We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts.

– Richard Feynman, quoted by Matt Ridley in his Angus Millar lecture at the RSA in Edinburgh, the entire text of which you an read at Bishop Hill. Do read the whole thing. Following on from the above quote comes one of the best summaries of why climate skeptics are climate skeptics that I have ever encountered.

Does anybody know if Ridley’s brilliant lecture is, or will be, available on video?

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34 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • It would be really delightful if Feynman were still around to tell us what he thought of the whole Climate Change thing. I don’t know what he would say – I am not Feynman – but I would really love to hear it.

  • Ian F4

    Thanks very much for that, a really good read.

  • Ian F4

    It is, isn’t it? Since doing this posting, which simply recorded my own personal reaction to this speech, I have learned that my reaction is widely shared, by climate skeptics all over the place. I think this might be some kind of turning point in the debate.

    Crucial is the fact that Ridley makes all his many points in a way that is easily understandable by non-scientists.

    Seriously, I really, really recommend everyone who comes here to read this performance, and to spread links to it far and wide. Which is a process that is, if the comments at Antnony Watts (WUWT being where I first heard about this) and Bishop Hill are anything to go by, is already happening.

  • Johnathan Pearce


    His points about confirmation bias apply, for example, also to things such as investment decisions by individuals and companies, as some people are reluctant to admit that their ideas are wrong.

  • mdc

    I’d be interested to see how much people – on both sides – ‘really’ believe in the positions they strongly hold on this issue. In particular, I’d be interested in hearing offers for at least ~£1000 bets for global average temperature in, say, 10 or 20 years.

  • A podcast of the lecture is apparently going to be made available.

  • BH

    Many thanks for that news. Excellent.

    And many thanks for publishing the text in the first place.

  • PeterT

    Good link. Thanks.

    You would think that there might be more left leaning global warming skeptics among the scientific community (I use this as short hand for not believing that AGW is a major problem) – since reason should be their ‘thing’. But apart from a few people like Bjorn Lomborg they seem to be thin on the ground.

    It would be less exasperating if the left wing people we had to contend with were of the Brendan O’Neill school.

  • veryretired

    My favorite story along these lines, other than plate tectonics, is that of Dr. Jonah Folkman, a cancer researcher. There is a documentary about his work that should be watched by those interested in and concerned about this form of intellectual authoritarianism.

    Suffice it to say that Dr. Folkman’s work required a complete rethinking of the very nature of cancer growth, and a redesign of surgical procedures aimed at preventing cancer’s spread that were based on an erroneous belief in how it happens.

    The good Dr was a medical pariah for 30 years until his experiments demonstrated that he was correct, and traditional beliefs about cancer growth were wrong.

    I daydream about being able to write and deliver a speech like Ridley’s. I’m glad there are people with the courage and skill to do so.

  • mdc

    “You would think that there might be more left leaning global warming skeptics among the scientific community”

    What Millar says about confirmation bias dominates political decision-making and is obvious here on both sides. The left has identified that AGW is politically very useful so they require only the scantest justification to believe it. That’s why listening to the BBC, Guardian and such like talk about this issue feels like someone is trying to sell you a timeshare. That’s also why they want to shut down the opposition. The ‘right’ (or at least, free marketeers) see the threat and try their hardest to poke holes in it.

    For what it’s worth, I think we should take seriously the notion that most skeptics here are skeptical mainly for that reason. I’m not saying the skeptics are therefore wrong, but it would be good to acknowledge that this is basically why you are trying so hard to be skeptical.

    One reason for that is, if ‘we’ are wrong and the world actually does explode, I don’t think people will forgive us. Libertarianism and free markets will be dead for at least a generation.

    Another reason is that, as a defence of our ideology, dumb luck that AGW turned out not to be real is not very convincing. What if something similar really does come along in the future? Is our position “Liberty or death – provided that gaseous emissions are generally benign”? It’s not very intellectually satisfying to me, but I certainly don’t want to abandon liberty either.

    The unspoken premise at the metacontextual level (to use samizdata-speak) is: if AGW is real, we therefore need world socialism to fix it. And that is what I think is the much more fundamental issue, because I don’t agree with that statement at all, and if it falls away, it doesn’t need to matter to us whether AGW is real or not, as indeed it shouldn’t.

    So, and this might make a good post that the people who write samizdata may or may not want to have on their blog, what is the libertarian response to an AGW-like phenomenon assuming it were real?

  • mdc

    *Ridley, sorry, not Millar.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Oh, if AGW were real, I would run screaming to the government to do something, and I would give them all my money to do it, and I would do whatever they said. I would never try thinking for myself, or move inland away from the rising waters, or change my own behaviour unless someone in authority told me to.
    After all, if you can’t trust governments, who can you trust?

  • Richard Thomas

    Indeed. “Liberty or death” is not the basis, it’s just a recognition of “the way things are”. That it generally provides the best outcome is not a happy accident but just follows through. Much like if falling from a plane, the best bet is to have a parachute, not expect the government to repeal the law of gravity.

  • Laird

    If AGW were somehow proven real I still wouldn’t care in the least, mdc. There is so much benefit from a generally warmer climate (longer growing seasons, more arable land, less fuel wasted on heating, etc., etc.) that the incremental loss of a tiny amount of lowlying land (at the rate of 1/4 inch in sea level rise per decade or whatever) is a truly miniscule price to pay. People can simply gradually move back, once a generation or so. And if any of that land is actually worth preserving we know perfectly well how to build dikes and levees (ask the Dutch).

    I’m thoroughly sick of people leaping to the assumption that if the earth is warming (something which has happened numerous times before without our help) it’s automatically a bad thing and worth destroying our economy and lifestyle to prevent. That’s simply idiotic.

  • Orson

    One HOT topic untouched by Ridley is carbon accounting: do WE really know that we are causing is?

    Sadly, the science is only good enough to amount to suggestions that we are.

    I mean, the only figure we know well i how much we are producing – not the sources, sinks and flows in nature.

    At any rate, is the radiative issue is small – and less that Ridley makes it our to be, once negative “forcings” are added – then we can turn to this enormous uncertainty monster.

  • BFFB

    It would be really delightful if Feynman were still around to tell us what he thought of the whole Climate Change thing. I don’t know what he would say – I am not Feynman – but I would really love to hear it.

    He’s not quite Feynmen but Freeman Dyson doesn’t have much good to say about current climate science…


  • mdc

    “If AGW were somehow proven real I still wouldn’t care in the least, mdc. There is so much benefit from a generally warmer climate”

    Ok, but the point is to generally assume that it is both real and really bad. How does libertarianism cope?

    I have a very solid answer answer to this question. I think many of people who ‘believe’ 99% that AGW isn’t real do not, and that the two things are linked.

    Personally I believe AGW is ~70-30 a ‘real’ threat, in the sense that in an economically optimally efficient world we would do something significant to try to reduce it. I agree largely with what Ridley says (which is rather conservative as far as skepticism goes) – the base effect is largely proven, while the overall effect after feedbacks is up in the air, and it is likely that the net effect is some sort of positive warming but less than is claimed in the media. However that does not go far enough to make it an irrelevant issue, unfortunately.

  • If AGW is real and a real threat, you’re *still* better off if people are more free than less free. Government solutions to this kind of problem are just wishful thinking anyway. You can’t regulate the whole world into reducing emissions.

    At least in a free world you will have more wealth and creativity available to work around or fix all the terrible consequences.

  • Laird

    Ok, but the point is to generally assume that it is both real and really bad. How does libertarianism cope?

    I don’t accept the premise, so there’s no point in formulating a response. We could speculate on how “libertarianism” would cope with a Martian invasion, too, but it’s not worth the effort.

    My position: global warming (actually, “climate change”) is undoubtedly real, as the climate has changed drastically many times over the earth’s long history (without any input from Man), and that will continue until the sun explodes. No one disputes that. It’s the “anthropogenic” part that is highly contentious, and is nowhere close to being proven: the existing data is far too sketchy, and of too short a duration, to provide sufficient basis for anything more than mere speculation; the existing climate models are laughably simplistic; and the fundamental concept of “predicting” a truly chaotic system (climate) betrays an absolute ignorance of what the phrase “chaotic system” even means. And even if, somehow, human involvement were proven to be a significant factor, no one has yet performed any sort of meaningful cost-benefit analysis of the impact. Hence my rejection of the “really bad” assumption. In fact, in my opinion an honest cost-benefit analysis would show that, on balance, a warmer climate is good for humanity and beneficial to the earth in general (if that is even meaningful). The burden would be on someone to prove otherwise.

  • Re: mdc’s question of libertarian response to proven AGW.

    If AGW is significant, and the real effects are more harmful than not, decentralized responses are already under way that will greatly limit and possibly reduce the CO2 levels. Biochar and Terra Preta have immediate, positive benefits for farmers and oh by the way, sequester carbon very well. Modest levels of education and encouragement can produce enough biochar to offset enthusiastic burning of fossil fuels.

    The problem 20 years from now, during the quiet sun of the likely coming Eddy minimum, may be to keep the glaciers from forming in the Canadian wheat belt- and scattering black carbon on the snow may save our asses again!

  • Slartibartfarst

    Thanks. Seriously interesting post/comments.

  • mdc

    Rob Fisher, Laird, Doug Jones: Interesting responses, but I think needlessly strong on ‘it’s ok, it’ll work itself out somehow’ still.

    I don’t see that, if you accept AGW is both real and bad, ‘doing’ something coercive to stop it is not compatible with libertarianism. Before you bite my head off, what I mean is that it’s essentially a property rights issue, and the polluter in this case is violating other peoples’ proprty rights. No one disputes that you can take coercive action against a factory owner who is dumping sludge into your back garden – the garden is your property and the coercive action you take is retaliatory rather than initiatory.

    In my view the more general problem is this:

    1. How do we decide when property damage like this is happening?

    2. How do we decide how much compensation goes to whom?

    And here it seems absurd that libertarianism is on the back foot. The conventional answers are: 1. a state committee should decide behind closed doors and 2. none, instead the state should ban a semi-random collection of activities that cause damage.

    Libertarianism has a rather better answer: a class action lawsuit in a common law court. The beauty of this is even if you think AGW isn’t real this time, the people who stand to lose from it being real get to defend themselves with full force in public. It won’t be perfect, but it will give us the best answer that we are going to get.

    Strategically, it is also very useful because it doesn’t tie our ideology to a position on a question of empirical fact on which we may turn out to be wrong either now or at some point in the future.

  • Laird

    “a class action lawsuit in a common law court”

    Right, brought by rapacious plaintiffs’ attorneys having at best an incidental regard for truth, in those (forum-shopped) courts which welcome all manner of fecular “junk science”, and to be solemnly weighed and adjudicated by the illiterates who populate most jury pools. Yeah, that’ll work.

    Sorry, that’s a complete non-starter. I understand your “externalities” argument, but the starting point has to be a definitive (and undeniable) determination of both causality and damage (define “bad”). Neither of which exists today, and likely never will. To repeat, I reject the premise.

  • mdc, I see where you’re coming from, I really do, but I’m afraid I’d have to side with Laird on this: you could just as well be discussing the proper libertarian response to Martian invasion. Sure, it’s an interesting mental exercise that is not 100% unrealistic, but other than that…That said, in the unlikely event that GW is real and harmful on balance, your solution does make sense.

    Laird, a bit of nitpicking: cooling does consume fuel too, not just heating.

  • Laird

    True, Alisa, but much less and it is also less essential (in most cases).

  • mdc

    Laird: To be clear, you don’t believe it should be legal to sue for damages of any kind and you don’t support jury trials (none of your arguments are specific to AGW)? If just in this case, why?

    Alisa: I think you’re extremely naive if you think there is a negligible chance of AGW being a real threat. A less than 100% chance, sure, I agree. But to believe it’s on par with a martian invasion… I think you have tricked yourself into holding a semi-religious belief because it is convenient for you to do so.

    How about a similar but less bad one: ozone depletion? This was largely solved by a statist, albeit externality-based solution. What does libertopia do about it?

  • I don’t think it’s a pointless exercise at all.
    it is highly likely that some grave and immediate global danger will occur at some point in the future, so it is worthwhile to discuss and imagine what solutions we could offer, if only to maintain our credibility. Whether it’s martians (most gameplans assume a long guerilla battle for example, so we already win the argument there), asteroid approach (private space is already far more likely to come up with a solution than NASA so we win again).
    We surely know we are right that liberty is The best condition for mankind so why not expound how Free Men would deal with the Hollywood blockbuster threats? Surely we believe that better solutions would entail.

  • mdc, I am almost sure I remember that the ozone depletion “problem” was as real then as the martian invasion is real now. I’m too lazy to look for the links, though. In any case, I’ll readily concede that I could be wrong on the AGW issue, just as I could be wrong about any other view I hold.

    wh00ps: I agree. It is one thing though to discuss such disasters on the possibility of which there’s a very widely held scientific consensus (no matter if positive or negative, and no matter if correct or not), it is quite another when the possibility of the disaster under discussion is hotly contested. In the former case, we either propose immediate solutions or theoretical ones. In the latter, we first need to wait for the establishment of a new consensus (again, either positive or negative), and only then propose a solution – an immediate one or a theoretical one. Of course there’s also the third possibility: urgently proposing theoretical solutions to a problem we are not even certain exists, which is what mdc seems to be doing. I’m not saying it’s illegitimate, I just don’t see the point, especially as there are much, much, much more real, urgent, and truly global problems we are facing right now. But really, it’s just my personal opinion, and I could really be wrong – no big deal.

  • Laird

    As to “ozone depletion”, mdc, that’s a perfect example of the “ready-fire-aim” approach of luddite chicken-littles and statists of all stripes. Because the entire thing was a faux problem, not a real one, and it was “solved” solely by government decree. “Fraud” is too strong a word here, as there truly is an “ozone hole” over the south pole, but after the hysterical abolition of fluorocarbons it was discovered that it was a natural seasonal phenomenon which that abolition did nothing to change. (Of course, you never read about that in the popular press, because fear-mongering is so much more lucrative than actually disseminating the truth.) And of course there were (and continue to be) significant economic costs to the shift to other, more expensive and less-effective, coolants. So that’s a perfect illustration of the real dangers of regulation by popular panic. Thank you for making my point for me, because limiting CO2 due to some irrational fear of a theoretical “problem” would be several orders of magnitude more expensive.

    And your comment about not bein able to sue for damages of any kind and not supporting jury trials is a ridiculous non sequitur. I never said anything close to that. Suits for damages should be (and presently are) limited to actual, provable and quantifiable damages, none of which applies to hypothetical AGW “damages”. I don’t believe in the ability of ordinary courts and juries to pass upon the merits of extremely technical scientific matters, and I don’t have any confidence in their ability to rationally assess monetary damages in such cases. If and when the science is ever “settled” there may be a place for lawsuits, but even then you’ll have the issue of causality to contend with. So my point is that while jury trials have their place in ordinary civil litigation (and especially in criminal trials, which is their real value), they are completely unsuitable for the type of case you proposed. (Also, I oppose in almost completely the concept of a “class action”. I’ve been professionally involved with them, and in almost every case they are merely legal extortion which serves the interests of no one except the attorneys involved. The entire concept should be, if not completely abolished, at least severely restricted. But that’s another discussion.)

  • Thanks for refreshing my memory on the ozone thingy, Laird.

  • I guess what I’m trying to say is that the default position of Big Problems needing to be solved by the heads of Big Governments sitting around a table needs to be challenged at all times and in all places.
    indeed, were it NOT the default position it’s possible that such big phony problems like the ozone hole would gain such traction in the first place. it can hardly be a coincidence that all the major issues everyone is worried about today need some a bailout, a tax, a regulation or something else government-ey to solve (whether they are real issues or not) so by venturing alternative solutions it may be possible to take the wind out of their sails a little.
    Not to mention that all those real problems that really do need solving might actually get some airtime.

  • Laird

    No argument with the idea of countering that “default position”, wh00ps. I merely object to proffering “solutions” to non-problems.

  • Midwesterner

    Ok, but the point is to generally assume that it is both real and really bad. How does libertarianism cope?

    I agree in regard to the issues at stake, principally property rights. I agree with you that environmental damage to ones property by a known and proven cause is a violation of life liberty and property. The problem I encounter when trying to use a simple trespass model to address climate, rather than addressing specific detectable and measurable molecules from a specific violator, is that climate is a chaotic system. Attributing a specific effect to a specific input is not just difficult, it is impossible under any circumstance. It is not even possible to attribute a specific effect to a specific substance. Is water vapor a more influential greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide? Are noted variations in temperature means the result of an additional CO2 component or a feedback loop caused by warming over the oceans? Does a slight increase in solar output drive an increase in water vapor that drives a further increase? Etc. There is no possible way to alter specific inputs to achieve a specific desired outcome. Reducing carbon output and contrails in one place by reducing air travel in a specific region may alter the location of static highs and lows and viciously alter rain fall time and place in important agricultural areas. Etc.

    The libertarian response to a chaotic “commons” which is what the environment is, is to privatize the commons. In the case of climate, the easiest response is to open climate futures markets. Say I am growing a corn crop in Wisconsin (I have in the past). I can hedge my fuel and fertilizer prices by purchasing futures of commodities that drive those prices in proportion to my anticipated needs. I can sell futures contracts for enough of my anticipated crop to assure an acceptable, if not windfall, profit. If the math doesn’t work out, I can switch crops or not crop at all. If I can buy weather futures (degree days, percentage of possible sunlight, optimal rainfall ranges, etc), then we have in effect privatized climate.

    At this point two dynamics occur. One, I the farmer no longer need to puzzle over climate in addition to all the other things farmers have to understand, professionals who are willing to risk money will drive the price of the weather futures.

    The second thing is that if a market imbalance (ie extreme premium for a specific rainfall/region result) occurs and some investors think they have the technology to achieve a result, they can corner the drought/flood futures and speculate that their system will generate a useful rainfall in that region. The markets will tend to limit reckless behavior because equally motivated investors will be taking positions both RE collateral damage and with regard to the rain makers. This will weight the cost of collateral damage against the profits of the narrowly intended result. So this risk of a Really Bad Thing happening is greatly reduced.

    All of this is much more accountable to common sense, scientific honesty and financial feasibility than any government based or supervised solution that I can think of.

    To project this into an entirely different sort of area. Imagine that an asteroid was aimed at the earth. Not enough to destroy life on the planet, but enough to have seriously consequences for economic activity. A reinsurer discovers that if this things swoops across the US (or Europe or SEA or any other economic engine where they reinsure) they will be history. They can take an appropriately sized position in the “Asteroid 21B” market. Quite possibly some friends of Dale’s may say “Easy. We can get a booster to it before it does its Mars fly-by and influence its course to completely miss the earth. But it will cost.” So they take a strong ‘misses the earth’ position in the futures market and redirect the asteroid ‘on spec’ against their anticipated futures profits.

    MDC & wh00ps, does this address (if not satisfy) the structural issues you are concerned about?