Johnny Ball: A Betrayal of Science

Last night, I took my family to see a Christmas lecture by Johnny Ball, famous as a television presenter that popularized mathematics with shows in the 1970s and 80s such as Think of a Number.

The beginning of his talk was a beautiful introduction to square laws in the work of Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, with some lovely audience-participation demonstrations showing the value of experiment. Unfortunately, this was belied by the second half, a rant in denial of climate change that included statements such as 'The greens don't want modern society to work so they've decided to demonize carbon' and 'Carbon makes up only 1/3000 of the gases in the atmosphere. Can that have such a big effect? I don't think so'. No mention of the IPCC or the scientific consensus that contradicts his view.

The danger in this is that he may leave youngsters feeling that scientific disputes are similar to political disputes, with no understanding of how the scientific method can establish truth independent of popular opinion.

I gather his hosts, the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, had no idea he was going to go off on this tangent. Going by the first half of his talk, he used to be capable of giving a truly wonderful introduction to science for young people. But now he should not be let near them; he has betrayed his trust.

[Update: This incident was reported in the TES
Johnny causes storm in lecture on climate change.]

science isn't about "consensus", are you sure he's the one confused about how "... scientific disputes are [or are not] similar to political disputes, with no understanding of how the scientific method can establish truth independent of popular opinion."
The IPCC is a purely political, not scientific effort.... and there is NO scientific "concensus".. Liberals have been claimign this for over a decade as if they think that repeating it will make it true.

Hell, its easy to disprove the global warming theory: Mars is getting warmer as well, and in recent years earth is getting colder anyway.

I'm constantly amazed at how anti-science and anti-intellectual liberals/ environmentalists are, only more amazed at how they claim to be pro-science at the same time.

You say the phrase "scientific consensus" as if its a definitive argument and you show you know not the first thing about the scientific method.
Gosh! Look at the firestorm! Why are all these anonymous cranks reading my blog?

What, you think you aren't a crank? Send me a citation to one article in a peer-reviewed journal that backs up your position.
Knappenberger, P.C., P.J. Michaels and R.E. Davis. 2001. The Nature of Observed Temperature Changes Across the United States During the 20th Century. Climate Research 17:45-53.

I am not necessarily pushing one belief or another. This is just an sample article. But you have to admit that you didn't provide an article backing up your position, either. Instead, you generalized about a "scientific consensus" of which you have no proof.

(Note: I am not the same anonymous crank as either of the above. I am a different anonymous crank.)
Thanks to the third anonymous poster for a serious reply.

The cited article doesn't dispute that global warming is occurring or that it is man-made; it does argue that the warming may affect mainly cold days rather than warm days.

As an example of a crisp statement which I believe enjoys scientific consensus, I will quote a line from the 4th report of the IPCC:

'Most of the observed increase in globally-averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is
very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations.' (IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Topic 2, page 6.)

The Wikipedia page on Scientific opinion on climate change lists fifteen organizations (IPCC, AAAS, and so on) that have made statements asserting that global warming is occurring and is man-made. It states that 'With the release of the revised statement by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, no scientific bodies of national or international standing are known to reject the basic findings of human influence on recent climate.'
I think that Wikipedia does not fit the "signed and peer-reviewed reference" criterium at all. As professors, we should not give the impression to students that Wikipedia is an authoring source to be cited in scientific conversations.

I have no opinion about the topic of climate warming. I would like to remark, though, that "scientific consensus" is indeed part of the way science is done (I am not a Platonist but I believe in facts and think of laws as a rational, abstract and evolving description of facts). Then, at some time, scientists realise that they have been wrong and a new consensus emerge.

Perhaps mathematics, and computer science as an extension, are less inclined to such social movements?
Christian is quite right to say that Wikipedia does not count as a peer-reviewed journal. But it does conveniently list a number of statements by reputable scientific organizations, which in turn are based on peer-reviewed literature.
Computer scientists are, I would argue, *more* inclined to "such social movements" - think of arguments over programming language preferences, for example. The difference here is that there is arguably no one best programming language for all possible tasks, so each side has valid points. In the climate change debate, the published science is heavily, heavily on the side of those who believe that climate change is a man-made phenomenon, i.e. the reality-based community.
For the readers fluent in French, here is a piece of news involving suspicions of scientific fraud in a paper suggesting that the global warming is not caused by human activities:


Excerpt: "The assertion of M. Le Mouël would have been acceptable had the Earth been a flat, black, disk constantly facing the Sun."


[Caveat lector: I did not read the original sources.]
And another anonymous crank :-) I think its a stretch to describe the scientific community as having a solid consensus around man made global warming. Here's an, undoubtedly politically influenced, link that highlights the growing number of scientist who have become apostate http://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Minority.Blogs&ContentRecord_id=f80a6386-802a-23ad-40c8-3c63dc2d02cb

In any case, I think that criticizing someone's science based on their position relative to the consensus is basically unscientific. Last time I checked, the consensus in the broad programming community was that pure functional languages weren't worth the trouble ;-)
Here's a tiny url for the link in the previous comment.

I just want to point out that if it is true that science has become politicized, an inevitable consequence would be that articles disagreeing with the consensus position would be less likely to be accepted by peer-reviewed journals.
So you complain that he doesn't follow "scientific method" and then you site consensus as your proof?

Classic. But I'm sure it's all fact since you read it on Wikepedia.
Perhaps worse than this incident is one I witnessed some years ago, when I was doing postdoctoral work in the Computer Science department at the University of Technology, Sydney (Australia).

Like many academic departments, there were periodic public talks. I recall that the announcement for a particular talk seemed a little odd, but I attended, anyway. I don't recall much of the contents, except that it was religious in nature. At the end of the talk, the speaker and his assistant handed out copies of a self-published religious tract (!).

I have no idea who invited the speaker, and who may have signed off on the talk. I was utterly offended not only by the talk itself, but also that the department saw fit to host it.
Perhaps more puzzling than the talk itself, no one else in the room seemed to be troubled by it.
So the guy has an opinion about global warming that doesn't agree with yours, so what? My hero Donald Knuth is a professed Christian; I'd still opt for his lectures over just about anyone else's.

I'm old enough to remember the specter of global cooling.

Just to say that you have put it wonderfully. I am grateful you reported the incident in your blog, that you drew the conclusions you did draw, and that you wrote them in your blog as well!

Sophia Drossopoulou
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According to the TES article, Professor Wadler challenged Mr Ball to cite one peer reviewed article which would support his opinions on global warming, to which Mr Ball's answer was: "email me".

Is that not indication enough that Mr Ball was not following the scientific method? In other words, Mr Bell was making bold statement about climate change without knowing the scientific literature in and out.

Sophia Drossopoulou
im an anonymous crank..global warming isnt real coz wilko said so..just ask johnny ball..i love anonymous cranks
Whether he is right or not, Ball has no business preaching his politics to an audience of young children who had come to an event to hear about maths - which I experienced this week at the Bath Literary Festival, The man has become an embarrassment.
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I recently saw him at a Maths Day in Aylesbury and this was exactly what happened for Year 12s. It was so disappointing considering the first half was so good, we felt a tad brainwashed and disappointed. His arguments seemed convincing but they were all based on facts that I later researched and found out to be false - this can be dangerous for a group of impressional 16 year olds who aren't as aware of the true facts, perhaps he did convince some of my peers.
I'll tell what philip, think of a number & fuck off,twat!!!
Quote:-"Whether he is right or not, Ball has no business preaching his politics to an audience of young children who had come to an event to hear about maths - which I experienced this week at the Bath Literary Festival"

In that case, neither do the BBC but they still do and they reach a much wider audience.

You talk as if Ball was denying the holocaust, not the religion of global warming (although now, 4 years later it's called climate change to help the theory better fit in with the facts given current data refuses to play ball - see what I did there).
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