Mostly Harmless

If anyone ever gets round to compiling a list of books that don’t exist, but should, then surely the first on that list would be the fictional Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy. A work that “contains much that apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate”, but scores out over the older, more pedestrian Encyclopaedia Galactica, in two important areas

  1. It is slightly cheaper
  2. It has the words “Don’t Panic” written on the cover

So it is not surprising that when Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia in January 2001, from the ashes of the online academic information resource Nupedia, containing a few hundred articles, that it underwent exponential growth within a few years to become a real-life HGTTG . The statistics speak for themselves, over 3 million articles in the English language version alone with 264 other languages supported as per 2009. There are estimated to be over 10 million articles in total, with 50 million unique hits each month. Its coverage is legendarily wide; ranging from this, which discusses the Tractatus Logica Philosophicus, to this which makes the scurrilous suggestion that its author was a “beery swine” .

It’s been called the most widely read information resource in the world. It’s also been called the most unreliable, mostly because of its founding ethos – to be a “citizen’s encyclopaedia”; a freely available, freely editable resource. What that means in practice is that anyone is free to add an article, or edit an existing one at any time. This creates a “self – correcting” publication, where an incorrect fact or statistic will be spotted by someone else and corrected until a consensus emerges that is stable. Wikipedia users with editor privileges act as impartial arbiters with a dispute resolution process available, in cases where consensus needs a helping hand. Or at least that the theory.

In reality, the accuracy of Wikipedia is rarely as poor as its critics claim. On the important subjects, with large numbers of informed contributors, it is as accurate as anything else is. I watched a popular entertainer on TV recently, getting very exercised over the fact that his Wikipedia entry got the name of his school wrong. Whilst this is obviously of concern to him, it is more proof of the fact that few people outside of UK have ever heard him, than of any institutional inaccuracy on the part of Wiki. To staunch defenders of Wiki, like me, such complaints get short shrift, after all, if it’s such an issue to him, why didn’t he correct it himself ? Perhaps he would care to consider the alternative; no entry for him in Wikipedia at all.

It comes then as a shock for me, who has always defended Wikipedia, to discover that a large section of its content on an important and high profile science topic has been the subject of an ongoing battle behind the scenes, where reasoned debate and consensus have been replaced by intolerance and incivility. Where articles have been fought over as one side attempted to insert edits and the other fought to keep them out, led by a small group of users with editor rights – supposedly impartial. As many as 5,000 articles may have been involved in this, with the whole topic area that they cover now with a serious question mark over the impartiality of its coverage, particularly in the articles related to individuals whose views do not accord with those of the Wikipedia editors involved.

The more perceptive among you will of course now be saying that that describes how many professions in our society function behind the scenes, and science is no different. There are the same petty jealousies and squabbles, frequently driven by the battles for grant funding from Governments, and that they come with the territory. In most cases it makes no difference because there are no major issues riding on them. Nobody’s taxes will be effected if Cosmology turns out not to, after all, have disproved the existence of God. In this case its different however; this science topic has been sucked into a political cauldron. It is, of course, Climate Science.

There have been instances of “edit – warring” (an endless cycle of edit / revert with no attempt to find common ground); “wiki lawyering” (use of Wikipedia processes and protocols to frustrate unwanted edits until the contributor gets tired and gives up); “sock puppeting” (use of multiple login ids to hide your identity and to make it appear that more users support your actions than in fact do); plus good old fashioned rudeness and incivility.

One of the bitterest rounds of this conflict occurred around the entries for a recent book entitled “The Hockey Stick Illusion”, as well as for its author Andrew Montford and for his climate sceptic blog BishopHill. The book lays out its author’s belief that the “Hockey Stick” version of climate history that figures heavily in Wikipedia, might actually be nothing more than a statistical artefact. For those unfamiliar with this, it’s the bit in Al Gore’s film when he has to get onto a mechanical lift to reach the highest part of the graph on the screen, showing how the temperature of the earth had suddenly skyrocketed in the 20th century; turning on its head the previous orthodoxy and the historical record, which both said that it has been warmer in the past.

This little reported piece of fallout from Climategate is now the subject of a current Wikipedia arbitration which is, in keeping with the Wiki ethos, fully open and can be seen here. In this document, detailing a set of complaints and a draft ruling, “WMC” is Dr William M Connolly, a founding editor of, acknowleged as the foremost site for the current othrodoxy on climate science, with regular contributions from working scientists in the field. He was also a former Senior Science Officer for the British Antarctic Survey, and has sat as an elected councillor for the Green Party. He is, or was, a Wikipedia editor with Admin privileges, the highest level allowed. Following a number of documented complaints about his conduct, he is facing a topic ban from editing any article connected to climate change for one year, and an indefinite ban from editing the personal articles on any living person connected with climate science or the climate change debate. In view however of his genuine belief that he was doing the right thing, and because Wikipedia believes in rehabilitation over punishment, the motion to permanently ban him was unanimously opposed.

By now it ought to be plain, that the politicised science of climate has become divided along political lines, into Left and Right, although Green and Grey might be closer to the mark, or maybe just idealists and realists. Wikipedia’s woes are same as our woes, after a generation of left / green the right / grey are in ascendancy. Perhaps now we can dispense with the fiction that we understand the climate in all its chaotic complexity, where what happens in space affects what happens on earth; and accept that it is not understood by us to a level that we can predict it or, ultimately, control it. We would be better off discussing instead how we adapt to nature’s changing climate.

If science’s attempt at playing politics has gone awry that’s simply because science doesn’t do politics very well, why should it ? Our scientists were put in the invidious position of having to answer government’s call for information on the problem, but discovered that the natural uncertainties of science don’t mix with the headline grabbing certainties of politics.

I discussed in a previous post another area that science doesn’t do very well, and that’s religion. Part of my problem with theories of physics that claim there is no place for a God, is that they tend to have a very limited idea of what Gods are and what they are for. This is perfectly understandable since western science grew out of Christianity, and shares many of its philosophical pre-conceptions about reality or, in this case God. Isaac Newton wrote more on the subjects of Christian mysticism and Alchemy than he did about physics. Judaeo / Christian / Muslim religions are essentially “Theory of Everything” religions, their Gods are omnipresent and omnipotent.

Personally, I prefer pagan Gods; they are infinitely more colourful and make no claims to omnipotence. So I offer instead of a “God” moment, a “Loki” moment. Loki is a Norse deity, not strictly a God as such, in fact he is a “Jotun” (nature spirit), who pops up from time to time to stir up the Gods and goad them for action. Colloquially, he is known as a prankster sprit. So what would Loki do ? Well, three things as it happens

  1. De-politicise science and get it back to doing what it does best, solving our problems instead of drawing ever more lurid pictures of the ones we have
  2. Wikipedia have a major task on their hands to restore confidence in its climate science sections. What’s needed is not just wide informed input, but also a sufficiently rigorous review process. In true Loki sprit I recommend that the quality review be in the hands of climate scientist Phil Jones and Blogger Steve McIntyre. Jones was head of Climate Research Unit at University of East Anglia and a man who has spent the greater part of his professional life studying this problem. Anything of significance on the subject of climate science in recent years will have passed his gaze at one time or another. Steve McIntyre is retired mining engineer and expert statistician. Before taking up blogging, he spent 30 years in the mining business frequently assessing claims on potential finds for viability. When it comes to statistical tall stories from scientists, McIntyre has heard them all before. Both must be satisfied with the result.
  3. In the midst of such name calling and incivility, it has been refreshing that one scientist, who supports the current theory, has called for calm and for reasoned debate. They have succeeded in winning the respect of the sceptic lobby by treating them equal seekers after truth, rather than “climate criminals” or “equivalent to holocaust deniers”. Her name is Judith Curry and she has started a new blog. She has said that Andrew Montford’s book “the Hockey Stick Illusion” is a litmus issue; you can either condemn it out of hand, or you can discuss it. She opts for the latter. If Montford is right, then the old orthodoxy that we all used to believe in before our obsession with CO2, that Medieval times, when Greenland was settled, were warmer than now, might also be right and the current conditions are in fact neither unusual nor unprecedented. Surely the best thing to do is the read the book and discuss it rather than burn it ?

Cartoon by Josh

Do you remember, Odin, when in bygone days
We mixed our blood together ?
You said that you would never drink ale
Unless it were brought to both of us

From The Lokasenna (“Loki’s quarrel”),
Medieval Icelandic poem

Copyright ©201o Savereo John


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