstices. Stonehenge is aligned with the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, but it is on the shortest that the sun shines right down the length of the entrance tunnel of Maeshowe in Orkney so that it illuminates the opposite wall of the chamber deep inside the mound.

MaeshoweMaeshowe. Entrance only by guided tour, and photography inside not allowed

The natural thing is to be amazed at the cleverness of people who could work out this sort of thing and line up their buildings accordingly. But I suddenly had a flash of insight into how it might actually be done which I would like to try out here. I don’t for a moment imagine the idea is original, but it was certainly new to me, and it has interested a few people I have described it to. So here goes:

By far the most important variable in the life of people living in far Northern latitudes (and also for anyone living in far Southern latitudes if there were any) is the extreme variation in day length that occurs with the seasons. In tropical latitudes, of course, the day length is unchanged throughout the year, but in Orkney last week it was still light at 11pm and in the depth of winter the opposite must apply, making it dark for all but a few hours of each day.

So, imagine some Orkadian Einstein hitting on the idea of sticking a marker in the ground to line up something like a distant tree with the point on the horizon where the sun is setting. The next day (s)he finds that the marker has to be moved a little to the left, and again the next day. And so on, day after day. But sooner or later there comes a point where the movement stops and the markers begin to move back. That point is obviously going to be significant. So he sticks a bigger and more permanent marker there.

That would be interesting enough merely as a sign that the worst is past and from now on the days will get longer, but imagine if our proto-Einstein then leaves his/her markers until the following year and finds that the sun turns the corner in exactly the same place that year as well, And then the next year. And then the next. Surely the significance of this alignment with the horizon would be far greater, and far more god-like, to someone who had no understanding of how or why it happened that way, than to people like us to whom the explanation is commonplace.

Looking at it like that I felt I had some understanding of why people living in those conditions, particularly those in Northern latitudes, would have placed such enormous significance on these alignments in their traditions and in their ceremonies. But at the same time I could also see that setting up the precise alignment would be a much simpler process than I had previously thought. Contrary to what I had always supposed it could be entirety empirical and done without the slightest understanding and without the need for any calculation or astronomy whatsoever. You just put in bigger stones to mark your alignment and build your temple, or whatever, round them.

On the other hand, the fact that the alignment still holds true 5,000 years later does still strike me as awe-inspiring and slightly god-like.


Sunset over the sea to Skye – and the Cuillin mountains

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