Six Lessons from a Climate Heretic

Bravo! Matt Ridley – The Rational Optimist

Bishop Hill posted the text of his Angus Millar Lecture at the RSA in Edinburgh in full.

I found it inspirational. In fact what came to mind was the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V.  Could it be that, outnumbered and against a well-funded opponent, sceptics find themselves on the brink of an Agincourt?

I offer a few choice quotes (but do read it in full – links below):

“The problem is that you can accept all the basic tenets of greenhouse physics and still conclude that the threat of a dangerously large warming is so improbable as to be negligible, while the threat of real harm from climate-mitigation policies is already so high as to be worrying, that the cure is proving far worse than the disease is ever likely to be. Or as I put it once, we may be putting a tourniquet round our necks to stop a nosebleed.”

“A theory so flexible it can rationalize any outcome is a pseudoscientific theory.”

(Is there anything climate change cannot be blamed for?)

“By contrast scientists and most mainstream journalists risk their careers if they take a skeptical line, so dogmatic is the consensus view. It is left to the blogosphere to keep the flame of heresy alive and do the investigative reporting the media has forgotten how to do.”

“My argument is that like religion, science as an institution is and always has been plagued by the temptations of confirmation bias. With alarming ease it morphs into pseudoscience even – perhaps especially – in the hands of elite experts and especially when predicting the future and when there’s lavish funding at stake. It needs heretics.”

Read it in full here: Bishop Hill – Scientific heresy  or Watts Up With That? – Thank you Matt Ridley (with added hyperlinks and slides).

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21 Responses to Six Lessons from a Climate Heretic

  1. tonyb says:

    Sorry Verity. I thought it trite and unconvincing and not exactly delivered by one of the great minds of the age. Who can forget the confiused debacle of Norhern Rock that he presided over.

    Ridley is no grreat intellect nor Henry V.

  2. Anteros says:

    Verity –
    My first reading of the speech was that it was moving and powerful..
    {perhaps I should stop there…. 🙂 }
    But even so, something wasn’t right, and I think it is because he pushes the case too far. As has been mentioned on all sorts of consensus blogs, a lot of the arguments are tired and numerous times debunked. Some are plainly embarrassing.
    Ridley’s understanding of the history of science is very poor and his view of a demarcation between science and pseudo-science is completely unsustainable.

    I am sceptical of CAGW not because of weak or obviously false arguments, but perhaps in spite of them. They embarrass me.
    Matt Ridley has some clarity of thought but I think he is also a bit of a loose cannon. He reminds me of the mirror of Al Gore, who ruins an otherwise tenable narrative by torturing evidence until people feel they are being sold dodgy second hand goods. My scepticism began about a third of the way through ‘An Inconvenient Truth’!
    Like a round of golf, the argument is most influenced by the weakest shots, not the strongest.

    I think CONTAINED within the speech were some of the most convincing reasons to be sceptical about CAGW. I think ditching the least convincing half would have made it sensational.

    I do admit to having previous in regard to Matt Ridley – I’ve always felt his ‘single grand verity’ (like Albert Bartlett) somehow has been pushed beyond its usefulness -as is often the case when someone becomes identified with an idea. His contention that trade was the sole, single, sufficient, and necessary reason why human beings developed runaway brains strikes me as almost comical. In a way, a less all encompassing analysis would provide a much more convincing argument.

    Less is more.

    Seeing as I have ranted a little more than I intended, let me say that powerful and moving it certainly was – and buried within it was something quite special.

  3. Chuckles says:

    Interesting comments folks. I’ve noticed a tendency by many, in many places, to evaluate ANYTHING even minutely and peripherally to do with climate science, as though it were a scientific paper being presented in the field of climate science.
    This is often combined with an assumption that an aggressive and formal academic/school debating environment is the only possible arena/methodology what can be used to explore this.
    To the extent that from the ensuing discussions, many participants will not countenance any other interpretation or assumption, and quite aggressively impose that viewpoint.
    To the extent that any context or intention on the part of the creators of the material, can be quite lost in the huffing and puffing.

    To someone like myself, more used to an engineering/commercial environment where discussion, suspension of disbelief, broad brushes and context, quick overviews and big pictures etc. are the order of the day, the above can get quite tedious and pedantic at times 🙂
    With that said, I’d note that Matt Ridley was delivering what is apparently an important annual lecture for the Royal Society for the Encouragement of theArts, Manufacture and Commerce???. I note again, the Arts in there…. and that the Lecture was, it seems to me aimed at a broad audience with a failry broad and wide ranging subject – Scientific Heresy.
    So, I would, in my little world, ask myself, ‘How well did Matt R. do in his alloted time, in entertaining his audience, and giving them a broad overview of what might be considered and/or might have been considered scientific heresies?’

    And I would probably answer, ‘Quite well, I think.’ Or perhaps slightly more strongly.

    [Reply – Well said. I didn’t see your comment until I hit ‘post comment’ on the one below. Verity]

  4. Anteros says:


    I think you make an extremely important point.

    I, for one, failed to take much notice of the context.


  5. Verity Jones says:

    I find your response, honest as it is, a little disappointing. Consider his host insititution and the audience; consider the need for brevity. His ‘six lessons’ framed very well the message he intended to deliver and, given that context, he was very clever in crafting the lecture. In terms of both timing and location, the messages in the lecture have an importance in the turning tide of the debate, and most importantly in opening minds.

    As regards my comparison with the St Crispin’s day speech, I have no intention to raise Ridley to such height, and my analogy is a little off centre as I doubt it had such an effect on his immediate audience. As a sceptic reading it though, in common with many others, I found it rousing, and that is where my intended comparison lay. The analogy to Agincourt I thought rather apt also, with the inequality of the sceptic/pro-AGW sides, although perhaps not a battle, I am being optmistic about the outcome.

    I am most disappointed that you felt it necessary to mention Northern Rock as if to take the shine off Ridley. It was five years ago. It will not be forgotten, but it is irrelevant here, and it does you no credit.

    I am pretty much in agreement with you. I value the lecture despite it’s shortcomings. It often happens that those with the best opportunity for voice lack the accuracy desirable.

    As we all often say ‘the devil is in the detail’ and delivering a message often means it is necessary to drop the detail. This is not an excuse to overlook accuracy, however, frequently those caught up with delivering messages lose the time necessary to do the research to ensure accruracy (find the debunking of the arguments) and keep the message fresh. Even for Emeritus Professors (such as Bartlett), it must be very tempting to keep delivering a ‘winning formula’, even at the risk of it becoming hackneyed.

  6. Verity Jones says:

    More on the RSA.
    Founded in a coffee shop in Covent Garden in 1754, the RSA has a wealth of notable achievements and Fellows in its 250-year history.
    In the light of new challenges and opportunities for the human race our purpose is to develop and promote new ways of thinking about human fulfilment and social progress which speaks directly to our strapline – 21st century enlightenment.

    Our vision is to be a powerful and innovative force. Bringing together different disciplines and perspectives, we bring new ideas and urgent and provocative debates to a mass audience. We work with partners to generate real progress in our chosen project areas, and through our 27,000 Fellows we want be seen as a source of capacity, commitment and insight in communities from the global to the local.

    Underpinning our work are enduring beliefs in human progress, reasoned enquiry, environmental sustainability, and ethical commitment combined now with a commitment to public participation and social inclusion.

    In pursuing these aims we are led by four values: independence, commitment, honesty and openness.

    Our way of working consists of providing a platform for critical debate and new ideas; working with partners to translate knowledge and progressive thinking into practical change; and inspiring our network of Fellows to be a force for civic innovation and social change.

    I’ve been a fan of RSA Animate for a while, although I’ve been a bit wary of some of the ideas, and had not really bothered to look further at the organisation and what it stands for.

  7. tonyb says:


    I don’t do ad homs but Northern Rock is very relevant. As non executive Chairman he was responsible for taking lots of strategic decisions based on information he and others collected. He showed no rigour in his thought processes, no concept of the history or regards for the circumstances, and his strategic thinking and decision making was poor. So his masive failure in losing us all lots of money is completely relevant to setting the scene for other things he might do in trying to pull together lots of strands of a cimplex story (climate), analyse them and present them lucidly.

    That isn’t to say that some of the things he had to say weren’t intersting but they were hardly novel or inspiring, but as Chuckles says they might be relevant to the audience he was presenting to. However I dont think they stand up so well to detailed scrutiny on the broader internet stage.


  8. Verity Jones says:

    you could say the shame of the affair was less Ridley’s role in it but more his appointment to the role in the first place with his lack of background in the banking sector. In fact it says a lot about the role of a non-executive chairman ( that he was able to do it for so long. The direction for the company would have come from the real experts below, not least the non executive directors, of which there were six, and the Chief Executive. To my mind Ridley was the fall guy. That’s not to say he is blameless.

    We’ll have to agree to differ on his lecture. To my mind other factors contribute to its merit too – brevity, structure and pace for example. Maybe it won’t stand the test of time, but in the here and now it delivers the points it needed to about giving some space and notice to heresy.

  9. tonyb says:


    I think you misunderstand the current role of a NEC which has evolved greatly over the last decade. At one time they were certainly seen as a labrador who you would pat and praise, but that has not been the role for a decade-these days they are a rottweiler..

    A NEC of a very large organisation-especially a bank that is subject to a whole extra layer of scrutinby-is one of active involvement, whether it is shaping policy or driving profits.
    It is inconceivable (and illegal() that Ridley did not realise the consequences of his bad choices.. He has demonstrated in the past little in the way of the qualities that we should welcome in a sceptic or climate scientist.

    it is not possible to gloss over the background and experiences of someone so prominent, as that is what shapes them and Ridley has not demonstrated (to me) the qualities that you appear to see in him.

    In deference to you I will listen to, then read, his screed again, Perhaps I was in a sceptical mood when I first examined them. 🙂


    [Reply – Tony, the article you linked to talks about the role of non-executive directors. I agree that NEDs have a very important role today. Verity]

  10. tonyb says:


    Ok i’ve read through it again twice. I think its a little like Jazz, Monty Python and Circuses. You probably need to be there at the time to fully appreciate it.

    Its mildly amusing. Its not great. Its not inspirational. Its ok. Perhaps we’re lauding it so much as we have so few coherent and personable sceptic heroes and maybe that should be something we try to address if we want to communicate our views to the wider world.


  11. tonyb says:


    The example given in the link I provided is of the NEC of Centrica.


    • Verity Jones says:

      You said earlier “As non executive Chairman he (Matt Ridley) was responsible for taking lots of strategic decisions…” but was he? Or was he the figurehead/communicator type appointed to explain decisions, ratify them on advice, but not make them. That is the point I am making.
      According to Wikipedia he was a zoologist who worked for The Economist (1984-1992) starting as Science Editor, becoming American Editor, then published books as a science writer, before taking up the Northern Rock position in 2004. Does that sound like someone who is appointed as ‘the one’ to make major strategic decisions?

      Contrast this with Sir Roger Carr in the article you link to who, since 1994 has been on the board of eight companies.

  12. Anteros says:

    tonyb –

    I think Chuckles makes a really important point about context and perspective. Mine came in the light of hundreds of people fawning over the speech, shedding tears and falling to their knees. Also, it had already come under attack (and ridicule) from consensus analysts. So what I did was to examine the speech as if it were the complete definitive manifesto – the total summation of every cogent and persuasive reason to be sceptical about the threats of global warming disaster. Surprise surprise, I end up being somewhat foolish and missing the context in which the speech was given.

    It’s hard now to put it in the context it deserves (as you say, you probably had to be there..) but maybe a broad-brush impression was all that it was intended to leave – that it is OK to be and to feel to be a bit heretical in the face of the consensus, and hectoring advocates and activists.

    Maybe trying to deconstruct a speech like that is akin to reading Bowie lyrics line-by-line.

  13. tonyb says:


    Good points. To my analogies about having to be there you usefully add Daviod Bowie lyrics.

    My main point was that its content and importance was over promoted. It was no doubt absolutely fine in the context of its time place and audience, but personally I don’t believe it stands up to serious scrutiny in the cold light of day when exposed to a much wider audience. The context has utterly changed as the internet is a different medium to an intimate room.

    I think the manner in which it has been seized on says something about the way in which we sceptics are glad when we are thrown a bone. It brings me back to the earlier point I made about our having few credible sceptics, and leaves me posing the open question;

    If we had to choose three sceptical panellists for a serious hour long TV debate who would we want?

    Bear in mind that background, credibilty, presentational skills and Knowledge all come into it. Put all those ingredients into the mix and my short list is zero for a variety of reasons (obviously apart from Verity)


  14. tonyb says:


    You are getting somewhat desperate when you are reduced to quoing wikipedia 🙂

    I dont want to hijack the thread so lets leave it that many will see his background as important


  15. Pascvaks says:

    …Aye! Agincourt! The lowly, blogging, bonnie e-bowmen are having a good day, indeed, against the counts and the dukes and their lairds and the retinues of knights, servants, and camp followers trogging and slogging in the muck and mire of an uncooperative global climate. The weary freemen may not have endowments for armor, or grants for beasts to carry their burdens for them, but they do have a way with their little, home made arrows and common sense, that makes the mighty cower and lower their high, ironclad heads for fear of being pierced by a bolt from the blue. What a world! May truth ever count for something. Aye!

    PS: We can only do our best with what we are given. Indeed, we can do no more.

  16. diogenes says:

    Matt’s big problem is that he was chairman of Northern Wreck when it was , to most knowledgeable outsiders, behaving in a totally irresponsible way. How could a reputable scientist not make an assessment oif the reserves you need to lend long and borrow short, even based on the UK industry for the lat 50 years.? It suggests that he has no intellect. But he might be persuasive…many other people have been good orators

  17. Verity Jones says:

    May our bows know every chink in the climate armour and now, emboldened and with true aim, we make each shot count. If not Agincourt, then a slow weakening with every drop of blood spilt public support denied – death (of global warming) by a thousand cuts.

    Well, from Northern Crock he knows what it is like to spend billions of other peoples money on high risk schemes that experts say cannot fail to deliver the desired outcome. Maybe he has learned the value of other peoples’ money, that models are poor at prediction of highly volatile and variable systems, that the experts’ view is too narrow and their desired outcome is right only for them.

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