Monbiot and BBC – Accusing an innocent man due to a common prejudice?

Boris Johnson has something spot on about Newsnight’s accusing Lord McAlpine of paedophilia in a children’s home. Morally, it is probably today the worst sort of crime somebody could be accused of. Mass murder is not so bad, as long as you have higher motive. Even though it is meant to inspire terror into ordinary peaceful folk, it will not be called terrorism. The BBC will probably point to an excuse that as Newsnight supressed Jimmy Savile’s paedophilia due to sensitivity to Savile’s family, they did not want to fail in their duty for a second time. But there is something more than this, suggested by the Twittering George Monbiot. He was one of two prominent Twitterers to falsely “finger” Lord McAlpine as the culprit. Monbiot is now profusely apologetic, but I would suggest that his knee-jerk reaction was not out of character. It has some commonality with his take on the Gleick affair.

Earlier this year there was “released” a cache of documents from the Libertarian Heartland Institute. Peter Gleick, a dogmatic climate activist and scientist with a passionate dislike of any opposition obtained the documents by deception, and the released them anonymously. Most were innocuous, except for a “2012 Strategy Document”. Gleick was “outed” as the likely leaker, as this document was in Gleick’s peculiar writing style, not the more polished house-style of Heartland. It also contained a number of errors. George Monbiot praised Gleick’s actions as those of a “democratic hero” exposing the secret funding of climate denial by this right-wing think tank. There is no acknowledgement of the piffling size of this funding compared with government and private funding of alarmism and no acknowledgement of the evidence of forgery. Monbiot has no perspective on figures. If a few million dollars of Heartland “denial” is so effective against the billions poured into the science, Heartland should be chock full of internees infiltrated by every major Ad agency and democratic political party on the planet. Further, if there is a dominant, untenable, ideological position, then democracy is endangered not served by those who seek to confront the dominancy, but by those who seek to obliterate criticism. If the vast majority are on the side of the overwhelming truth, then publicity examining falsities can only serve to strengthen the perception of that truth. But, if it is a falsity, then exposing those who speak out to ad hominem attacks and slander is the thuggish way of silencing opposition. This principle is ingrained in the trial by jury system.

The reactions of the now BBC-departed Richard Black were in a similar vein.

What possible bearing can this have on George Monbiot’s judgement of the (false) allegations that Lord McAlpine was a paedophile? Might it be that Lord McAlpine was the former Treasurer (and very effective fundraiser) of the Conservative Party during the Thatcher years have something to do with it? When a tiny think tank can be so effective in sustaining climate denial, is not Lord McAlpine principally responsible for all that Mrs T inflicted on the Britain? And with the BBC culturally inculcated by similar pro-Guardian views, is it not conceivable that their failure to question the evidence might have something to do with McAlpine’s history?

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]: http://t.co/5hDF57sI

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.