Selecting Data

Simon Hoggart, Guardian columnist and self-styled ‘climate change agnostic’ seems to think that proving something in science is all a matter of cherry-picking data.

In his column in the Saturday 10 July edition of the Guardian, he has this to say on ‘Climategate’:

As I understand it, the various inquiries suggest that the scientists involved in “Climategate” were perfectly honest, but too protective of their data, which they feared might fall into the wrong hands – ie people who disagreed with them.

But I have done some work over the years on why people believe apparently improbable notions, and one of the most important factors is data: the more sheer stuff there is out there, the easier it is to select whatever it is supports your belief or confounds your opponents.

And it would be hard to find any field in which there are more millions of statistics than climate. Whatever you want to discover, it’s there – plucked from an airport perineter fence in Mali, a military outpost near Irkutsk, or off a hotel roof in Panama. You can prove whatever you like.

This may be the way to win a pub argument but it is most certainly not how science works. You need to look at all the data and even if you exclude some of it you need to have a good reason which needs to be stated.

Cherry-picking, i.e. carefully selecting the data which backs your case, is the mark of the pseudoscientist. It is commonly practised by media nutritionists who will pick out a study which suggests that megadoses of supplements might be beneficial and ignore dozens which show the opposite. Hoggart may feel that the notion that you can prove whatever you like with data backs his ‘agnosticism’ (interesting that he chooses a religious term to describe his views on a scientific matter) but in reality it is a counsel of despair. He is saying we can never know what is happening but climate is one of those things we have to get right. If we abandon the carbon economy more quickly than we need to, we will wreck an already fragile economy. If we do not abandon it quickly enough, we will wreck the economy and a lot more besides.

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One Response to “Selecting Data”

  1. Rob Says:

    Hoggart has become an embarrassment. You know that toe-curling moment when a person confidently announces something to the world that eloquently demonstrates their ignorance? Almost inevitably the depth of their ignorance also proclaims the lack of self-awareness of their ignorance.

    Happens too regularly for comfort, with too many Grauniad journos. The last paragraph you quote above is the equivalent of rubbing shoulders with the educated, and suddenly coming out with “I haven’t read ‘A tale of two cities’, I just can’t get on with Shakespeare”.

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