George Monbiot’s narrow definition of “charlatan”

Bishop Hill quotes George Monbiot

I define a charlatan as someone who won’t show you his records. This looks to me like a good [example]:

Personally, I believe that for word definitions one should use a consensus of the leading experts in the field. My Shorter OED has the following definition that is more apt.

An empiric who pretends to wonderful knowledge or secrets.

Like John Cook’s definition of “skeptic“, Monbiot’s definition is narrower and partisan. Monbiot was referring to maverick weather forecaster Piers Corbyn. If someone has a “black box” that performs well under independent scrutiny, then they are charlatan under Monbiot’s definition, but not the OED’s. This could include the following.

  • A software manufacturer who does not reveal their computer code.
  • A pharmaceutical company that keeps secret the formulation of their wonder drug.
  • A soft drink manufacturer, who keeps their formulation secret. For instance Irn-Bru®.

The problem is that these examples have a common feature (that Piers Corbyn would claim to share to some extent). They have predictive effects that are replicated time and time again. A soft drink might just be the taste. Climate science cannot very well replicate the past, and predictions from climate models have failed to come about, even given their huge range of possible scenarios. This is an important point for any independent evaluation. The availability of the data or records matter not one iota. It is what these black boxes say about the real world that matters. I would claim that as empirical climate science becomes more sophisticated, no one person will be able to replicate a climate model. Publishing all the data and code, as Steve McIntyre would like, will make as much difference as publishing all the data and components of a mobile phone. Nobody will be able to replicate it. But it is possible to judge a scientific paper on what it says about the real world, either through predictions or independent statistical measures of data analysis.


  1. ab

     /  18/06/2012

    Unfortunately for corbyn, he is not willing to submit the results of his black box to independent scrutiny.. No one is asking him to reveal his methods, just his full predictions. These can be from the past so should not affect him commercially.

    But Corbyn has tried to cover up one of his latest forecasts

    This was published on on the 16th (predicting worse extreme flooding than earlier in the week), but promptly removed when corbyn must have realised he was going to be completely wrong.. exactly the sort of cover up he claims to be so against..

    • manicbeancounter

       /  18/06/2012

      The predictions against which Corbyn should be judged are his published ones. For May he got this quite spectacularly wrong – as the above link – or the original Daily Express article below shows. There was more than enough in those articles to falsify the prediction. So by Monbiot’s definition Corbyn is not a charlatan. However, by both Monbiot’s narrow definition and the OED’s broader definition, Monbiot’s ire is misdirected. In Climate Science there are plenty of examples where records are not shown, and where people pretend to wonderful knowledge, inaccessible to lesser mortals. Look up at Climate Audit about Yamal data or the Gergis paper, or the 2007 proclamations about the UNIPCC AR4 for instance. These are more important than an independent weather forecaster, as they are used to justify implementing global policies that could reduce living standards, especially of the poor.
      But George Monbiot supports this vision, which is why he is so vehement in his attacks on the critics.

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