Paul Nurse and his Extra-Special Big Boy Pants

As a change from my Briffa reconsideration, I was intrigued by the recent correspondence between Nigel Lawson and Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, discussed from time to time at Bishop Hill, most recently here.

I commented on Nurse on an earlier occasion, when Nurse had given a completely untrue account of the connection of FOI and Climategate:

I have been told of some researchers who are getting lots of requests for, among other things, all drafts of scientific papers prior to their publication in journals, with annotations, explaining why changes were made between successive versions

Earlier this year, in a mostly interesting lecture about science policy in Australia early this year, Nurse took a cheap shot at Nigel Lawson, accusing him of cherrypicking two points in the temperature record of the past 20 years to show a standstill, “knowing” that the other data in the period did not support his point. Nurse began as follows:

But what in fact appears to happen is that the concerns at least of some of those worried about these types of actions, have led them to try and convince society by attacking the science of the majority of climate scientists and to use scientific arguments that on the whole are rather weak and unconvincing, and nearly always involve the cherry-picking of data. In other words, what’s happened is those who are very concerned about the outcomes and what one would have to do, in trying to make their argument have over-spilled into the science.

I entirely share Nurse’s disdain for the use of “scientific arguments that on the whole are rather weak and unconvincing, and nearly always involve the cherry-picking of data”: indeed, at Climate Audit, criticism of, for example, repetitive use of Graybill’s strip bark bristlecone chronologies, ex post screening and use of contaminated upside-down Tiljander sediments, have been longstanding themes. It very much seems to me that, in these cases, scientists who are “very concerned about the outcomes” have “over-spilled into the science”. That even something as simple as the misuse of Tiljander sediments in Mann et al 2008 remains without a corrigendum surely supports Nurse’s concern.

Nurse continued with a direct and untrue attack on Nigel Lawson:

We saw that, for example, in Britain with a politician, Nigel Lawson, who would go on the television and talk about the scientific case, and he was trained as a politician; you made whatever case you can to convince the audience. So he would choose two points and say, look, no warming is taking place, knowing that all the other points you chose in the 20 years around it would not support his case, but he was just wanting to win that debate on television.

On February 25, Lawson wrote back to Nurse, stating that Nurse’s allegation that Lawson had picked two points was a “lie”. Lawson stated that his difference with Nurse did not arise from “ideological” reasons, but on the issue of the effectiveness of policy responses. Lawson closed with the biting comment:

I hope that, on reflection, you will recognise that there should be a difference between the behaviour appropriate to a President of the Royal Society and acting as a shop steward for some kind of scientists’ closed shop.

On March 19, Nurse replied, expressing concern that Lawson was not receiving the “best advice”. Nurse offered to put Lawson “in contact with distinguished active climate research scientists” if Lawson though that useful. Nurse added a shot at Andrew Montford’s 2012 critical but even-tempered article on the Royal Society (Nullius in Verbis), published by the GWPF, telling Lawson:

It[GWPF] should also focus more on science and policy rather than on personal attacks on individuals with whom the GWPF disagrees. For example, you will recall that last year the GWPF published named personal attacks on four successive Presidents of the Royal Society.

Lawson immediately (March 19) wrote back, accepting Nurse’s “kind offer to arrange a meeting” with Nurse’s climate scientists. However, Lawson rejected Nurse’s other editorial comments, including Nurses’s characterization of Montford’s article, stating:

So far from personal attacks, this was a reasoned and well-documented critique of the conduct of the Royal Society on this issue under recent Presidents – a critique which, as you will be aware, is shared by a number of your own members.

In April, the absurd Stephen Lewandowsky received a fellowship award from the Royal Society.

In May, the Royal Society announced that the prominent oceanographer, Prince Andrew, had been appointed as a member.

In early May, Nurse responded to Lawson, apparently notifying Hannah Devlin of the Times of his response prior to its receipt by GWPF. Devlin tweeted:

I do hope @TheGWPF takes @royalsociety up on this offer to engage with mainstream scientific community

Nurse’s letter listed “five internationally distinguished climate scientists who are all UK-based and Fellows of the Royal Society” [Brian Hoskins, John Mitchell, Tim Palmer, John Shepherd, Eric Wolff], all of whom were copied on Nurse’s letter “so that they are aware that you may be contacting them”. Nurse explained his criticism of Nullius in Verba as follows:

Second, I think that you are rather overstating the credibility of the Montford document. For example, Montford disparages me for criticising politicians who talk nonsense about science. I list below some of those statements that I criticized:

“intelligent design is a legitimate theory that should be taught in science class’
“Don’t believe in a theory that human beings originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea or from monkeys who eventually swing down from the sea”
“That climate problems in Texas are best solved through days of prayer for rain”

What is the GWPF doing publishing something that gives support for such absurd anti-science views? Surely you do not think scientists or anyone else should sit idly by when politicians talk nonsense about scientific issues?

As an editorial comment, it seems to me that even Nurse himself cannot possible be held accountable if he sometimes “sits idly” by when a politician talks nonsense, as, if Nurse adhered to this impossible standard, he would surely end up doing nothing but parsing statements by politicians around the world. Nor, to my knowledge, has Nurse spoken out against politicians talking nonsense about solar and wind, a topic on which James Hansen, to his credit, has spoken out, condemning as sentencing his grandchildren to drinking green koolaid.

On May 20, Lawson replied to Nurse, notifying him that Peiser, the director of the GWPF, would contact the five scientists with a “view to setting up a meeting with a team from the GWPF” and suggesting the following “twofold agenda”:

1. The science of global warming, with special reference to (a0 the climate sensitivity of carbob: (b) the extent of natural variability
2. The conduct and professional standards of those involved in the relevant scientific inquiry and official advisory process

Lawson also rejected Nurse’s fabricated allegation that the GWPF had supported intelligent design or prayer a a climate policy as follows:

First, at no time has the GWPF published anything advocating either the theory of intelligent design or prayer as a climate policy, nor would we dream of doing so. If anything can be classified as “anti-science”, it is your blatant disregard for these facts.

Peiser sent out the promised invitations to the five Royal Society fellows, listing Vincent Courtillot, Michael Kelly, Nic Lewis, Richard Lindzen, Matt Ridley, Richard Tol as GWPF representatives, noting that four of them were on the Academic Advisory Council of the GWPF. Peiser’s proposed agenda matched the one set out in Lawson’s letter.

Peiser also attached a GWPF briefing paper setting out GWPF’s points of agreement and disagreement. Peiser’s statement of issues is an interesting summary. I, for one, would have been keenly interested in the results of a discussion between the groups about the issues as set out by Peiser.

Despite the even-temperedness of Lawson’s letter, Nurse responded angrily, stating:

I tire of your rude and aggressive letters and begin to wonder whether it is worth the effort of trying to help you.

Montford criticized me for criticizing anti-science remarks made in the US, the ones which I quoted in my letter. Either you are unaware of this nonsense published by the GWPF or you are now distancing yourself from the Montford report. For your information, the Montford comment is on page 36 of the GWPF report [SM: here] and the New Scientist article he criticized is attached. [see here]

On June 5, the five Royal Society scientists wrote to Lawson, refusing the GWPF invitation to meet with his advisers. They stated:

We do not consider the meeting [that Peiser] proposes is the best way to improve the quality and breadth of the scientific advice available to you. We should however like to confirm that we would be happy to provide you personally with advice on specific climate science issues, as was originally offered by Sir Paul Nurse. The 2010 Royal Society document “Climate change: a summary of the science”, to which we all contributed would be a suitable starting point. Please let us know if there are specific scientific issues arising from this statement on which you would like to have further information and advice.

Lawson replied to Nurse on July 9 as follows:

I have only recently received your ill-tempered letter of June 4…

I am surprised by its content which focus on a complaint about Andrew Montford’s report The Royal Society and Climate Change, published by the GWPF. The report appeared over a year ago, long before our correspondence began. It is in no sense ‘anti-science”.

I am disappointed by the letter from the five scientists nominated by you in your previous letter, in which they decline to meet my scientific colleagues for a discussion of the issues involved in climate change policy. They give no good reason for their unwillingness to engage though they do state that they would be happy to “advise” me personally. That can be readily achieved. I would like to invite your Fellows to meet me and my team in the House of Lords and to fix a firm date for such meeting as soon as practicable.

If this is not acceptable, I can only conclude that regrettably you and your colleagues are unwilling to engage in genuine discussion and debate about this important issue.

There matters stand. But what of Nurse’s attempt to associate GWPF with fish sprouting legs and days of prayer?

Nullius in Verba
Nullius in Verba commences with the 1753 “advertisement” to their journal, Philosophical Transactions:

…it is an established rule of the Society, to which they will always adhere, never to give their opinion as a Body upon any subject either of Nature or Art, that comes before them.”

According to Montford, the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions formerly carried the following notice:

‘It is neither necessary nor desirable for the Society to give an official ruling on scientific issues, for these are settled far more conclusively in the laboratory than in the committee room’.

Montford then provides a lucid exposition of the efforts by recent presidents of the Royal Society to achieve a wider political role.

Nurse identified page 36 as being especially contentious. The page commences with a brief discussion of Nurse’s incorrect understanding of FOI issues, quoting from Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

In a section entitled “A wider political role”, Montford first gave (paragraph 121) a lengthy quotation from Nurse’s interview with Nature on Sep 13, 2011:

For Paul Nurse, few things are off-limits. Since taking over as president of Britain’s Royal Society in December last year, he has been overseeing a strategic review that is likely to lead to the first change to the society’s charter since it was signed by King Charles II in 1662…

Nurse wants the society to have a stronger voice on the big policy questions of the day. “The Royal Society has a responsibility to provide advice on difficult issues, even if they are contentious,” he says.

Montford then (para 122) noted that Nurse’s plan was not supported by all scientists, again providing a lengthy quotation, this time from a comment in the Nature thread on the Nurse article by Chris Exley, a former RS University Research Fellow:

Great science will truly inform government policy while informed opinions on science can only fuel debate. Personally I enjoy both of these aspects of being a scientist though I know which one of these actually counts. Please do not turn The Royal Society into another policy-driven quango..

Montford concluded the short section with the following:

123. However, the following day Nurse reentered the political fray, launching an attack on what he saw as ‘anti-science’ attitudes in the US Republican party. [83- an editorial by Nurse in the New Scientists ]. It appears, then, that a policy-driven quango is exactly what Nurse intends the Society to become.

If one re-examines Nurse’s New Scientist editorial, it seems to be exactly what Montford described: “an attack on what [Nurse] saw as ‘anti-science’ attitudes in the US Republican party”. I happen to share Nurse’s disdain on many points, though I thought that his concern that U.S. scientists were about to decamp for the UK, China and India was somewhat overheated. However, given that there were many able Americans speaking out on the matter, one might wonder whether this was an issue that actually required the attention of the President of the UK Royal Society or whether Nurse’s priorities might be better directed towards scientific misunderstandings by UK politicians, such as, arguably, their belief in wind and solar policies.

Nor did Montford’s sentence (which seems to be accurate on its face) imply in any way that either Montford or the GWPF endorsed the views that Nurse criticized in his New Scientist editorial.

Nurse had originally alleged that the GWPF had published “named personal attacks on four successive Presidents of the Royal Society”. When challenged, Nurse failed to produce any evidence, instead claiming that Nullius in Verba gave “support for absurd anti-science views”, an unfounded allegation that GWPF denied and which turns out to be founded on nothing more than the above Montford sentence.

Nurse’s thin-skinned and consistently incorrect characterization of Nullius in Verba reminds me of Lucia’s warning about Gavin Schmidt (to which I referred recently in connection with mischaracterization by CRU and Schmidt himself):

I might suggest that you are assuming that people asked the questions Gavin says they asked, and that Gavin’s answer to their questions is adequate because Gavin tells us his answer is adequate.

It also seems to me that there is also a tinge of Gleick and Lewandowsky in Nurse’s remarks and ill-informed attitude towards skeptics. The term “anti-science” occurred in Gleick’s forgery and was one of the words that tipped Mosher that it was a forgery. And rather than Nurse’s New Scientist editorial suggesting output from a “policy quango”, as Montford had suggested, it seems far more similar to an editorial that might have come from the US National Center for Science Education, to which Gleick had been nominated as a director in January 2012 (though the nomination was withdrawn after Gleick’s fraud and forgery were revealed.)

In respect to the vituperativeness of Nurse’s response both to the sentence in paragraph 121 (page 36) of Nullius in Verba and to Lawson’s letter, one is also reminded of another Lucia suggestion:

put on your big boy pants.

Indeed, according to an incident recounted in Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile (discussed at Bishop Hill here), it seems that Nurse believes that he wears extra-special big boy pants. Taleb writes:

As I was writing this book, I overheard on a British Air flight a gentleman explain to the flight attendant less than two seconds into the conversation (meant to be about whether he liked cream and sugar in his coffee) that he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine “and Physiology” in addition to being the president of a famous monarchal academy. The flight attendant did not know what the Nobel was, but was polite, so he kept repeating “the Nobel Prize” hoping that she would wake up from her ignorance. I turned around and recognized him, and the character suddenly deflated. As the saying goes, it is hardest to be a great man to one’s chambermaid.


  1. Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 1:52 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Quango: “quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization” i.e. “An organization that, although financed by a government, acts independently of it.” (from Wiktionary)

    With the advent of Paul Nurse, being a Fellow of the Royal Society has become a warning sign for oneself and most of all, for everybody else.

  2. Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 1:58 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on Climate Ponderings.

  3. Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 1:59 PM | Permalink | Reply

    The link in “Nurse responded angrily” is wrong. It is

    which does not contain anything by Nurse.

    Steve: fixed.

  4. pesadia
    Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 3:39 PM | Permalink | Reply

    “So it happens that the experts who talk publicly about politically contentious questions tend to speak more clearly than they think. They make confident predictions about the future, and end up believing their own predictions. Their predictions become dogmas which they do not question”

    Snippet from Freeman Dyson. Why we need heretics.
    As Oscar Wilde might have said, I wish I had said that.

  5. Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 3:47 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for this Steve.

    What is funny about Nurse’s insinuation that I am some kind of a creationist is that, despite the title of my blog, I am in fact entirely free of religious belief.

  6. Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 4:12 PM | Permalink | Reply

    McIntyre spelled . “Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile”

    I believe Taleb’s name is, Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I am reading his book, “Antifragility”, now.

    Great post.

  7. Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 4:13 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I know Steve does other things which are more intellectually challenging, and of which he is perhaps prouder, but we footbloggers in the climate wars need this as well. Pure pleasure. Steve is a great modern essayist. Many thanks.

  8. Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 4:22 PM | Permalink | Reply

    OOPS! his book, “Antifragility” should read, “Antifragile”.

  9. Steve McIntyre
    Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 4:32 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Nurse observed:

    A feature of [the global warming] controversy is that those that deny there is a problem often seem to have political or ideological views that lead them to be unhappy with the actions that would be necessary should global warming be due to human activity. I think that’s a crucial point.

    Now consider the GWPF nominees for the proposed meeting: Lindzen, Tol, Ridley, Lewis, Kelly, Courtillot. None of them fit into Nurse’s tereotype.

    • Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 4:43 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Yeah, that also badly needs to be said. Thank you for all of this Steve.

    • Jonas N
      Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 6:18 PM | Permalink | Reply

      I can’t help it but the phrase:

      “deny there is a problem often seem to have political or ideological views that lead them to be unhappy with the actions that would be necessary should global warming be due to human activity”

      I cannot read this differently, than that the existence of GW with the (possibly notable) A before it, somehow mandate “actions … necessary” due to human activity!

      I.e. that it is the ‘necessary actions’ that are the centerpiece, and by necessity the political core of the issue. And that those who argue such rather not would have their political (and/or ideological) views challanged in public.

      And still I have yet to see anybody propose or even vigorously argue political ‘actions’ that even have the slighets chance to only measurably affect the alleged problems that the other side ‘denies’ based on ideology.

      The whol sentence makes no sense (other than being a stark contradiction of its own premise)

    • Nicholas
      Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 6:27 PM | Permalink | Reply

      What a crazy thing to say!

      Any course of action you can justify solely based on the theory that it migigates harm due to AGW will almost certainly cause harm in the absense of AGW. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t need to argue that AGW is real to advocate it (although I suppose that might make it easier to advocate). So he’s accuming people who don’t believe in AGW of not being “happy” about policies to mitigate it despite the fact that they will almost certainly do more harm than good in the absense of AGW? Isn’t that simply the rational position to take?

      I realise this sort of discussion could go off-topic quite easily and I’d really rather go over the meta-argument about whether there are any anti-AGW policies which we should be “happy” about regardless of whether AGW is real or not, I just wanted to point out how weak I think this statement is.

      • Nicholas
        Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 6:30 PM | Permalink | Reply

        Oh, I left out the crux of my argument.

        Let’s say you aren’t happy with these steps taken to combat AGW. Then let’s say you change your mind on AGW – yes, it is a real threat and needs to be dealt with. You still wouldn’t be *happy* about those action necessary to combat it, would you? They would still have the same deleterious effects. You might agree now that they’re necessary but that won’t necessarily make you happy about having to do them. I know I would feel terrible about policies to make energy much more expensive (which would probably hurt the poor far more than they would hurt people like me) even if they were necessary for the “greater good”. So as I said.. weak argument.

    • Jeff Norman
      Posted Jul 14, 2013 at 12:20 PM | Permalink | Reply

      The quote from Nurse works both ways:

      A feature of [the global warming] controversy is that those that assert there is a problem often seem to have political or ideological views that lead them to be happy with the actions that would be necessary should global warming be due to human activity.

    • Salamano
      Posted Jul 14, 2013 at 4:28 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Could the reverse also be true… that those that do adhere to the “prevailing climate understanding” also have an independent fondness for the character of the world fostered by the policies the view demands?

      I can imagine that if Roger Pielke Jr. and Paul Nurse were to write down their “no-regrets” moves in light of climate change adaptation or mitigation, there would be many different things put on the table, some of which directly oppose each other.

    • Posted Jul 15, 2013 at 11:32 AM | Permalink | Reply

      I think that people forget that politicians often take unusual public positions on known facts in order to promote the desired outcomes. Nurses article paints conservatives with quite a broad brush and fails to recognize that there are other approaches to “addressing” global warming than the anti-industrial “solutions” which advocates like himself propose.

      The goal in politics often supersedes the stated reasoning and I don’t think that most would claim that anti-science attitudes are confined unilaterally to conservatives. Is it scientific or is it activist to shut down petroleum production to save people from starving due to AGW considering that 1 – the proposed solution causes the same problem and 2 – there is no attributable damage by agw? The New Scientist article is just another political rant by an activist in a journal sporting Science in its title. While I am also frustrated with political discussion based on unscientific terms, I find nothing of value in the attitudes or in the discussion created by this particular New Scientist article.

      – sorry if that is too far off topic.

      • Posted Jul 15, 2013 at 11:11 PM | Permalink | Reply

        ” I find nothing of value in the attitudes or in the discussion created by this particular New Scientist article. ”

        Should be – ” I find nothing of value in the attitude or in the political declaration intended by this particular New Scientist article. ”

        I don’t want my point to be misconstrued. Nurse had a tall soapbox and used it poorly.

    • Lawrence13 London
      Posted Jul 26, 2013 at 7:00 AM | Permalink | Reply

      I remember the Nurse documentary where he showed the same type of people demonstrating against GM foods and not trusting the scientific consensus were the same people that totally trusted the so called science consensus when it came to AGW. You’d think a great brain like Nurse would have noted that objective evidence.

      Hey Ho.

  10. Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 4:41 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Bravo, Steve!

    Believe it or not, I began drafting a post in a similar vein, as this latest in the “rhetorical misadventures of little Nurse Paul” began hurtling towards (what I saw as) its inevitable conclusion. But you beat me to the punch – so I’ve now flushed my draft from an over-flowing back-burner ;-)

    Although, FWIW, my take was from the POV that Nurse appears to have acquired his “knowledge” – both of climate science and of skeptics – from no less a tutor than the world-renowned “expert” (and erstwhile RS employee), Bob <fast-fingered obsessive whiner par excellence> Ward!

    • Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 4:45 PM | Permalink | Reply

      I was also thinking that Bob Ward must have been involved in this debacle Hilary. I won’t say ‘great minds’ because mine is obviously considerably inferior to yours :)

  11. Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 4:41 PM | Permalink | Reply

    As is often the case in climate science and its self-regarding official supporters, when you lay a story out in full it is far more astonishing than one originally imagines.

    What on earth was Paul Nurse thinking of in using the debate among Republican presidential hopefuls in the US as relevant to his own concerns in the New Scientist? To criticise this in the following terms:

    … the following day Nurse reentered the political fray, launching an attack on what he saw as ‘anti-science’ attitudes in the US Republican party. It appears, then, that a policy-driven quango is exactly what Nurse intends the Society to become.

    is both fair and implies nothing about Andrew Montford’s opinions one way or the other on any of the subjects with which Nurse said the US politicians were concerned. To imply otherwise is a ridiculous offence against logic as well as good manners.

    How can Paul Nurse know, for example, Andrew Montford’s position on whether stem cells useful for medical research should be generated from foetuses that are consequently not allowed to develop into viable human beings or from adults who do not suffer as a result? It’s not my area of expertise but it is a reasonable political question. For Nurse to imply that one side of the argument is outlandish I find offensive, as it happens. But for Nurse to imply that he knows Andrew Montford’s opinion on this issue because of Andrew’s criticism of him for getting involved in politics is simply astonishing.

    The bigger picture here is surely that Nurse and others are very aware that they are losing ground to Nigel Lawson in the corridors of power in the UK. All they’ve got is smear tactics but it’s interesting that they have to come to the United States to make the associations they feel they need. A truly pathetic effort.

    • John Archer
      Posted Jul 19, 2013 at 7:44 AM | Permalink | Reply

      To criticise this in the following terms:

      … the following day Nurse reentered the political fray, launching an attack on what he saw as ‘anti-science’ attitudes in the US Republican party. It appears, then, that a policy-driven quango is exactly what Nurse intends the Society to become.

      is both fair and implies nothing about Andrew Montford’s opinions one way or the other on any of the subjects with which Nurse said the US politicians were concerned. To imply otherwise is a ridiculous offence against logic as well as good manners.

      I fully agree. But it isn’t simply “a ridiculous offence against logic as well as good manners” — it is truly astonishing! It deeply offends against logic.

      I saw Nurse for the first time a couple of years ago on some al beeb programme (the one where he stitched Delingpole up), the most surprising thing about which, for me anyway, was not in the content of the programme as such but the impression I formed of Nurse.

      I don’t know how to put this delicately so I won’t even try. I felt I was having a Homer Simpson moment because throughout the programme my thoughts were vacillating thus: “That man is thick. But he can’t be — he’s the president of The Royal Society and Nobel Prize winner. But he is thick. But he can’tbe because… But he is…..

      The more I hear about him the more I’m sure I was right first time. Sure, this entails revolutionary ideas about The Royal Society and the Nobel Prize but these days I’m quite happy to entertain those too.

      I think the misconstruing of Montford by Nurse is now easily understandable. I don’t know if you have ever been involved in a dispute with anyone who’s a little dim, but my experience is that logic flies out the window if there’s any kind of emotional commitment involved on their part. Instant imputing of motives, imagined sleights, outrageous inferences, red herrings galore….

      OK, Nurse isn’t quite that bad but the tendency to the mindset seems evident. I’d say Nurse ‘knows’ Montford is a ‘bad person’ and that he is therefore predisposed, as is our dim friend above, to assume Montford holds ALL the kind of views that ‘bad people’ hold and probably feels quite safe in that assumption (no need to actually check it). Hence it was a genuine inference on his part — yes, he actually believes it. When he read Montford he ‘interpreted’ him instantly, and ‘moved on’. But one does have to be a little thick to do that.

      I rest my case. :)

      P.S. I’m reminded of the injunction, “Don’t fight with the sweep — you’ll get covered in soot.” I’m sure Nurse sweeps his own chimney.

  12. son of mulder
    Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 4:48 PM | Permalink | Reply

    This scientific debate about whether anthropogenic climate change is dangerous needs to end up like a game of postal chess (on the internet). In the red corner GWPF and in the blue corner FRS’s. The debate has to be had, recorded and broadcast in an unexpurgated form with detailed scientific analysis of each intellectual punch and parry. We need a bit of progress through ordered and fairly managed conflict. The current pussyfooting around, bad mouthing and throwing tantrums is worthy only of the school playground. and that’s not to mention the political and commercial advocacy.

    I shall respect those with the guts to stand up and present their scientific arguments and fairly considered counter arguments, while leaving it to me to decide their validity, strengths and weaknesses.

    However given the depth and complexity of the scientific arena in which this debate will be conducted, I believe it necessarily must be a team event with a third team of highly competent physicists, chemists and mathematicians to ensure fair play and highlight the key scientific agreements, disagreements and falsehoods.

    It’s time for scientific clarity, what is known, and what isn’t known.

    Final deliverable, an agreed current state of play, significant and relevant knowns and unknowns.

    Simple. Real scientists can do this. Then economists and politicians have a starting point we understand.

    • Posted Jul 15, 2013 at 2:07 AM | Permalink | Reply

      @son of mulder -

      While your suggestion that a real debate at the highest levels, with running commentary, should take place is, of course, a good idea, and one event long overdue.

      To take a clue from political campaigns, though, no front runner with a big lead agrees to a debate with their also-rans of the moment. Political front runners realize that in such a case they have everything to lose and nothing to gain from such a public debate.

      I put it to you not that Nurse or the AGW crowd HAVE such a lead (though before Climategate they certainly did), but that they DO still believe that they do – albeit realizing that their lead has shrunk. Pre-CG, they certainly had the podium to themselves, and even the most obtuse of them (Nurse included) must realize they’ve lost ground.

      But until they’ve completely lost their “landslide” lead, no AGW advocates at any high level anywhere are going to actually debate anyone. And then, simply, it will be too late. Too little and too late. As in little boy pants…LOL

      Nurse acts like some petulant little boy. I fully expect him, in some future correspondence, to threaten to hold his breath.

      But never to debate.

      p.s. I would point to one debate that DID happen, “Global Warming is Not Crisis,” and one that included the aforementioned Richard Lindzen. It took place in early 2007 and that Steve M posted on here:

      …and the audience results that ensued.

      That debate – at the height of the dominance of AGW – devolved into the con- side repeatedly appealing to authority while the pro- side kept arguing the science. Good on our side for sticking to the science.

  13. pottereaton
    Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 5:08 PM | Permalink | Reply

    “I tire of your rude and aggressive letters and begin to wonder whether it is worth the effort of trying to help you.”

    That this sentence is addressed to a member of the House of Lords and written by the President of the Royal Society tells us all we need to know about that President and the future of the Society. Lawson’s letters were neither aggressive or rude. They were in fact business-like and attempting to create an atmosphere in which dialogue might flourish.

    Nurse’s idea of dialogue is apparently to provide a forum for him him and his experts to proselytize and patronize and then shutoff any response from the other side.

    • JEM
      Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 5:55 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Oh, I’d have forgiven the tone of that remark until I got to the word ‘help’.

      At which point I concluded that there was no longer any doubt that Nurse was an irredeemable, supercilious, self-important little…pecker.

    • Paul Penrose
      Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 9:33 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Yes, people like Nurse think that it is rude to disagree with him. There is no way to have a rational discussion with such a person.

    • Lars P.
      Posted Jul 16, 2013 at 3:51 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Exactly. That struck me also at the point. The coordinated unwillingness to debate. Nothing new under the sun.

  14. PhilH
    Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 5:27 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I hate to say this…and I don’t know the man, but I am afraid that Paul Nurse is a bit of a jerk.

  15. dearieme
    Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 5:30 PM | Permalink | Reply

    “And always keep ahold of Nurse
    For fear of finding something worse.”

    Could that have been the notion behind the Fellows electing Nurse as their leader? Did they suspect that their fellowship included even worse candidates?

  16. Dave L.
    Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 6:06 PM | Permalink | Reply

    One wonders whether or not the Governing Council of the Royal Society has any control over Nurse’s ramblings. I would be embarrassed were I am member of said Council.

  17. Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 7:39 PM | Permalink | Reply

    About a third of the way through your article, you state:

    it seems to me that even Nurse himself cannot possible be held accountable if he sometimes “sits idly” by when a politician talks nonsense

    I believe you mean “possibly”.

    Thank you for an excellent read.

  18. Barry
    Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 7:43 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Nurse is responding to repeated comments like

    “There has been no net increase in global temperatures for about 16 years, a period about
    the same length as the warming period that preceded it.”

    from the briefing paper.

    This is a classic example of cherry picking amounting to a lie. It is also widely stated by people (like Lawson) expecting to have credibility in debates about global warming policy. Temperature has increased by about 1 degree C per decade on a decade by decade basis for the last 50 or so years. This is true of the last 16 years as well. You can only say that temperature hasn’t increased by choosing your starting year to be an outlier. You could eaually say that the rise has been very large over the last 17 years or 14 years (depending on when you are actually making the statement).

    • Craig Loehle
      Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 9:59 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Cherry picking would be to select say 1943 or 1988 as a start year, but if experts assure us that temperatures will rise inexorably and for the most recent 16 yrs they have not, this seems informative.
      Furthermore, temperatures have not increased 1 deg C per decade– that would give a 10 degree rise the past 100 yrs. and I fail to see how you can assert the rise continues over the past decade when it most certainly has not.

      • Barry
        Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 10:33 PM | Permalink | Reply

        Of course that should have been 0.1 degrees per decade or 1 degree per century.

        If you don’t believe that Lawson et al are cherry picking can you explain why they say 16 years rather than say 20 or 15? Why do they pick any year to year figure, when those are going to be dominated by noise?

        The average temperature for the last decade (the noughties) was more than 0.1 degrees higher than the 90s which was more than 0.1 degrees warmer than the 80s. It is a bit early to speculate about this decade but I wouldn’t bet against it. The averages have increased significantly every decade since the 50s.

        Steve: Nurse’s particular allegation was: “So he would choose two points and say, look, no warming is taking place, knowing that all the other points you chose in the 20 years around it would not support his case”. This was not what Lawson did. The existence of the “slowdown” has now caught the attention of even IPCC scientists. It is an interesting one, but I would prefer to limit this post to issues that tie directly to Nurse. I have some thoughts on the “slowdown” and will post on it in the near future. So I would prefer that commenters stick to Nurse for this thread.

        • Craig Loehle
          Posted Jul 14, 2013 at 7:56 AM | Permalink

          Even granting 0.1 deg C/decade, the models assert 0.3 to 0.6 per decade to get the upper scenarios, which are the scary ones.

    • Posted Jul 14, 2013 at 3:26 AM | Permalink | Reply

      “Nurse is responding to repeated comments like…”

      Well that’s just your speculative apologia, isn’t it?

      Nurses’s response is a barrage of unsupported accusations that Lawson has been rude, when in fact the documentary evidence in the exchange contains no evidence to support that assertion. Lawson is polite, reasonable, and measured in his tone,

      You can (and I guess you would) argue that Lawson is factually wrong, but that’s not the focus of Nurses’s response. Nurse, with his petulant and churlish behaviour, appears to be trying to drag Lawson down to his rhetorical level. But Lawson is having none of it; he has left Nurse with no reasonable out for a meeting.

  19. Robert Austin
    Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 7:45 PM | Permalink | Reply

    “We should however like to confirm that we would be happy to provide you personally with advice on specific climate science issues”

    In other words, we will talk and we expect you to silently listen with humility. Questioning of our exalted experts is verboten.

  20. AntonyIndia
    Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 11:09 PM | Permalink | Reply

    In defense of Paul Nurse vs. the stewardess (from the Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile): his surname on the passenger list might have fooled her so he “had” to make sure how High He was flying.

  21. MikeN
    Posted Jul 13, 2013 at 11:32 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I think Gleick used anti-climate.

    Steve: yup.

    • Skiphil
      Posted Jul 14, 2013 at 5:10 PM | Permalink | Reply


      I want to put it on the record that I am PRO-climate.

      I think a climate is an excellent thing.

      Especially on planet earth….

  22. kim
    Posted Jul 14, 2013 at 3:44 AM | Permalink | Reply

    That’s twice in the last six months I’ve been reminded of the cartoon of the little Emperor who pegged his trousers to his bedstead and jumped into both legs of them at once so it couldn’t be said about him that he put his pants on one leg at a time like everybody else.

  23. Spence_UK
    Posted Jul 14, 2013 at 3:46 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Sir Paul Nurse in his New Scientist article seems to be pandering to the Mooney-esque “Republican War on Science” which Roger Pielke Jr has done a very good job of skewering in the past.

    I know this is drifting off topic a little – snip if you want Steve – but Nurse has also been outspoken on the topic of GM food, a topic that is much more in his own domain, and which the US Republicans have supported strongly but the European environmentalists and left have rejected. Nurse could have made his article much less partisan by making this observation.

    His decision to play politics in this way entirely justifies, in my eyes, Montford’s characterisation of Nurse’s article. For Nurse to dismiss this observation as those deniers being rude is an absolute disgrace, and brings the RS into disrepute – especially as it appears on RS headed paper.

    • kim
      Posted Jul 14, 2013 at 3:50 AM | Permalink | Reply

      The wounded old nurse is only up to about the fiftieth of Bartholomew’s rude hats.

    • Posted Jul 14, 2013 at 6:28 AM | Permalink | Reply

      A really valuable point about Nurse not mentioning GM food, Spence. (Snips all round if considered off-topic, needless to say.)

  24. durango12
    Posted Jul 14, 2013 at 2:20 PM | Permalink | Reply

    This tragicomedy continues to unfold. The real casualty is science, especially Britsh science. The likes of Newton, Banks, and Davy must be rolling in their graves at Nurse’s behavior.

  25. pesadia
    Posted Jul 14, 2013 at 3:26 PM | Permalink | Reply


    Banks and davy maybe, but Newton, I don’t think so.
    Look at the way he treated Liebniz.

    • tlitb1
      Posted Jul 14, 2013 at 3:39 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Re: pesadia (Jul 14 15:26), Or Hooke and Flamsteed and a few others. There is credible evidence that Newton’s time in power in the RS held back publishing papers by people who didn’t accord with his personal liking and held back British scientific and mathematics development.
      It seems the RS is an entity that can lie quiescent, merely existing as its initial policy and motto suggests, as a means of promoting the best in science without latching onto to dogma, but there has always has been this build up of kudos and latent power that offers the possibility of it being wielded as an active club for pushing transient dogma. I suggest it going through one of those periods.

  26. John Paul
    Posted Jul 15, 2013 at 1:01 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Another excerpt from Antifragile:

    The fragilista falls for the Soviet-Harvard delusion, the (unscientific) overestimation of the reach of scientific knowledge. Because of such delusion, he is what is called a naive rationalist, a rationalizer, or sometimes just a rationalist, in the sense that he believes that the reasons behind things are automatically accessible to him. And let us not confuse rationalizing with rational—the two are almost always exact opposites.

    Outside of physics, and generally in complex domains, the reasons behind things have had a tendency to make themselves less obvious to us, and even less to the fragilista. This property of natural things not to advertise themselves in a user’s manual is, alas, not much of a hindrance: some fragilistas will get together to write the user’s manual themselves, thanks to their definition of “science.”

    So thanks to the fragilista, modern culture has been increasingly building blindness to the mysterious, the impenetrable, what Nietzsche called the Dionysian, in life.
    Or to translate Nietzsche into the less poetic but no less insightful Brooklyn vernacular, this is what our character Fat Tony calls a “sucker game.”

    In short, the fragilista (medical, economic, social planning) is one who makes you engage in policies and actions, all artificial, in which the benefits are small and visible, and the side effects potentially severe and invisible.


    I think this describes Paul Nurse and AGW alarmists to a tee.

  27. Stacey
    Posted Jul 15, 2013 at 2:11 AM | Permalink | Reply

    I think you’ve invented a new word ‘teryotype’ it has a ring about it and all we need is a definition? ;-)

  28. Posted Jul 15, 2013 at 2:29 AM | Permalink | Reply

    For Nurse to drag in Republicans in the US Congress – as a main point, no less – was especially pathetic. The US Congress has zilch to do with the RS or UK policies.

    I am sure that if he searched online for more than ten minutes he could find all sorts of things said in legislatures all over the world. What do any of them have to do with Montford, Lawson, or a debate/discussion with fellow Brits?

    I would think “peckerhead” is more fitting than “pecker.” Snip if you want, Steve! But I know in you heart you are laughing….LOL

  29. fastfreddy101
    Posted Jul 15, 2013 at 6:46 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Referring to SteveMc’s clothes quote; methinks Nurse is flapping like a big girl’s blouse.

  30. Posted Jul 15, 2013 at 8:10 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Steve Garcia says:
    “For Nurse to drag in Republicans in the US Congress – as a main point, no less – was especially pathetic. The US Congress has zilch to do with the RS or UK policies.”
    In my experience Brits have a hard time concealing their contempt for Yanks as they call the Americans and American politicians of a conservative inclination are at top of the list in a Brit’s pantheon of the “damnable Yanks”. Nurse’s little political gamesmanship is nothing more than a political appeal to a base he knows exists.

    • Hector Pascal
      Posted Jul 16, 2013 at 8:45 AM | Permalink | Reply

      In my experience Brits have a hard time concealing their contempt for Yanks

      Some do, some don’t. Your unqualified assertion is that all Brits have contempt for Yanks. I’m a Brit and I don’t have contempt for all Yanks. Just those who make unqualified and unsupported assertions criticising (any) nation.

  31. Andrew
    Posted Jul 17, 2013 at 12:01 AM | Permalink | Reply


    For some one who claims to dislike snark, you are certainly far more than full of it in this post, starting with the title. And quoting Taleb on Nurse at second hand is simply ridiculous. No doubt Taleb has made made a fortune out of dynamic hedging, and also the book of the same name, but his subsequent books, starting with “The Black Swan”, are, let’s face it, rubbish. And then there’s this nonsense: “I overheard on a British Air flight a gentleman explain to the flight attendant less (sic) than two seconds into the conversation (meant to be about whether he liked cream and sugar in his coffee) that he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine “. It would take me more than three seconds to ask the question, let alone divine the intent of the conversation, as Taleb seems to have done instantaneously.

    Steve: I don’t recall ever “claiming” to “dislike snark”. I dislike angriness. I think that one has to be careful with irony, since it doesn’t always work. In this particular case, I hope that readers share my disdain for Nurse’s untrue and pompous reaction to Montford’s criticism and for his surly response to the approach from the GWPF. If the problem is as serious as he believes, he should welcome the opportunity to talk to and attempt to convert the highly reasonable people nominated by GWPF to the discussion.

    • miker613
      Posted Jul 17, 2013 at 7:05 PM | Permalink | Reply

      I’ll leave it to Steve to defend himself, but I’ll say taht your other comments are strange. Taleb has some really interesting ideas; you’re entitled to your opinion, but since you didn’t back it up in any way, the rest of us will probably keep ours. And your criticism of his story is that he used obvious exaggeration to make his point? Or that it’s hearsay (“secondhand”)? So you don’t have to believe it, but others may choose to.

  32. Posted Jul 14, 2013 at 6:59 AM | Permalink | Reply

    Helpful to bring in the economic analogue, as it’s an area Lawson is said to know. He wouldn’t be having this problem with a fellow-economist surely.

  33. Lars P.
    Posted Jul 16, 2013 at 4:01 PM | Permalink | Reply

    Outch :) thanks for the good laugh

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