Of Cavemen, Connoisseurs, and Climate Scientists

Paul Matthews has an excellent blog devoted entirely to analysis of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report. His latest article

https://ipccreport.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/a-question-of-attribution-2/

is about the attribution of climate change to human influence. It takes its title from a TV play by Alan Bennett about the distinguished  art historian Sir Anthony Blunt, who managed to combine the roles of Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures and spy for the KGB.

But first, some palaeoanthropology.

Research into the origins of humanity is one of the most fascinating fields of scientific research to the average newspaper reader. Recent discoveries in Dmanisis, Georgia, of human skulls have produced a flurry of articles, of which this one is typical:

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/oct/17/skull-homo-erectus-human-evolution

The title and subheading of the article read:

Skull of Homo erectus throws story of human evolution into disarray

A haul of fossils found in Georgia suggests that half a dozen species of early human ancestor were actually all Homo erectus”.

Students of media coverage of science will immediately recognise the typical pattern of  science reporting: “Science in disarray”, “experts nonplussed”, “textbooks must be rewritten”, etc.

Which is not a criticism of the journalist Ian Sample, who has done a perfectly adequate job of explaining what is revolutionary in this find. (There were 888 comments on his article, and I’d have gladly joined in the praise, if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve been banned for life from commenting at the Guardian because I once dared to disagree with George Monbiot).  

The story is roughly this: researchers are continually finding bits of humanoids all over the world, of various shapes, sizes and ages, and attributing them to different species and subgroups of the human family. At  Dmanisis they found six skulls, an incredibly rich haul, and observed that they show variations in shape and form as great as those between specimens found elsewhere and attributed to different species.

It strains credibility to believe that members of six different hominid species were living side by side at the same site within a few centuries of each other. The obvious deduction is that they all belong to the same species, which implies that specimens found elsewhere showing similar variations and currently attributed to different species may in fact all belong to the same species. 

It’s easy to see how subtle cultural factors may enter into the supposedly objective determination of scientific facts: on the one hand, the natural desire of a researcher with an original find to attribute it to a new species, with a new name, to the eternal glory of the researcher in question; on the other hand, in this case, a certain (politically correct?) desire to insist on the fact that we are all members of the same family, whatever the shape of our jawbone.

*

 A second article on the same day at

https://theconversation.com/of-heads-and-headlines-can-a-skull-doom-14-human-species-19227

comes to a radically different conclusion. Darren Curnoe, who is a Human evolution specialist at the University of New South Wales, says: When the anatomical features (such as the eyebrow bone) of the skulls have been examined by experienced biologists rather than abstract computer methods, researchers like Jeffrey Schwartz have suggested that the Dmanisi sample contains multiple species.”

We’re going to leave our hominid ancestors there, because I know nothing about the subject, though I acknowledge that it’s fascinating and important. But note how the author is claiming that one can come to radically different conclusions, depending on whether one chooses to believe  “abstract computer methods” or the subjective opinions of experts on the same subject, which comes down to the measurement (by computer or by the eye of the expert) of the cheekbones and eyebrows of old skulls. 

Which brings us back to Sir Anthony Blunt,  art connoisseur and  KGB spy, and Alan Bennett’s excellent play on the subject. 

Most news stories on art nowadays tend to be based on scientific analysis which is supposed to reveal truths invisible to the eye of the mere art expert. “X ray analysis  of the Mona Lisa reveals that she was a 50 year-old man suffering from facial paralysis”, and so on. 

It was not always so. A now extinct generation of art connoisseurs was able to illuminate the past by the simple use of their judgement. As the great Italian art historian Federico Zeri observed: A century ago, any Italian painting of the late middle ages was attributed to Giotto. Now, thanks to the patient work of thousands of researchers, we know the names, and in large part the oeuvres, of sixty-odd artists contemporary with Giotto. 

Connoissership is out of fashion in the sophisticated, civilised world, but survives in popular culture, e.g. in programmes like the Antiques Road Show. What art historians like Blunt could do was look at a painting and say: “This is a Poussin. This isn’t.” End of story. (Of course, it wasn’t really the end of the story, since there’s always another expert ready to counter-expertise, but the process has its logic).  

Anyone who appreciates art can play, to a certain extent. The day you walk into an unfamiliar art gallery and, gazing myopically down the corridor, say: “Oh look! a Rubens!” you’ve become a connoisseur. [Then you get up closer and try and decide whether it’s really a Rubens, and not rather a Jordaens or a van Dyck – but never mind].

(There’s a marvellous moment in Alan Bennett’s play when Blunt is lecturing to some students in the Queen’s Picture gallery and Her Maj walks in, and delivers a majesterial discourse on the true and the false, the real and the imaginary, to a disconcerted Sir Anthony. Liz is a connoisseur as well – but of people).

Sir Anthony belonged to a generation of thirties left-wing intellectuals fascinated by Stalin’s Russia. Should we condemn him for his moral blindness, or try and understand the roots of his folly? 

Which brings us to Climate Scientists. Their subject is supposed to be incredibly complicated, beyond the  comprehension of simple mortals. But when you look at it, it comes down to simple graphs and charts such as those which Paul Matthews has taken from IPCC AR5 in  his blogposts. 

It’s really not difficult to see that temperatures have been gently zigzagging upwards in much the same fashion for the past approximately 200 years, before and since the injection of large amounts of anthropogenic greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; or that the error bars in the figure 10.5 from IPCC AR5 which he reproduces in his latest article preclude any definitive predictions as to future temperatures.

How do I know? Who am I to contradict Dr Schmidt of NASA and Realclimate?

Who am I? – Just a connoisseur, someone sure of their judgement, capable of interpreting what they see before them. 

The world needs connoisseurs, people who have confidence in their judgement. They won’t always be right, but the sum of their judgements will be the judgement of history.

[This article is for Mike Hulme, the climate scientist who pleaded for experts in other fields to join in the climate debate. His plea fell on deaf ears, since most non-scientists were spellbound by the reputation of “real” scientists doing “real” science. It’s time we non-experts rose to his challenge.]

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Of Cavemen, Connoisseurs, and Climate Scientists

  1. John Shade says:

    Hear, hear. The good citizen de nos jours must be prepared to engage with the scientific literature when it is used as a club with which to beat politicians and schoolchildren and other vulnerable groups. Wildavksy’s book ‘But Is It True?’ contains many examples of penetrating investigations by non-specialists into eco-scares. The internet can enable an even broader range of people to do the same.

  2. Lewis Deane says:

    Fascinating! I always disliked Bennet, especially his ‘talking heads’, a mawkish and literal ripping of souls but his Blunt and a question of attribution….An Englishman abroad. I guess it’s a question of class and a betrayal of that class. Sucking up to Liz and giving her an articulacy probably not warrented. And not being DH Lawrence! Don’t’ be anxious about being a conniourseure (! – damn phone!) – it is politics at which only children have no say.

  3. Lewis Deane says:

    I meant I like his Blunt! He knows about the duplicity, the ‘inversion’ of betrayal. Like Proust and his Baron de Charlus ( which I will never finish reading).

  4. Lewis Deane says:

    For I suppose one could make the effort to become a scientist like reading the recherche. or Montaigne Essays. But just like I cannot finish Montaigne and have read him all except the last essay because I cannot leave him, so I will not be bullied into science. Our memories go back ten thousand years. These upstarts! Quelle horeur!

  5. Lewis Deane says:

    For reading has no sense. At four I knew as much. Disturbed and hating I measured everyone and saw there sorrow. It was then I decided to retreat. To a hope, as PeterS would say. Only words become richer. As the soul and the body dies.

  6. Dodgy Geezer says:

    One should certainly appreciate the close relationship between palaeoanthropology and climate science.

    Forgive my generalisations, but I don’t have time to look up precise dates.

    In the early 1900s we had the discovery of Piltdown Man. It indicated that early man retained ape-like jaws but initially developed a larger cranium. This fitted in perfectly with the establishment mood of the time – man developed a brain first and this then changed his behaviour. Piltdown Man was ecstatically received by big museums of the day, and 90% of anthropologists believed in it. Probably 97%…

    Oddly, there were a few who didn’t. And they pointed out obvious technical flaws in the theory. They were hounded out of their positions and denied publication space. Real new discoveries of early hominids in South Africa were just ignored during the 1920s and 1930s, because they did not comply with the settled science.

    Eventually, as we know, Piltdown Man was shown to be a fake. A fake that had cost anthropology around 40 years of research time – about 1 generation of anthropologists had spent their careers researching a lie. So unsurprisingly it was hushed up – no one studied how it happened – and everyone studiously forgot about it.

    So when the same problem appeared in Climate Science, no one was there to say: “Hang on a second – this has happened before…”

    Perhaps we should ask Stephan Lewandowski to do a study of that period?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s